The Green-Eyed Monster

I Samuel 18-19

September 3, 2000 | Ray Pritchard

There are two words you need to keep in mind as you read this sermon. They are almost-but-not-quite identical. One is the word jealousy, the other is the word envy. If you look up both words in the dictionary, you will find definitions that are similar but not identical. Jealousy is the fear that you will lose something valuable to you; envy is the anger you feel because someone else got what you wanted. Jealousy is fear, 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. No wonder Shakespeare called jealousy “the green-eyed monster,” no wonder Dryden called envy “the jaundice of the soul.” Taken together, they are the most corroding of all the vices, coals that come hissing hot from hell.

A commercial for an airline company shows two executive secretaries discussing a friend who was just off camera. “She’s going to Hong Kong.” “Hong Kong?” “Yes, Hong Kong. She won the trip.” “She won it?” “Yes, she’s going for free.” “I can’t believe it.” “Neither can I.” With a half-smile, the other one said, “I hate her.” That’s envy. We smile when we see that commercial because it hits so close to home.

In that light, here is a verse to mull over: “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones” (Proverbs 14:30). Hundreds of years ago envy was included in the famous list of vices known as the Seven Deadly Sins. As I worked on this sermon, I spent some time thinking about the state of my own heart and wondering about the presence of envy in my own life. Honesty compels me to report that I am not free of this sin. I suppose it is part of my competitive nature but even to say that may be to make a bit of an excuse.

I. Envy Defined

Here are four quick facts that help bring envy into focus:

It is the sin no one will confess. In my 22 years as a pastor, I have listened as people have confessed almost every sin known to mankind, including murder, adultery, theft, abortion, and all sorts of sexual deviation. But no one has ever said, “Pastor, I want to confess the sin of envy.” It’s a sin we don’t like to talk about.

It is a sin with no redeeming features. There is nothing good about envy, nothing to justify its existence. If you lust, you may find some momentary pleasure. If you are a glutton, you may eat a big meal. If you are guilty of sloth, you’ll get plenty of rest. 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 the sin of moderately successful people. While it is true that anyone can envy, this sin especially strikes those who have made it part-way up the ladder of life. You’ve climbed a few rungs up but you still have a long way to go. Envy strikes us when we realize that we’re at least as good as the people ahead of us and many times we’re clearly better than they are, so why are they still ahead of us?

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.

Here’s 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.

We may be sure we are suffering from envy when …

1) We secretly regret that our friends have succeeded where we have not.

2) We believe we would have done better if we had gotten the right breaks.

3) We use excuses to explain why someone else did better than us.

4) We temper our compliments with the word “but.”

5) We complain that others do not appreciate us as they should.

6) We walk the other way rather than congratulate a friend on her good fortune.

7) We question the motives of those who show kindness to us.

8) We secretly gloat when someone else gets caught because “they had it coming to them.”

9) When we can’t sincerely rejoice with others on their personal successes.

10) We refuse to be friends with someone who excels in our field.

11) We can’t bear to hear our friends complimented in our presence.

12) We say “I really like so and so but I want to make sure you have all the facts.”

13) We are happy to hear that some public figure was caught in sin.

14) We keep our eyes on others to make sure no one gets ahead unfairly.

15) We’re better at criticism than we are at praise.

16) We cannot be around others without complaining how hard life is.

17) We have a hard time believing our friends have more talent than we do.

Erma Bombeck captured the heart of envy in this humorous prayer: “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.

We only envy those we perceive as close to us. Doctors don’t envy dockworkers. Soldiers don’t envy cabinet-makers. Executives don’t envy veterinarians. Likewise, we don’t envy those below us or those clearly above us. But envy hits when we compare ourselves to those we consider in our class and near to us. The success of people close to us can be very hard to take. That’s why husbands and wives sometimes envy each other, or why we can’t get along with our friends, neighbors, relatives, and coworkers. We’re so busying trying to keep score that we don’t have time to develop relationships.

II. Envy Illustrated

There are many warnings about envy in the Bible, but there is no greater example of its destructive power that the life of King Saul. He is Exhibit A of what happens when envy takes over. The heart of the story is found in I Samuel 18:5-12.

