“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)
The Tenth Commandment is different from the rest, as the call to not covet does not focus on external actions, but on one’s internal attitude. Therefore, it seems wise to examine the commandment itself – what it says and what it calls for – before reflecting a bit upon how this commandment is a perfect way to conclude this list.
What Not to Covet
The Ten Commandments appear in two different places – Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 – and there are some minor differences in the two lists. (God first gives the commandments to Moses in Exodus 20, with Deuteronomy coming 40 years later to the generation going into the Promised Land. Clarification was likely needed for their new circumstances, thus resulting in some of the differences. For more on the relationship of the two passages, see this helpful article from The Gospel Coalition.) We will look at both accounts to understand what the commandment intends to address.
The version in Exodus, quoted above, forbids coveting your neighbor’s house and then adds his wife, servants, and livestock to the list before concluding that we shouldn’t covet “anything that is your neighbor’s.” However, Deuteronomy 5:21 begins with the command to not covet your neighbor’s wife before adding house, field (Exodus does not mention “field”), servants, and livestock, and then concludes with the summary statement of “anything that is your neighbor’s.” (It should also be noted that Deuteronomy uses different verbs for the wife and then the house, et al. – something seen in the ESV translation as it has “covet” and “desire”.)
The Exodus version likely begins with “house” not to describe one’s physical home, but a “household,” as the following items listed refer to the things that made up one’s household at that time (family, servants, animals). Thus, it is not two different commands (as is the view of the Catholic and Lutheran tradition, as they say this is the ninth and tenth commandment) but a general statement that is then made more specific. The version in Deuteronomy separates a wife from the rest of the items, as coveting another’s wife is different from coveting their servants or animals. Therefore, the command not to covet another’s wife is listed before “house” (and with a different verb) and then the other items are listed, with “house” here more likely referring to one’s house since “field” is in the list. (I found the commentary on Exodus by T. Desmond Alexander to be one of the best discussions of these differences.)
The different wording is minor and may have different emphases, but overall includes the same items. As I read these lists, I wondered why highlight these specific things since there is a statement at the end that essentially says “or anything at all”? It seems likely these items are included because they would likely be particular things that we are prone to covet and stood at the center of life in that more agrarian time. Today we may covet people’s jobs, cars, vacations, homes, and a whole variety of things. While the particular items named may not be the ones that come to mind today, they certainly have equivalents in today’s world, and the final words include everything else that we can think of.
What Coveting Is and Is Not
In order to understand why coveting is so bad, we need to recognize what coveting is. It is not simply appreciating something that someone else has and desiring to have something like it. Rather, it is looking at what someone else has and saying you want that same thing and think that you should have it, not them. Therefore, it is connected with words like jealousy and envy. The Apostle James recognized how these traits lead to destructive behaviors:
James 4:1-2 – “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. ….”
James 3:14, 16 – “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. … For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.”
The Apostle Paul puts covetousness and envy on the front of his list of qualities of a debased mind and in the midst of things of things like murder in Romans 1:29: “They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness.”
Not only does coveting lead to destructive behaviors towards others – finding ways for you to get what others have and/or make sure that they no longer have it – but it can also cause a faith crisis, as we see the Psalmist experienced in Psalm 73: “But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Psalm 73:2-3).
How Not to Covet
Coveting emerges from a disdain for what one’s life looks like and an inability to wish for the best for others. Therefore, one of the key ways to fight against covetousness is to have contentment, recognizing the blessings that God has given you are both sufficient for you and gifts from God. Our struggle with covetousness is why Scripture features so many calls to contentment (see e.g., Philippians 4:11-13; 1 Timothy 6:6-9; Hebrews 13:5). Rather than looking at what others have and wondering why we don’t have those, we need to look at what we have and recognize how it is greater than we deserve. Before looking at the grass on the other side of the fence, stop and recognize the grass on your side and how it is green – probably greener than you have realized and a greenness that is unique and just the right kind of greenness you need!
In addition to being content with what we have, we also need to celebrate what others have. Romans 12:15 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” We often focus on the second half of that verse – weeping with those who weep – but I have started to wonder if the first half of the verse is more difficult. I have learned to weep and walk alongside those who are suffering, but it can be very difficult to rejoice with those who are achieving success, especially if their accomplishment in any way is something that you wish you had yourself. In fact, the rejoicing of others can often be the cause of covetousness! We must truly learn to love our neighbor as ourselves if we are not to covet, to celebrate their victories and successes as if they were our own but without wishing that they belonged to us instead.
Why Coveting is the Final Commandment
Just as the first commandment is a fitting start to the list, as in many ways all the things that follow flow from putting other gods (including ourselves) before God, so the tenth commandment is a fitting conclusion for a number of reasons. One may be able to read through the other commandments and think he or she has kept them (though not if you read them closely, as we have discussed with other other commandments), but when you get to the tenth commandment, it seems nearly impossible to think you have not broken it (that’s why I think Paul highlights it in Romans 7:7-12). In addition, the fact that this is about our attitude and not our actions makes us realize that God is not only concerned with what we do, but what is going on inside of us. This is why we need to recognize that the commands against theft and adultery are not just against the act but against the desires and motivations that lead to the behaviors.
“You shall not covet…” is not the last commandment because it is the least important. Instead, it serves to remind us that we fall short of God’s expectations for us because our hearts are not filled with love for God and for others that causes our thoughts, words, and deeds to be out of accord with His design. May we look to the only one who kept all these commandments but yet died a sinner’s death for forgiveness for how we fall short. We need to focus on the transformative power to become people who put God first and then live that out in word, thought, and deed.
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