Jealousy is an emotion that is often perceived as being negative, birthed in insecurity. We feel jealous when we perceive someone to be more beautiful or successful than ourselves, for example, or we feel jealous when we feel that someone we love does not give us their exclusive attention or are threatened by a third party in the relationship. Jealousy can often lead to reactive, suspicious behaviour and is not always rational, and in these situations, it is often said that jealousy is unhealthy.
But God describes himself as a ‘jealous God’ (see Ex 34:14) and it is clear that He is not referring to the petty, insecure feelings of jealousy which we so often experience. Jealousy in this respect means to have a proper regard for the honour and glory of God’s name. God is not willing to share His glory with another or to give His praise to idols (Is 42:8); it would not be proper or fitting for that to happen, because no one else can compare to God. Giving praise and worship to a created image or statue doesn’t make any logical sense, and therefore for God to be jealous about His people transferring their affections to an inanimate object is not unhealthy, but the caring response of a loving God.
Frequently in the Old Testament, we see God’s people provoking Him to anger through idolatry (see Deut 9:7,22; Ps 106:28-29; Hosea 8:5), and in the New Testament we see Jesus full of zeal for His Father’s house as He makes a whip out of cords and scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. (John 2:13-17) Paul experienced similar emotions when he saw Athens ‘full of idols’ (Acts 17:16). The NIV says he was ‘greatly distressed’; J. B. Phillips translates this as ‘his whole soul was revolted at the sight of a city given over to idolatry’. (Acts 17:16) When we see things which directly dishonour God, it’s not only right but proper that we are distressed by these things and the horror we feel (the Greek word gives us our word ‘paroxysm’, often used to describe deep emotion) needs to be the fuel for our action. John Stott comments that obedience to God’s command to witness is one motivation; compassion for people who are lost without God is another, but ‘the highest incentive of all is zeal or jealousy for the glory of Jesus Christ.’ (Commentary on Acts, P 279) May we all experience not only distress at all that dishonours God in our society but the fire and passion to then share the gospel so that all may have the opportunity to hear the good news and turn away from wrong ways to serve the living God.