You Shall Not Covet

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Exodus 20:17

INTRODUCTION: Today is our final message in The Ten Commandments for Today series that we started back in September. We have worked our way through each of the commandments, seeing how each one applies to us today, and today we come to the tenth and final commandment, “You shall not covet.”

Exodus 20:17 – “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (NIV)

Christmas is coming, and in case you haven’t noticed, the shopping malls are busy. Not that there is anything wrong with buying gifts for other people But for some of us Christmas is all about the presents, and we can easily lose sight of Jesus in the midst of all the commercialism. And we can easily fall prey to the sin of coveting during this season.

Think about it. How many times do you hear the words, “I want” at this time of year? “What do you want for Christmas?” “I want a toy truck, a baby doll, some new clothes, an MP3 player, a digital camera, a new laptop, a GPS, a new TV, a Nintendo Wii. I want an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle!” “Forget it kid, you’ll shoot your eye out!” Once again, there is nothing wrong with telling people what we would like for Christmas, but when does “wanting” become too much? When does “wanting” cross the line to “coveting” and break the tenth commandment?

I. The meaning of the commandment

Let’s begin as we have with the other commandments by looking at the meaning of the commandment. When we come to the tenth commandment, we find that it means two things in particular.

First of all, it means you shall not desire what rightfully belongs to someone else. That is what Exodus 20:17 says, and notice that it gets very specific. You shall not desire your neighbor’s house or land, you shall not desire your neighbor’s wife, you shall not desire your neighbor’s servants, you shall not desire your neighbor’s animals of labor, and then, finally, just in case you weren’t getting the point, you shall not desire anything that belongs to your neighbor.

So this part is pretty simple. If something belongs to you, I should not desire it for myself. I can like your house, I can admire your house, but if I want to have your house instead of you, I would be coveting. If I want to have your wife instead of you, I am coveting. If I want to take anything that belongs to you away from you and have it for myself, I am coveting.

Where this gets a little tricky is if there is more than one of those things available. For example, what about your car? Maybe I like the model car you got, and I would like to get the same model for myself. Is that coveting? It is a little different from wanting your house or your wife in that I can actually go out and buy one for myself without taking yours away from you. So is that okay? Or is that still coveting?

Well, it depends, and that’s where we come to the second part of the command’s meaning. The tenth commandment also means that you shall not desire something excessively. We see this in Deuteronomy 5 where we find the commandment repeated with one slight modification. The command in Deuteronomy 5:21 reads this way: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbor’s house or land, his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (Deuteronomy 5:21) Here the word “covet” is repeated with reference to “your neighbor’s wife,” but then a different word is used with reference to your neighbor’s belongings. The NIV translates it “You shall not set your desire.” The Hebrew word here means “to desire excessively, to long for or lust after something.”

Excessive longing takes place when we desire things that are wrong in themselves, or when we desire good things, but to the exclusion of God – in other words, when I want something so badly, that I forget about God in the process. The command “You shall not covet” means not only that you shall not desire something that belongs to someone else, but you shall not desire something excessively either.

So, if I see something you have that I like, is it okay for me to go out and buy one for myself? Sometimes yes, and sometimes no. A lot of the time there would be no problem with this. Let’s say for example, I need a new tool, and you’ve got one that works great, you recommend it to me, I can afford it, and I go out and buy it. No problem. But if I am being driven by desire for something that I don’t really need and am forgetting about God in the process, then I have crossed the line to coveting. We need to learn the difference between genuine needs, legitimate wants and covetous “must have’s”.

II. Aimed at the heart

The tenth commandment is different from the other commandments (e.g. do not murder, do not lie, do not steal) in that it is primarily aimed at the heart. There is a difference between an outward and an inward command. I can command my child to clean up his room, but I cannot command him to think happy thoughts while he does it. The first nine commandments are largely directed towards outward obedience. But the tenth commandment is directed towards the attitude of the heart.

This is important. Just because a person obeys God’s law outwardly does not necessarily mean that they are obeying from the heart. Let me give you an example from Jesus’ day. In the gospel of Luke we read about the rich young ruler who came to Jesus. We read in Luke 18: A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’” “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said. When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:18-25)

As Jesus ran through the list of commandments with the young man, notice that he stopped before he got to “You shall not covet.” Why? Because Jesus knew that this young man had kept the outward form of the law, but he had not mastered the attitude of the heart. This was evident when Jesus told him to sell his possessions and give to the poor, and he walked away sad because he had great wealth.

