The last of the Ten Commandments reads, in Exodus 20:17, like this: “You shall not covet your neighbour's house; you shall not covet your neighbour's wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbour's.”
Covet is not a word we use every day. It is similar to desire but stronger. It means to long for, or lust after, something (or someone) that is someone else’s. It is a feeling of entitlement to things that do not belong to you; a brother to greed and jealousy. The Tenth Commandment is related to the three previous commandments as cause and effect, as described for instance in James 4:2 (“You desire and do not have, so you murder.” Micah 2:1-2 enlightens us on how covetousness works:
“1 Woe to those who devise wickedness and work evil on their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in the power of their hand. 2 They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them away; they oppress a man and his house, a man and his inheritance.”
According to these words, covetousness is the process whereby a person’s mind dwells on the desire to have something until fantasies are created of obtaining it by sinful means. We often spend the most time thinking when we are lying in bed at night trying to fall asleep; for this reason the bed is often the scene of the crime of covetousness.
The idea that a sin is worse when it is premeditated is espoused in criminal law in many countries, which draws a distinction between first degree (premeditated and planned) murder versus second degree (heat-of-the-moment, unplanned) murder. The traits of a covetous person are described in Psalm 10:3: “For the wicked boasts of the desires of his soul, and the one greedy for gain curses and renounces the Lord.”
Jesus did not list covetousness in his citations of the Ten Commandments as recorded in the Gospels. However, he did give a special warning against this sin: “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). He also named covetousness among the vices that come out of the hearts of men (Mark 7:21-23).
The Apostle Paul used covetousness as an example in Romans 7:7-8 when explaining the purpose of the Law of Moses. He also listed the Tenth Commandment in his list of commandments in Romans 13:9, and famously referred to the love of money as “the root of all evil” in 1 Timothy 6:10. He named covetousness among the sins that exclude a person from the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:10). However, Paul’s most remarkable statement about covetousness was when he declared in two of his letters that covetousness is idolatry (Ephesians 5:3-5; Colossians 3:5).
This connection is not obvious or immediate to my mind. Covetousness is the desire to have what belongs to another human being; how is this related to idolatry, which is worship of a false god? The answer lies in understanding that worshipping God is about desiring Him and being thankful for what he has given us. The Psalmist asked God, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you” (Psalm 73:25). When we covet what God has given to someone else, we are unthankful to God for what he has given us. Even worse, we stop giving glory to God and instead obsess over earthly desires – whether it a shiny new car, a beautiful person (whether we lust after them or wish we had their features), or a spacious estate in the suburbs. We make false gods out of these fantasies –our bodily desires become our god (Philippians 3:19).
This connection actually brings us full circle on the Ten Commandments, by relating the Tenth Commandment back to the First. In our next and final blog in this series, we will take stock of what we have learned about the Ten Commandments and their implications for us today in the 21st century.