"Do Not Covet"
(Delivered Sunday, January 18, 2004 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)
We are continuing our study of the Ten Commandments; and this morning, we come to the last of the ten. This commandment, as it's found in Exodus 20:17, says, "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 neighbors."
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This commandment - more than any of the others - is addressed directly to the heart. In fact, if you consider the Ten Commandments as a whole, you'll see that all of the commandments - with the exception of the first and the last - have to do primarily with actions that other people can observe. We're not, for example, to make graven images and bow to it; we're not to take God's name in vain; we're not to neglect His day; we're not to dishonor our parents; we're not to kill, commit adultery, steal, or bear false witness against our neighbor - all actions people can see. And yet it would be awfully hard to tell, just by looking, whether or not we had truly placed any other god before the one true God - although I would argue that someone could eventually tell by whether or not we actively worship Him.
But we could be breaking the commandment against coveting what belongs to our neighbor, and no one else would know - because coveting is something that happens in the heart. When we break this commandment, we largely keep our disobedience hidden from other human eyes. We can't keep it hidden from God, however. He knows the truth; because, as the Bible tells us, "the LORD does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart" (1 Sam. 16:7); and "there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account" (Hebrews 4:13).
I believe that this fact - that this commandment is a commandment concerned primarily with the condition of the heart - was what made it so convicting to the apostle Paul. Before he came to Christ, Paul could dare to boast of his own righteousness. When it came to what other people could see, he claimed to be, "blameless" when it came to "the righteousness which is in the law" (Phil. 3:6). As a devoted Jew and a disciplined Pharisee, it would have been hard for someone to bring a charge against him in terms of a visible violation of God's commandments. And yet later on, while explaining the convicting power of God's law, he said, "I would not have known sin except through the law." And then, he adds an example that is universally applicable as well as - I believe - personal: "For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, 'You shall not covet'" (Rom. 7:7). Paul may have been able to boast of the appearance of righteousness on the outside; but this commandment had convicted him of sin on the inside.
Or consider the story of the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:16-22. Do you remember how he came to Jesus once and said, "Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?" He wanted to know what he needed to actively "do". Jesus told Him, ". . . If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments." Now of course, the Bible tells us that "by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in [God's] sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin" (Rom. 3:20). No man could ever "do" what needed to be done to gain eternal life. But since the man asked what he should "do", Jesus told him what to "do" - keep the commandments.
The man then asked, "Which ones?"; and Jesus then specified the commandments from the second table of the law. Listen to His list as I read it to you, and see if you notice any commandment conspicuously absent from the list: "'You shall not murder,' 'You shall not commit adultery,' 'You shall not steal,' 'You shall not bear false witness,' 'Honor your father and your mother,' and, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" Do you see that He mentions the commandments that other people could easily see; and even gave the fundamental principle of the whole second table of the law - to love one's neighbor as one's self?
But did you notice one commandment missing from the list? Based on what Jesus said, the man was able to say, "All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?" And Jesus said to him, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." The Bible tells us that, when the young man heard these words, he went away sorrowful, "for he had great possessions."
With these final words, Jesus revealed the man's inner condition; and showed that this otherwise remarkably moral man was a sinner before God in a way that no one else could see. He found that he couldn't love his neighbor as himself, because he couldn't part with the things of this world. The treasures that the rich young ruler could touch with his hand had taken a strangle-hold upon his heart. He was, before God, exposed and convicted as a covetous sinner.
As we have examined the other nine commandments, perhaps you've felt a bit confident in yourself that you have generally "kept" them. Perhaps you can't claim, as the rich young ruler did, that you have kept them from your youth (and of course, let's remember - he was still 'young'!); but you still may believe that, on the balance, no one can point to anything on the outside that marks you as a great law-breaker. But then comes this commandment - a commandment that primarily focuses on the attitude of the heart. And if God were to expose what was really inside your heart, how would you do with respect to this commandment?
I ask this morning that we let the Holy Spirit examine us with respect to this commandment. I ask that we allow Him to show us the truth concerning our hearts' condition; and to let us see whether or not we sin against Him - and regularly grieve Him - in harboring a covetous attitude in our hearts toward what He has given to our neighbor.
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First, let's consider . . .
