It is in the writings of Hosea (the entire book, but especially chapters 1-3) and Jeremiah (chapter 3) that the metaphor of spiritual adultery is developed and clarified. God is Israel’s husband; Israel is God’s bride. But while God is a good, loving, and faithful husband, Israel is described as an adulterous, wayward, promiscuous, whoring wife. Portions of Ezekiel (chapters 16, 23) are so graphic that I wonder how many churches could even stand to hear them read out loud. No wonder Ezekiel didn’t rank atop the podcast ratings… his message was not often pleasant. The language in these passages is jarring, profoundly unsettling, and offensive. And that is precisely the point.
We, like the Israelites before us, are far too adept at euphemising, excusing, minimizing, and denying sin. Needless to say, God seems to take a different view – judging the unfaithfulness of his covenant people to be heinous, evil, and personal. And perhaps that personal element of betrayal is what this metaphor of spiritual adultery really conveys like nothing else. It is one thing to sin in a judicial sense against the law of a good judge, and it is one thing to fall short of the standard of your benevolent master, but it is something quite different to blatantly cheat on your spouse with other lovers.
Just think about the relational dynamics of the first two pictures of sin in contrast with the third. As a lawbreaker and a stumbling servant, I could still look my Lord in the eye, admit my mistake, and vow to do better. But not so easily if my unfaithfulness is personal betrayal to such a jealous and faithful spouse. This is what makes the metaphor of spiritual adultery so powerful, and for the guilty party (that’s you and me, folks) so devastating.
But in that moment of terrible realization, when all the excuses and side-stepping is done, and you find yourself sitting slumped on a pile of ashes, a new light shines. That new light is the incredible promises of reconciliation, mercy, and restitution that we find in the very same passages that moments ago revealed the ugliness of our sin.
Consider Hosea 2:14-20
“Therefore I am now going to allure her;
I will lead her into the wilderness
and speak tenderly to her.
There I will give her back her vineyards,
and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
There she will respond as in the days of her youth,
as in the day she came up out of Egypt.
“In that day,” declares the Lord,
“you will call me ‘my husband’;
you will no longer call me ‘my master.’
I will remove the names of the Baals from her lips;
no longer will their names be invoked.
In that day I will make a covenant for them
with the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky
and the creatures that move along the ground.
Bow and sword and battle
I will abolish from the land,
so that all may lie down in safety.
I will betroth you to me forever;
I will betroth you in righteousness and justice,
in love and compassion.
I will betroth you in faithfulness,
and you will acknowledge the Lord.”
Or Jeremiah 3:14-15
“Return, faithless people,” declares the Lord, “for I am your husband. I will choose you—one from a town and two from a clan—and bring you to Zion. Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding.”
Or lastly, Ezekiel 16:60, 62-63
“Yet I will remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you… So I will establish my covenant with you, and you will know that I am the Lord. Then, when I make atonement for you for all you have done, you will remember and be ashamed and never again open your mouth because of your humiliation, declares the Sovereign Lord.’”
The language of spiritual adultery is the nuclear weapon of sin-exposition. It’s God’s most potent form of argument, and to those with ears to hear, it is profoundly humbling. Embedded in the book of Hosea is this idea that God would come at his people with such severe denouncements so that they might realize their sickness and seek him.
We see this amazing interaction in Hosea 5:13-15, followed by 6:1-3.
“When Ephraim saw his sickness,
and Judah his sores,
then Ephraim turned to Assyria,
and sent to the great king for help.
But he is not able to cure you,
not able to heal your sores.
For I will be like a lion to Ephraim,
like a great lion to Judah.
I will tear them to pieces and go away;
I will carry them off, with no one to rescue them.
Then I will return to my lair
until they have borne their guilt
and seek my face—
in their misery
they will earnestly seek me.”
“Come, let us return to the Lord.
He has torn us to pieces
but he will heal us;
he has injured us
but he will bind up our wounds.
After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will restore us,
that we may live in his presence.
Let us know the Lord;
let us press on to know him.
As surely as the sun rises,
he will appear;
he will come to us like the winter rains,
like the spring rains that water the earth.”
Here are five things I think we can take away from reflecting on God’s Jealousy.
1. Seeing God’s jealousy forces us to un-domesticate God.
There’s an element of unpredictability in God’s jealousy. He is merciful and patient, but woe to the one who experiences the heat of his holy desire! As C.S. Lewis put it so well, he is good, but he is not safe. This is such a needed remedy for us sleepy believers who have a strong tendency to domesticate God with our selective memory and reading. Even Psalm 23 underscores this when at the end David writes “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” The verb translated “follow” literally means “to pursue, chase, persecute.” There’s an intensity and an intentionality that is lost in translation. Instead of capturing the predatory spirit of the verb, we are left with the rather limp image of a puppy following a child.
2. Seeing God’s jealousy sobers us about our sin, and our redemption.
I touched on this earlier, so just a quick word. In light of all that we’ve seen, our sin is uglier than we thought. But the beauty of the gospel is that this ugliness only serves to humble us further (to remember and be ashamed and never again open our mouths, as in Ezekiel 16), and to underscore, highlight, and magnify the depth of the mercy and the sweetness of the grace that would so completely forgive such misdeeds.
3. Seeing God’s jealousy helps us realize the seriousness of God’s covenant with us.
Here’s one where the Scriptures really have to renew our typical way of thinking. We are so accustomed to the optional, leave it if you don’t like it, take it for a spin, no strings attached kind of deal that we can import that kind of thinking into our relationship with God. But the truth is that we are in a covenant with God, with covenant obligations to be faithful and to worship Him alone. This is not the typical we way we frame our Christianity, but that is probably more due to our cultural bias than to a balanced Biblical understanding.
4. Seeing God’s jealousy helps us understand some of the ways God works in our lives.
If God is a jealous God who, in the words of Zechariah 8, is “very jealous… burning with jealousy for” his people, then this might help explain how he deals with us. Looking back on my own life, I definitely see God’s jealousy as one of the reasons he allowed me to go through burnout in ministry. When ministry becomes a rival lover, it becomes very dispensable to God. I suddenly go from Very Important Leader to entirely replaceable. Indeed – for my soul’s sake, I must be replaced, rebuked, brought to repent, and then perhaps restored. Likewise, in all our lives, a function of God’s love is that he brooks no rivals. A redefinition of love for some of us, maybe, but love indeed.
5. Seeing God’s jealousy reminds us that we don’t get to pick and choose which attributes of God we like.
There is a counter-intuitive argument to be made that I first heard from Tim Keller. The argument rests simply on the nature of relationship. If we deny the authority of Scripture, and do away with the troublesome aspects of God’s deeds and character (as defined by our enlightened cultural moment, of course), what we are left with is inevitably a glorified reflection of ourselves. A deified mirror image of our own beliefs. But this is plainly not a God with whom you can have a real relationship, if by real relationship we mean, among other things, the ability to challenge, surprise, and rebuke. The God of orthodox Christianity is revealed to us, and we must change our minds and our beliefs to line up with that revelation; not change the revelation to line up with our own thoughts.