The inward and outward are related. If we don’t obey from the heart, we are not really obeying God at all. In the same way, all outward disobedience begins with inward sin in the heart. Jesus said, “For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’” (Mark 7:21-23) You shall not covet is a command that is aimed at the heart.

Only God can command inwardly, because only God knows the hidden things of our hearts. Jesus said in Luke 12: “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.” (Luke 12:2-3)

Not only does God know the hidden things of our hearts. The Bible tells us that God will also judge the hidden things of our hearts. Hebrews 4:13 say, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” Only God can command inwardly, because only God can see what is going on inside our hearts and hold us accountable for what is going on inside our hearts.

III. Prohibitions of the command

So what does the tenth commandment prohibit? Let me share with you six ways that we can break the command not to covet today.

Love of money is one way we break this command. Proverbs 23 warns you: “Do not wear yourself out to get rich; have the wisdom to show restraint. Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle.” (Proverbs 23:4-5) Jesus said: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also . . . No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” (Matthew 6:19-21,24)

Greed for more is another way we break this command. Luke tells us about someone who cried out to Jesus from the crowd and said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:13-15) We need to hear those words a lot in our materialistic culture. Our culture often seems to believe the very opposite of what Jesus said, that a man’s life does consist in the abundance of his possessions, that he who dies with the most toys wins. Life does not consist of stuff. Life consists of loving God and loving other people. It is that simple. G. K. Chesterton once said, “There are two ways to get enough: one is to continue to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less.” Greed for more breaks the command not to covet.

Envying others is another way we break this command. Envying others is just another ways of coveting what they have. The Psalmist writes about this in Psalm 73. He says, “Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” (Psalm 73:1-3) It is hard not to envy others when everything seems to be going their way, but envy will never make you feel better. Proverbs 14:30 says that “envy rots the bones.” And yet so many people are driven in life by envy. Solomon writes about “keeping up with the Joneses” in the book of Ecclesiastes: “And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind . . . Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 4:4-6)

Lustful desires are another way we break the command not to covet. When you lust after another woman’s husband or another man’s wife, you are directly breaking the tenth commandment: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.” But really any time we entertain sexual thoughts about a person who is not our spouse, we are desiring something that does not belong to us. And thus we are coveting. Proverbs 6:25 says, “Do not lust in your heart after her beauty or let her captivate you with her eyes.” When we studied the seventh commandment on adultery, we saw that Jesus said, “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28)

Selfishness is a fifth way we break this command. Sometimes our desire for having more shows itself not in taking from others but in selfishly keeping for ourselves. Do you remember the parable Jesus told about the rich farmer? Jesus said, “The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:16-21)

When Paul gave his farewell to the elders at Ephesus, he said, “I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:33-35) Selfishness says it is more blessed to receive than to give. Jesus says, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

It really all comes down to loving your neighbor. Paul writes in Romans 13: “The commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13:9-10) When you covet, you are not loving your neighbor as yourself, because you are desiring to have something for yourself rather than desiring that your neighbor have it. And that is not love.

Finally, pride is one more way that we violate the tenth commandment. We read in 1 John 2: “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.” (1 John 2:15-17) Coveting all comes down to loving the world more than loving God. John sums up everything in the world as “the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes, and the boasting of what he has and does.” An unhealthy pride in your possessions and achievements is all a part of coveting.

IV. Characteristics of the covetous person

What are the characteristics of the covetous person? What is a covetous person like?

First of all, if you are a covetous person, you are constantly craving for more. No matter how much you have, it is never enough. As soon as you reach one level, you are eager for the next. Ecclesiastes 5:10 says, “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless.”

