The argument goes something like this: (1) 1 John 4:8 indicates that “God is love;” (2) 1 Corinthians 13:4 says that “love is not jealous” (NAS); and yet (3) Exodus 20:5, along with several other passages, reveals that God is “a jealous God.” “How,” the skeptic asks, “can God be jealous when several verses say God is love and 1 Cor. says love is not jealous?” (McKinsey, 1992). Simply put, if love is not jealous, and God is love, then God logically cannot be called jealous. Or conversely, if love is not jealous, and God is jealous, then God cannot be considered loving. Right? How can these verses be anything but contradictory?
The term “jealousy” most often carries a negative connotation in twenty-first-century America. We pity the man who is jealous of his coworker’s success. We frown upon families who react to a neighbor’s newly found fortune by becoming overcome with jealously. And we are perturbed to hear of a jealous husband who distrusts his wife, and questions every possible wrong action that she might make, even going so far as demanding that she never leave the house without him. Add to these feelings about jealousy what various New Testament passages have to say on the subject, and one can understand why some might sincerely question why God is described at times as “jealous.” The apostle Paul admonished the Christians in Rome to “behave properly,” and put off “strife and jealousy” (Romans 13:13, NAS). To the church at Corinth, Paul expressed concern that when he came to their city he might find them involved in such sinful things as gossip, strife, and jealousy (2 Corinthians 12:20). And, as noted above, he explicitly told them that “love is not jealous” (1 Corinthians 13:4). James also wrote about the sinfulness of jealousy, saying that where it exists “there is disorder and every evil thing” (3:16; cf. Acts 7:9). One religious writer described such jealousy as “an infantile resentment springing from unmortified covetousness, which expresses itself in envy, malice, and meanness of action” (Packer, 1973, p. 189). It seems, more often than not, that both the New Testament and the “moral code” of modern society speak of “jealousy” in a negative light.
The truth is, however, sometimes jealously can be spoken of in a good sense. The word “jealous” is translated in the Old Testament from the Hebrew word qin’ah, and in the New Testament from the Greek word zelos. The root idea behind both words is that of “warmth” or “heat” (Forrester, 1996). The Hebrew word for jealousy carries with it the idea of “redness of the face that accompanies strong emotion” (Feinberg, 1942, p. 429)—whether right or wrong. Depending upon the usage of the word, it can be used to represent both a good and an evil passion. Three times in 1 Corinthians, Paul used this word in a good sense to encourage his brethren to “earnestly desire (zeeloúte)” spiritual gifts (12:31; 14:1,39). He obviously was not commanding the Corinthians to sin, but to do something that was good and worthwhile. Later, when writing to the church at Corinth, the apostle Paul was even more direct in showing how there was such a thing as “godly jealousy.” He stated:
I am jealous for you with godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he who comes preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted—you may well put up with it (2 Corinthians 11:2-4, emp. added).
Paul’s burning desire was for the church at Corinth to abide in the love of God. As a friend of the bridegroom (Christ), Paul used some of the strongest language possible to encourage the “bride” of Christ at Corinth to be pure and faithful.
In a similar way, Jehovah expressed His love for Israel in the Old Testament by proclaiming to be “a jealous God” (Exodus 20:5; Deuteronomy 4:24). He was not envious of the Israelites’ accomplishments or possessions, but was communicating His strong love for them with anthropomorphic language. The Scriptures depict a spiritual marriage between Jehovah and His people. Sadly, during the period of the divided kingdom, both Israel and Judah were guilty of “playing the harlot” (Jeremiah 3:6-10). God called Israel’s idolatrous practice “adultery,” and for this reason He had “put her away and given her a certificate of divorce” (3:8). This is not the “lunatic fury of a rejected or supplanted suitor,” but a “zeal to protect a love-relationship” (Packer, p. 189). Jehovah felt for Israel “as the most affectionate husband could do for his spouse, and was jealous for their fidelity, because he willed their invariable happiness” (Clarke, 1996, emp. added). Song of Solomon 8:6 is further proof that love and jealousy are not always opposed to each other. To her beloved, the Shulamite said: “Put me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm. For love is as strong as death, jealousy is as severe as Sheol; its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the Lord” (NAS). In this passage, love and jealousy actually are paralleled to convey the same basic meaning (see Tanner, 1997, p. 158)—that (aside from a one’s love for God) marital love is “the strongest, most unyielding and invincible force in human experience” (NIV Study Bible, 1985, p. 1012). In this sense, being a jealous husband or wife is a good thing. As one commentator noted, married persons “who felt no jealousy at the intrusion of a lover or an adulterer into their home would surely be lacking in moral perception; for the exclusiveness of marriage is the essence of marriage” (Tasker, 1967, p. 106).
Truly, love has a jealous side. There is a sense in which one legitimately can be jealous for what rightfully belongs to him (see Numbers 25). Such is especially true in the marriage relationship. Israel was God’s chosen people (Deuteronomy 7:6). He had begun to set them apart as a special nation by blessing their “father” Abraham (Genesis 12:1ff; 17:1-27). He blessed the Israelites with much numerical growth while living in Egypt (Exodus 1:7,12,19; Deuteronomy 26:5; cf. Genesis 15:5; 46:3). He delivered them from Egyptian bondage (Exodus 3-12). And, among other things, He gave them written revelation, which, if obeyed, would bring them spiritually closer to Jehovah, and even would make them physically superior to other nations, in that they would be spared from various diseases (see Exodus 15:26). Like a bird that watches over her eggs and young with jealousy, preventing other birds from entering her nest, God watched over the Israelites with “righteous” jealousy, unwilling to tolerate the presence of false gods among his people (see Exodus 20:3-6; Joshua 24:14-16,19-20). Such “godly jealousy” (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:2) was not what Paul had in mind in 1 Corinthians 13:4.
Clarke, Adam (1996), Adam Clarke’s Commentary (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).
Feinberg, Charles Lee (1942), “Exegetical Studies in Zechariah: Part 10,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 99:428-439, October.
Forrester, E.J. (1996), “Jealousy,” International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (Electronic Database Biblesoft).
McKinsey, C. Dennis (1992), [On-line], URL: http://members.aol.com/chas1222/bepart56.html.
NIV Study Bible (1985), (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).
Packer, J.I. (1973), Knowing God (London: Hodder and Stoughton).
Tanner, J. Paul (1997), “The Message of the Song of Songs,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 154: 142-161, April.
Tasker, R.V.G. (1967), The Epistle of James (London: Tyndale Press).
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