The Wednesday feature of the Worldly Saints blog is a Scriptural meditation whereby I take a verse or passage I have been pondering lately and seek to edify my readers with it’s promises, encouragements, warnings, rebukes, etc.
The word “envy” comes from a word that can be translated positively or negatively, because it simply means “to be fervent or zealous or earnestly desire.” Since the word “not” appears in front of the word “envy” in I Corinthians 13:4, we assume Paul is talking about the negative form of zeal, which is why you see it translated “envy.” Perhaps your translation reads “jealous.”
It refers to an individual who boils over about someone or something that is not going his way. For example, Acts 7:9 refers to the brothers of Joseph as being envious of their younger brother. Joseph was receiving preferential treatment from their father Jacob and they envied that extra attention. They wanted it for themselves.
William Shakespeare called envy “the green sickness” and Solomon calls it “the rottenness of the bones” (Prov 14:30), because it eats at someone until all contentment is absent, complaining can run rampant, fighting and quarrels can begin, and even murder can be entertained – “You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. …” (Jas 4:2). Earlier in the same book, James writes,
“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. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (Jas 3:14-16).
When someone is envious or jealous they could say one of two things:
- “I want what you have” (e.g., the laborers complaining about equal wages for those who worked less in Matthew 20)
- “I wish you didn’t have it at all” (e.g., the “wannabe” mother who tried to take the child in front of Solomon in IKings 3).
An envious person may say, “Your new car, your fancy new house – I want that” or they could say, “I wish your finances weren’t healthy enough for that new house or new car.”
A Biblical Example of Envy
One of the reasons Paul recorded the section on spiritual gifts in I Corinthians 12-14 was because the Corinthians were envying “showy gifts” (I Cor 12:31). They were sinfully desiring that which God hadn’t appointed them. They were saying, “I don’t want ‘so and so’ to have fruit with their gift” and “I wish I had that gift so I could have their influence.”
But the Corinthians aren’t the only ones with envy in the Bible. Envy is all over the Scriptures. Eve envied what the serpent promised of knowing good and evil (Gen 3). Cain envied the blessing for his offering to be an appropriate sacrifice to God, like his brother Abel (Gen 4). The prodigal son’s brother was envious of the celebration his estranged brother received when he returned home (Luke 15).
A Biblical Example of Not Being Envious
We have examples of men and women who could have, by human standards, rightfully wanted what someone else had, but they refused.
How about this example? Put yourself in the shoes of a young man whose father was king. You are the rightful heir. You are being groomed to take over the kingdom. Then, this little-known teenager shows up, takes down the greatest enemy of your people, gathers a following, is anointed the future king by the local prophet, and is promised to reign instead of you by the Creator of the universe.
That was Jonathan’s lot. What was his reaction to David? We are told that the relationship between David and Jonathan was anything but envious or quarrelsome. Jonathan loves David as his own soul (I Sam 20:17). He didn’t envy David at all; he rejoiced in God’s lot for him.
When someone succeeds at the task or does better then you, you can examine whether you are jealous or not. When we examine Jonathan and David, David was a better fit to be king. And Jonathan had no envy.
A friend of mind whop pastors a church in Marysville, WA was preaching through I Corinthians 13:4-7 in recent years and during that series as he was explaining this description of love, he said,
“There’s no better way to test a man than take someone beneath him and place him over him. Put an ‘undeserving’ man in an ‘undeserving’ place and see what that ‘deserved’ man does or thinks.”
Love does not envy.
 The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament, pg. 380