The Green-Eyed Monster
From the Sheep Pen to the Palace
The Green-Eyed Monster
I Samuel 18-19
Down through the years a list of sins began to develop that eventually came to be known as "the seven deadly sins" or "the seven cardinal sins". Those seven are lust (sexual sin), gluttony, greed, laziness, wrath, envy and pride.
In my 32 years as a pastor, I have listened as people have confessed every sin on that list except one, and that is envy. As far as I can remember, I have never had anyone admit to having problems with the sin of envy. I've had people confess their adultery and sexual sin. I've had people who struggled with losing their temper and harboring grudges.
I've had people ask me to pray for them because they were struggling with eating too much and being unhealthy. But I've never had anyone come to me and say, "I need to confess the sin of envy."
And yet, I would guess, without the benefit of any scientific data to back me up, that envy ranks very near the top in those sins most frequently committed by the majority of Christians.
So what is envy?
1. Envy Defined
As I said earlier, it is the sin no one will confess. It’s a sin we don’t like to talk about. Maybe that's because we don't really understand what it is or how to identify it, so let me give you a simple definition:
Envy is unhappiness at the success of others and pleasure at the suffering of others. When we envy, we’re sad when others are glad and glad when they are sad. The values of life are turned upside down.
Think about how that expresses itself. Envy is that sin that causes us to secretly be resentful when others succeed and we don't.
After all, we could have done better if we had just gotten the right breaks or circumstances had been different. We always have an excuse for why someone else did better than us.
Envy is that tendency to complain that we never get the recognition or appreciation we deserve. It's what causes us to walk the other way or avoid our friends rather than congratulate them when something good happens.
When we are envious, we question the motives of those who show kindness to us and gloat when someone gets caught in a wrongdoing. After all, “they had it coming to them.” We can’t sincerely rejoice with others on their personal successes and we sure don't want to hear others bragging on them for what they've done.
When someone gives a mutual friend a compliment we want to make sure they know the rest of the story, just want to make sure you have all the facts.
Envy causes us to be much better at criticism than we are at praise. After all, nobody really has as much talent as we do. They're way over rated and we're under appreciated.
It is a sin with no redeeming features. There is nothing good about envy, nothing to justify its existence. It is unlike other sins in that way. For instance, if you act on your lust, you may find some momentary pleasure.
If you are a glutton, you still get to enjoy a big, satisfying meal. If you are lazy, you’ll live a well-rested life. And even if you are angry, you’ll get a few moments of psychological pleasure when you blow your top.
But envy brings no rewards at all. It is a self-mutilating sin. It has all the beauty of a trapped rat gnawing its foot off in a desperate attempt to escape.
It is a sin that makes us believe the worst about others. Envy causes us to doubt the motives of those who are kind to us and to attack those who succeed instead of us. It is a cancer of the soul that destroys our ability to see others objectively.
Several years ago, Erma Bombeck captured the spirit of envy and spoke for all of us when she prayed, “Lord, if You cannot make me thin, at least make my friends look fat.”
Envy causes us to say, “I’ve been treated unfairly and I want my fair share. If I can’t have it, you can’t have your fair share either.” No one can be richer, healthier, happier, more spiritual, or more gifted than we are. Envy is the great equalizer. It allows us to drag others down to the gutter where we live in our misery.
Now, I mention all of this because of where we find ourselves in the story of David. Of all the many warnings the Bible provides about envy, there is no single greater example than that of King Saul. He is Exhibit A of what happens when envy takes over a life.
So let's use him as an example of
2. Envy Illustrated
The story is found in I Samuel 18:5-12.
When we last left David, he has just killed Goliath, the dreaded enemy of Israel. No longer will David be regarded as a mere shepherd boy or harp player for the king. He is now a national hero.
And as word of what David had done begin spread throughout Israel, the whole nation couldn’t stop talking about how this unknown shepherd from Bethlehem had defeated Goliath and was carrying around his head to prove it. David was the talk of the town. In every gathering of people, they were talking about David.
If it had all happened today, social media would have lit up with the news. President Trump would be tweeting about how David was making Israel great again! He would be on the national news and talk shows.
In fact, so taken was Israel with David, that someone wrote a song about his great victory. They called it The Ballad of Saul and David.
A rock band from Jericho picked it up and started singing it in their concerts. Pretty soon everyone in Israel was singing this tune.