1. WHAT SIN THIS COMMANDMENT FORBIDS.
The general command is, "You shall not covet." The Hebrew word translated "covet" means "to desire" or "to take pleasure in" something. To "covet" doesn't itself necessarily involve something evil; but in this context, it is plainly refers to an inappropriate longing for that which belongs to our neighbor - an evil "wanting".
Now think for a moment about that. We already know that God forbids us from stealing from our neighbor. But here, He takes the matter to a much deeper level and commands us to not even let ourselves 'want' what belongs to our neighbor. Most people would think that there's nothing wrong with simply wanting what belongs to our neighbor - just so long as we don't do something to get it. But God, who looks into our hearts, forbids us from even wanting it. He does not wish to look into our hearts and find us coveting what He has given to someone else.
And if we look at the commandment as it's given to us in Deuteronomy 5, we find that God takes the matter to an even deeper level than that! In that passage, we're not only told, "You shall not covet . . ."; but then, a second word is used, ". . . and you shall not desire . . ." According to the biblical commentators Keil and Delitzsch, the first word refers to a desire we have that's based on the beauty or attractiveness that we see in something - a desire that is from something external. But they say that the second word refers to a desire that has its origin in the person himself - a desire that is the result of an internal impulse.1 Hebrew scholar Walter C. Kaiser translates the first word "to desire something earnestly", and the second word "to set one's desire upon something".2 That's how the New International Version translates that verse: "You shall not covet . . . You shall not set your desire on . . ." In other words, God not only forbids us from looking directly and longingly upon something of our neighbor's and coveting it, but also forbids us from even allowing a longing or lusting or an attitude of unrighteous 'wanting' to arise from within our hearts and our minds.
Now, not all "desire" is wrong, of course. God has made us with the natural capability to "desire" things. In fact, certain "desires" are virtuous and positively motivating to have. We should desire, for example, to live a healthy life. We should desire the happiness and health of our spouses and children. We should desire freedom for ourselves and for those around us. We should desire to know God better. We should earnestly desire to go to heaven. And, of course, we may freely desire many of the legitimate things of this world.
"Desire" itself is not always the same thing as sinful "coveting". But there are several tell-tale signs that "desire" has become the sort of "coveting" this commandment forbids. If we are increasingly finding that our eyes are being pulled away from eternal values and priorities, in order to concentrating more and more of our time and attention and energies on the things of this world; then "desire" is becoming sinful "coveting". If we're growing increasingly dissatisfied with the things that God has given us, and are seeking increasingly to find our identity and fulfillment and satisfaction in the things of this world; then "desire" is becoming sinful "coveting". If we are finding that we're losing our peace and our joy in the Lord, and are becoming bitter toward God or toward other people because of what they have - or what we can't have; then "desire" is becoming sinful "coveting". And if we are even entertaining the idea of disregarding God's rules for life, and are toying with dishonest, desperate, and dangerous ways to get what God has given to someone else or has not made available to us, then "desire" is very certainly becoming sinful "coveting".
The God who loves us and made us for Himself is displeased to look into our hearts and discover such a sinful attitude of heart. He does not want us to "covet" what He has given to someone else; or to allow those desires to turn our hearts away from Him. That's the general idea behind this commandment.
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And then, this command is made specific. God says that we are not to covet our neighbor's house - which is the place he lives, and perhaps conveyed in that is a prohibition against coveting his position in the community or station in life. Attached to that, in the Deuteronomy reference, is the command not to covet his field; and perhaps this also implies a prohibition against coveting his means of making an income or maintaining his standard of living.
We have a very vivid example in the Scriptures of someone coveting another man's field. The Bible tells us of a man named Naboth, who had a vineyard that was situated next to the royal palace in Samaria. Ahab, the wicked king of Israel and husband of the notorious Jezebel, coveted that vineyard; and he offered to buy it or to trade it for a better vineyard. But because it was a part of the inheritance God gave to his father, Naboth wouldn't give it to the king. The Bible says that Ahab "went into his house sullen and displeased". But note; he didn't go out and actively steal the man's vineyard away from him. He simply moped about it - because his heart was filled with a sinful desire for what God had given to someone else.
Perhaps you know the rest of the story. Ahab's evil wife Jezebel arranged for Naboth's death; and once he was out of the way, she told her husband, "Arise, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead" (1 Kings 21:15); and he scurried off to take possession of another man's field.
