Thanksgiving for Jealousy

I’m writing this on Thanksgiving and I’m thankful for a number of blessings.

I’m thinking, especially, of the joy that comes with faith. As God’s children we enjoy God’s self-offerings: his Word; his salvation; his Spirit-to-spirit communion; his steady providence; his rich creativity; his love; and his jealousy.

Thankful for God’s jealousy? Yes, and please stay with me here.

As context, I’m just back from a major theology conference in San Diego where my friend Dave and I attended a number of thought-provoking seminars.

Two big and overlapped ideas stood out in a number of sessions. First, God’s Triune, self-giving love. And, second, God’s invitation for us to participate in his relational divine life. These two ideas are part of a growing interest in the Trinity stirred mainly by the twentieth century Swiss theologian, Karl Barth. Barth, I’m told, looked to two earlier Protestant reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin.

As a confession, I’ve never read much of Barth. But I have friends and colleagues who have. And my Barthian friends noticed how much my studies on Richard Sibbes (1577-1635) overlap with their interests. As we compared notes it became clear that many common themes were taken from Augustine of Hippo, a major figure from the fifth century. Augustine’s writings on the Trinity are among the best early trinitarian distillations of Bible and doctrine—so Luther, Calvin, Sibbes, and Barth all drew from his work.

But divine jealousy isn’t a major theme for any of these writers. Yet it’s a common idea in my Bible reading. While at the conference I happened to be reading in Numbers and Deuteronomy. And three weeks ago I preached on the Exodus plagues—a story that led up to God’s Ten Commandments given on Mount Sinai.

Let me explain the odd connection. In San Diego the themes about God and the Christian’s participation in God’s triune life and love, were loud and clear. This love assures believers of God’s eternal life that comes by his initiative, and not by human efforts.

So what surprised me at the conference were repeated suggestions that God’s love is likely to save all humans since God’s love, logically, can overcome human resistance. And this sets up an implicit universalism, that the whole world is likely to be saved in the end.

It’s lovely and attractive idea, but it didn’t fit what I was reading each morning in the Pentateuch. What I found there, again and again, were references to God’s jealousy.

The first was in the Ten Commandments, “You shall not bow down to them [i.e. idols] or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God…” [Exodus 20:5]. Then a few chapters later, after the golden calf episode, God spoke again: “for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and … they whore after their gods and sacrifice to their gods” [Ex. 34:14-15].

God’s jealousy is not just an Old Testament concern, but a whole-Bible issue. Paul warned the Corinthians, for instance, to “flee from idolatry” [1 Cor. 10:14]. “Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?” [v. 22].

The underlying theme here looks back the Genesis 3:15 and 12:1-7. God’s aim is to gather faithful offspring or “seed”—ultimately in Christ and his spouse. He reminded Israel of this when he confronted the divorce-riven culture of Malachi’s day: “Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their [marital] union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring [seed]” [Mal. 2:15].

Here’s a next step we may need to take in thinking about jealousy in the marital terms God uses. It speaks of how important the relationship is to the violated partner. If God, or a human spouse, is unconcerned by their partner’s unfaithfulness it reduces the quality of their love to the level of the partner’s indifference. For a marriage to be all it’s meant to be, both partners must endorse their shared love by protecting it from any outside intrusions.

Another way to say it is that the “love-between-partners” is the heart of a sound marriage, and jealousy is a proper longing for that love to be restored. So honorable love features mutuality between both the husband and the wife. And, with that, the greater ontology of God—as Creator—isn’t the focus of love. Marital love exists, instead, in its reciprocity.

The beauty of divine jealousy, then, is that it reassures us that God longs for our hearts: our response matters to him. And I’m very thankful today for having a jealous God!

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2 Comments

  1. Lee

    Thanks for another great post, Ron! It is hard to think of a more terrifying yet comforting thing than to know that God loves me enough to be jealous for my heart.

  2. R N Frost

    It was the fruit of some long and ongoing reflection, Lee. We’re put off by the language of jealousy but once we catch the point It’s remarkable to have God almighty concerned with us enough to be jealous for our love. Oh my!

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