Don't believe me? Then look at
I Samuel 18:7
They’re dancing in the streets celebrating David’s incredible victory. And King Saul hated it. The first time he heard it, he didn’t like it but by the 40th time he was beside himself. Saul already has a few tent pegs missing and now he’s about to go up in smoke.
Notice what we read in
I Samuel 18:8-9
The last verse is the key. In fact, when the Jews translated I Samuel into Greek hundreds of years later, they used an interesting word for the phrase, “Saul eyed David.” It was the Greek word invideo. And Saul “invideoed” David from that day forward. In English that reads “Saul envied David.”
Saul couldn’t keep his eyes off David. Now he has to watch his every move. Now he is consumed with only one thing and that is getting rid of this young upstart. Remember how we defined envy? Envy is unhappiness at the success of others. It is that
anger you feel when someone else gets something you wanted for yourself.
Perhaps we should lay alongside that an understanding of jealousy because jealousy and envy are so closely related.
In fact, if you look both words up in the dictionary, the definitions are very similar. But they are not identical and they express themselves in different ways.
Jealousy is the fear of losing something valuable to you while envy is the anger you feel when someone gets something you wanted for yourself.
The primary difference is jealousy is fear and envy is anger. When you have one, you almost always have the other. Jealousy is usually first with envy trailing close behind.
The story is told of two shopkeepers who were bitter rivals. Their stores were across the street from one another, and they spent their days sitting in the doorway keeping track of who had the most customers. If one got a customer, he would smile in triumph at the other. One night an angel appeared to one of the shopkeepers and said, “God has sent me to teach you a lesson. He will give you anything you ask for, but I want you to know that whatever you get, your competitor across the street will get twice as much. Would you like wealth? Ask what you will, only he will get twice as much. Do you want a long and happy life? It is yours, but he will live twice as long. You can be famous, your children can be famous, whatever you desire. But whatever you get, he will get twice as much.” The man frowned, thought for a moment, and said, “All right. My request is this: Strike me blind in one eye.”
That’s jealousy turned into envy. And notice, both are at work in Saul’s life. Fear and anger are both there, working together, feeding one another, eating away any semblance of mental stability.
This is a crucial turning point, not only for Saul, but also for David. Saul would never again get a good night's rest as long as David is alive and never again will David know peace until Saul is dead.
In the space of a few days, David has gone from unknown shepherd to national hero to hated enemy. Soon he will be hunted like an animal and he will leave Saul’s court never to return.
Soon he will make the hills his home and the caves his refuge. Soon he will become a fugitive. The fact that David is innocent of any wrongdoing doesn’t matter to Saul. Jealousy has consumed him. Soon envy will rot his bones. That’s what happens to all of us when we begin to envy. All perspective is gone. After all, in spite of what the crowd was singing, David had killed one, not tens of thousands. Saul was still the King of Israel; David was still a shepherd boy and harp player.
By the way, there is a key observation that comes from that and that is,
Envy is especially the sin of the successful.
It’s not as if Saul is some slouch. He has, after all, killed his thousands. Strangely enough, the higher a man rises the more prone he is to envy. No matter how well you do, there is always someone who has done just a tad better. And it’s true that capable people who excel in their own field find it hard to applaud others who do just a little better.
Secretly they think, “That should have happened to me.”
Somewhere down through the years I came across the little saying that the hardest instrument to play is second fiddle!
Have you ever watched the end of a Miss America pageant when they announce the winner and all the girls who didn’t win have to act like they are happy for the girl who did? It's a good thing they've practiced those fake smiles, because I promise you, most if not all of them are thinking, I'm better than here. I should be wearing the crown.
There's something else we need to keep in mind as well.
The closer a person is to you, the greater your envy is likely to be.
That’s why Saul was so burned up with David. After all, David was his court musician, his harpist, for crying out loud. He carried armor for Saul. Saul has trusted him and counseled him and even offered him his own armor when fighting with Goliath.
And now Saul gets no respect or recognition and David is the hero of the nation. We don’t have problems with people a thousand miles away; it’s the people next door who give us trouble. That is why we envy our neighbors, our brothers and sisters, our friends at work, the little group we run around with, the pastor down the street. We have a hard time accepting that someone we know well could have something we don’t have.
There’s a clear progression at work here. You can see it right in the text—four things that jealousy did to Saul.
The first is anger. That’s in verse 8.
