The purpose and meaning of the Tenth Commandment

The last of the Ten Commandments against coveting is aimed directly at the heart and mind of every human being. In prohibiting coveting, it defines not so much what we must do but how we should think. It asks us to look deep within ourselves to see what we are on the inside.

You shall not covet your neighbour's house, you shall not covet your neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is your neighbour's.Exodus 20:17

As with each of the previous nine Commandments, it is directed toward our relationships. It specifically deals with the thoughts that threaten those relationships and can potentially hurt ourselves and our neighbours. Our motives define and govern the way we respond to everyone we come in contact with. Our transgressions of God's law of love begin in the heart as Jesus confirmed. “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, 22 Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: 23 All these evil things come from within, and defile the man.Mark 7:21-23

Therefore, it is fitting that the formal listing of these ten foundational Commandments, which define the love of God should end by focusing on our hearts as the wellspring of our relationship problems. From within come the desires that tempt us and lead us astray.

What is covetousness?
Covet means to crave or desire, especially in excessive or improper ways. The Tenth Commandment does not tell us that all of our desires are immoral. It tells us that some desires are wrong. Coveting is an immoral longing for something that is not rightfully ours. That is usually because the object of our desire already belongs to someone else. But coveting can also include our wanting far more than we would legitimately deserve or that would be our rightful share. The focus of the Tenth Commandment is that we are not to illicitly desire anything that already belongs to others.

The opposite of coveting is a positive desire to help others preserve and protect their blessings from God. We should rejoice when other people are blessed. Our desire should be to contribute to the well being of others and to make our presence in their lives a blessing to them.

Human nature is selfish
Our natural inclination is always to think of ourselves first. We are far more interested in what we can get rather than what we can give. That is the essence of what God is denouncing in the Tenth Commandment. He tells us to stop thinking only of ourselves and to quit seeking only our interests. Coveting is the selfish approach to life and selfishness is the root of our transgressions of God's laws. “But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. 15 Then when lust has conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.James 1:14-15. James notes how dangerous out of control desires can be. “From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? 2 You lust, and have not: you kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: you fight and war, yet you have not, because you ask not.James 4:1-2

As James points out, coveting can be a root cause of many sins including murder and warfare. If not controlled, what begins as a thought becomes an obsession that leads to an act. All of us have “conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind.Ephesians 2:3. We have all let our desires rule our behaviour. Accordingly, we have all sinned (Romans 3:10, 23).

A universal plague
The apostle Paul's description of covetous people in the last days is instructive. “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. 2 For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, 3 Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, 4 Traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; 5 Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.2 Timothy 3:1-5. This is a vividly accurate description of our world.

Our society is not unique in history. Covetousness has always cursed humanity. Speaking of one of the last kings of ancient Judah God said, “But thine eyes and thine heart are not but for your covetousness, and for to shed innocent blood, and for oppression, and for violence, to do it.Jeremiah 22:17. The problem was not limited to the kings, “For from the least of them even unto the greatest of them every one is given to covetousness; and from the prophet even unto the priest every one dealeth falsely.Jeremiah 6:13. God expressed His abhorrence of Israel's covetousness and warned of its ultimate outcome, “And they covet fields, and take them by violence; and houses, and take them away: so they oppress a man and his house, even a man and his heritage. 3 Therefore thus saith the LORD; Behold, against this family do I devise an evil, from which you shall not remove your necks…'Micah 2:2-3

One glaring example of the almost universal acceptance of covetousness is the burgeoning popularity of government run lotteries. Millions of people surrender part of their pay cheques each week hoping to win a fantasy life of ease and luxury. Likewise, the gambling meccas of the world are hugely popular vacation resorts specializing in entertainment appealing to our baser instincts. Promoting covetousness is big business. Advertising agencies and research firms make a science out of manipulating the selfish appetites of consumers. Like ancient Israel, we are a covetous society from the least to the greatest.

A form of idolatry
Covetousness is much more serious than just a social malady. When we put greed, lust and self above God, coveting becomes idolatry. Paul warns us, “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry: 6 For which things' sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience.Colossians 3:5-6

Paul elsewhere links the sins of coveting with idolatry, pointing out that these and other sins can prevent us from entering God's Kingdom. “For this you know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.Ephesians 5:5

Combating covetousness
Jesus commanded His disciples to “beware of covetousness: for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.Luke 12:15. Likewise, Paul tells us, “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. 4 Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.Philippians 2:3-4

God's way, the way of love, is to practice this kind of concern for others. “For this, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, You shall not covet; and if there be any other Commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, You shall love your neighbour as thyself. 10 Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.Romans 13:9-10

To combat covetousness, we must have faith that God will provide a way for us to satisfy our legitimate needs. We have good reason to have such confidence. The Scriptures promise that He will never abandon us if we obey and trust Him. “Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as you have: for he has said, I will never leave you, nor forsake you.Hebrews 13:5. Paul expresses the same principles in other words. “For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. 8 And having food and raiment let us be therewith content. 9 But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. 10 For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.1 Timothy 6:7-10

Covetousness cannot be defeated without help from God. The negative pulls of human nature are simply too powerful for us to overcome by ourselves. To receive the help we need, we must ask for it especially requesting that God will give us the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13). Then we must allow God's Spirit to work in us to change the way we think. “Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh,” Paul writes. “Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. 17 For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that you cannot do the things that you would.Galatians 5:16-17. Acts 2:38 explains how we can receive the Holy Spirit.

Directing our desires
We need to orient our desires in the right direction. Jesus explained that we should “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.Matthew 6:33. He also instructed us to “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust does corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: 21 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.Matthew 6:20-21. Proper and profitable relationships, spiritual understanding and wisdom are examples of the lasting treasures that God wants us to desire. “Yes, if you criest after knowledge, and liftest up your voice for understanding; 4 If you seekest her as silver, and searchest for her as for hid treasures; 5 Then shall you understand the fear of the LORD, and find the knowledge of God.Proverbs 2:3-5

God says that “wisdom is better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared to it.Proverbs 8:11. His Word describes some of wisdom's rewards, “My fruit is better than gold … 20 I lead in the way of righteousness, in the midst of the paths of judgment: 21 That I may cause those that love me to inherit substance; and I will fill their treasures.Proverbs 8:19-21. It pays to seek wisdom with righteousness. Wanting to excel in our life's pursuits can be an appropriate ambition. If being useful to others is our objective, God approves of our gaining the necessary skills and knowledge that bring favour and advancement in this life. As a wise servant of God wrote: “Seest you a man diligent in his business? he shall stand before kings; he shall not stand before mean men.Proverbs 22:29

God wants concern for others to be the motivation for our desires. Sometimes our service to them will result in wonderful rewards for us. But only if our hearts are focused on giving rather than getting will our desires be channelled in the right direction. We must replace coveting with service and love for other people.

The book of Hebrews reminds us not to forget “to do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.Hebrews 13:16. We should look to the example of the apostle Paul who said, “I have coveted no one's silver or gold or apparel … 35 I have showed you all things, how that so labouring you ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.Acts 20:33-35

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