Exodus 20:4–5 reads:

for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me

But jealousy is sin, as explicitly stated in the NT:

  • Galatians 5:19–20

    The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions

and in the OT:

Plus, the Pope says:

Cosa brutta è l’invidia! E’ un atteggiamento, è un peccato brutto. E nel cuore la gelosia o l’invidia crescono come cattiva erba [...] (source)

which means approximately:

What an ugly thing envy is! It's an attitude, it's a horrible sin. And inside the heart jealousy and envy grow like a weed [...]

Saint Augustine says:

The highest good, than which there is no higher, is God.

So how can God be jealous?

  • Perhaps it could be in line with other sins, such as murder. It has reasoned that God uniquely created people into the world, so God is the only one who has the right to take people out. So likewise, if God is all that is good and actually worthy of all our praise, then He is the one who has the right to be jealous when attention is given elsewhere. (also may be connected to the ideas of righteous anger [being angry about God's things] and hating sin, which are both Biblically presented) Commented Feb 10, 2017 at 21:05

3 Answers 3


"Jealousy" in colloquial English, means either (1) indignation in response to infidelity, or (2) covetousness of the belongings of others. We can immediately eliminate the second case, because God cannot be covetous; everything is his.

(Psalm 50:12) “If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is Mine, and all it contains."

This jealousy that is attributed to God must be of the first kind then. Consider the following passages,

(Proverbs 6:34 NASB), For jealousy arouses a husband's fury, and he will show no mercy when he takes revenge.

(Deuteronomy 4:23-24 NASB) So watch yourselves, that you do not forget the covenant of the Lord your God which He made with you, and make for yourselves a graven image in the form of anything against which the Lord your God has commanded you. For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.

(Zechariah 8:2) “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I am exceedingly jealous for Zion, yes, with great wrath I am jealous for her.’

The first passage demonstrates a man's jealousy, which is an act of the flesh that leads to fury and revenge. The second and third demonstrate God's jealousy. It appears that both God and men have the ability to become jealous. So, what is special about God's jealousy?

Notice immediately that God's jealousy is uniquely for his chosen people. Consider the context of the passage you quoted,

(Exodus 20:4-6 NIV) “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, 6 but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.

Notice that both this passage and the previous passage from Deuteronomy discuss the worship of false gods. God has commanded the Isrealites to worship no other gods but him, and they have made a covenant with him that he would be their God, and they would be his people. The people of Israel, however, are unfaithful to God and undertake worship of other gods. Throughout the prophets, God uses the symbol of marital infidelity to discipline Israel for her tendency to worship idols and the gods of other nations.

(Jeremiah 3:20) But like a woman unfaithful to her husband, so you, Israel, have been unfaithful to me," declares the LORD.

So, while covetousness or envy is an unrighteous desire to obtain what belongs to another, the jealousy that is referred to in Exodus 20:4-5 is indignation on God's part in response to unrighteous infidelity on the part of God's covenanted people. Israel willfully entered into a covenant with God as a wife willfully enters into a covenant with her husband. God is not desiring something that is not his, but instead he is angry and distressed by Israel's unfaithfulness to him. The nation of Israel belongs to God because he created it,

(Isaiah 43:1 NASB) But now, thus says the Lord, your Creator, O Jacob, And He who formed you, O Israel, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine!

And because- more importantly for this question- they covenanted themselves with him.

(Exodus 19:5-6 NASB) Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’

Let us then consider the passage from Galatians,

(Galatians 5:19-20 NASB) Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions,

In this passage, Paul lists "jealousy" among the unrighteous deeds of the flesh. But Paul also says of God, in the context of consuming wine sacrificed to false gods, that is, to demons,

(1 Corinthians 10:21-22 NASB) You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Or do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? We are not stronger than He, are we?

Notice that in this context Paul, who also wrote the passage in Galatians, warns that associating ourselves with idol worship provokes God to jealousy- the very same thing that the prophets had been saying.

