Although the jealousy of God is not usually considered to be a well-known attribute of God it is a well-attested attribute in the Scriptures. For purposes of this essay this attribute will looked at in three aspects. First, a few important texts specifically mentioning God’s jealousy will be looked at to set up the discussion. Second, a number of historical narratives will be examined that demonstrate the attribute of God’s jealousy. Third, a few practical applications in regards to prayer will be discussed.
There are a number of references to the attribute of God’s jealousy. The sheer number of texts that mention God’s jealousy preclude an analysis of them all. However, a couple of key examples should be noted. For example, embedded in the Decalogue is mention of God’s jealousy as is seen in the second commandment: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I the LORD your God, am a jealous God…” Of even more significance is the statement found in Exodus 34.14: “for you shall not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” Here the attribute of jealousy is linked with God’s name. This verse is also significant in that it is set within an important section of the book of the Exodus.
Exodus 25-31 contains detailed instructions regarding the building of the tabernacle. Exodus 35-40 subsequently narrates the actual building of the tabernacle. The importance of all these details and the sheer amount of space given to the tabernacle is found in the fact the tabernacle was to be the place where Yahweh himself would dwell with his people—“Let them construct a sanctuary for me, that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25.8). In between these two sections (25-31 and 35-40) is the narration of Israel’s rebellion against the Lord by idolatrously making the golden calf (Exodus 32). This leads to God threatening the extinguishing of Israel as a people. They are spared by Moses’ intercession (Exodus 32.11-14). Moses subsequently prays for God’s presence to go with his people. In the midst of this entreaty Moses prays for a vision of God’s glory—“I pray you, show me your glory!” (Exodus 33.18) In response to this massive request the Lord responds, “I myself will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the LORD before you” (Exodus 33.19). The Lord proclaims his “name” in Exodus 34.6-7 which is a special revelation of God’s character:
Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet he will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”
This name of the Lord speaks of God’s covenant love for his people as well as his justice. This will be the bedrock revelation that Israel returns to again and again. It is this name which the Lord is jealous to guard against all idolatry.
What J. I. Packer says of the references to jealousy in the writings of Moses is also applicable across the whole range of references: “All the Mosaic references to God’s jealousy have to do with idol-worship in one form or another; they all hark back to the sanction of the second commandment, which we quoted earlier.” The living God of Israel is the true God and is zealous for his name to be rightly known among all the nations. The worship of false gods diminishes his glory. This is seen not only in the texts that specifically mention the word “jealousy” but also in various narratives in which God acts for the glory of his name. Three such narrative texts will be considered here.
The first narrative to consider is from 1 Kings 20 in which Ben-hadad, the king of Aram, is threatening the nation of Israel and its king, Ahab. A prophet of Yahweh approaches Ahab and declares, “Thus says the LORD, ‘Have you seen all this great multitude? Behold, I will deliver them into your hand today, and you shall know that I am the LORD.’” (1 Kings 20.13) In accordance with this word Israel goes out against the Arameans and defeats them. Again, a prophet comes to Ahab and tells him that the king of Aram will come against Israel yet one more time “at the turn of the year.” (1 Kings 20.22) At this point the narrative turns and the strategic plans of the Arameans are detailed from their perspective and in their own words:
Now the servants of the king of Aram said to him, “Their gods are gods of the mountains, therefore they were stronger than we; but rather let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we will be stronger than they. Do this thing: remove the kings, each from his place, and put captains in their place, and muster an army like the army that you have lost, horse for horse, and chariot for chariot. Then we will fight against them in the plain, and surely we will be stronger than they.” And he listened to their voice and did so. (1 Kings 20.23-25)
Here is political and military council predicated upon a theological analysis of the situation. The polytheistic Arameans believe that the God of Israel is just like one of their territorial deities. If they can only get away from the territory of Israel’s God then, the Arameans reason, they can conquer the “gods” of Israel. It is precisely this diminishing of God’s glory that Yahweh takes notice of and he, then, specifically responds to this foolishness. When the Arameans again come up against Israel a prophet comes to Ahab and speaks the word of the Lord:
“Thus says the LORD, ‘Because the Arameans have said, “The LORD is a god of the mountains, but he is not a god of the valleys,” therefore I will give all this great multitude into your hand, and you shall know that I am the LORD.’” (1 Kings 20.28)
Again, in accordance with the word of the Lord, the Arameans are defeated with 100,000 of their foot soldiers put to death.
