To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.
By and large, the Ten Commandments are wonderfully brief and straightforward.
Don’t lie. Don’t murder. Don’t steal. Don’t commit adultery.
The second commandment is a bit more complex: “Don’t make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. Don’t bow down to them or worship them” (Exodus 20:4-5). That’s plain enough. We are not to create a physical representation of God, because we’ll be overwhelmingly tempted to worship what we have made with our own hands instead of God himself.
But the text doesn’t end there. The second commandment includes a sentence that has vexed and perplexed Bible students for centuries: “I, the Lord, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex 20:5-6).
What are we to make of this jealous and punishing God?
Let’s begin with jealousy. Here we need to distinguish between three words that are routinely treated as synonyms, even though they have substantially different meanings: coveting, jealousy, and envy.
Coveting means, “I want what you have.”
If you have an ice cream cone, I want one, too. Coveting is the solid foundation of our culture’s advertising industry. Why should your neighbor have a new car and you do without? When we see a rich person enjoying the good life, a brokerage group counsels us, “Don’t get mad; get E-Trade.” Yesterday I didn’t know that new smartphone even existed. Today I can’t live without it. There’s a reason “do not covet” is the tenth of the Ten Commandments. If we fall for the lie that happiness depends on what we have, we will never have enough.
Envy takes us into darker territory: “I don’t want you to have what you have.”
If I can’t have an ice cream cone, then I don’t want you to have one, either. It would make me happy to see you unhappy. In fact, I hope you lose everything you value the most and end up feeling just as miserable as I feel.
Envy motivates some of the more memorable Disney movie villains. The evil queen cannot endure being the second fairest in the land. Therefore Snow White must die. The Sea Witch doesn’t want to date the Little Mermaid’s boyfriend. She just wants her to suffer. Envy is the ultimate relational cancer for the simple reason that it is the opposite of love. Love wants what is best. Love prompts us to feel glad when someone else hits the winning home run. “Love doesn’t delight in evil, but rejoices in the truth” (I Corinthians 13:6).
Jealousy is different. Jealousy says, “I don’t want you to have what I have.”
If I have an ice cream cone, I’m not going to let you get your hands on it. In that regard, jealousy can be petty. For instance, I won’t share my best ideas with anyone else at work because I want all the credit to be mine.
But unlike coveting and envy, which by nature are always incompatible with God’s desires, jealousy can also be virtuous. A wife may feel threatened when she senses that another woman is attracted to her husband. She is protective of her husband’s attention, something that should be hers alone. This is the sense in which God identifies himself as jealous in Exodus 20. God will not share the love of his people with pretender idols.
So what about the statement that follows? Does God really punish grandchildren and great-grandchildren for the moral compromises of previous generations?
Most of us have firsthand evidence that sins and frailties do indeed cling to the branches of family trees. Generation to generation, we can see what happens when anger is mismanaged; when bitterness goes unaddressed; when alcohol becomes the only way to get through the day; when sexual abuse, deceitfulness, and secret addictions are never brought into the light. Each generation, in some respect, pays for the previous generation’s refusal to trust God.
Does that mean there’s no hope? Is this verse telling us that we all have such messed-up social and relational DNA that we’re stuck with certain sins the same way we can never change our height or hairline?
Here’s where we gain insight from an interesting figure of speech.
Numerous psalms, proverbs, and poetic statements in the Bible are expressed as “Hebrew parallelism.” A thought is presented in two lines. We’ll call them A and B. Sometimes the two lines say the same thing, but in different ways. Sometimes they compare and contrast opposite perspectives. In the Bible we encounter an interesting phenomenon when it comes to numbers. Line A will state a number, and line B will make it bigger.
Here’s an example from Proverbs 30:18: “There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand.” From A to B we add one.
The same thing happens in Hosea 6:1-2, where God’s people are glibly confident that it’s God’s job to make everything right, even though they have no intention of changing their behavior: “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.”
Check out I Samuel 18:7: “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” The difference here is a factor of ten. If we go back to the fourth chapter of Genesis we find this ominous threat by a man named Lamech (4:24): “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.” Here the difference is a factor of eleven.
Now that we’re getting into the swing of things, we can even make a poetic statement about how long it’s been since certain sports franchises have won championships: “The New York Jets have struggled in vain for 53 years, but lo, the Detroit Lions have been losers for 65 years.” I must admit it was too painful to contemplate an illustration regarding my alma mater Purdue Boilermakers.
Looking again at Exodus 20, notice the difference between lines A and B. Punishment for sin extends to the third and fourth generations.
But to how many generations will God show love? Thousands. The real message here is the astonishing contrast. There’s nothing like this anywhere else in the Bible, where line B is multiplied by a four-digit factor.
Yes, God punishes sin. But he overwhelmingly longs to show love.
Your past may be so painful that you’ve always wondered if the odds have somehow been stacked against you.
But when it comes to what the future holds under the umbrella of God’s grace, you can be sure that the numbers are definitely in your favor.
To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.