Coveting doesn’t get a lot of publicity. When I mentioned the word to my oldest son in the car sometime back, he asked, “What is coveting?” Unless you are studying or memorizing the Ten Commandments, you’re unlikely to think of the concept. While you may not have heard of the word “covet,” you have probably heard of some of it’s first cousins: envy, jealousy, greed, and lust.
To covet is to crave, to yearn for something that belongs to another. It’s not simply wanting something we don’t have; it’s wanting something that someone else has. The Puritan Thomas Watson defined it as “an insatiable desire of getting the world.” And while the word “covet” is relatively unknown, the attitude is deadly.
The Tenth Command:
In the last of the Ten Commandments, God warns us against the deadly effects of our desires:
“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).
Law & Order
Traci and I are Law & Order junkies. Even our oldest daughter, Macaul, will sit and watch the T. V. shows with us. I am not much into the spin-offs of the show as I like the original series best. Jack McCoy (actor Sam Waterson) as the Assistant District Attorney is my favorite when he was teamed up with District Attorney Adam Schiff (Steven Hill). If you are not familiar with the T.V. series, Law & Order is a legal drama where the first half of the show usually shows the homicide unit of the New York City Police Department pursuing a crime. While the second half of the show, portrays the New York’s Manhattan District Attorney’s Office prosecuting the criminal(s). The show would often be based on stories from real cases that had recently made the headlines.
During the show’s twenty year run, the main detective was Lenny Briscoe (the late Jerry Orbach). With few exceptions, the cases turned on the detective skills of the Lenny and his fellow detectives. These men and women are often shown solving mysteries by delving into our basest of instincts. Whether it is a love interest gone awry or the inordinate desire for wealth… either way, much of today’s crime is the result of overrun desires, or coveting.
The Ten Commandments, as was most of the Old Testament, were first written in Hebrew. And it is important to note that there is no difference in the Hebrew word for desire and the word for covet. To covet is to desire. Again, coveting is not what we do but it is what we desire to do. Coveting is about our dreams.
But God has not outlawed all desire but only unhealthy desires. Unlike Buddhism, the Bible does not tell us to renounce all desire for people and things. Unlike the Mennonites, Christianity does not teach us to reject the conveniences of our day. Instead, Christianity calls for a cautious approach to stuff. The Bible asks us to limit our desires for our good in two directions: first, against desiring what is already in the possession of someone else; and second, against desires that overflow their boundaries and lead away from God.
You can see this inner desire on display in the nursery. Nothing arouses a child’s interest like seeing a toy in the hands of another child. You can see this inner desire on display in a young mother who cannot have children. Instantly, she is jealous of the happy family in her neighborhood. It’s the inner desire to possess what someone else has.
Remember the story of the first sin. Watch carefully how the Scriptures says sin began: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate” (Genesis 3:6). Carefully, note the words in italics. The same Hebrew word is used in Genesis 3:6 to describe Eve’s desire that is seen in the Tenth Command. Eve’s unholy desires erupted into a volcanic explosion of sin for the world. Before someone murders, he desires that someone get out of his way. Before someone has sexual relations with another person, he desires that person’s wife. And before I steal your property, I have a desire to acquire your property. Coveting is the starting point of stealing. Coveting is the starting point of adultery.
Handcuffs on Our Hearts
The Tenth Commandment logically precedes the other commandments. The transition from coveting to stealing is almost instantaneous. Conflicts begin long before the first shot is fired or the first punch is thrown. Conflicts begin with coveting, when greedy people are consumed with their desires. Desire is the root from which every sin springs. If the Eight Command places God’s handcuffs on our wrists so as not to steal then the Tenth Command is God’s handcuffs on our hearts and minds so we would not desire to steal.
This commandment shows God at work as our librarian to rid pornography from our libraries. This commandment shows God at work as our IT professional to rid pornography from our computers. This commandment shows God as the CPA who goes over the books of our personal finances (1 Timothy 6:6-10). He knows our stealing desires to keep up with the Jones (Luke 12:15).
Some weeks ago, I was sitting in IHOP, having breakfast and meeting with some guys from our church. Over the speakers that morning played a playlist from my school days. As I sat eating my scrambled eggs, I heard Rick Springfield’s Jessie’s Girl, the hit of the 1980s later named one of the 100 greatest songs of the 80’s by VH1. Later, I downloaded it to my phone as I replayed my younger days.
In his song, Rick Springfield captures the essence of the Tenth Commandment: “Jessie is a friend, Yeah I know he’s been a good friend of mine. But lately something’s changed and it ain’t hard to define. Jessie’s got himself a girl and I want to make her mine.”
What if the life you wanted, the husband you wanted, belonged to someone else?
Programming Note: This is the last post in a series on the Ten Commandments. See here for the introduction to the series.