What Does It Mean That God Is Jealous?

“I, the Lord your God, am a jealous god,” says God himself in Exodus 20:5. What could this possibly mean? We associate jealousy with pettiness, not divinity. But apparently, one of the darker emotions we humans are subject to gives us insight into the feelings of God.

First, God has feelings. Start there. This in itself is profound. The creator of all there is and all we know wants something, and is moving his universe toward something. My latest book explores this.

But second, and more to the point of this post, he has feelings for us. The jealousy statement speaks to this. He makes this statement within the Ten Commandments, by way of explaining his commands not to have other gods and not to worship idols. In short, he is explaining his desire for our attention, our devotion. Therefore, this is jealousy in the most potent and personal sense of the word. We sometimes say “jealousy” to mean mere envy, but that’s not what this is in the case of God’s statement. He is disclosing that he feels jealousy in the sense of wanting to have another’s heart and not wanting that heart to go elsewhere. If you have ever felt this, then you have a sense of how God feels about his chosen, about you.

Yet when we humans have this feeling, it is darkness. “Jealousy” entails the feeling of bliss when the other person’s thoughts and attention are with us, but the experience of pain when the other person’s thoughts and attention seem to leave. The feeling is a sickness because it is not our place nor within our power to direct where the thoughts and attention of another willingly go. What a person does or does not feel, what animates his thoughts and what wins her attention, is a matter solely for that person’s private soul—a matter between that person and God.

But God is the maker of my soul. God is the maker of me, the maker of the space in which I experience selfhood. Jealousy is therefore light and not dark only where he is concerned. God is fully justified in jealousy because God is the maker of my heart.

He is the beginning and the end of all there is. He is the beginning and the end of all that you or I experience or know. It is the sign of how wounded we are that our hearts turn from the love of the One who made those hearts. It is the measure of how broken we are that our thoughts and attention can be so fully drawn elsewhere, our own aims taking no regard of his aims, or him.

The solution to this woundedness is healing. The answer for this brokenness is restoration. What does it mean that God is jealous? It means he is driven not just to act, not just to act on our behalf, but to act upon us. The maker of hearts is also the re-maker of hearts. He turns our attention, renews our minds, and transforms us as a way of transforming the world so his jealous love will bear fruit in joy rather than pain.

“I am a jealous god,” he says. Our creator was revealing something not just profound but also personal, the ache at the heart of the cosmos—his cosmos—that he himself would resolve. He describes the reason for the depth of the pain he feels that we were taken from him, and why he was willing to suffer to have us back. He accounts for the length to which he would go to win us again, to the extent of redeeming us and remaking us. A loving god could love distantly, but that is not the love of our god. Only the God of jealous love would run to us, take hold of us, and turn us back toward loving him by making our hearts new.

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(And this tiny PS: I see another meaning, one related to the works to which I have given my own attention and thought. The first book I published is about the Ten Commandments. The latest book I published is about how God transforms us by renewing our minds. The jealous love of God, I now see, is the cord and the current connecting these books together.)

(PPS added later: Here is another cord connecting these two books.)