The True Worship of God:
The Jealous God

by Rev. Sterling Durgy

Click below to:

Go to the previous article about worship.

Go to the next article about worship.

Return to menu of articles available here.

Return to The American Night Watch home page.


The giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai was an event of great significance both for Israel and for the world (Exodus 19ff.). Nevertheless, at the very time Moses was on the mountain receiving these from the Lord, the people at the base of the mountain were constructing a golden calf and engaging in pagan worship. This led to a time of turmoil and judgment within the Israelite encampment - a time when many died - underscoring the gravity of these events. In his anger, Moses broke the original tablets containing the commandments when he saw the people reveling with the golden calf. In chapter 34 of Exodus, Moses returns to Mount Sinai with two tablets of stone to receive the written commandments again. At this time, God restates and emphasizes the importance of the guidance given to the people through these commandments.

In Exodus 34:14-16 we read: "- for you shall not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God - lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land and they play the harlot with their gods, and sacrifice to their gods, and someone invite you to eat of his sacrifice; and you take some of his daughters for your sons, and his daughters play the harlot with their gods, and cause your sons also to play the harlot with their gods" (cf. Exodus 20:5). Those who remember the passages in the New Testament that discuss eating food sacrificed to idols will notice the significance of these words for those discussions.

It is important for us to notice that the jealousy of God relates to God's relationship with His people, and because of this, to their worship. The "jealousy" of God is unlike the jealousy of man. The Greek word we translate "jealous" in the Septuagint Old Testament and the Greek New Testament is like the English word "jealous" in that it has a varied meaning. The translation of this word (Greek: zÍlos, zÍlootÍs) is very much dependent upon the context. It is the same Greek word from which we derive our` word "zeal." On the positive side it can mean passionate devotion or dedicated care of another, the zealous care of God for His people, or the zealous care of God's interests by His people. On the negative side, it can mean envy and covetousness, wanting what isn't ours to have, or trying to guard what is ours in a petty, selfish, suspicious manner -- one that emphasizes possession more than the true appreciation and welfare of what is possessed. It can describe a laudable zeal to please God (as in Titus 2:14) or a zeal to do evil (as in the murderous, political fervor of the zealot assassins) or the misplaced religious zeal of the Jews (as in Romans 10:2). These negative characteristics are, of course, never true of God. When God says that He is "jealous" He does not mean that He is petty, but that He is eager to care for His people and greatly values their fellowship.

The subject of "jealousy," both good and bad, touches human worship from the earliest pages of Scripture. It was Cain's jealousy of Abel concerning the means of worship that motivated Cain to kill his brother. Likewise it was God's attempt to care for them, His "jealous" concern for their welfare and their relationship to Him, that caused God to warn Cain of the serious and present danger of giving in to temptation.

The warning in Exodus 34 is similar in that temptation, subtle and deadly, is close to the Israelites. This warning does not apply just to the immediate situation, however. It applies to the Israelites for all of the time that they will live in a world in which they are outnumbered by pagans. And if the Israelites are prone to worship a golden calf so shortly after God so clearly revealed His power in deliverance from slavery in Egypt, how much more prone to temptation they will be when that time of deliverance recedes into the past and their pagan neighbors are friendly and near. As the Israelites get to know their neighbors, they will be tempted to adopt their religious practices, to worship pagan gods, to participate in one way or another in pagan sacrifices to idols, to allow or even encourage their children to intermarry with the pagans, and through this to be led away from loyalty to God and from the true worship of God.

Often, this temptation would come as a result of entering into "covenants," the ancient counterpart to modern "contracts," "agreements," and "treaties." These covenants might come into being in order to ensure trade, alliance in times of danger, or the sale of land. Invariably, such agreements in the ancient world involved religion, since each party swore to the agreement by a god they considered to be important. "Not taking the Name of the Lord in vain" meant not swearing to an agreement in the Name of God and then breaking that agreement as if God were not real and holy. While there are other ways to take the Name of the Lord in vain, this is still one of the foremost sins to avoid, for it treats God with contempt. In Psalm 15 we read that the one who is honored by God is one who "swears to his own hurt, and does not change." This is because in maintaining his own integrity, this person reflects the reality and integrity of his God. But it would also be harmful for a Jew to give too much honor to the god of another in attempting to enter into some kind of covenant with pagans.