The second is suspicion. You might use the word paranoia—an irrational fear of another person. That’s in verse 9.
The third is fear. It’s mentioned three times in this chapter, in verses 12, 15 and 29. That's one of the little surprises that comes with envy. People who are out to get us are actually motivated by fear.
These three things—anger, suspicion and fear—led quickly and directly to a fourth thing which was attempted murder.
Most of us know that Saul tried to kill David. But you may have never connected his attempts to kill David with his jealousy. But that’s where it all began. Murder was not the beginning; murder was the end of which jealousy was the beginning. Saul didn’t start out to kill anybody, but it came naturally once jealousy ruled his soul.
What follows in the next two chapters is a rapid-fire recounting of Saul’s five attempts on David’s life.
First, he tries to kill David with a spear
I Samuel 18:10-11
One day while David is playing his harp, an evil spirit comes over Saul. Suddenly, and without warning, Saul decides to play "Pin the Spear on David". David is able to escape with his life.
Second, he makes David a commander in his army
I Samuel 18:12-30
That doesn’t sound like attempted murder but it is. He’s hoping David will be killed in battle.
Then he offers to let David marry his daughters.
Actually, he offers twice because David turns him down the first time. Notice what we read in
1 Samuel 18:17
That explains why he made David captain of a thousand. He wanted David to be killed in battle. He would die a hero’s death and Saul would be rid of him. Then the women of the nation could sing all they wanted to about David, but the threat would be dead. But David turns him down.
So Saul offers another daughter, this one named Michal. She loved David so it seemed like a good deal. But again, David felt unworthy to marry the daughter of a king. He says, “I am a poor man and unworthy of this honor.” He didn’t have the money to pay the bridal price.
So Saul says, “Tell you what I’ll do. I’ll forget the bridal price if you’ll just bring me the foreskins of a hundred Philistines.”They had some strange customs back in those days, didn't they? Anyway, Saul's plan is, once again, to let David die at the hands of the Philistines.
And it would have worked except for one thing—one hundred Philistines were no match for David and his men. Not only did he bring back one hundred foreskins, he brought back two hundred foreskins.
So David married Michal. The plan didn’t work but David must have remembered it because years later when David, in the lowest moment of his life, needed to kill an innocent man, he used the same plan with Uriah the Hittite. The only difference was—it worked when David tried it.
Fourth, he tries to spear David again
I Samuel 19:9-10
And fifth, he tries to kill David in bed
I Samuel 19:11-17
There’s only one problem. He isn’t in bed. His wife Michal has tipped him off that Saul is coming after him so he slips out a window and she puts a statue (some kind of household idol) on the bed, covers it with a coat, and puts goat’s hair on the top.
When Saul’s men get there, she says, “He’s sick,” and they believe her. They tell Saul and he says, “Pick up his bed and bring him here and I’ll kill him myself.” That’s when he discovers he’s been tricked.
Sixth, he tries to kill David in Ramah
I Samuel 19:18-24
David went to Ramah to consult with Samuel. When Saul’s men tried to capture David, the Spirit of God came on them and they began to prophesy. So Saul decides to go himself. At this point, a bizarre thing happens.
He is coming to kill David but he never makes it either. The Spirit of God came on him and he started prophesying. And verse 24 says, “He stripped off his robes and also prophesied in Samuel’s presence. He lay that way all that day and night. This is why people say, ‘Is Saul also among the prophets?’”
Seven times Saul tried to kill David and seven times he failed. He tried directly, he tried indirectly, he tried through trickery, he used his daughters, he tried to send his soldiers, he tried to do it himself. In the end, Saul is on the ground in his underwear prophesying—overcome against his will by the Spirit of God. It’s a strange, strange story.
There are two facts to notice about all this:
First, Saul tried to kill David because he was overcome with jealousy and envy.
The jealousy made him fearful, the envy made him angry. Together they consumed his soul until his life was filled with one goal—to get rid of David once and for all.
Second, Saul failed because he could not recognize one fundamental fact: David was protected by God.
No weapon formed against him would prosper. It is the providence of God at work in David’s life. Through ups and downs, good times and bad, God was leading David to the throne. No matter what Saul did, David was going to make it.
3. Envy Overcome
The story of Saul’s repeated attempts to kill David is meant to warn of the deadly destructive power of envy. What happened to Saul can easily happen to any of us. And I would imagine that many of those who are reading this sermon have struggled with this sin. How can we be set free?
