What is Envy? By Jack Kettler
This study will focus on the sin of envy and related sins. Some things that are warned against in Scripture have, at times, positive connotations. As will be seen, with the sin of envy, it never has a positive meaning in Scripture.
Question: What does the Bible say about envy?
Answer: A simple definition of envy is “to want what belongs to someone else.” A more thorough description of envy is ‘a resentful, dissatisfied longing for another’s possessions, position, fortune, achievements, or success.’” *
Biblical distinctions are helpful and necessary for understanding God’s Word.
“For this reason we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” (Colossians 1:9-10 NKJV)
In this study, we will heed the apostle’s exhortation!
Scriptures on envy and similar sins such as covetousness, and jealousy will be examined.
We will start with the latter two:
“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house; thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.” (Exodus 20:17 KJV)
Matthew Poole’s Commentary on the Exodus passage explains that God’s law is concerned, with not only outward acts, but primarily with thoughts of the heart or the inward motions of the heart:
“The coveting here forbidden is either,
1. The inward and deliberate purpose and desire of a deceitful or violent taking away of another man’s goods; but this is forbidden in the eighth commandment. And it is hard to conceive that St. Paul should think that this command did not forbid such a practice, Romans 7:7, which even the better sort of heathens esteemed a sin, whose words are, that they who are withheld from incest, or whoredom, or theft, only from a principle of fear, are guilty of those crimes; especially seeing the Old Testament Scriptures, which doubtless he diligently studied, do so plainly condemn evil purposes of the heart, as Leviticus 19:17 Deuteronomy 9:4, 5 15:7, 9, &c. Or,
2. The greedy desire of that which is another man’s, though it be without injury to him. Thus, Ahab sinned in desiring Naboth’s vineyard, though he offered him money for it, 1 Kings 21:2. Or rather,
3. Those inward motions of the heart, which from the fountain of original corruption do spring up in the heart, and tickle it with some secret delight, though they do not obtain tie deliberate consent of the will. For seeing this law of God is spiritual and holy, Romans 7:12, 14, and reacheth the thoughts, intents, and all the actual motions of the heart, as is apparent from the nature of God, and of his law; and seeing such motions are both the fruits of a sinful nature, and the common causes of sinful actions, and are not agreeable either to man’s first and uncorrupted nature, or to God’s law; they must needs be a swerving from it, and therefore sin. And this is the reason why this command is added as distinct from all the rest.” (1)
Poole explains how the commandment was drawing attention to the inward motions of the heart. Sin starts in the heart.
In addition, to strength this, Jesus says:
“But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28 KJV)
“For jealousy makes a man furious, and he will not spare when he takes revenge.” (Proverbs 6:34 ESV)
Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers explains jealously in Proverbs 6:34:
“(34) For jealousy is the rage of a man.—that is jealousy is furious, and cannot be appeased by bribes.” (3)
“Wrath is cruel, anger is overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy?” (Proverbs 27:4 ESV)
“For wrath killeth the foolish man, and envy slayeth the silly one.” (Job 5:2 KJV)
“Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers!” (Psalm 37:1 ESV)
“Let not your heart envy sinners, but continue in the fear of the LORD all the day.” (Proverbs 23:17 ESV)
From the Pulpit Commentary on Proverbs 23:17 we learn:
“Verse 17. – Let not thine heart envy sinners, when thou seest them apparently happy and prosperous (comp. Proverbs 3:31; Proverbs 24:1, 19; Psalm 37:1; Psalm 73:3). The Authorized Version, in agreement with the Septuagint, Vulgate, Arabic, and other versions, takes the second clause of this verse as an independent one: but it seems evidently to be constructionally connected with the preceding, and to be governed by the same verb, so that there is no occasion to insert “be thou.” But be thou in the fear of the Lord all the day long. Jerome, corrected, would read, Non aemuletur cor tuum peccatores, sed timorem Domini tota die, As Delitzsch and Hitzig, followed by Nowack, have pointed out, the Hebrew verb, קָנָא (kana), is here used in two senses. In the first clause, it signifies to be envious of a person: in the second, to be zealous for a thing, both senses combining in the thought of being moved with eager desire. Ζηλοτυπέω is used in this double sense, and aemulor in Latin. So the gnome comes to this – Show your heart’s desire, not by envy of the sinner’s fortune, but by zeal for true religion, that fear of the Lord which leads to strict obedience and earnest desire to please him.” (2)
A couple of more passages should suffice:
“Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up.” (1Corinthians 13:4 KJV)
“Envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:21 ESV)
In a number of biblical passages, envy and jealousy are used interchangeably.