Whatever Saul sent him to do, David did it so successfully that Saul gave him a high rank in the army. This pleased all the people, and Saul’s officers as well. When the men were returning home after David had killed the Philistine, the women came out from all the towns of Israel to meet King Saul with singing and dancing, with joyful songs and with tambourines and lutes. As they danced, they sang: “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” Saul was very angry; this refrain galled him. “They have credited David with tens of thousands,” he thought, “but me with only thousands. What more can he get but the kingdom?” And from that time on Saul kept a jealous eye on David. The next day an evil spirit from God came forcefully upon Saul. He was prophesying in his house, while David was playing the harp, as he usually did. Saul had a spear in his hand and he hurled it, saying to himself, “I’ll pin David to the wall.” But David eluded him twice. Saul was afraid of David, because the Lord was with David but had left Saul.

Word of what David had done 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 little hamlet and burg people were buzzing. If it were today, he’d be on Larry King Live and Oprah Winfrey. Barbara Walters would do an interview.

Someone eventually wrote a song about David’s 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 it hit the Billboards Top 100—Number 17 with a bullet. All over Israel they sang this tune. The chorus is recorded for us in I Samuel 18:7. It went something like this: Saul has slain his thousands, doo-wah, doo-wah. And David his tens of thousands, Bee-bop, shoo-wah, oh yeah. A nice little ditty. They’re dancing in the streets celebrating David’s incredible victory. 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. The Bible says, “Saul was very angry; this refrain galled him. ‘They have credited David with tens of thousands,’ he thought, ‘but me with only thousands. What more can he get but the kingdom?’ And from that time on Saul kept a jealous eye on David” (18:8-9).

The last verse is the key. Literally it reads, “And Saul eyed David from that day forward.” 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. “Saul envied David.” Saul couldn’t keep his eyes off David. Now he has to watch his every move. Now he is consumed with but one passion—to be rid of this young upstart. What is jealousy? The fear of losing something valuable. What is envy? The anger you feel when someone else gets something you wanted for yourself. Both are at work in Saul’s life. Fear and anger, anger and fear, 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. Never again would he know peace until Saul is dead. In the space of a few days he has gone from unknown shepherd to national hero to hated enemy. Soon he will be hunted like an animal, soon 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.

Before we go on, notice two key facts: First, 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.” 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 tough sell.

Second, the closer a person is to you the greater your envy is likely to be. That’s why Saul was so burned up. David was his court musician. His harpist, for crying out loud. Now he’s 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. We have a hard time accepting that someone we know well could have something we don’t have.

Saul on a Rampage

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. Verse 12 says, “Saul was afraid of David, because the Lord was with David but had left Saul.” Verse 15 says, “When Saul saw how successful he was, he was afraid of him.” Verse 29 says, “Saul became still more afraid of him, and he remained his enemy the rest of his days.” It might surprise us to know how often the 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—attempted murder. Most of us know that Saul tried to kill David. But we may not connect it to 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. Let’s summarize them:

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 his favorite parlor game—Pin the Spear on David. David makes like Walter Payton, looks left, runs right, and is out of there.

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 daughter. Actually, he offers twice because David turns him down the first time. Notice what verse 17 says, “Saul said to David, ‘Here is my older daughter Merab. I will give her to you in marriage; only serve me bravely and fight the battles of the Lord.’ For Saul said to himself, ‘I will not raise a hand against him. Let the Philistines do that.’” 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.

David turns him down so Saul offers another daughter, this one named Michal. She loved David so it seemed like a good deal. But 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.” Saul’s plan was transparent. He wanted David to die at the hands of the Philistines.

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.

Third, he tries to spear David again (I Samuel 19:9-10).

Fourth, 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.

Fifth, 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?’”

Five times Saul tried to kill David; five times he failed. He tried directly, he tried indirectly, he tried through trickery, 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.

The Story Behind the 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 God’s choice to be king and God was going to stand by his man. 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.

III. 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 24/7, 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.

A. 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 “overcommitment.” 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.

B. 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.

C. 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, “Pastor Ray, 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.

D. 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 winsome personality—it all comes from God. Why not try thanking him for his gifts to others?

E. Find someone who needs your help. 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.

Good News for Envious People

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.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?