For many people, the description of God as “jealous” in the Bible makes them uncomfortable or even flat-out contemptuous. Isn’t jealousy bad? Isn’t that a mark of insecurity, so why would God, supposedly perfectly good, ever be jealous? Why would he show his fierce anger and punish Israel if he’s so “loving?” That doesn’t sound like the gracious God of the Gospel.
The problem with this line of thinking is this: If God’s love is so great and if he is so holy and good, we should expect that his jealousy and anger are aroused when his people sin and turn away. One of the most common metaphors for God’s relationship with Israel or Christ’s relationship with the Church is that between a bride and a groom, and if there is true love flowing from the groom, of course he’s going to be hurt, angry, and jealous when his wife basically cheats on him.
As someone who isn’t married, this has often been harder for me to relate to. Still, I’ve imagined being married and thought of another man being with my wife (or maybe several men), and the mere thought of it hurts a lot. It raises in me anger and jealousy, even thoughts of retribution against those men who would defile my beloved. There is one graphic passage in Scripture that shows how utterly revolting Israel’s adultery against the Lord is:
23 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, there were two women, the daughters of one mother. 3 They played the whore in Egypt; they played the whore in their youth; there their breasts were pressed and their virgin bosoms handled. 4 Oholah was the name of the elder and Oholibah the name of her sister. They became mine, and they bore sons and daughters. As for their names, Oholah is Samaria, and Oholibah is Jerusalem.
5 “Oholah played the whore while she was mine, and she lusted after her lovers the Assyrians, warriors 6 clothed in purple, governors and commanders, all of them desirable young men, horsemen riding on horses. 7 She bestowed her whoring upon them, the choicest men of Assyria all of them, and she defiled herself with all the idols of everyone after whom she lusted. 8 She did not give up her whoring that she had begun in Egypt; for in her youth men had lain with her and handled her virgin bosom and poured out their whoring lust upon her. 9 Therefore I delivered her into the hands of her lovers, into the hands of the Assyrians, after whom she lusted. 10 These uncovered her nakedness; they seized her sons and her daughters; and as for her, they killed her with the sword; and she became a byword among women, when judgment had been executed on her.
11 “Her sister Oholibah saw this, and she became more corrupt than her sister in her lust and in her whoring, which was worse than that of her sister. 12 She lusted after the Assyrians, governors and commanders, warriors clothed in full armor, horsemen riding on horses, all of them desirable young men. 13 And I saw that she was defiled; they both took the same way. 14 But she carried her whoring further. She saw men portrayed on the wall, the images of the Chaldeans portrayed in vermilion, 15 wearing belts on their waists, with flowing turbans on their heads, all of them having the appearance of officers, a likeness of Babylonians whose native land was Chaldea. 16 When she saw them, she lusted after them and sent messengers to them in Chaldea. 17 And the Babylonians came to her into the bed of love, and they defiled her with their whoring lust. And after she was defiled by them, she turned from them in disgust. 18 When she carried on her whoring so openly and flaunted her nakedness, I turned in disgust from her, as I had turned in disgust from her sister. 19 Yet she increased her whoring, remembering the days of her youth, when she played the whore in the land of Egypt 20 and lusted after her lovers there, whose members were like those of donkeys, and whose issue was like that of horses. 21 Thus you longed for the lewdness of your youth, when the Egyptians handled your bosom and pressed your young breasts.” – Ezekiel 23:1-21
Again, the passage is graphic and some people who are not familiar with the Bible may even be surprised by how frank the language is. However, the purpose is to show the magnitude of the offense towards God. Imagine the woman you love having her breasts fondled and her virgin bosom caressed by strange men who only mean to use her for their own pleasure and who will boast about it later. The NIV makes it even more explicit by pointing out that Israel played the whore to those who had horse-like genitalia and emissions. Think about all of that with regards to your wife. If it doesn’t piss you off and hurt you tremendously, then you don’t really love that woman. If it doesn’t make you want to find those men and break them, and if it doesn’t make you desire justice from her as well, then again, something is off about your love. When I imagine this with my future wife, it makes me want to puke and hurt somebody, frankly.
Yet this is what Israel did to God. No wonder his fierce anger came out and punished her and the surrounding nations. This was his bride. This was his beloved. She blatantly, repeatedly, and often unrepentently engaged in lewd behavior with other men. If we ourselves would be furious and hurt if our spouse did this, why would we expect that God would shrug his shoulders and let it slide?
