Of all the words used to describe faithfulness, commitment, conviction, and dedication to the Lord, one rarely used today is zeal. Oddly enough, in the current environment of postmodern fervor and emotional excess—both of which have affected people’s religious views—few would describe themselves, or anyone else, as zealous spiritually. Perhaps this reflects a mere shift in vocabulary—a preference for transcendental terminology (I am a spiritual person) or even popular wording (You can call me a fanatic)—but such changes in wording usually reflect an underlying change in thinking too.
Zeal refers to far more than emotional fervor. Its Hebrew root refers not to some outward display of emotion that feeds the shallowness of soul, allowing a person to substitute his own opinion for divine mandate. To the contrary, it points to the depth of ardent attachment that so identifies with another so as to take any wrong against another quite personally. Indeed, the Greek equivalent also bears this out with its background of “passionate rivalry.” Taken together, these paint a picture of zeal quite different from what people often imagine. Zeal is not a surface emotion but an emotional heart so deep that it reveals itself through commitment in action even during the most difficult of circumstances. Zeal causes a person to identify so strongly with God that social conventions and other false barriers do not prevent godly conviction and righteous action. Zeal boils up inside due to the imbibing of God’s Word until it overflows in a life characterized by God’s expressed will.
Thus, when David prays for deliverance during a time of great adversity when facing physical danger, he intentionally appeals to God’s knowledge of his behavior to judge if he is worthy of such ill treatment (Psa. 69:1-5). The descriptions that follow all imply his innocence, because he prays for courage to bear the injustice forced upon him, to handle the rejection with dignity, and to accept reproach for a righteous cause (Psa. 69:6-12). Since he identifies with God’s will so strongly, he appeals for its fulfillment no matter what. He appeals to the Lord’s character as sovereign. He appeals based upon his own innocence, and thus appeals to divine pity and divine justice (Psa. 69:13-28). He does not simply stand up for himself; he stands up for God, which is why he also prays for God to be glorified through the care of the needy, the declaring of God’s greatness, the character adopted by His people, and by all the blessings deliverance makes possible (Psa. 69:29-36). All of this supports and explains the declaration found in Psalm 69:9: “Because zeal for Your house has eaten me up, And the reproaches of those who reproach You have fallen on me.” David had a heart for God that caused him to identify with God’s people, God’s Word, and God’s cause with such zeal that it stirred him up to defend righteousness and accept reproach in His name. However, as John 2:17 makes clear, David’s heart, as great as it was, was a mere shadow of the Messiah’s zeal to do the same in a more perfect way.
Christians should do more than simply show up on Sunday. Their faithfulness should extend far beyond basic morality and doctrinal purity. Rather, God’s people should be “zealous of good works” (Titus 2:14), filling their hearts with God (Matt. 22:37-40) and their lives with Christ (Gal. 2:20) to such an extent that their identity is bound up in doing God’s will, defending God’s Word, and taking Christ to others. We do not need more people in order to be effective; we need more zeal.