For many, the words covetousness, jealousy, and enviousness are almost synonymous. There are however, sometimes subtle and important distinctions.
For example, the following contemporary definitions are helpful to see the subtle distinctions. These definitions come from an online dictionary:
Covet – “To feel strong or immoderate desire for that which is another’s.”
Jealous – “Fearful or wary of being supplanted; apprehensive of losing affection or position.”
Envy – “A feeling of discontent and resentment aroused by and in conjunction with desire for the possessions or qualities of another.” http://www. The freedictionary.com/envy
In order to help recognize certain distinctions, it can be asked, can covet, jealous, and envy ever be used in a positive sense, first in normal language and then in Scripture?
“I covet your prayers.” Positive use of the word. We even see the word covet used positively in Scripture:
“But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.” (1 Corinthians 12:31 KJV))
“He is jealous for the things of God.” Positive use. God is jealous of His name. Likewise, we see that jealous can be used positively in Scripture:
“For thou shalt worship no other god: for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” (Exodus 34:14 KJV)
“Hey, bro, I envy you for your beautiful children.” Positive use. No There is no Scriptural positive use of the word.
In this example, the usage is a kudos in the sense that what a friend has is good, and you wish you could have something comparable.
This example of envy is a strained use of the word and is actually a degradation or deconstruction of the word.
As seen, covet and jealous can be used positively in a biblical context. Envy, however, cannot be used positively unless watering down or reversing the meaning. There is no positive use of envy in Scripture.
Envy is unabashedly destructive. While envy can be a stimulus for some people, you have to ask, is this a good type of drive for success?
Paul in Corinthians, says no to envy:
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant.” (1Corinthians 13:4 ESV)
A more detailed look at the biblical meaning of these words from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia:
“kuv’-et (‘awah; zeloo, “to desire earnestly,” “to set the heart and mind upon anything”): Used in two senses: good, simply to desire earnestly but legitimately. e.g. The King James Version 1 Cor. 12:31; 14:39; bad, to desire unlawfully, or to secure illegitimately (batsa`; epithumeo, Ro 7:7; 13:9, etc.); hence, called “lust” (Mt 5:28; 1Co 10:6), “concupiscence”
(the King James Version Ro 7:8; Col 3:5).
kuv’-et-us-nes: Has a variety of shades of meaning determined largely by the nature of the particular word used, or the context, or both. Following are some of the uses: (1) To gain dishonestly (batsa`), e.g. the King James Version Ex 18:21; Ezekiel 33:31. (2) The wish to have more than one possesses, inordinately, of course (pleonexia), e.g. Lu 12:15; 1Th 2:5. (3) An inordinate love of money philarguros, the King James Version Lu 16:14; 2Ti 3:2; philarguria, 1Ti 6:10), negative in Heb. 13:5, the King James Version.
Covetousness is a very grave sin; indeed, so heinous is it that the Scriptures class it among the very gravest and grossest crimes (Eph. 5:3). In Col 3:5 it is “idolatry,” while in 1Co 6:10 it is set forth as excluding a man from heaven. Its heinousness, doubtless, is accounted for by its being in a very real sense the root of so many other forms of sin, e.g. departure from the faith (1Ti 6:9-10); lying (2Ki 5:22-25); theft (Jos 7:21); domestic trouble (Pro. 15:27); murder (Ezekiel 22:12); indeed, it leads to “many foolish and hurtful lusts” (1Ti 6:9). Covetousness has always been a very serious menace to mankind, whether in the Old Testament or New Testament period. It was one of the first sins that broke out after Israel had entered into the promised land (Achan, Jos 7:1-26); and also in the early Christian church immediately after its founding (Ananias and Sapphira, Ac 5:1-42); hence, so many warnings against it. A careful reading of the Old Testament will reveal the fact that a very great part of the Jewish law–such as its enactments and regulations regarding duties toward the poor, toward servants; concerning gleaning, usury, pledges, gold and silver taken during war–was introduced and intended to counteract the spirit of covetousness.