In looking for an answer it’s crucial to identify the real problem. When we envy, our struggle is not with the person we envy. Our real struggle is with God.
When we envy, we’re saying, “Lord, you made a mistake when you gave that person so many blessings. I deserve some of what you gave him.” More than that, we’re really accusing God of unfairness. The envious man believes that in the game of life, God has rigged the system so that he can never win. Until you come to grips with God, you can never be free of envy.
God wills the very best for you. Do you believe this? It all comes back to how big your God really is! Do you believe you have what you need right now? Or do you secretly believe that you need and must have something else in order to be content?
God has ordained to give you whatever you need at any given instant in order to serve him with joy.
That doesn’t mean you’ll always be happy and it certainly doesn’t mean you’ll always have everything you want, but it does mean that God has promised to care for you 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When you envy, you are accusing God of falling down on the job.
How, then, can we be set free? Here are five steps that I have found helpful.
1. Admit it
That is, admit that you are an envious person. This isn’t easy. After all, most of us would rather admit an “acceptable” sin like “lack of patience” or “over-commitment.” We don’t want to admit that envy has found a place in our heart, but until we come clean we will never be made clean.
2. Confess it
This is a step beyond admitting the sin. Agree with God that envy is wrong and cry out to him to remove it from your life. I love the following fragment from the Prayer of General Confession of the Book of the Common Prayer, 1786 edition: “From all blindness of heart; from pride, vain-glory, and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice, and all uncharitableness; Good Lord, deliver us.” Unless God does deliver us, we will never be set free.
3. Pray for the success of those you envy.
This step won’t be easy because envy makes us angry at those who possess what we lack. And someone may say, “But how can I pray for someone who is an arrogant jerk?” It’s not that hard, really. Be honest with God. Say something like this: “God, I ask you to bless so-and-so even though he’s an arrogant jerk.” After all, God knows how you feel anyway.
But what if you don’t want God to bless him? Fine, then pray like this; “God, I ask you to bless so-and-so who is an arrogant jerk even though I hope you don’t answer this prayer.”
Again, God already knows how you feel. On more than one occasion, I’ve prayed for difficult people this way: “Lord, I ask you to bless this person in spite of how I feel about them.” That’s a good prayer because you are asking God to ignore your feelings and bless them in accordance with his divine plan.
4. Thank God for the things you envy in others.
This step is helpful because it forces me to admit that what I envy is God’s gift to someone else. Their beauty, their talent, their gift with words, their ability to attract others, their business success, their personality—it all comes from God. Why not try thanking him for his gifts to others?
5. Find someone who needs your help and help them.
Nothing will cure envy like getting your eyes off those above you and instead stepping down to wash dirty feet. A few minutes spent helping someone else will end up helping you as your focus shifts from what you think you lack to how you can use what you have been given for the benefit of those less fortunate.
How dangerous is envy? Two times in the New Testament—Matthew 27 and Mark 15—it is said that Jesus was delivered over to be crucified because of the envy of the religious leaders. Their anger and fear led them ultimately to murder.
Our Lord knows what it is to be rejected, hated, scorned, pursued, reviled, and mocked by those who saw him as a threat. The Lord in heaven knows what it is like to walk on earth and be misunderstood, to have your motives questioned and your words twisted into lies. Jesus knows all about it. He knows how hard it is to forgive those who mistreat you.
And when we go to him, we will not be turned away. He knows what we have gone through for he has experienced the same things himself.
Here is the gospel truth: Jesus Christ died so that the very people who put him to death might be forgiven. If they can be forgiven, then all of us can be forgiven, too. There is hope for the worst of sinners because Jesus Christ has died—the innocent for the guilty, the good for the bad, the just for the unjust, the sinless for the sinful.
If you have the slightest sense that you need forgiveness from your sins, come to Jesus right now. He will not turn you away. He has been to the cross. He has already died. Your sins can be forgiven in this very moment.
For all of us, I wish I could say that life is going to be easy if you decide to follow Jesus. But that wouldn’t be true. If you decide to follow Jesus, what happened to him will happen to you.
David is only one example of how the godly suffer at the hands of jealous men. I suppose the ultimate lesson is this: The next time you defeat Goliath and you hear the crowd singing your praises, don’t let it go to your head. Somewhere in the shadows, Saul is listening, too.