You Shall Not Covet
Bible Text: Exodus 20:17 | Preacher: The Rev’d William Klock | Series: Exodus | You Shall Not Covet
by William Klock
It is, I think, providential that we arrive at the tenth word or tenth commandment of the Decalogue on this Sunday before Thanksgiving. It is always remarkable to me how shallow our thanks and our gratitude can be. Nothing illustrates it better than that in my own country, the day on which we give national thanksgiving is followed by the biggest shopping day of the year. People give thanks on Thursday and then, first thing Friday morning, are storming department stores and beating and trampling each other for a killer deal on a big-screen TV or the latest toy or video game for their kids. It’s crazy.
The contrast may not be so obviously on display in Canada since we don’t have these two days back to back, but we suffer from the same problem nonetheless. We are one of the richest peoples on earth, but most of us just never seem to be satisfied. Consumer debt creeps up year after year, because we have to have whatever everyone else has and we don’t have the money to pay for it. We say we’re thankful, but all too often our actions prove otherwise.
It’s a problem as old as time. The Lord knows this, and so in Exodus 20:17 he tells the Israelites:
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.
The first thing that stands out here is that it’s not as simple as the other commandments in the second table. “Don’t steal.” “Don’t murder.” “Don’t commit adultery.” Granted, “Don’t bear false witness against your neighbour” is a bit more complex than the others, too, but not like this. It doesn’t just say “Don’t covet”. It gets into specifics and the command itself is repeated a second time. I think there are two reasons for that.
First, to covet, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s what you covet that poses the problem. You see, the Hebrew word here, chamad, means “to desire”. There are good things to be desired. There are desires that honour God. Consider Psalm 19:
The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple…
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb. (Psalm 19:7, 10)
Or consider Proverbs 3:
Blessed is the one who finds wisdom,
and the one who gets understanding…
She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her. (Proverbs 3:13, 15)
And, in the New Testament, St. Paul tells us repeatedly to desire the life of the Spirit that we have in Jesus. Put off the old man and put on the new, he says. And he contrasts sinful desire with godly desire. Here’s what he writes in Galatians 5:
I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do… But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5:16-17, 22-24)
The desires of the unregenerate person are bad, but to desire the fruit of the Spirit, to pursue them with our all—there’s no higher good. So the problem is all about what we desire. We’re all going to desire something. Our hearts will always be fixed on something. We need to be asking what they’re fixed on.
Second, when this ninth word tells us what not to covet, it repeatedly points to the things that belong to our neighbour: his house, his wife, his servant, his livestock. The command specifically mentions your neighbour’s house, but by the end, it puts his entire household off limits. It covers in general terms all the sorts of important things your neighbour has from the perspective of an ancient person: it begins with the house and then lists everyone or everything of importance inside that house. But the main point here is that these things belong to someone else.
There’s nothing wrong with desiring a wife. God made us that way. Husbands and wives are partners. There’s nothing wrong with desiring an ox or a donkey to help you in your work. God gave human beings dominion over the animals. There’s nothing wrong with desiring a roof over your head. But desiring these things becomes a problem when they belong to your neighbour and, the implication here in particular, points to those times when we already have a house, a wife, a servant, an ox, or a donkey, but our neighbour has a nicer house, a prettier wife, a harder-working servant, or a stronger ox. Remember the context here: the Lord takes care of his people. He freed them from slavery. He fed them with manna in the wilderness. He defeated their enemies. He was leading them to a land of milk and honey—a land of plenty. The Lord will provide for both you and your neighbour. Be satisfied with his goodness. Use the means he has given to better your situation—not just for yourself, but that you might also assist the poor. Be happy for your neighbour that his house is nice, that his wife is beautiful, and that his ox is strong. And trust in the Lord’s good providence.
