"..they shall know that I am the Lord their God, and am a jealous God, visiting the iniquities of my people." (Mosiah 11:22)
What does the Lord mean when he describes himself as a “jealous God”? We often think of jealousy in a negative context, and even might well consider jealousy a sin. So why would the Lord use that word to describe himself?
The word conjures up images of pettiness, immaturity, even a quick temper or anger. Sometimes we equate the word jealousy with envy. We might say for example “My friend just got a new car, I’m so jealous!”. But what we really mean is envious. Our modern society has somewhat merged the meaning of these words. I don’t think that’s the correct context for what the Lord intends in his use of the word.
We might also use the word jealous in the context of relationships as one might say “she has a jealous boyfriend”. One could imagine a controlling boyfriend who keeps a careful watch on his girlfriend’s comings and goings to make sure she never speaks to anyone else. This context also seems out of place when we consider the qualities of God, his perfection, kindness, and love for us. God is not controlling, nor is he insecure.
Is there such a thing as righteous jealousy then? Consider the marriage relationship rather than some loosely defined non-committal relationship. In a marriage the two people have made the most sacred and binding covenants with each other. The promises have been made before witnesses, and are recognized by both the state and God as binding and lawful. It is the most solemn contract and covenant.
If my wife were to come home one day and say something to me like “Hey there’s this guy I’ve met recently and he’s really cute, and I’m kind of interested in him.” – I would think Whoa, hold on... what is this?
And if she were serious, it would be gut-wrenching. I would probably have to sit down for a while and recover from the shock.
But then I would think:
Hey, you’re my wife! There are no other cute guys anymore in this world! I am the cute guy. You are mine, and I am yours. That’s what we agreed to, that’s what we committed to each other, it’s what we promised.
For me that means there are no other cute girls - not at the gym, not at work, not in my ward, no. Just no. And the same goes the other way… It is my right to have her full love, her full attention and her whole heart. It is her right to have my full love, all my attention, and my whole heart. There is no other way this can work. Anything short of that is a disaster waiting to happen.
I think the marriage relationship, with its mutual binding covenant, gets us much closer to the context that God intended when he used that descriptive phrase “jealous God”. He is speaking to members of his church. We have entered into the most sacred covenants with him through the waters of baptism. We have in effect, given ourselves to God. We are his, and he makes the same sacred promises to us.
The Lord accused his ancient people through the prophet Isaiah:
Hearken and hear this, O house of Jacob, who are called by the name of Israel, and are come forth out… of the waters of baptism, who swear by the name of the Lord, and make mention of the God of Israel, yet they swear not in truth nor in righteousness.
Nevertheless, they call themselves of the holy city, but they do not stay themselves upon the God of Israel, who is the Lord of Hosts; yea, the Lord of Hosts is his name.
When we embrace the world rather than God, and we fall into Satan’s temptations and turn from our covenant relationship to God, then he is rightfully jealous. We have betrayed him. We then incur his judgments if we continue going down that path. Thinking about his use of the word “jealous” in this context helps me to realize that it’s not a sin for God to feel that way. He is rightfully jealous over us, and will not simply turn a blind eye to our betrayal of him.
The Lord continues to make further use of this marriage and betrayal analogy in the prophecies of Isaiah. We can find it described in 1 Nephi 20:8 (“...I knew thou wouldst deal very treacherously...”), and we also see his love and willingness to forgive demonstrated:
“Nevertheless for my name’s sake will I defer mine anger, and for my praise will I refrain from thee, that I cut thee not off.” (1 Nep 20:9).
When he visited the Nephites, Christ taught them from the book of Isaiah:
5 For thy maker, thy husband, the Lord of Hosts is his name; and thy Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel—the God of the whole earth shall he be called.
6 For the Lord hath called thee as a woman forsaken and grieved in spirit, and a wife of youth, when thou wast refused, saith thy God.
7 For a small moment have I forsaken thee, but with great mercies will I gather thee.
8 In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment, but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer. (3 Nep 22:5-8 and Isaiah 54:5-8)
I hope that by considering some of these ideas, the concept of God being jealous will not be a troubling idea. For me I see it now as a reflection of his love for us, and of the sacred nature of the covenants we have made with him. He is kind, and generous, and stands always ready to forgive us when we make mistakes and sin.
Yet we so often forget Him. We so often forget our covenants and turn away from him. The Lord’s people on numerous occasions throughout history failed to keep their covenants and fell into temptations. The prophet Mormon, after reviewing a particular episode where the Nephites turned against God, commented:
“And thus we can behold how false, and also the unsteadiness of the hearts of the children of men…Yea, and we may see at the very time when he doth prosper his people, yea in the increase of their fields, their flocks and their herds, and in gold, and in silver… then is the time that they do harden their hearts, and forget the Lord their God…” (Helaman 12:1-2).
But also - because he loves us, he will not give us up so easily. He wants to bring us home to him, and if turn away from him and fall into Satan’s snares and traps, he will do all in his power to instruct, convince, and remind us that we need to return to him. Sometimes his measures even include putting trials in our way. There may be a period of bondage (real or figurative), wherein he is “slow to hear [our] cries” (Mosiah 11:24). But we can rest assured that such teaching and corrective periods will be “a small moment” (3 Nep 22:7), and that He stands ready to welcome us back to the fold.
Are these messages only to ancient Israel? Do his people today betray him and go after false gods? Speaking to us in our day, in the very first section of the book Doctrine and Covenants we find this description of society:
For they have strayed from mine ordinances, and have broken mine everlasting covenant. They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall. (D&C 1:15-16)
That sounds like a pretty accurate description of our world to me.
In the Old Testament there is a strange but beautiful story of the prophet Hosea, whom the Lord used to illustrate this principle of a covenant relationship broken, and yet of his generous forgiveness. Hosea’s life and family served as a symbol of God’s relationship to the people of Israel. At the beginning of the book of Hosea, the Lord instructs the prophet to marry a woman who was a prostitute. That's a bit outside the norm isn't it? Whether this actually occurred or was only a symbolic story I'm not sure. In any case they get married and have three children.
In the second chapter we learn that she has gone back to her old ways, betraying her husband and going after the men that she once knew. The chapter goes on to describe the punishments that Hosea (representing the Lord) will meet out to her (Israel), but then also continues by describing how he will attempt to bring her back to him. The Lord says “...behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness and speak comfortably unto her.” (Hosea 2:14) He speaks about many kind things he will do for her, to entice her back to him, and to show her that He still loves her.
“And I will betroth thee unto me forever; yea, I will betroth thee unto me in righteousness, and in judgment, and in lovingkindness, and in mercies. I will even betroth thee unto me in faithfulness: and thou shalt know the Lord.” (Hosea 2:19-20)
The message is clear, that God still loves his children although they turn away from him sometimes. He desires them to come back to him, and he is willing to go to great lengths to bring them back.
He is a jealous God, and that is wonderful.