God also says that we're not to covet our neighbor's wife (and I believe we can also take the reverse to be true - a woman is not to covet her neighbor's husband). And of course, we have a tragic example of that in the Scriptures as well - in the experience of King David.
David was taking an evening stroll along the roof of his palace. Many people spent time on the roofs of their homes in those days. And as he was looking around, he saw a woman named Bathsheba. She was the lovely wife of one of his finest soldiers. And that soldier was away . . . and Bathsheba was bathing. David called his aids to himself, pointed her out to them, and asked who she was. He was obviously coveting another man's wife. After finding out who she was, he sent for her and committed adultery with her. And when she became pregnant with David's child, then he arranged to have her husband killed to cover up his sin. For the rest of his life, David paid grievously for the dreadful results of his having coveted another man's wife.
God goes on to tell us in this commandment that we're not to covet our neighbor's male servant or female servant. We're not to covet those who assist our neighbor in maintaining his life. I believe that a modern parallel to this would be when one business owner or manager covets a particular employee of another; and seeks to steal him or her away. Nor are we to covet our neighbor's ox or donkey; which I take to mean that we shouldn't covet the things our neighbor needs in order to run his household, earn a living, or just make life comfortable. Few of us actually covet our neighbor's ox; because few of us have a neighbor that has an ox! But we may covet our neighbor's car, or tools, or supplies, or recreational things.
The Bible sums the matter up by making a universal statement: we're not to covet anything that belongs to our neighbor.
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This leads us, secondly, to consider . . .
2. WHY THIS COMMANDMENT WAS GIVEN.
In the examples of coveting that I've just mentioned, you'll notice that whenever someone began to "covet" something that belonged to another, that covetous attitude eventually spilled over into active sin. I believe that's one of the most important reasons God gave this commandment. If this commandment is kept in the heart, it will serve as a preventative barrier that keeps us from other sinful actions.
I used to work in advertising; and there are certain psychological principles that are involved in making advertising effective. First, obviously, you must capture the attention of your audience. They have to notice what it is that you're trying to tell them; and that's often the hardest part of advertising. But it's not enough to capture the attention, because you also must keep their attention long enough to make the viewer think about what you want them to see. Once they've gotten an impression in their minds of what you're trying to get them to see, you must then get them to think about it in such a way as to 'want' what you're trying to get them to want. You have to convince them that they really need it. You have to get them to reason in their minds about the selling points, and convince them that they wont be satisfied until they have it. Then, once you've gotten them to (1) see it, (2) think about it, and (3) begin to long for it, you must then persuade them to (4) act on their desire. You just have to connect their active will to the thing that's already now in their heart, and tell them - in the words of Jezebel - "Arise and take possession!" And once the will is moved to action, they get up and get what they have been 'programmed' to desire.
That's how advertising works. It's also, by the way, how coveting works. Advertising (I'm sorry to say), is basically the production of goal-directed coveting. We covet when we (1) see something desirable that doesn't belong to us, (2) think about it a lot, (3) develop a longing for it, and eventually (4) act on our longing. Coveting in the heart eventuates into sin in the actions. The apostle James states this very clearly when he wrote, ". . . Each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death" (James 1:14-15).
Consider the Ten Commandments themselves. This commandment is the last of the ten; but it reveals to us the beginning point for how the other nine are broken, because sin always begins in the heart. The Bible warns us, "Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it springs the issues of life" (Proverbs 4:23). Jesus Himself told us, "For from out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies" (Matthew 15:19).
The Puritan preacher Thomas Watson called coveting "a mother of sin," and "a radical vice" - 'radical' because it is the root of all other sins. For example, a man covets a god who is different from the God of the Bible; and that's why he breaks the first commandment. He covets an image of God that he can see, and touch, and bow down to; and that's why he breaks the second commandment. He covets to use God for his own purposes; and that's why he breaks the third commandment. He covets the freedom to do his own will on God's holy day; and that's why he breaks the forth commandment. He covets to be free of the burden of caring for his parents; and that's why he breaks the fifth commandment. He covets the death of another; and that's why he breaks the sixth commandment. He covets the wife of another; and that's why he breaks the seventh commandment. He covets the possessions of another; and that's why he breaks the eighth commandment. And he covets that the 'truth' turn to his own advantage and against another; and that's why he breaks the ninth commandment.