Secondly, if you are a covetous person, you are dissatisfied with life. A covetous person is not a happy person. How can you be happy if you are always wanting more? Psalm 112:10 says, “The wicked man will see and be vexed, he will gnash his teeth and waste away; the longings of the wicked will come to nothing.” (Psalm 112:10) The covetous person is miserable through and through. Ecclesiastes 4 says, “Again I saw something meaningless under the sun: There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. “For whom am I toiling,” he asked, “and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?” This too is meaningless—a miserable business!” (Ecclesiastes 4:7-8)

Thirdly, if you are a covetous person, you will eventually start acting out your wrong desires. Let me give you three quick examples from Scripture. In the book of Joshua we read about a man named Achan who stole from some plunder that was devoted to the Lord. When he got caught, he finally confessed: “It is true! I have sinned against the LORD, the God of Israel. This is what I have done: When I saw in the plunder a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a wedge of gold weighing fifty shekels, I coveted them and took them. They are hidden in the ground inside my tent, with the silver underneath.” (Joshua 7:20-21)

Another example of acting out your covetous desires is King Ahab of Israel. Ahab saw a vineyard that belonged to a man named Naboth and decided he wanted it for himself. But Naboth didn’t want to sell his family’s land. We read in 1 Kings 21:4: “Ahab went home, sullen and angry because Naboth the Jezreelite had said, ‘I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers.’ He lay on his bed sulking and refused to eat.” (1 Kings 21:4) Now there’s a great picture of what coveting will do to you. Here was the king of Israel with amazing wealth and power sulking on his bed and refusing to eat because he wanted this vineyard so badly. He and his wife Jezebel eventually murdered Naboth to get his vineyard.

The third example is Judas. What did Judas ask the priests before he betrayed Jesus? He asked, “‘What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?’ So they counted out for him thirty silver coins. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over.” (Matthew 26:15-16) Judas’ coveting eventually led him to betray the Lord.

Finally, if you are a covetous person, you will live an unfruitful life for God. Jesus told a parable about the sower who sowed seed in four different kinds of soil. Some of the seed “fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain.” (Mark 4:7) Jesus later explained the parable saying, “Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.” (Mark 4:18-19) The desires for other things can choke out your spiritual life and make you unfruitful for God.

Coveting can also make your prayer life unfruitful. We read in James 4: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” (James 4:1-3)

V. The antidote to covetousness – contentment!

So what is the antidote to this poison of covetousness that seeks to bring such ruin and misery into our lives? The biblical antidote to covetousness is contentment. In closing let me share with you five things the Bible tells you to be content with in order to battle the poison of covetousness in your life.

First of all, be content with the Lord. We need to learn to say to God along with the Psalmist in Psalm 73: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. 2My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psalm 73:25-26) Hebrews 13:5 says, “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’” (Hebrews 13:5) Let God be enough, and you will not have to worry about coveting.

Secondly, be content with righteousness. Don’t be envious of the wicked. Psalm 37 says, “Do not fret because of evil men or be envious of those who do wrong; for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away. Trust in the LORD and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:1-4)

Thirdly, be content with your possessions. Basically, be content with what you have. Psalm 37:16 says, “Better the little that the righteous have than the wealth of many wicked.” I have always liked the prayer of a man named Agur found in Proverbs 30. Agur prayed: “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.” (Proverbs 30:8-9) What a great prayer! “Lord, don’t give me too much or I might forget you. And don’t give me too little or I might steal and dishonor you. Just give me my daily bread, so I can praise and honor you with my life.” I also like what Paul wrote to the Philippians: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”
(Philippians 4:11-13)

So, be content with your possessions, and fourthly, be content with your position. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7: “Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him. Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so.” (1 Corinthians 7:20-21) Some of us are envious of other people’s positions in life, and we need to learn to be content with the position God had given us. If you don’t like your position, Paul says change it if you can, but if you can’t, then be content where you are. Do not envy other people. Do not covet.

And finally, be content with God’s good gift of life. Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes 3: “I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil – this is the gift of God.” (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13)

God has given us the good gift of life. There is so much that we can be thankful for each and every day. Why covet when you can enjoy what God has already given you? When you think about it, coveting is really a slap in God’s face. You are saying, “God, I don’t like the gifts you have given me, and I want different gifts instead.” What an insult! Save your gift exchanges for after Christmas, but don’t play that game with God. Be content with God’s good gift of life.

And so we come to the end of our study on the Ten Commandments. Remember, the Ten Commandments are not an entrance exam to get into heaven. We are all sinners, and we all break the Ten Commandments in our lives, again and again and again. Rather, the Ten Commandments show you your sin and your need for a Savior. And then, once you come to Christ for salvation, God’s Holy Spirit will help you to grow in your obedience to God’s commands. But don’t try to do it on your own. You can’t. I can’t. That’s why God sent Jesus for us.

© Ray Fowler

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