God’s jealousy highlights his grace
I often teach that if your spouse commits adultery, you should not automatically seek divorce even if it is permitted; you should seek reconciliation. When I imagine my own wife doing it to me, though, I admit that I am initially unsure what I would do. The pain, the anger, and the jealousy would be so much, I don’t know if I could forgive her for breaking my trust and hurting me that badly. I am human, after all, and the thought of her with another man would just eat away at me. How could I ever recover from that and move on? Deep down, I would probably want everyone to pay for what they did to me: Her, the men she had relations with, the people who knew and did nothing, everyone. I would probably be angry at God too for not causing torturous diseases to sprout up on all of these men the moment they tried something on my woman. This is all a hypothetical to me too; I can’t imagine how hurtful it is for those who have actually gone through it.
That is righteous jealousy. A spouse in this situation is completely justified in being jealous and angry. You have a skewed view of justice and love if you think otherwise. Not only that, he or she may very well be justified in completely walking away, at least at first glance.
However, when I think about this, in the midst of my anger and hurt over a situation that has never happened to me, I remember this: It is not only Israel who has cheated on God. Christians often cheat on Jesus. I have, with old or new sins committed everyday. And though I have never committed literal adultery, the difference between my sin and another’s is minuscule compared to the holiness of God. We’ve all fallen short, and fallen short badly. God has every right to be jealous and angry, and he in fact is jealous and angry. But he did not simply punish and destroy, though he would have perfectly justified to. He did this:
“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” – Rom. 5:8
“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: Not that we loved god, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” 1 John 4:9-10.
“When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” Col. 2:13-14
Now that is amazing grace. That is love. Too many times we think that we have to diminish God’s wrath against our sin and jealousy of our idolatry in order to make him sound more loving, when in fact that sober realization of his anger and holiness truly shows how unfathomable his love is. Sometimes, I imagine the above scenario the other way around: I am the cheating spouse. A hot girl threw herself at me in a moment of weakness and I fell and caused all the hurt and pain I described earlier against my wife. I would be crushed by guilt. I would yearn for her forgiveness even though I would know I hadn’t the right to ask and that she had no obligation to give it. I would want full restoration of my relationship even though I know that, if she wanted, she could pin that sin against me for all time and be justified in doing it. If she truly did forgive me of my past transgression against her, I would be so thankful that she gave something to me that I did not deserve.
The Forgiven Experience Love
That’s basically our situation with God, and yet he forgave. In my churchy upbringing as a pastor’s kid who has always been teaching and serving in church, maybe there are times I have forgotten that. This is why sometimes I am slightly envious of those people who have testimonies of going through horrific times in their lives yet God brought them through. I’m not envious of their past sins or problems, obviously, but I am sometimes envious that their grasp of God’s grace seems so much greater than mine, despite my theological and philosophical training. It’s not that I’m better than them but that I forget about the fierceness of God’s holiness that condemns me as well, even if I haven’t done the things they have. In Luke 7, Jesus is annointed by a sinful woman, and the Pharisees scoffed, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is–that she is a sinner.” Though the passage does not detail what her sin was, it’s obvious that it is public and most likely something of a sexual nature. Yet Jesus tells a brief parable of two men getting their debts canceled and asks his disciples, “Who will love him more?” Obviously the one who had a larger debt canceled, they answer. The sad part of it is that the Pharisees, blinded by their spiritual pride, did not realize that they too needed Jesus’ forgiveness just as the woman did. She knew she deserved nothing from Jesus, and because of that, she understood how great his love is.
I want to be more like the woman and not like the Pharisees. All Christians should strive for that, because if we truly believe the Gospel we preach, then that’s who we really were. We were the sinner who could do nothing but beg for forgiveness that we were not entitled to because we angered a holy God. Even now, we cheat on our God often, stirring his jealousy, hurting him in ways that we would want to viciously avenge if it was done to us. Yet he is faithful to forgive if we confess (1 John 1:9). That is real love. That is real grace. That is a divine love that outstrips anything I am capable of. Real forgiveness, as Jesus showed, is painful because the transgression is very real and demands payment, and yet forgiveness says, “I will bear the cost and not make you do it.” I hope I always remember this so that a) I don’t cheat on my spouse and cause her indescribable pain (and tick off God in the process) and b) If I am wronged, I can forgive even though I have the “right” not to, because God has forgiven me more.