All the sins that the Ten Commandments forbid have their ultimate starting point in the covetous heart. This is surely one of the great reasons God gave this commandment.
A second reason I believe God forbids coveting is because coveting is a sin that - once it gets a grip on us - never ends. Proverbs 30:15 says, "The leech has two daughters - Give and Give!" In the old classic movie thriller, "Key Largo," Humphrey Bogart asks the murderous gangster Johnny Rocko, what it was he wanted out of life. The gangster - with a wicked grin on his face and a gun in his hand - simply says, "More!" In the movie, his lust for "more" eventually costs him his life. Gratifying the desire for 'more' only leads to an even greater desire for 'more', until we are almost destroy ourselves with our pursuit of 'more'.
A friend of mine told a story to me once that - even after all these years - still never fails to make my toes curl every time I think of it. It concerns how they kill dangerous wolves in some parts of the world. They first take a sharp knife and coat it all over with animal blood. They keep coating the blade with layer upon layer of dried blood; until the knife is surrounded by a thick mass of animal blood. Then, they'll set it out in the field so that the wolf is attracted to the smell. When the wolf finds the blood-coated knife, it begins to greedily lick the blood. It licks and licks - never realizing that, after a while, it is slicing its own tongue with the knife blade, and is now lusting after its own blood. After a while, the wolf bleeds to death - consuming its own blood.
To me, that's a vivid illustration of the self-destructive power of covetousness! The lust for more never ends until we destroy ourselves in the greedy pursuit of more, more, more! No wonder our loving heavenly Father commands us to keep far from covetousness!
That leads me to a third reason I believe God has given us this commandment. It's because, by obeying it, we keep our focus where it should be.
People are covetous for the things of this world because they believe those things will bring them fulfillment and happiness. But the wealthiest man who ever lived - the man who had more of this world's possessions than any other man will ever be able to possess - gave his own testimony of it all when he said, "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity" (Eccl. 1:2). Jesus warned us, "Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses" (Luke 12:14).
God loves us, and knows that we will be happiest when we keep the right perspective in life; and this commandment is like a "wrong way" sign that points our longings in the right direction.
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How then do we "take heed and beware of covetousness?" This leads us, finally, to . . .
3. HOW WE ARE TO KEEP THIS COMMANDMENT.
I suggest that one of the things we are to do to keep this commandment is to cultivate a longing for heaven. It's not enough that we "not covet" what is evil; but we must also earnestly desire what is good and right to 'want' - and there's nothing more worthy to 'want' than the rich treasures of heaven that belong to those who are in Christ Jesus. The Apostle Paul wrote;
If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory (Col. 3:1-4).
Similarly, Jesus said,
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:19-21).
Another thing we should do to keep this commandment is to cultivate a spirit of genuine love. The self-sacrificing love that Jesus demonstrated toward us is the opposite of the covetous spirit. You cannot be covetous for very long of what belongs to someone that you truly love; because if you love them, you want them to have what God has given to them. You are even willing to work in order to provide for and protect what God has given to those you love. Paul wrote,
Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, and offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet- smelling aroma. But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, or course jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks (Eph. 5:1-4).
Paul mentions the giving of thanks in this passage; and I would suggest that that's another thing we must cultivate in keeping this commandment. An attitude of thanksgiving keeps us grateful for what God has given us. It keeps us from an inordinate and improper attitude of discontent.
And another thing we should cultivate is a sense of the seriousness of this sin. In this same passage, Paul goes on to say,
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. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience (Eph 5:5).
Covetousness, at its core, is a form of idolatry; because we're putting our wants before God's will in our lives. It's a sin that keeps dreadful company. Paul wrote elsewhere;
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
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Paul closes that dreadful list by saying, "And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God" (v. 11). Covetousness is a terrible sin that God hates; but He is also pleased to wash, sanctify and fully justify every covetous man or woman who comes to Him in sincere repentance.
Apparently that happened to Paul. You remember, don't you, how he was convicted by this commandment? But at one point, he was able to stand before a group of Ephesian pastors and testify, "I have coveted no one's silver or gold or apparel" (Acts 20:33).
May God examine our hearts, and - likewise - make former "coveters" out of us.
1Keil and Delitzsch, Commentaries on the Old Testament, vol. 2, p. 125.
2Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), p. 95.
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