The Virtue of Jealousy
In the Scriptures, jealousy is a virtue. Like all good things, it can be bent and distorted into sin, but for some reason, we have come to think that jealousy is necessarily sinful. This is not the case at all. In the modern world, we are not nearly jealous enough.
Take heed to thyself, lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither thou goest, lest it be for a snare in the midst of thee: But ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves: For thou shalt worship no other god: for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God: Lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they go a whoring after their gods, and do sacrifice unto their gods, and one call thee, and thou eat of his sacrifice; And thou take of their daughters unto thy sons, and their daughters go a whoring after their gods, and make thy sons go a whoring after their gods. Thou shalt make thee no molten gods” (Ex. 34:12-17).
Throughout all Scripture, idolatry is consistently compared to adultery. The marital image is a strong one, and this is why it is not a stretch at all to learn about jealousy in a marital context from what the Bible teaches us generally. In this text, God prohibits making covenant with the inhabitants of the land (v. 12). They are to wage total religious war against them, destroying all the instruments of their idolatry (v. 13). The Israelites were to worship no other God but the Lord, and the reason for this is that His name is Jealous (v. 14). Single-minded worship of the only God is necessary to prevent “whoring” after other gods (v. 15). The result of this idolatrous worship will be intermarriages, which will result in further liturgical adulteration (v. 16). The Israelites were to make no molten gods (v. 17).
JEALOUSY IS FIERCE:
The scriptural testimony is clear. The overwhelming number of references to jealousy are positive. The fact that our default assumptions about jealousy are negative should tell us something. As we have seen, God’s name is Jealous (Ex. 34:14). In the Ten Commandments, God visits the iniquity of the fathers to three and four generations precisely because of His jealousy (Ex. 20:5; Dt. 5:9). We are not to carve images for ourselves to worship because God is a consuming fire, a jealous God (Dt. 4:24). We should fear God, swear by His name (being identified with that name), mindful of His capacity for anger and judgment. Why? He is a jealous God (Dt. 6:15). Joshua knew that the Israelites’ easy believism would not stand the test of God’s jealousy (Josh. 24:19). The iconoclastic and unreasonable Puritan, the Tishbite out of the desert who did not come to initiate constructive dialogue, the reforming king who hates idols, are all preeminent examples of godliness. This is because in a holy way, jealousy is intractable. Now in all this, jealousy is certainly righteous, but someone might wonder whether it is altogether terrifying.
JEALOUSY IS TENDER:
Jealousy is not just given to us as a reaction to a straying wife. It is also portrayed as a glorious motive for redemption. Jealousy is constructive as well as judgmental. Why will God have mercy on the whole house of Israel? Because He is jealous for His name (Ez. 39:25). God will show pity upon His people because He is jealous for His land (Joel 2:18). God takes revenge against Ninevah on behalf of His people, because He is a jealous God (Nahum 1:2-3). God spoke comforting words to Zechariah because He was jealous for Jerusalem (Zech. 1:14). God returns to Zion because of His great jealousy (Zech. 8:2).
We also see the reaction of God’s prophet or apostle with this same kind of redemptive jealousy. Elijah was this way. When the Lord comes to him, Elijah complains that he had been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts (1 Kings. 19:10-14). And the apostle Paul had the same heart. “For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:2).
JEALOUSY IN MARRIAGE:
In Numbers 5, we find a trial by ordeal. But it is not a trial in the tradition of some medieval Monty Python skit. If a man gets jealous of his wife, and he has no evidence, he may bring her to the tabernacle to have her name cleared—or not (Num. 5:14, 30-31). But in this case, the remarkable thing had to happen in order to convict. Jesus was probably evoking this law in the famous case of the woman caught in adultery—look at the similarity in the charge, the place of accusation, and the fact that Jesus wrote in the dust on the ground.
Because of our negative views of jealousy, we think that it is only operative when a couple are on the brink of divorce, and a third party is already in the picture. This is often when ungodly jealousy starts—but often the couple are in that unenviable position because they were not ever jealous in the overall scriptural sense.
Godly jealousy should be part of what we are—it is a function of loyalty. God’s name is Jealous; this is the way He is. We should imitate Him. Jealousy is a communicable attribute.
Godly jealousy should be insightful, not blind—insightful jealousy sees what no one else is seeing. But so do hallucinations. This is why godly jealousy remembers the rules of evidence. Being jealous does not grant telepathic powers. And we should remember that the jealous one is under authority as well. False accusations cost the accuser as well (Dt. 22:19).
Godly jealous is not making particular accusations—jealousy builds a fence, and is not making assertions about the individuals who don’t know why you put the fence there. You can lock your doors at night without accusing all who walk by of attempted thievery. And you can pull back when someone crosses your “friendly line” without accusing that person of attempted adultery.
Godly jealousy sets particular standards—for friendships, for get togethers, for business lunches, for entertainment standards, for dress. Many fathers, for example, are not nearly jealous enough when it comes to how their daughters dress. And you would be surprised at how much it costs to look that cheap.