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Introducing the Tenth Commandment

4 min

In today’s modern culture, we are bombarded with advertising. Christians who do not have a proper defense against covetousness can easily fall prey to impulsive spending. Covetousnessis a serious matter in the sight of God. To covet something that we do not have or that is not ours is to express our discontent with what God has provided. It could be said that the first sin in the Garden of Eden was covetousness. Eve saw something that God had not provided to her and she coveted it. “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat” (Genesis 3:6). Covetousness led to disobedience, and disobedience brought the curse of death upon the entire human race.

Covetousness can extend to all three of the great sins that Christians struggle against: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. It is the lust of the flesh when we covet another man’s wife. It is the lust of the eyes when we covet another man’s possessions. It is the pride of life when we covet another man’s reputation or accomplishments.

Perhaps the broad spectrum of covetousness is the reason that God gives such a detailed and specific prohibition against this sin in the tenth commandment. Consider the explicit areas God names that men must be careful to not envy or lust after: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s” (Exodus 20:17).

The opposite of covetousness is contentment. A contented man is a grateful man who has learned to rest in what God has provided for him, regardless of what God may have granted to others. The outworking of this commandment in our lives results in the following statement:

I am to learn contentment, realizing that the Lord has provided everything I need (see Philippians 4:11, 19).

In many presentations of the Ten Commandments, the abbreviated version of this commandment is given as simply “Thou shalt not covet.” While it is a good summary, remember that God never wastes words. Every word is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for our instruction. Let’s look closer at what God specifically says not to covet and how these warnings against coveting can be practically applied to our daily lives.

  1. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house”
    A man will naturally compare himself to other men. The temptation to do so knows no boundaries of time or space, nor is it limited to the rich or to the poor. A prosperous executive who owns a multimillion dollar lakefront property or a mountaintop villa can easily find another man with an estate that is more attractive than his own. Rather than desiring greater, more spacious living space, have you thanked God for your present dwelling, laboring to maintain and beautify your property, and being content in the circumstances where God has placed you?
  2. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife”
    The Ten Commandments are closely interrelated. One of the clearest links is between the tenth commandment—“thou shalt not covet”—and the seventh commandment: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” To covet another man’s wife is the first step toward adultery. A man who has roving eyes, flirts with other women, or seeks admiration from women other than his own wife is a covetous man. His ways will bring ruin to his life. David coveted the wife of Uriah, and his sin brought God’s judgment upon his entire family. Have you thanked God for the wife that He has given you? Do you delight in her alone, and let her know by words and actions that she has first place in your heart?
  3. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s manservant or his maidservant”
    A reference to human slavery in the Ten Commandments may seem outdated and irrelevant, but this is an important reference to existing class distinctions in many cultures of the ancient and not-so-ancient world. Slavery in the Old Testament is set in a category, just as warfare, divorce, and debt are categories. None of these situations are God’s ideal state for man, but each is a consequence of living in a fallen world. Some Israelites had slaves; others were too poor to have slaves. The Hebrew word here usually refers to a bondslave, but it can also refer to an indentured servant. The Israelite who performed his own manual labor should not envy the status of the man who had servants to perform manual labor for him. Today, we can apply this as we desire to have others do our work. In the sight of God, the master and the employee are both of eternal value and are equal before the law. Are you content with the social status in which God has placed you?
  4. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s ox or his ass”
    The number of oxen and asses a man owned in the ancient world was an important status symbol. Regarding oxen, a man’s livelihood depended upon the animals’ strength. As to asses, to this day in certain parts of the Middle East, a man with a white donkey is especially honored, much like a man in Western culture who drives a fancy or expensive car. The biographical sketch on Thursday will look at the life of an Old Testament prophet whose family farm boasted a dozen yokes of oxen, which was equal to a farmer today owning and operating a dozen tractors! Yet, this prophet surrendered his wealth and status to take up the life of an itinerant preacher. Do you spend time eyeing another man’s car or his social standing? When we meet successful people, instead of envying their possessions or reputation, we should seek to understand and emulate the positive character qualities that enabled them to rise to success.
  5. “Thou shalt not covet anything that is thy neighbour’s”
    The Lord ends the tenth commandment with a broad application that covers anything else that may have been omitted. A critical example related to this commandment is given in Joshua 7:21. After a glorious victory that God gave to His people at Jericho, one man named Achan coveted a precious Babylonian garment, along with silver and gold, despite God’s clear command that there were to be no spoils taken (see Joshua 6:18–19). The Lord’s blessing was removed from the entire nation because of one man’s covetousness and disobedience.

As we consider how the tenth commandment applies to our lives today, let us remember the positive aspect of this command. May we have grateful, content hearts for God’s mercy to us! Any time that we find ourselves envying our neighbor or craving something God has not provided, may that awareness be a sober warning to us to avoid the death and destruction that a discontented heart can bring.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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