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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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Envy is the feeling of mortification or ill-will occasioned by the contemplation of the superior advantages of others.

‘Base envy withers at another’s joy,

And hates that excellence it cannot reach’

(Thomson, Seasons, ‘Spring,’ 283).

In the NT the word is used to translate two Gr. terms, φθόνος and ζῆλος, the former of which is invariably (with the possible exception of James 4:5) taken in malam partem, while the latter is frequently used in a good sense.

(1) Those who are given up to a reprobate mind are ‘full of envy’ (μεστοὺς φθόνου Romans 1:29), and the character of the word is strikingly indicated by the company it keeps, φθόνος and φόνος (‘murder’) going together. Among the works of the flesh are ‘envyings’ (Galatians 5:21), such as are occasioned by quarrels about words (1 Timothy 6:4). Christians can recall the time when they were ‘living in malice and envy’ (Titus 3:3); and even now they need the injunction to ‘put away all envies’ (1 Peter 2:1); it ill becomes them to be seen ‘provoking one another, envying one another’ (Galatians 5:26). In Rome St. Paul found, with mingled feelings, some men actually preaching Christ from envy, moved to evangelical activity by the strange and sinister inspiration of uneasiness and displeasure at his own success as an apostle (Philippians 1:15) (see Faction). If the Revised Version of James 4:5 is correct, φθονέω has its usual evil sense, and this difficult passage means, ‘Do you think that God will implant in us a spirit of envy, the parent of strife and hate?’ But it may be better to translate, either, ‘For even unto jealous envy (‘bis zur Eifersucht’ [von Soden]) he longeth for the spirit which he made to dwell in us,’ or ‘That spirit which he made to dwell in us yearneth for us even unto jealous envy.’ If either of the last two renderings is right, φθόνος is for once ascribed to God, or to a spirit which proceeds from Him, and the word has no appreciable difference of meaning from the ζῆλος (‘jealousy’) which is so often attributed to Him in the OT (θεὸς ζηλωτής, Exodus 20:5, etc.). He longs for the devotion of His people with an intensity which is often present in, as well as with a purity which is mostly absent from, our human envy. Very different from this passion of holy desire was the φθόνος of the pagan gods (τὸ θεῖον πᾶν ἐστι φθονερόν, says Solon, Herod. i. 32; cf. iii. 40)-that begrudging of uninterrupted human happiness which Crœsus and Polycrates had so much reason to fear.

(2) In the Revised Version of Acts 7:9; Acts 13:45; Acts 17:5, Romans 13:13, 1 Corinthians 3:3, James 3:14; James 3:16 ‘jealousy’ is substituted for Authorized Version ‘envy,’ in Acts 5:17 for ‘indignation,’ and in 2 Corinthians 12:20 for ‘emulation.’ In all these instances the word is ζῆλος (vb. ζηλόω), used in a bad sense, though in many other cases it has a good meaning and is translated ‘zeal’ (Romans 10:2, 2 Corinthians 7:7; 2 Corinthians 7:11; 2 Corinthians 9:2, Philippians 3:6). In 2 Corinthians 11:2 ζήλῳ θεοῦ means a zeal or jealousy like that which is an attribute of God, most pure in its quality, and making its possessor intensely solicitous for the salvation of men.

In 2 Corinthians 9:2 the Revised Version margin suggests ‘emulation of you’ as the translation of ὁ ὑμῶν ζῆλος., William Law, who calls envy ‘the most ungenerous, base, and wicked passion that can enter the heart of man’ (A. Whyte, Characters and Characteristics of William Law4, 1907, p. 77), denies that any real distinction can be drawn between envy and emulation.

‘If this were to be attempted, the fineness of the distinction would show that it is easier to divide them in words than to separate them in action. For emulation, when it is defined in its best manner, is nothing else but a refinement upon envy, or rather the most plausible part of that black and poisonous passion. And though it is easy to separate them in the notion, yet the most acute philosopher, that understands the art of distinguishing ever so well, if he gives himself up to emulation, will certainly find himself deep in envy.’

If this were the case, there would be an end of all generous rivalry and fair competition. But it is contrary to the natural feeling of mankind. Plato says, ‘Let every man contend in the race without envy’ (Jowett2, 1875, v. 75), and St. Paul frequently stimulates his readers with the language of the arena. The distinction between φθόνος and ζῆλος (in the good sense) is broad and deep. The one is a moral disease-‘rottenness in the bones’ (Proverbs 14:30), ‘aegritudo suscepta propter alterius res secundas’ (Cicero, Tusc. iv. 8); the other is the health and vigour of a spirit that covets earnestly the best gifts. Nothing but good can come of the strenuous endeavour to equal and even excel the virtues, graces, and high achievements of another. Ben Jonson has the line, ‘This faire aemulation, and no envy is,’ and Dryden ‘a noble emulation heats your breast.’ ζῆλος (from ζέω, ‘boil’) is, in fact, like its Hebrew equivalent קִנְאָה (‘heat,’ ‘ardour’), an ethically neutral energy, which may become either good or bad, according to the quality of the objects to which it is directed and the spirit in which they are pursued. It instigated the patriarchs (ζηλώσαντες, Acts 7:9) to sell their brother into Egypt, and the Judaizers (ζηλοῦσιν, Galatians 4:17) to seek the perversion of St. Paul’s spiritual children. Love (ἀγάπη) has no affinity with this base passion (οὐ ζηλοῖ, 1 Corinthians 13:4). Love generates a rarer, purer zeal of its own, and ‘it is good to be zealously sought in a good matter at all times’ (καλὸν δὲ ζηλοῦσθαι ἐν καλῷ πάντοτε, Galatians 4:18).

James Strahan.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Envy'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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