What does the tenth commandment teach us?

After a list of commandments that prohibit certain actions, such as murder, theft and adultery, the last commandment says: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Exodus 20:17) In short, God forbids His people to desire and long for anything that belongs to anyone else.

What’s wrong with coveting?

This commandment is not about our deeds or words, but about the intention of our heart. That makes it less clear why God would forbid it. After all, nobody is directly harmed if we are jealous… Even the apostle Paul, who was a “religious expert”, admitted: “If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, You shall not covet.” (Romans 7:7)

Coveting is a stepping stone to other sins

The apostle James observes, “Desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (James 1:15) Covetousness is the forerunner of other sins. If we don’t fight this longing, we will probably end up stealing or lying or even murdering to get what we want. The love of money or possessions causes all kinds of evil (1 Timothy 6:10), and therefore we need to stop coveting before things get worse. Jesus takes this step further by saying that “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28) So even the coveting itself is sin.

What is your deepest desire?

Not only does coveting tempt us into other sins, it also damages our relationships. If we are jealous of a friend, these feelings will damage our friendship. Moreover, our relationship with God is also affected by covetousness. God wants the first place in our heart for Himself. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might…” (Deuteronomy 6:5) That doesn’t work if we are coveting all kinds of other things.

Psalm 37:4 gives good advice here: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.” If we stay continually aware of all the good things God has done for us, this helps to prevent covetousness and to boost our contentment, joy and peace.

A cautionary example

In the book of 1 Kings, you can read some stories about king Ahab. He was a bad king, worse than any of his predecessors. He introduced the idols of Baal and Asherah and served them instead of the true God of Israel. 1 Kings 21 records that king Ahab wanted a vineyard that belonged to Naboth. But Naboth did not want to sell this plot of land, because it was the inheritance of his fathers. King Ahab reacted like a spoilt child, “he lay down on his bed and turned away his face and would eat no food” (1 Kings 21:4). Then his wife Jezebel ordered the officials to falsely accuse Naboth of blasphemy and to stone him to death.

The story continues, “as soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab arose to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.” (1 Kings 21:16) So Ahab got his way. But God did not approve of his actions! He sent the prophet Elijah to confront Ahab with his sins and to tell him: “You have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord. Behold, I will bring disaster upon you.” (1 Kings 21:20-21) This example shows how covetousness can lead to horrible injustice and even murder. Stay far away from it!

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