Reflections on Exodus 34:14 —

Jealousy is not a “good look” on us.  It brings out the worst in us.  When we desire something that someone else has, with no legal or moral way to obtain it, our mind starts doing crazy things.

The only good thing about jealousy is that it creates interesting story lines for movies and documentaries.  Who will forget Caledon Hockley’s rage when Jack moved in on Rose in Titanic, or Prince Humperdink’s vain attempts to stop “true love” between Westley and Buttercup in Princess Bride?  Jealous people act stupidly and do stupid things.  If you’re too young to remember these characters, check them out in Google for a good laugh:

  • Amy Fisher, underage lover of “Joey” Buttafuoco, and the girl who shot Joey’s wife Mary Jo in the face
  • Lorena Bobbitt, the knife-wielding wife who cut off her husband’s…well, never mind
  • Tonya Harding, the Olympian who hired a hit man to take out her arch-rival

Given the negative connotation associated with jealousy, I find it remarkable that the Lord God Almighty, the Creator of the Universe, chose the word Jealous to summarize everything there is to know about Himself.

God Defines Himself

We should pay attention whenever God describes Himself in scripture.  He communicates with us through written word, and He chooses His words carefully, intentionally, so that we can understand Him.  People have a lot of misconceptions of God, and it’s easy to get confused about Him.  So whenever you come across a passage in which God describes Himself, lock these words in your mind, make them the standard, the litmus test, against which all other notions, imaginations, dreams, and visions of God are measured.  Throw away any description that doesn’t match what God says about Himself.

In Exodus 34:5-8, God describes Himself personally to Moses.  It is a precious and invaluable quote that clearly and accurately defines who God is:

“…The Lord descended in the cloud and stood there with [Moses] as he called upon the name of the Lord. 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…”    — Exodus 34:5-8

If you want to know what God is like, remember these verses.  If you wonder what is on His mind, what He is thinking about you, dwell on these lines.  In God’s own words, this is what He is like:

  • compassionate — He sympathizes and cares about us, and is acutely aware of our sorrows, fears, sufferings, hopes, and needs
  • gracious — He is thoughtful, giving us good things we don’t deserve
  • slow to anger — He is incredibly patient with us, sometimes allowing us to commit a decade of sins before stepping in
  • abounding in lovingkindness — His love and mercy on us is unimagineably great, overflowing, and constant
  • abounding in truth — There is no hint of falsehood, lying, or deception in Him; He is completely honest and always does what He says He will do
  • forgiving of sin — He realizes we are weak and selfish and make mistakes, which He is quick to forgive and forget
  • just — He is moral, so by nature He cannot not turn a blind eye to wicked behavior, but will deal with it appropriately sooner or later

If there is ever any doubt what God is like, use these verses to align yourself with the truth about Him.  Yet, even these seven characteristics don’t completely capture the core essence of who God is like the one He reveals just a few sentences later.

The art of summarizing is a good practice to hone your reading, listening, and retention skills.  Have you ever tried this–read a novel like War and Peace and summarize it in a two-page essay…then narrow that essay into three sentences…then state the point of the novel in one phrase….finally, capture the essence of the entire novel in one word.  That’s pretty hard to do.  But if you’ve listened well, if you really understand the author’s intent, it is possible to find a single word that rises above everything else and captures the essence of what the author was trying to communicate.  In Exodus 34:14, God gives us a one-word summary of Himself, a climax of all the things He mentioned earlier in verses 5-8.  This one word captures the crux of His nature.  It is the most significant, defining characteristic about Him.  Here it is…

“…you shall not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.”  — Exodus 34:14

Above all other attributes, God calls Himself “jealous”.  He even goes as far as saying His very name is “Jealous”, with a capital “J”.  

Jealous?!?  Really?!?  Is He really saying that jealous describes Him best?  Let’s think about that for a moment.

What God Jealously Desires

First of all, why is God jealous?  He owns everything.  He is light-years more powerful than the most powerful ruler on earth or in heaven.  Everything He could possibly want is at His fingertips (“…every beast of the forest is Mine, the cattle on a thousand hills…“, “…the earth is the Lord’s and all it contains, the world and all those who dwell in it…”).  No one has more power, more glory, more riches than He.  So why should He be jealous of anyone?

It is a mystery that the sovereign, all-powerful, and all-knowing God is jealous of anything.  But there is no mincing of words here.  He says He is jealous.  He wants something that is not readily available to Him…something in us.

In James’ letter to the early church, there is a very peculiar line that is difficult to interpret, yet revealing:

“…[God] jealously desires the spirit which He has made to dwell in us”   — James 4:5

The Greek word for “spirit” used in this verse can refer to the Holy Spirit, but it can also refer to the human disposition–our attitude, affection, and motivation, which I believe is the intended use here.  James is referring to our will to live, the thing that drives us on, our “bent” in life which is the undercurrent behind everything we say, do, feel, and think.  It’s like the bow of our ship as we head through life, cutting through the waves of the daily grind.[1]  And according to James, this is what God is jealous for.  He wants your disposition, your attitude, your affection, your motivation–all of it–to be fixated, founded, and centered on Him.  

It’s not like God is suffering from low self-esteem or co-dependency.  His kind of jealousy is good.  It reflects the uncontaminated and infinite love He has for you, and His desire to see you content, confident, and secure.  There is a bad side of jealousy, like the crazed spouse who is bent on revenge.  But there is also a good side of jealousy.  The husband who fights to preserve his wife’s dignity and that sacred honor of his marriage in spite of all else demonstrates the good side of jealousy.  This is the form of jealousy God embodies.

