Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s (Exodus 20:17).
God had now come to the tenth and concluding commandment. Matters regarding man’s relationship with God had been thoroughly covered– Israel was to have no other god before God, they were not to make an image of anything to bow down to it and serve it, they were not to take the name of the LORD their God in vain, and they were to honor the Sabbath and rest upon it (Exodus 20:3-11). The Israelites’ relationship with one another was also established: they were to honor their parents, and they were not to kill, commit adultery, steal, or bear false witness (Exodus 20:12-16). As the list concludes, God comes to a much more fundamental challenge, one that all too often leads to the other problems already addressed: covetousness, the desire of the human heart (Exodus 20:17).
The desire to have something that belongs to another is one of the most primal desires of humanity and one of the hardest to control. We might already have spouses, houses, employees, or other possessions. It is easy, however, to think that the “grass is greener on the other side.” Our neighbor’s spouse may seem more alluring, their house nicer, their stuff of better quality. Whatever the justification or the reason may be, the result is the same– it is easy to want it, and to do things in order to get it.
Covetousness is one of the main impulses that lead to other sins. David had many wives, but coveted Bathsheba– and ultimately committed adultery and murder in the process (2 Samuel 11:1-27). Despite being king of Israel, and having much property, Ahab coveted Naboth’s vineyard, and his desire led to false witness and murder (1 Kings 21:1-16). By falling prey to covetousness, these men fell prey to violations of two other commandments. They also prove just how irrational covetousness can be– it is not as if David had no other women around, or that Ahab had no other property to enjoy. Even though they already had plenty, they wanted more– things that did not belong to them but still looked nice. And, in the heat of covetousness, acted very poorly.
But if covetousness is what leads to other sin, why does God wait to mention it until the end? Perhaps it is because how private covetousness is. Dishonoring parents tends to be a public matter. Murder, adultery, theft, and false witness leave victims in their wake. These are all sins done “outside the body.” While covetousness often does lead to the committing of other sins (cf. also James 1:13-15), it does not necessarily produce any physical symptoms. One can covet without any other person knowing it.
The tenth commandment, therefore, presents quite a difficult challenge, one that Jesus will discuss in greater length in Matthew 5:17-48. Righteousness cannot merely limit and direct one’s outward conduct, although that is included. It cannot be enough to just not violate one’s neighbor, his property, or his reputation publicly. In order to be truly righteous one must control the very thoughts, impulses, and attitudes that might lead to such conduct. God tells Israel in the Ten Commandments that it is not enough to just not steal or not to commit adultery– one must not even nurse the covetous desire that leads to theft and adultery. Jesus will later expand on that premise– it is not enough to avoid murdering your brother, you must not even hate him or despise him in your heart (Matthew 5:21-26). Looking upon any woman with lustful intent is committing adultery in the heart (Matthew 5:27-30). Not harming your neighbor is good; loving him as yourself, blessing him and praying for him even if that love is not reciprocated, is better (Matthew 5:43-48)!
Moses will later declare to Israel that they were to “love the LORD [their] God with all [their] heart, and with all [their] soul, and with all [their] might” (Deuteronomy 6:5), a message affirmed by Jesus in Matthew 22:37-38 as the “great and first” commandment. Such complete love cannot exist only on the surface– therefore, Israel’s concern could not just involve their surface conduct. Such complete love demands complete reformation of the whole man– not just outward conduct, but also mind, body, and soul. God hints at this for Israel with the tenth commandment, showing that sinful desire is as bad as sinful action, since it is a precursor to sinful action. We should not allow this message to be lost upon us as we seek to serve the Lord Jesus, following in His footsteps, understanding that God is as concerned about how we think and how we control our desires as much as He is concerned about how we conduct ourselves outwardly. Let us not even covet so that we may not break God’s commands!
Ethan R. Longhenry