Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God (Exodus 34:14).
Like most parents, there came a time when we had to teach our kids about the destructiveness of jealousy, and its close cousin, envy.
Our kids learned then – as parents continue to teach their children today – that there will usually be someone who has nicer clothes at school; or achieves a higher mark from the adjudicator in the piano competition; or can afford to go to more exciting events; or runs a little faster on the track; or possesses more beautiful hair…
As our children matured, we witnessed progressive self-control over those competitively distorted instincts. They learned – and likely have had to re-learn – not to be jealous of those who accomplish tasks better, or who possess nicer things. In life, most of us will never be the best at anything – or have the best of something. And if we do, it’s only a matter of time before someone “bests” us. If not controlled, jealousy can wreak havoc with one’s perspective on life, with self-image, and particularly with the essential quality of being thankful toward God.
So why then does the Scripture talk of Yahweh, the omnipotent God of Israel as being jealous?
In the book of Exodus, the narrative bottoms out with the story of the worship of the golden calf.
The contrast is staggering: while Moses was meeting with God atop Mount Sinai for almost 6 weeks and receiving detailed instruction from the Lord specifically on how His people were to worship, Aaron and the newly liberated people of Israel were constructing and worshiping an idol. And what’s more, they credited the idol with being a representative of the “gods…who brought you up out of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4).
This golden calf was likely reminiscent of something they recalled from Egypt, and toward which they were now collectively directing their affection and worship.
And when Moses returned with Joshua, they interrupted the gathering while it was in progress – the most enthusiastic, exuberant worship service ever recorded in Scriptural narrative.
But, it was idolatry. And it angered the Lord.
The Lord was not in any way threatened by the inert golden object; God is never intimidated by anything or anyone. There is no sense in which He was – or ever has been – bested.
He was, however, concerned for the spiritual health of His people.
And this brings us back to the word jealous. In bygone years, jealousy was a term that also had a positive dimension. To be jealous also meant to have earnest suspicion of wrongdoing, and therefore be vigilantly watchful and attentively protective.
This, I believe, is the meaning of the term when ascribed to God. In fact, the qualities of vigilant watchfulness and attentive protection of His people are so rooted in His character, that according to the verse above, His very name is Jealous.
In the incident of Israel’s idolatry, the Lord is angry at the reckless worship activity of the people. He knew that although their sin could be forgiven, their relationship with Him was irrevocably damaged.
The Triune God is protectively jealous – or vigilantly zealous for us – that our bond with Him is healthy and growing. He is jealous for our protection.
Takeaway: at Bethel, we have been viewing the series “gods at war” by Kyle Idleman. In it, we have been confronted with 21st century forms of idolatry. A golden statue may be seen as unsophisticated belonging to an ancient era.But every one of us struggles in the same way – directing our attention and affection toward something that has been mis-prioritized in our lives, and is therefore threatening to take God’s place of exclusive devotion, reverence, and commitment. The first step towards correcting the problem, is to recognize that it exists. May the Holy Spirit shine His spotlight into the dark corners of our lives, preparing us for radical change, the renewing of our minds.
~graphic above is The Adoration of the Golden Calf, but Nicolas Poussin.