It is important to consider that in many instances, God's actions are justified, even when the same actions taken by men would be considered unrighteous. God is Sovereign of Sovereigns, and so he is not subject to the commandments he has given us to follow. When a mother tells her son not to touch the matches, is it then wrong for her to light the stove to cook him a meal? Of course not, but she uses the matches to light the stove because she loves him and in her love provides a meal for him. Paul includes jealousy in his list of fleshly deeds, but we know well that God is greater than us, that he does not suffer from the same tendencies to act according to the flesh, and the expression of God's jealousy is righteous and justified. If it were not so, he would not say "I am a jealous God."

  • I've often seen envy described (for example, in discussions of the seven capital sins) as not only an unrighteous desire for what is someone else's, but a desire that you should have it instead of them. Is that something you've seen? Commented May 11, 2016 at 19:22
  • 2
    @MattGutting Though I'm not sure of any Biblical support, it's certainly something I've experienced, I admit. Envy entices anger as if the other party is not good enough to possess the object, or does not appreciate it the way you could. I suppose this goes to show how humility and putting others before ourselves is a pathway away from a lot of sin (Philippians 2:5-11).
    – Andrew
    Commented May 11, 2016 at 19:28
  • 1
    I don't think this completely answers the question. The Galatians quote expressly mentions jealousy, not envy. Do you care to address that verse as well?
    – Flimzy
    Commented May 11, 2016 at 20:56
  • 1
    @Flimzy 1 Cor 10:22 also. Context is key, in this case.
    – Andrew
    Commented May 11, 2016 at 23:30
  • @Andrew Comment removed, didn't see how it all played out. Commented May 12, 2016 at 3:34

Hard Sayings of the Bible explains this simply:

God's jealousy does not involve being suspicious or wrongfully envious of the success of others, or even mistrusting. When used of God, the word jealous refers to that quality of his character that demands exclusive devotion to all that is just, right and fair. Jealousy is the anger that God directs against all that opposes him. It is also the energy he expends in vindicating those who believe in the rightness of this quality and of his name.

Human "jealousy" often takes the form of envy or mistrust, and rarely involves demanding what is right. But because of his perfect righteousness, God's jealousy always demands righteousness and is therefore distinct from the envy and mistrust we commonly call jealousy.


Unlike envy, which is the desire for things you do not rightfully possess, jealousy is the fierce protection of that which is rightfully yours. As such, the premise that jealousy is inherently sinful in your comparison is not accurate. Consider the case of Phinehas:

1 While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. 2 These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. 3 So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel. 4 And the LORD said to Moses, "Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them in the sun before the LORD, that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel." 5 And Moses said to the judges of Israel, "Each of you kill those of his men who have yoked themselves to Baal of Peor." 6 And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel, while they were weeping in the entrance of the tent of meeting. 7 When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation and took a spear in his hand 8 and went after the man of Israel into the chamber and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman through her belly. Thus the plague on the people of Israel was stopped. 9 Nevertheless, those who died by the plague were twenty-four thousand. - Numbers 25:1-9 ESV

When Phinehas saw the sinful act, he was filled with jealousy for the Lord, and acted to stop it. And as a result:

10 And the LORD said to Moses, 11 "Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. 12 Therefore say, 'Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, 13 and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel.'" - Numbers 25:10-13 ESV

Or consider the words of the prophet Elijah:

9 There he came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said to him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" 10 He said, "I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away." - 1 Kings 19:9-10 ESV

Jealousy is not inherently sinful, but unlike God, there is little of which man possesses that is rightfully his to be fiercely protective of.

This distinction is expressed by James thusly:

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. - James 3:13-15 ESV

God is worthy and deserving of all glory and worship, and therefore can be jealous of what is due to him. We cannot apply the same judgement comparatively to man. Doing so elevates man as equal, and is sinful as a result.

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