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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
Zeal is always in the NT the translation of the same word, ζῆλος, ζηλωτής, and always in a good sense; the bad sense is translated by ‘envy’. As a desirable quality in the Christian, the word is almost peculiar to St. Paul’s letters and speeches. Its contemporary use was chiefly in a bad sense; it stood for envy, and as a proper noun it furnished the party name that covered a very pernicious patriotism (Ζηλωταί). St. Paul converted the word, as he converted the quality in himself, kept its force, and rightly directed its aim. (Cf. the redemption of the word ‘enthusiasm’ in the last century.)
1. Zeal of God for man.-Both OT and NT insist on the zeal of God for man, the direct opposite of the Epicurean idea. ‘The zeal of the Lord of Hosts’ (2 Kings 19:31, Isaiah 37:32) is for man’s love, man’s righteousness, for man to be sensible with himself and regard his own permanent interests (Deuteronomy 30:20), and make it possible for God to continue His abundant liberality (Psalms 81:13-16); for the welfare and vigour of the Chosen People, the hope of mankind; at least a working remnant shall be preserved. Men may appeal to the zeal by intercession (Isaiah 33:15). God’s ‘jealousy’ is love demanding love, not satisfied with toleration or occasional faithfulness. To remember God’s zeal frees His ever-presence from all savour of spying (Psalms 139), and His commandments from the nature of arbitrary exactions (Deuteronomy 32:47, Ezekiel 18:23). In the NT God’s zeal for man is the motive of the Incarnation (John 3:16), and is set forth in parables, such as the Lost Sheep and the Wicked Husbandman. God’s zeal is burning love in action through boundless sacrifice.
2. Zeal for God in man.-Zeal for God in man is commanded and commended-even consuming zeal (Psalms 69:9, approved by being quoted of the Christian’s zeal, John 2:17). Language of strong reproof is addressed to the sluggard about his own character, the lukewarm in works of love, to those neither hot nor cold (Revelation 3:15, 1 Corinthians 14:12). Such faith cannot save (James 2:14-18). Christians are to be ‘a peculiar people, zealous of good works’ (Titus 2:14), ‘not weary in well-doing’ (Galatians 6:9), with zeal making light of hardship, like a soldier’s (2 Timothy 2:3). Phinehas received a reward as ‘zealous for his God’ (Numbers 25:13). Elijah, out of zeal for God’s honour as much as fear, could not remain among a people whose daily life was blasphemous against Him. 1 Cor. is filled with practical solutions needed by Christian zeal if it was not to drive men out of the world, where the most ordinary customs had heathen significance. How far may the zealot for a higher morality and a purer religion seem to compromise with such? May he dine with his heathen relatives? marry them? divorce them if already married? Can slaves continue to serve heathen masters? Also the Christian must have zeal for his own character, develop all his talents for usefulness, have an ambitious morality, and not allow wealth (Matthew 19:21) or even natural claims (Matthew 10:37) to hinder consecration to God.
3. Perversion of zeal.-The acquisition in all languages of a bad meaning by words originally denoting true zeal is evidence of universal experience that zeal is liable to dangerous perversion. This occurs through (i.) impatience at God’s patience, (ii.) over-devotion to an object subsidiary to the highest, (iii.) intrusion of feelings for self. From (i.) comes the depression which breaks out in the opening verses of so many Psalms (cf. Psalms 22; note the triumphant assurance and renewed zeal of its close). The despair of Elijah is replaced by the calmer zeal of Elisha, ever mindful of the invisible forces at work for good (2 Kings 6:16). Zeal is not the same as haste for results (Isaiah 28:16). The latter when powerless leads to depression, when powerful to persecution (2 Kings 10:16, 2 Samuel 21:2). (ii.) The Pharisees had a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. The over-exaltation of legal observance and of national independence led them to the axiom that Jesus was a foe, to be consistently opposed whatever He said or did, and to be silenced some way or other (John 11:47-50). Their zeal thus leads almost to blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, and to the Crucifixion. From (iii.) come spiritual conceit, the idea that we have ‘whereof to glory’ (Romans 4:2) even toward God; the showy religionism of the Pharisees (Matthew 23:5); the love ‘to have the pre-eminence’ (3 John 1:9), and that envy which is ‘the rottenness of the bones’ (Proverbs 14:30). It is also a basal motive of σχίσματα, zealous preference for a truth, leading to the abandonment of a society in which satisfactory prominence is not given to this special object of enthusiasm.
4. Zeal in man against God.-There is a final perversion of zeal possible, the zeal in man against God. Compare the fierce activity and watchfulness of Judas with the sluggishness of the most zealous apostle, Peter.
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Zeal'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​z/zeal.html. 1906-1918.