Question: In Exodus 20:5, God states that He is a jealous God, but in Galatians 5:20 jealousies are mentioned among sinful fruits of the flesh. Is this a contradiction?
Answer: God cannot sin, nor can He be tempted with evil (1 John 3:5; James 1:13). The "jealousy" mentioned in Exodus 20 refers to a quality of righteousness, rather than sin. We are told to "worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God" (Exodus 34:14). "Jealous" is not only an attribute of God; it is one of His names, describing His character.
Without exception, the Bible uses this term in the context of God’s laws against idolatry (cf. Deuteronomy 4:23–24; 5:9; 6:13–15). Idolatry is a breach of the special covenant God made with Israel—a covenant that promised great prosperity and a role as God’s special people. God explained, right before giving the Ten Commandments: "Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:5–6).
In giving the Ten Commandments, God then said: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage" (Exodus 20:2). Five times within the Ten Commandments, He used this phrase "the Lord your God." The word "Lord" by itself is used another three times. Why did God repeat His name so often? The answer to this question helps to explain the meaning of godly jealousy.
The name "Lord" is translated from the Hebrew YHVH, which means the "Eternal, Immutable One; He who was, Who is and Who is to come (Companion Bible, appendices 4, II). God repeated this name to describe the intimate and personal covenant relationship that He desired to have with Israel; a relationship often likened to a marriage (Jeremiah 3:14, 20). From God’s perspective, idolatry is spiritual adultery. As a husband and a wife require fidelity from each other, God requires the same from His people. The emphasis of His name shows this.
On the other hand, there is a carnal-minded envy and hatred toward neighbor, fueled by covetousness, which is called jealousy and is one of the fruits of the flesh (cf. Galatians 5:20; James 4:2). God, of course cannot sin; He envies no one. After all, He is the Creator of all things, and has absolute authority over all His creation. God asks: "To whom then will you liken Me, or to whom shall I be equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high, and see who has created these things, who brings out their host by number; He calls them all by name, by the greatness of His might and the strength of His power; not one is missing" (Isaiah 40:25–26). Indeed, before God, the nations "are as nothing, and they are counted by Him less than nothing and worthless" (v. 17). So it should not surprise us that God commands, "You shall have no other gods before Me," and insists that we not make any idols, pictures or religious objects to aid in our worship of Him (Exodus 20:5).
The meaning, therefore, is plain. Divine jealousy describes God’s greatness as the one and only true God and Creator—His absolute power to save, His tender mercies, His watchful care and His zeal to keep His promises. He alone possesses the absolute right of worship—exclusively. He tolerates no competitors if you desire a covenant relationship with Him. God’s "jealousy" indicates His unique divine right and godly justice, not the carnal human jealousy that human beings may feel.