X. Coveting | Exodus 20:17

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.

Exodus 20:17 ESV

Although we will definitively conclude our study of the Ten Commandments with an epilogue sermon, we do arrive now at the end of our meditations upon the commandments themselves. Although the Tenth Commandment is the final article of the Decalogue, it very much undergirds the other nine while also feeding back into the First Commandment. A proper understanding of the Tenth Commandment should, therefore, pull us back into meditation of the previous ones again.

DO NOT COVET

We might be tempted, at least subconsciously, to believe that within the Sermon on the Mount Jesus added new depths to the Ten Commandments by addressing the heart-level roots of murder and adultery. The subtle notion then becomes that the Old Testament laws were only concerned with outward obedience, whereas Jesus demands obedience of the heart as well. This, however, is untrue. Jesus did not add a new dimension to the law; rather, He made explicit what was before kept mostly implicit. I say mostly because the Tenth Commandment is a heart-level command. Coveting, of course, may very well lead to other sins, such as theft, murder, or adultery, yet it may just as easily never surface through our actions or speech. The Tenth Commandment, along with its twice-repeated emphasis, is proof that God has always demanded obedience from His people’s hearts rather than mere outward displays of religious observance.

In fact, because this commandment is entirely a matter of the heart, we should begin our study with another passage of Scripture. Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” The Scripture, as God’s word, slices through our heart like a surgeon’s scalpel, exposing our true thoughts and intentions, which may even be hidden from ourselves.

We especially need this function of the Bible in order to understanding coveting and its dangers. Even murder and adultery of the heart often have physical signs that accompany them. The flushing of the cheeks or slight grimacing of the face betray hidden anger, and the quick glance of the eye likewise exposes lust. Yet coveting is not always as easily identified. Even Paul said, “For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet’” (Romans 7:7). This, of course, does not mean that without the law we would not be guilty of coveting because we didn’t know about coveting. Instead, without the law, we would still be guilty of coveting yet left in ignorance to continue coveting. The law, and all of Scripture, is of great benefit to us, even when it exposes the worst aspects of ourselves. So, as we dive into the sin of coveting, let the Holy Spirit use God’s Word to discern your thoughts and intentions so that you may confess, repent, and cling to the righteousness of Jesus.

You shall not covet. Almost as if to preemptively keep us from considering this commandment as being less consequential than the others, the LORD repeats it twice within this verse. Here God is emphatically declaring that what we want is just as important as what we do. Coveting, after all, is the act of desiring something. Of course, not all desires are sinful, as we will see later, but coveting is a sinful desire to have something that we do not possess. As verse 17 notes, this may be our neighbor’s house, his wife, his children, or his stuff. The commandment purposely ends with the phrase or anything that is your neighbor’s because the possibilities are endless. We may covet someone’s job, their skills, their abilities, their circumstances, or even just generally their life. Nothing is too concrete or abstract to be exempt from our covetous hearts.

Furthermore, these desires for the possessions of others are entirely natural for us. Turn to any toddler as proof. As is so often the case, toddlers exemplify the very best and worst of humanity because they have not yet learned to control their emotions for the benefit of others. This means that their acts of kindness and generosity are unfettered in their authenticity. Unfortunately, it also means that they have yet to master the “art” of concealing their covetousness. Whenever they want something, they make their desire known and often try their best to obtain it. Indeed, they show us that we are pre-programed toward covetousness.  

Indeed, covetousness is often associated with theft. We even find this connection made explicit in Joshua 7, where Achan confesses to having withheld for himself some of the plunder of Jericho, which God had ordered to be destroyed. Hear how Achan describes his sin: “when I saw among the spoil a beautiful cloak from Shinar, and 200 shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing 50 shekels, then I coveted them and took them. And see, they are hidden in the earth inside my tent, with the silver underneath” (Joshua 7:21). Achan himself admits that the sin of coveting preceded the sin of theft.

