Christian Living,  Old Testament

Can Jealousy be Good? Or is It Always Sin?

jealousy photo

It is usually assumed jealousy is always a sin. But, there are times jealousy is NOT a sin. Yes, you read that accurately—jealousy is not always a sin! In fact, jealousy can sometimes be good. If that surprises you, then we definitely need to look at the biblical evidence.

We tend to think of jealousy (sometimes used as a synonym for envy) as wanting what someone else has or being resentful of them (and that is wrong). However, in biblical language the Hebrew and Greek words for jealousy are often synonymous for the idea of zeal. For example, in Psalm 69:10 the psalmist says, “Zeal for your house has consumed me.” Yet the same word can be used for jealousy in places like Job 5:2, “Surely vexation kills the fool, and jealousy slays the simple.”

When studying the various uses in the Old and New Testaments one is struck with the overlap of these two ideas zeal and jealousy. It seems that the heart of the word expresses a very strong desire for an object/person or some quality possessed by a object/person. I would further propose that when examining the uses of the word (mainly in the OT) the determinant of whether or not jealousy is sin is the context.

The best illustration of this is in the concept of marriage. In Numbers 5 (The Test of Adultery) the Law speaks approvingly of the jealousy of a husband for his wife. Further, God is often depicted as Israel’s husband and is unashamedly described as a jealous God (Exod 20:5). God’s jealousy implies that He has a unique desire for His people and fully expects them to be faithful. This is the proper expectation in a covenant relationship. This is the proper outworking of jealousy.

To illustrate this point, one of my teachers used to tell a fictitious story about a wife whose husband had committed adultery. While in counseling the pastor asked the wife how she was feeling. The wife responded, “Oh it’s no big deal. I’m really not bothered by it.” Obviously this is a nonsensical reaction! We expect there to be hurt, pain, and jealousy in a situation of marital infidelity. That is because in a marriage relationship, a jealous zeal for sole commitment on behalf of one’s spouse is the appropriate expectation. This makes jealousy a natural part of the marriage relationship.

On the other hand, like any good thing, the attitude of jealous zeal can be misdirected toward things which we have no right to. For example, being jealous of a friend who gets a privileged promotion is not an appropriate jealousy. Desiring someone else’s position, possessions, or popularity are all temptations where jealousy is misguided and misdirected because we have no inherent right to those things.

The best application of thinking through jealousy is the fact that God is referred to again and again as being jealous (Exod 20:5; 34:14; Deut 4:24; 5:9; 6:15; Josh 24:19). God has a right to fully expect our faithfulness, and when we are faithless, that jealousy prompts Him to discipline us to bring us back to a faithful relationship with Him. God is the exemplar of what righteous jealousy looks like.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

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