The jealousy of God is seen in his response to the Arameans faulty theology. They had reasoned that the God of Israel was finite and not the Creator of heaven and earth. The Lord is very clear that is precisely because of these faulty conceptions that he is going to defeat them so as to provide an occasion for his name to known. One additional item to note is that the king of Israel at this time, Ahab, was not a particularly good king. God’s defeat of the Arameans is not first of all in response to Israel’s or Ahab’s holiness. God acts to defeat the Arameans primarily to vindicate the glory of his jealous name.
The second text is an extended narrative from 2 Kings 18-19. The setting is the Assyrian threat under its king Sennacherib. Hezekiah is the king of Judah and is being terrorized by the Assyrian army. An Assyrian army commander named Rabshakeh is sent to demoralize the inhabitants of Judah with the intention of threatening them into submission. In the process Rabshakeh blasphemes the God of Judah with taunts that all the other gods of the previous nations defeated by Assyria were unable to protect their nations. Thus it shall be for Judah and its God. Rabshakeh argues:
“Thus says the king [of Assyria], ‘Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you from my hand; not let Hezekiah make you trust in the LORD, saying, “The LORD will surely deliver us, and this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.”… But do not listen to Hezekiah when he misleads you, saying, “The LORD will deliver us.” Has any one of the gods of the nations delivered his land from the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivvah? Have they delivered Samaria from my hand? Who among the gods of the lands have delivered their land from my hand, that the LORD should deliver Jerusalem from my hand?’” (2 Kings 18.29-30, 32-35; cf. 2 Kings 19.10-13)
This is a direct and blasphemous challenge to Yahweh. He is considered by the Assyrians to be simply one more tribal deity to be conquered by the Assyrians.
Hezekiah’s response is to seek God in prayer. His prayer stands as a testament and model for how to plead the glory of God in the face of difficulty.
“O LORD, the God of Israel, who are enthroned above the cherubim, you are the God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth. Incline your ear, O LORD, and hear; open your eyes, O LORD, and see; and listen to the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to reproach the living God. Truly, O LORD, the kings of Assyria have devastated the nations and their lands and have cast their gods into the fire, for they were not gods but the work of men’s hands, wood and stone. So they have destroyed them. Now, O LORD our God, I pray deliver us from his hand that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you alone, O LORD, are God.” (2 Kings 19.15-19)
Notice, in particular, the high theology explicitly stated in this prayer. God is considered the maker of heaven and earth who is not like the gods of the nations who are made with human hands. Yahweh is able to see and hear the threats against his people and he is sovereign in power to act for deliverance.
In response to Hezekiah’s prayer Yahweh answers with three distinct aspects: (1) Sennacherib is a mere instrument in the hand of a sovereign God (2 Kings 19.21-28), (2) the remnant of Israel will prosper again (2 Kings 19.29-31, and (3) the Assyrians will not touch Jerusalem (2 Kings 19.32-34). In particular reference to God’s jealousy the following passages should be noted:
“Whom have you reproached and blasphemed? And against whom have you raised your voice, and haughtily lifted up your eyes? Against the Holy One of Israel! Through your messengers you have reproached the Lord…” (2 Kings 19.22-23a)
“But I know your sitting down, and your going out and your coming in, and your raging against me. Because of your raging against me, and because your arrogance has come up to my ears, therefore I will put my hook in your nose, and my bridle in your lips, and I will turn you back by the way which you came.” (2 Kings 19.27-28)
God is going to judge the Assyrians for their raging reproaches against him. The Lord is jealous for his name and will not allow it to be defamed. He is going to act, not only for his glory, but also for the good of his people. He promises that “out of Jerusalem will go forth a remnant, and out of Mount Zion survivors.” (2 Kings 19.31) It is here that God specifically mentions his jealousy when he states, “The zeal of the LORD will perform this.” God stakes his honor on delivering his people and vindicating the glory of his name: “For I will defend this city to save it for my own sake and for my servant David’s sake.” (2 Kings 19.34). In fulfillment of this word the angel of the Lord is sent and he destroys 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians thus delivering Judah.