Eerdmans maintains (Expos, July, 1909) that the commandment, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house” (Ex 20:17), meant to the Israelite that he should not take anything of his neighbor’s possessions that were momentarily unprotected by their owner. Compare Ex 34:23 ff. Thus, it refers to a category of acts that is not covered by the commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.” It is an oriental habit of mind from of old that when anyone sees abandoned goods which he thinks desirable, there is not the least objection to taking them, and Ex 20:1Ex 7:1-25b is probably an explanation of what is to be understood by “house” in Ex 20:17a.
Examples of covetousness: Achan (Jos 7:1-26); Saul (1Sa 15:9, 19); Judas (Mt 26:14-15); Ananias and Sapphira (Ac 5:1-11); Balaam (2Pe 2:15 with Jude 1:11).” William Evans (4)
“jel’-us-i (qin’ah; zelos): Doubtless, the root idea of both the Greek and the Hob translated “jealousy” is “warmth,” “heat.” Both are used in a good and a bad sense–to represent right and wrong passion.
When jealousy is attributed to God, the word is used in a good sense. The language is, of course, anthropomorphic; and it is based upon the feeling in a husband of exclusive right in his wife. God is conceived as having wedded Israel to Himself, and as claiming, therefore, exclusive devotion. Disloyalty on the part of Israel is represented as adultery, and as provoking God to jealousy. See, e.g., De 32:16,21; 1Ki 14:22; Ps 78:58; Ezekiel 8:3; 16:38,42; 23:25; 36:5; 38:19.
When jealousy is attributed to men, the sense is sometimes good, and sometimes bad. In the good sense, it refers to an ardent concern for God’s honor. See, e.g., Nu 25:11 (compare 1Ki 19:10; 2Ki 10:16); 2Co 11:2 (compare Ro 10:2). In the bad sense it is found in Ac 7:9; Ro 13:13; 1Co 3:3; 2Co 12:20; Jas 3:14, 16.
The “law of jealousy” is given in Nu 5:11-31. It provided that, when a man suspected his wife of conjugal infidelity, an offering should be brought to the priest, and the question of her guilt or innocence should be subjected to a test there carefully prescribed. The test was intended to be an appeal to God to decide the question at issue.” E. J. Forrester (5)
“en’-vi (qin’ah; zelos, phthonos): “Envy,” from Latin in, “against,” and video, “to look,” “to look with ill-will,” etc., toward another, is an evil strongly condemned in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. It is to be distinguished from jealousy. “We are jealous of our own; we are envious of another man’s possessions. Jealousy fears to lose what it has; envy is pained at seeing another have” (Crabb’s English Synonyms). In the Old Testament it is the translation of qin’ah from kana‘, “to redden,” “to glow” (Job 5:2, the Revised Version (British and American) “jealousy,” margin “indignation”; in Isa 26:11 the Revised Version (British and American) renders “see thy zeal for the people”; Pro 27:4, etc.); the verb occurs in Ge 26:14, etc.; Nu 11:29 the King James Version; Ps 106:16; Pro 3:31, etc.; in the New Testament it is the translation of phthonos, “envy” (Mt 27:18; Ro 1:29; Ga 5:21, “envyings,” etc.); of zelos, “zeal,” “jealousy,” “envy” (Ac 13:45), translated “envying,” the Revised Version (British and American) “jealousy” (Ro 13:13; 1Co 3:3; 2Co 12:20; Jas 3:14,16); the verb phthoneo occurs in Ga 5:26; zeloo in Ac 7:9; 17:5, the Revised Version (British and American) “moved with jealousy”; 1Co 13:4, “charity (the Revised Version (British and American) “love”) envieth not.”
The power of envy is stated in Pro. 27:4: “Who is able to stand before envy?” (the Revised Version (British and American) “jealousy”); its evil effects are depicted in Job 5:2 (the Revised Version (British and American) “jealousy”), in Pro. 14:30 (the Revised Version, margin “jealousy”); it led to the crucifixion of Christ (Mt 27:18; Mark
15:10); it is one of “the works of the flesh” (Ga 5:21; compare Ro 1:29; 1Ti 6:4); Christian believers are earnestly warned against it (Ro 13:13 the King James Version; 1Co 3:3 the King James Version; Ga 5:26; 1Pe 2:1). In James 4:5 “envy” is used in a good sense, akin to the jealousy ascribed to God. Where the King James Version has “The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy,” the Revised Version (British and American) reads “Doth the spirit which he made to dwell in us long unto envying?”; the American Revised Version, margin “The spirit which he made to dwell in us he yearneth for even unto jealous envy”; compare Jer. 3:14; Ho 2:19 f; or the English Revised Version, margin “That spirit which he made to dwell in us yearneth (for us) even unto jealous envy.” This last seems to give the sense; compare “Ye adulteresses” (Ho 2:4), the American Revised Version, margin ‘That is, who break your marriage vow to God.’” W. L. Walker (6)
Contemporary assessments and deductions:
Thus far, we have seen three types of sin, covetousness, jealousy, and envy. Sin is sin, yet envy has stood out as particularly immoral. Envy is the coveting of another person’s benefits, belongings, or skills given to them by God, thus making it a direct sin against God in addition to sinning against another person.
