Unpacking The Tenth Commandment

Do you know remember the last commandment given to Moses on Mount Sinai?

Most believers know the ten commandments, but some have difficulty understanding the last one. Simply put, God said:

“You shall not covet.” (see Exodus 20:17)

If we were to ask anyone who has been a believer for some time what the word “covet” means, we might be surprised by the answer. To some it means that you cannot desire nice things. They might explain the meaning, by saying: “If someone has a nicer car than you have, it would be a sin to want a car like that.”

Is that what covetousness really means? To many people in the Church, the answer is yes. As one pastor said to his congregation: “Your neighbor gets a new car, so you want a new car. Then your neighbor buys a new house, so you go out and buy a new house. Finally, your neighbor marries a new wife, then you dump your old wife and get a new one.” The congregation laughed at his joke, but everyone got the idea: If your neighbor has something nicer than you, it is wrong to want the same thing.

It is true that we have to guard ourselves from wanting to buy something, just because someone else has it. That is giving place to envy. Those who are given to covetousness are prone to being envious of others. There is a godly way to acquire things, as well as an ungodly way to get them. We will look at that later. What we want to look at now is the true meaning of covetousness.

Let’s look at what the Lord actually said, when He wrote the tenth commandment:

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Exodus 20:17 NKJV) 

God didn’t say, “You shall not want a house like your neighbor, or a wife like your neighbor.” He actually said, “You shall not covet what rightfully belongs to your neighbor.” Why? It is because it leads to extortion, theft, and adultery! Does that make sense to you?

In the Old Testament, we read that King Ahab had a neighbor who had a vineyard adjacent to his palace. King Ahab wanted to use it to plant a vegetable garden. The owner of the vineyard refused to sell it to him or trade it for a better vineyard. As long as King Ahab tried to acquire it using proper business procedures, he wasn’t guilty of covetousness. The moment the owner refused to sell it to him, King Ahab became sullen and depressed. He wanted something that rightfully belonged to someone else! When his wife Jezebel found out about it, she plotted to have the owner of the vineyard killed. She did that so King Ahab could get his coveted vineyard. You can read the whole story in 1 Kings 21:1-25.

Now we have a clearer understanding of why covetousness is a sin. Covetousness is the inordinate desire to possess something that rightfully belongs to someone else. It leads to envy, strife, anger, bitterness, greediness, theft, extortion and even murder. This is why God hates it so much. It is also the reason why we need to guard ourselves against covetousness.

The Apostle Paul expressed another reason to stay away from covetousness. He wrote:

“For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.” (Ephesians 5:5 NKJV)

Paul wrote that covetousness is idolatry! If we earnestly desire something that does not belong to us and become obsessed with acquiring it, that thing becomes an idol to us. It becomes our most important source of happiness and satisfaction. It will actually take the place of what God is meant to mean to us. This is the sin of covetousness. It is a snare that the devil uses to trap so many people today in our affluent society. However, even a poor person can be guilty of covetousness. A panhandler can see something that another beggar has, and do everything he can to take it from him.

You will be happy to know that there is a very simple way to avoid falling into the trap of covetousness: Make God your source for everything! If we look to God for everything we need and everything we want, we will never be guilty of covetousness. If we need a better car or a better house, God wants us to go to Him for it, and not try to take it from someone else. He promises not only to supply all of our needs but to also give us the desires of our hearts. The Psalmist wrote:

“Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:4 NKJV)

If we delight ourselves in the Lord more than any material possession, God will even give us the desires we have deep in our hearts. It might surprise us to know that God has often put that desire there in the first place. He loves giving good gifts to His children.

You are holy, dear saint!

Steve Smith

[All Scripture quotations have been taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version, copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson Inc.]

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