Do jealousy and envy mean the same things? Greek and English dictionaries flip-flop the differences, so when I’m reading the Bible, I try to remember that envy means wanting what someone else has AND not wanting them to have it. It is always a mean-spirited attitude that desires the blessings and success of others.
Jealousy is also about wanting what others have, but the biblical use of this word is not always bad. Its root is something like zeal. This means jealousy can be a fervent desire for someone else to have the very best, something like the protective attitude of a spouse who will not tolerate anyone else making moves on their partner. In this sense, God is a jealous God...
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:4–6)
Because we use the word jealousy for evil, applying it to God doesn’t seem right. Yet, the Bible uses it in that one sense. Only God can satisfy the heart without taking anything from those He loves. Because of that, only He has the full right to ask me for my undivided heart and only He has the right to be zealous for my devotion — not for His own sake but for mine. He wants the best for me, and He is the best.
In humans, jealousy becomes evil when it tries to make the same claim as God. That is, if I demand the full and undivided attention, loyalty and love of someone else, I am asking them to do for me only what God can do. Not only am I being selfish, this is an idolatrous insult to God. If I am upset with what I have and want what others have, I am turning my back on God and looking to something or someone else to do for me what only He can do.
By that description, jealousy is close to idolatry and the reason God connected the two in these commands from Exodus. Jealousy in God is not an evil idolatry, but that zeal of His love and His desire to know that only He can give me everlasting satisfaction. I don’t need to prove myself or be anxious about ‘what others think’ of me. My heart is at peace because of the love of God. I know that He loves me for what He can do for me, not what I can do for Him.
That said, no wonder He calls Himself a jealous God. He offers me all that my heart could possibly want, so any time that I turn elsewhere to have my needs met, He aches, not for Himself but for my folly. He knows that the only place where I am safe and satisfied is in His love and in giving my total devotion and my heart to Him. This is why He warns His people to keep away from idols; He knows nothing else will meet our needs.
But He also knows that sin keeps us from loving Him with that total devotion, so He took the initiative. Instead of demanding my utter and perfect devotion, He gave me His…
In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:10–11)
And then He adds the warning… “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21) because that is not love for Him and He has every right to be a jealous God.