In the ancient world, as in later history, agreements between rulers were often cemented by intermarriage between members of the ruling families. Here again, entering into careless agreements with pagans could lead away from the worship of the one true God.

Just how relevant these warnings were was proved out through hundreds of years of history as recorded in our Old Testament. Solomon himself, the wisest man who ever lived, was led astray by the wives and concubines he accumulated as a result of his covenants with the rulers of foreign territories (I Kings 11:1-13). His sin, and the sins of others constantly pointed out by God's prophets, indicate that sin often comes as much or more from carelessness as from a willful, spiteful determination to rebel against God.

God has a way of describing what happens when His people desert Him, whether for people, or for strange religious practices, or for false gods, or for idols; God calls it "playing the harlot." The figure is one of a wife who abandons a husband who loves and cares for her to take lovers who care nothing for her. This foolish woman would be better off with the love of husband who truly cares for her, but she settles for those who use her. Instead of a lifetime of personal commitment she settles for momentary thrills and material rewards. When her beauty fades she will realize that the companionship of a faithful husband is worth far more than the material rewards of sin. But by that time it may be too late.

The Old Testament book of Hosea portrays this very situation. Hosea's love for his unfaithful wife Gomer parallels the faithful love of God for His people Israel. As Jesus would later come to "to seek and to save that which was lost" (Luke 19:10), Hosea goes out again and again to find his unfaithful wife and bring her home to him - even having to pay for her - to ransom her - as Jesus ransomed us from sin (Hosea 3:2, Matthew 20:28). It is a remarkable story, a most remarkable story of love. And it is the story of God's jealousy for His people - His love for them - His care for them - His devotion to see them marry Himself and the truth and to rest within His Sovereign care. The beautiful figure of God as husband and His people as His bride is one that is seen throughout Scripture. The Bride of Revelation 19, who is to be married to the Lamb (Christ), is the people of God.

In Isaiah 66:12-13, God compares His love to that of a mother for her child. The jealousy of God is always directed towards bringing us closer to Himself. His care of His people will continue throughout eternity (Ephesians 2:4-7).

It is this that we must always keep in mind when we view the other side of God's jealousy, that which is intolerant of false or careless worship. In Isaiah God says, "I am the Lord, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, nor My praise to graven images" (Isaiah 42:8). Perhaps when we read this we should add an exclamation point after that passage, at least in our minds. It is hard to see this statement being made too emphatically. To allow the glory that is God's to be attributed to others is to allow falsehood to prevail. To allow falsehood is to allow people to be led astray. Therefore God's jealousy concerning false worship is not just self-interest, it is a defense of the truth, and by defending the truth, the only way to keep the door of salvation open to the world. It starts as a strict demand for acceptable worship, but it results in blessing and mercy through Christ to all the people of the world.

Jesus' forceful cleansing of the Temple (Matthew 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-46, John 2:14-17) indicated that He was, indeed, the God of Israel whose Name is Jealous. The moneychangers he cast out were making a large profit from selling the currency necessary to buy animals for sacrifice. They were, therefore, corrupting the purity of the worship there and misrepresenting the God whose Temple it was. If Jesus had been willing to tolerate this, He would not have shown Himself to be the God of the Old Testament, the true God of Israel, nor its Messiah, who faithfully, jealously looked after the interests of both His Father and the people.

Later, in the Revelation to John, we see local churches represented as golden lampstands, with Jesus as the One who, through His Spirit, walks among the lampstands (2:1). In the letters to the seven churches, He communicates both His deep knowledge of each local church and His deep concern for the spiritual welfare of His people. His expectation is clear. As He is zealous in His love for His people, His people are expected to be zealous in their worship of Him (2:4-5, 3:14-22). A jealous God, today as at Sinai, demands honest and careful worship, because this discipline leads to fellowship and life (Proverbs 9:10-12, Hebrews 12).


First printed in The American Night Watch Newsletter, Volume IV, Part 12, December 1996.

Copyright 1999 Sterling M. Durgy. All Rights Reserved.

The American Night Watch is a trademark of the Christian ministry of Sterling M. Durgy.

Scriptures taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968,1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Permission is granted to reprint this article as long as the copyright is included, this statement is included, and the article is not sold to the recipients.

Return to top of page.

Go to the previous article about worship.

Go to the next article about worship.

Return to menu of articles available here.

Return to The American Night Watch home page.


Click here for Sterling Durgy's e-mail address.

This page was last updated October 22, 1999.