The third narrative comes from the New Testament—Acts 12.20-23. After having put James to death and Peter in prison, Herod is dealing with the cities of Tyre and Sidon. As Herod is speaking to the people they began to cry out, “The voice of a god and not of a man!” The response to this is quick: “And immediately an angel of the Lord struck him because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and died.” Herod is a Gentile ruler who simply receives accolades only appropriate to deity. The jealousy of God is manifest against this political ruler “because he did not give God the glory.” This passage is also significant in that it shows the consistency of God’s character from the Old Testament to the New Testament.
In both the Old Testament and New Testament the jealousy of God is manifested in his acting in judgment for the glory of his name. This jealousy of God has important practical applications for how we pray. First, I have been moved by this attribute of God’s jealousy when praying against the false god of naturalism that is operative in our culture. Naturalism, as a philosophical system, takes glory away from the true God who is the Creator of heaven and earth. Vern Poythress accurately captures this idolatrous dynamic when he writes:
In ancient times, the idols often had the form of statues representing a god—Poseidon, the god of the sea, or Mars, the god of war. Nowadays in the Western world we are more sophisticated. Idols now take the form of mental constructions of a god or a God-substitute… “Scientific law,” when it is viewed as impersonal, becomes another God-substitute. But in both ancient times and today, idols conform to the imagination of the one who makes them. Idols have enough similarities to the true God to be plausible, but differ so as to allow us comfort and the satisfaction of manipulating the substitutes that we construct.
I have been specifically praying that naturalism would fall before the presence of the Lord as the idol of Dagon fell before the Ark of the Covenant in 1Samuel 5.1-4.
A second application for prayer comes from the material drawn from 1 Kings 20. It should be remembered that in this narrative God acts to defend the nation of Israel because the Arameans spoke in a demeaning manner about Yahweh. God helps a less-than-good king, Ahab, not for any good in this ruler but for the glory of God’s name. He will not permit his name to be debased. This provides some hope that God may continue to act in the same way today. There are Islamic nations that consider America to be a “Christian” nation even though this is not how Americans view the current state of their country. Perhaps it is the case that God protects America (or refrains from full judgment), not from any good necessarily in her, but, rather, to keep his name from being blasphemed among the nations. These nations (or least certain significant portions of the population) would see the downfall of America through the grid of their theology and would think that the Christian God was weak. I have, in fact, prayed in accordance with these thoughts in the past. Appealing to the jealousy of God’s name in our prayers can be an effective means to glorify our great God and king.
The living God of the Bible is all-glorious and he is jealous for his glory to be maintained in the face of all opposition. A number of Scriptural texts mention this attribute of God but it also clearly demonstrated in a number of narratives in both the Old Testament and New Testament. God’s zeal for the glory of his name should move his people to appeal to his jealousy in their prayers.
 Something of the significance of this revelation can be seen in the many references throughout the Old Testament to this complex of attributes: Numbers 14.18; 2 Chronicles 30.9; Nehemiah 9.17, 31; Psalms 86.15; 103.8; 145.8; Jeremiah 32.18; Nahum 1.3; Joel 2.13; Jonah 4.2. When the individual components of this revelation are considered the number of passages is greatly increased. For example, “lovingkindness” is mentioned 125 times in the book of Psalms.
 קָנָא (qānā) be jealous, envious, zealous (Piel and Hiphil only).