The Number One Vice

If you can accept that God is a Jealous God, then I would suggest we can quickly identify the number one vice of humankind, the thing I need to watch out for more than anything else. And it’s not what you might think.  The worst vice of humankind is not racism, murder, nor hatred.  It’s not adultery, lying, cheating, nor abuse.  It’s not pride, envy, nor greed.  Those are all bad things, but the number one vice of humankind is worse yet because it’s at the root of all those things.  What is it?  Since God, above all things, defines Himself as Jealous, our worst offense is to love, trust, and pursue anything other than God, something the old-timers called Idolatry.

Idolatry is a huge problem — in the world, and especially in the church.  And yet, we never talk about it.  When we think of idolatry, our mind drifts back to 2000+ years ago and pagan rituals and statues and such, and we think — We never do that.  That’s ridiculous.  We have evolved as a society way beyond those pagan morons who worshipped their graven images.  Don’t be deceived.  Idolatry is very real today, running rampant in our churches, garrisoning its stronghold in our hearts, and leading us away from a life of dependency and trust in God.

Idolatry manifests itself in many ways.  We see it in the more obvious symptomatic sins like the one Paul refers to in his letter to the Colossians:

“…consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry.”   — Colossians 3:5

According to Paul, immorality, impurity, sensuality, and greed are just manifestations of an idolatrous heart that is seeking satisfaction apart from the Jealous God.  The real reason we let impure thoughts linger in our minds is not just that we’re immoral.  The real reason we hold tight to our money is not just that we’re stingy.  The real problem is that the bent of our heart is not toward God.  The core issue is our idolatry.

This verse should serve as notice that idolatry is alive and (unfortunately) well in the world today.  It’s not dead and buried with the ancient civilizations.  Paul is not the only New Testament author who knew this.  Notice John’s “mic drop” statement at the end of his first letter to the churches:

“Little children, guard yourselves from idols.”   — I John 5:21

This is the only reference to idols in John’s letter, but its placement at the end is significant.  Apparently, John felt he needed no further explanation of what he meant.  It should be obvious to his readers that idol worship is really, really bad, and avoiding it should be a priority.

The church works really hard to address the symptoms of idolatry.  We stress confession, accountability, and counseling to curb illicit behavior, but we don’t address idolatry head-on.  I would suggest we need to pull the dandelion up from the root, don’t just break off the stem.

Be Desperate for God

On the outside, I may look like I am a religious person, a good Christian.  But peel back the onion and you will find layers upon layers of idolatry.  There are hundreds of things besides God on which I depend:  IRAs, stocks, a quiet house, blooming flowers, working lawn mowers, obedient and helpful children, PayPal accounts, the U.S. Armed Forces, city sanitation, other drivers, a bottle of Blue Moon, etc., etc.–all of these have my trust to some degree, often subconsciously and unwittingly.  The more I spread my trust around, the less desperate I am for God, and the more I am prevoking His jealousy.

The church in general could use more desperate Christians.  We love Him.  We praise Him.  We go to church, attend small groups, give money, do good stuff.  But do we cling to Him, like the belt in God’s analogy in Jeremiah 13? (see Cling).

If you don’t understand how jealous God is for you, you will never understand how your petty pursuits in life offend Him.  Look again at James’ letter, in the verse immediately preceding his comment about God jealously desiring the spirit in you:

Do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God…”                 — James 4:4

Many people live their entire lives looking religious and good on the outside, never understanding that their love for other things is hostility to God. Idolatry is offensive to Him.  Even an average husband does not want to share his wife’s affection with another guy.  God is far more than an average husband. We need to understand that.

The book of Hosea is a beautiful narrative and picture of Jealous God and His wayward people.  Hosea himself was a remarkable prophet, asked to do the impossible–marry and love a prostitute who refuses to give up her harlotry.  The shock of this dramatization is a perfect illustration of the disappointment God feels when we abandon Him.  It also shows the absurdity of our pursuit of happiness from things that don’t last.  The takeaway verse in Hosea speaks to God’s interest in the real you, not your external service:

“For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice,
And in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”  — Hosea 6:6

Let us give God our loyalty, our fidelity.  More than countless offerings and sacrificial services, God jealously desires your spirit–your disposition, affection, and motivation.  

It is an amazing thing that the God of Heaven and Earth is jealous for you.  Let that thought sink in for a moment.  God Almighty–the God who is abounding in mercy and infinitely able to give you strength, courage, wisdom, grace, security, comfort, and above all, love–wants to be your spouse.  Nothing else in this world can satisfy you as richly, consistently, and thoroughly as He can.  With all God is offering you, you should find your disinterest in Him disturbing and your disposition toward the world absurd.  He longs to be gracious to you and waits on high to show compassion on you (Isaiah 30:11).  

By the way, there are some great worship songs about our Jealous God.  Check out David Crowder Band’s How He Loves and Jars of Clay’s Love of a Jealous Kind.

Also by the way, anyone who has spent time at the Schillinger Farm in Anne Arundel County should recognize the featured image in this blog. It hung as a picture in my Uncle Jimmy’s bedroom for years.  I always got a good chuckle out of it.

[1]  This is my interpretation of James 4:5 as it stands today.  It may not be what James had in mind exactly.  However, I think there are other scriptures that speak to the interpretation I’m using here.

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