“‘You shall not bow down to [carven images] or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquities of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate Me…'” (Exodus 20:5).
Many people have problems coming to terms with God’s jealousy. After all, isn’t jealousy a sin? Not necessarily. We need to consider two aspects of envy. The first has to do with equating jealousy with covetousness and the second has to do with God’s own envy.
First, envying and coveting are not necessarily the same thing. Coveting is more of a lustful desire for something or someone, whereas envying is a feeling of discontent. Can you sin with envy? Certainly, for that’s when it becomes covetousness. Sometimes, envy can be a good thing, though it can easily be distorted.
For example, my wife is leasing a horse and she spends half the week at the stables with her horse, Hans. Sometimes, I get a little jealous. My jealousy could be easily distorted that could cause me to stop allowing her to spend time at the stables by cancelling the lease. I could become controlling and only let her spend time with me. But where my jealousy is healthy is that in my missing her, this jealousy inspires me to spend time with my lovely wife. In fact, I often spend more time with her by annoying her simply by sitting in her office doing nothing because all I want is to be in her presence. In this jealousy, I hold no ill will toward her or the horse or the people who run the stables. Rather, it inspires me to spend more time with her when she’s home.
Second, whenever we think about a trait God has, we need to think about it according to His holiness. When we think of envy, or anger, or wrath, etc., we can only think of it in terms of sin. But God does not sin. His envy, anger, wrath—whatever it is—can only be holy because He is holy. So, what does it mean for God’s jealousy to be holy? I don’t think we can ever fully understand what it means, but essentially, when someone worships another god that’s not Yahweh and He becomes envious, He is envious without sin. He is displeased—His desire is for that person to fear, love, and trust in Him rather than some god that can’t do anything. He doesn’t want it to be any other way. He’s created every human being that has ever existed, who currently exists, and will ever exist. His only desire is that they should know Him and live (see Ezekiel 18:23).
So, when a human being He’s created doesn’t know Him and worships some other god, is it really such a surprise that God becomes jealous? We were made in God’s image, so I think we can relate to Him on some level. Imagine a child who rejects their parents and how that makes them feel. That, I think, is what God is feeling on a much deeper, holy level.