But covetousness may also flow into the other commandments, or as Watson called it, coveting is a mother sin. The look of lust, as we discussed in the Seventh Commandment, could easily be classified as sexual coveting. The impetus for murder and seething anger within the heart may often stem from coveting. For instance, we might foster bitterness against someone who has failed to give us the gratitude, respect, etc. that we desire from them. Likewise, dishonoring authority (parents or otherwise) often comes from the belief that something is being unjustly withheld from us. For example, a teenager’s unfulfilled desire for a certain type of car from his or her parents may lead them doing and saying dishonorable things to their father and mother. The list could go on and on.

Ultimately, coveting is so connected to the other commandments because it is, in reality, another way of understanding the First Commandment. In fact, we could say that idolatry is covetousness in violation of loving God with all our heart, soul, and might, while covetousness is idolatry in violation of loving our neighbor as ourselves. Regardless of how we conceptualize how idolatry and coveting fit together, Paul tells us twice that they are indeed bound together. To the Ephesians, Paul wrote, “For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (5:5). And to the Colossians, he said, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (3:5). By the very words of Scripture, to covet is to be an idolater.

But why is a covetous desire for something considered an act of idolatry?

THE GOD WHO IS SUFFICIENT

Coveting is idolatry because it is a denial of the sufficiency of God. By believing that we need anything other than God Himself, we have inevitably placed that thing into the position of God. It becomes an idol, an object of our worship and devotion.

Again, we find this commandment and the sufficiency of God grounded within the opening chapters of the Bible. The supremacy of God as the Creator should be evidence enough of His sufficiency. How could we ever need anything more than the God who made all things? To seek after anything else for fulfillment is a worthless endeavor that can only end in disappointment. If God created everything, He must then be more valuable than all things combined. How could He be anything less than all-sufficient?

Yet God does not simply command that we be satisfied in Him; He also gives to us good gifts for our pleasure and enjoyment. In fact, the first usage of the Hebrew word for coveting (chamad) is found in Genesis 2:9, “And out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” The word translated in the ESV as pleasant is the same word used for coveting in our text. Thus, the trees within the garden of Eden were meant to be desirable. The LORD created them to be pleasing. God made Adam and Eve into His image-bearers so that they could both enjoy Him and the works of His hands. He made us to be desirous creatures, and He declared it to be very good.

However, the second usage of chamad is found in Genesis 3:6, “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.” Here, Eve found the forbidden tree’s fruit to be desirable. She longed for that which God had denied her. This is the kind of sinful desire that we would call coveting. Indeed, it’s the same pattern that we saw with Achan. He coveted and took. Eve, likewise, desired and took.

Eve’s covetous desire proved to the archetype for all of humanity’s sin problem. Her coveting of the forbidden tree was only possible due to a lack of contentment and delight in both God Himself and in His provisions within the garden. The serpent’s lie, after all, was that God was withholding information and privileges from Adam and Eve. They came to believe that their communion with God and status as His image-bearers were insufficient. They wanted more, but the result was only loss.

The curse of sin that now permeates both the world and our very hearts corrupts our natural desires for God and His works and makes coveters out of us all. Like Adam and Eve did on that fateful day in the garden, we continue to follow their pattern by default. By sinning, we reject God and His gifts as sufficient, and we demand more. All sin derives from these warped desires, which reject God as our loving Provider.

Even though we continue to bear false witness against our God through our covetous discontent, He has not left us alone to endlessly chase after our fruitless desires. Instead, this God of infinite value humbled Himself to the point of becoming one of us in order to rescue us. Another usage of chamad is found in Isaiah 53:2, which describes Jesus as “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” The eternal Son, whom the Father loved before the foundation of the world, did not consider His equality with the Father a thing be grasped but emptied Himself by becoming a human, a servant of the very world that He Himself had made, and permitted His own creatures to crucify Him to a Roman cross. Hanging upon that tree, the sinless Lamb of God became accursed in our place. Yet Jesus’ fatal humiliation did not defile the land, as one might expect (Deuteronomy 21:23); instead, as Isaiah continued to prophesy, “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (53:5). His death, followed by His bursting forth from the grave, has brought us life, a restored communion with God our Father. In Christ, we now have access by the Spirit to the very throne of God. He has given us the all-sufficient Treasure, the pearl of great price, the God who was and is and is to come.

THE JOY OF CONTENTMENT

In light of these things, how then are we called to obey the Tenth Commandment? Although we could fill volumes in answer, let us consider three applications and implications, two positive calls for obedience and one final consideration as to how we can break this commandment.