It is nothing new to see sin covered or dressed up to look like righteousness. The mass of fallen humanity are experts in justifying their sins.
Motivated by Envy:
Politicians, in particular, are some of the leading experts on how to commit theft motivated by envy and make it look respectable; for example, “it is for the children” ploy never gets old. Political envy is ostensibly, a Robin Hood maneuver, stealing from the rich to give to the poor. The poor who are the supposed the recipients of the theft are just as envious, and go along and cheer the theft of others.
The Politics of Envy:
R. J. Rushdoony captures how politicians are agents of envy in his book, Larceny in the Heart:
In the online description of the book, Larceny in the Heart we read:
“Why are the most successful and advanced members of society often deemed to be the criminals? In a word – Envy. The envious man finds superiority in others intolerable, and he wishes to level and equalize all things. Many sociologists and social scientists turn this hatred and resentment into “virtue” under the guise of “social science” by calling it a demand for fraternity and equality…” From the Amazon book description
In his earlier book, The Roots of Inflation, Rushdoony makes an astute observation about larceny:
“The larceny is, of course, disguised as charity, a concern for the social welfare, a humane public policy, a Square Deal, a New Deal, a New Frontier, and so on and on. Larceny is bad enough, but theft in the name of righteousness is the ultimate in hypocrisy and self-deception.” (7)
Rushdoony quotes Helmut Schoek, from his book on Envy: a theory of social behaviour, in which he describes the fruits of envy:
“Envy demands the leveling of all things, because the envious man finds superiority in others intolerable. He sees it better to turn the world into hell rather than to allow anyone to prosper more than himself, or to be superior to him. Envy negates progress.” (8)
Perceptively, Rushdoony explains how envy is involved the first sin of Adam and Eve:
“Of course, envy has deep roots in history and is an aspect of man’s original sin. First of all, the tempter, in approaching Eve, played on the difference between God and man as an evil. God, he held, is trying to prevent man from reaching a position of equality with Him. “God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5).” (9)
Envy is characterized by the deceitful craving of what others have, and harbors resentment towards God when He blesses someone else.
St. Augustine called envy “the diabolical sin.” (De catechizandis rudibus 4, 8: PL 40,315-316)
Envy is hatred towards God. Historically envy is one of the seven deadly sins. All sin is deadly. Do not let the seeds of envy take root in your heart.
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)
1. Matthew Poole’s Commentary on the Holy Bible, Exodus, Vol. 1, (Peabody, Massachusetts, Hendrickson Publishers, 1985) p. 160.
2. H. D. M. Spence and Joseph S. Exell, The Pulpit Commentary, Proverbs, Vol. 9, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans Publishing Company reprint 1978), p. 442.
3. Charles John Ellicott, Bible Commentary for English Readers, Proverbs, Vol. 4, (London, England, Cassell and Company), p. 314.
4. Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor, “Entry for ‘COVET, COVETOUSNESS, ‘” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, reprinted 1986), p. 733.
5. Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor, “Entry for ‘JEALOUSY,’” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, reprinted 1986), p. 1572.
6. Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor, “Entry for ‘ENVY,’” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, reprinted 1986), p. 955.
7. R. J. Rushdoony, The Roots Of Inflation, (Vallecito, CA, Ross House Books, 1982), p. 4.
8. R. J. Rushdoony, The Roots Of Inflation, (Vallecito, CA, Ross House Books, 1982), p. 33.
9. R. J. Rushdoony, The Roots Of Inflation, (Vallecito, CA, Ross House Books, 1982), p. 34.
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: THERELIGIONTHATSTARTEDINAHAT.COM
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