First, we must flee not simply from covetousness but also from attempting to inspire covetousness in others. If this sounds strange, just think it over with me for a moment. Our tendency as idolatrous and covetous people is not simply to desire what other people have, we also want others to desire what we have. After all, we generally gauge the value of things according to how highly they are valued by others. Yet like Jesus’ warning against practicing our deeds of righteousness in order to be seen by others, we can often (at least subtly) desire the covetous eyes of our neighbor so that we can view ourselves as valuable.

Like the examples within our verse, this could apply to our physical possessions: a house, a car, clothing brands, etc. But it can also be with our own family. For instance, do I want my wife and daughter to act a certain way for their own benefit and growth in the LORD, or do I want others to be envious how great my family is? It can also apply to our actions. For example, I love to read, and my love for reading should always be for my sanctification and growth in the LORD. I should never, however, read for the purpose of being known as a lover of books or to inspire the jealousy of others. The examples are endless, and unfortunately, we also have the landmine of social media to navigate through today. The very nature of social media platforms make them a grave danger to both coveting after the lives of our neighbors and presenting our own lives in covetable manners. As followers of Christ, we must guard ourselves from the sin of coveting, and we must strive never to prompt the coveting of our neighbors.

Second, we must fight covetousness with contentment. Covetousness and contentment are mutually exclusive. When one is present, the other cannot also be around. Contentment is the state of being satisfied, of having enough, which makes it the exact opposite of coveting.

The Scriptures, of course, promote contentment as virtue of godliness. While writing to the Philippians from prison, Paul said that he had learned the art of finding contentment in every situation, whether pleasant or painful, scarce or plentiful. To his disciple Timothy, he wrote, “But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (1 Timothy 6:6-8).

Indeed, since Jesus has now made us children of God, how can we be anything other than content? As Jesus said, if the God who provides food for the birds and clothes the grass of the field is our Father, how much more can we trust Him to provide for us? Indeed, we have the confidence of knowing that even during seasons of trial, suffering, and want, God is working all things together for His glory and our good. By our contentment, we reject the serpent’s lie and instead root our satisfaction in our glorious and gracious King.  

Third, we must slay covetousness by nourishing proper desires. As we noted in Genesis 2, God is not anti-desire. Both Kevin DeYoung and Albert Mohler in their books on the Ten Commandments note that Christianity’s call to contentment is not the same thing as Buddhism’s purging of all desires. Within our study of the Eighth Commandment, we saw that our God is generous and giving. He delights in giving good gifts to His people, just as He delighted giving the garden to Adam and Eve and just as He delighted in giving Christ to us. So, He by no means commands us to emotionlessly accept His gifts; rather, He wants us to enjoy them. He gave us taste buds so that we can enjoy the variety of flavors that He designed. He created music and gave us the ears to hear its melodies. He formed pigments and designed light in such a way that we are able to see colors. Creations screams that God has made it to be enjoyed.

But He has also created us to enjoy Himself. As David sang, “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). By delighting in the LORD, the LORD Himself must become the desire of our heart. After meditating upon the King of all things in enthroned in His majesty, how could our hearts desire anything less than Him? David further notes the blessings that flow from knowing this God: “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). If such joys are found in the Holy One’s presence, we would we turn elsewhere?

Yet we should also desire the means by which we come to know our God: through His Word. One last usage of the word chamad is in Psalm 19:10, which says of God’s law: “More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb.” The Scriptures are worth desiring. They are worth longing for. After all, “by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward” (v. 11). Since the Bible reveals to us God our Father, let us be immersed within its pages. Let it be the object of our meditation day and night.

Brothers and sisters, to covet is to reject within one’s heart the sufficiency and the provision of our all-sufficient God. May we, therefore, be a people who guard our hearts from both coveting what others have and from presenting what we have in covetable ways. May we find contentment in knowing that our Father has promised to provide for our daily needs and to strengthen by His Spirit to endure every trial that He sets upon us. Finally, may we grow in desire for our supreme Treasure, the triune God who has created us, redeemed us, and will one day dwell with us for all eternity.

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