The danger of coveting is highlighted in the story of Achan in Joshua 7. Everyone knows the story of the conquest of Jericho. The Lord told Joshua to have the people march around the city each day for a week with the ark of the covenant at their head. On the seventh day they circled the city seven times and when they were finished, the priests blew their trumpets and the people shouted and the Lord brought the walls tumbling down. It was a great victory that we all learned about in Sunday School. But the follow-up is less well known. From Jericho, Joshua led the people into battle at a town called Ai. It should have been an easy victory. In fact, Joshua didn’t even send his full army. But the men of Ai defeated the Israelites and sent them running. “What happened?” Joshua wondering. He cried out to the Lord, “Why have you allowed this to happen? Don’t you know that the Canaanites will mock your name because of this defeat of your people?”
And the Lord responded: “Get up off the ground, Joshua! You were defeated because Israel sinned! At Jericho you stole some of the treasure that belonged to me.” You see, the real problem isn’t God being mocked by the nations because he brought defeat on his people in battle. The real problem is God being mocked by the nations because of the disobedience and unholiness of his people—because of their lack of faith. I expect Joshua was perplexed, but not as much as we are—or at least not when we find out what happened. Israel stole some of the treasure that belonged to God. It’s not hard to imagine Joshua thinking, “What do you mean, Lord? I didn’t steal anything. Someone may have, but why bring defeat on the whole nation because of one person’s sin?” It’s easy to imagine that, but I don’t think that’s what Joshua was thinking. When the Lord said that Israel had stolen some of the treasure, Joshua understood: Israel was called to be holy as a people and even one person could ruin that. Joshua didn’t question that God would punish the nation for the sin of one man. The army was defeated. People died. But the man who was guilty lived.
And so the next day the Lord had Joshua bring the people before him, tribe by tribe. And the Lord singled out the tribe of Judah. Then clan by clan, they were presented, then household by household until the Lord brought a man named Achan to Joshua’s attention. Achan confessed to Joshua:
Truly I have sinned against the Lord God of Israel, and this is what I did: when I saw among the spoil a beautiful cloak from Shinar, and 200 shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing 50 shekels, then I coveted them and took them. And see, they are hidden in the earth inside my tent, with the silver underneath.”
I coveted and took them. Achan sinned in his heart, but that sin drove him to sin with his hands. He didn’t just take something that belonged to his neighbour; he stole what belonged to the Lord. And the repercussions were horrible. Again, the nation was defeated. Men died. And then Achan, his family, and his livestock were stoned to death and burned along with his tent and the treasure he had stolen. Everything and everyone connected with or in contact with the stolen goods were destroyed so that the wickedness, the unholiness was purged from the community.
Achan highlights the problem with coveting and, I think, his story explains why this last commandment stands were it does at the end of the Decalogue. It reminds us that sin begins in the heart. Sin is rooted in our disordered and ungodly desires. For the vast majority of us, it’s pretty easy to not murder; it’s pretty easy to not commit adultery; it’s pretty easy to not steal; it’s pretty easy to not lie. If nothing else, we know that the penalties for these things are not something we want to deal with. Kill your neighbour and go to prison. Get caught stealing and the same might happen. Even if you don’t go to prison for stealing, chances are that thing isn’t worth the trouble you’ll be in if caught. Cheat on your wife or your husband and, even if our society no longer has legal penalties for it, getting caught is also going to bring a world of hurt down on us. And then there’s lying. Tell a lie, get caught, and your reputation is gone. Bear false witness in court, get caught, and you may end up in jail. We know these things and, if nothing else, the consequences keep us on the straight and narrow.
That’s good as far as it goes, but it’s not enough. There’s more to sin than our outward actions and this final commandment reminds us of it. It’s not enough not to murder, not to commit adultery, not to steal, and not to bear false witness. We need to root the desire for these things from our hearts. As they say, we need to nip sin in the bud. We need to squash it when temptation first rears its head.
Achan’s story also reminds us that coveting not only entertains the danger of breaking the second table of the law, but that—all by itself—likely causes us to violate the first table of the law. What I mean is that while coveting tempts us to violate the “love your neighbour as yourself” part of the Decalogue by stealing his stuff or cheating with his wife or defaming his character, when we entertain the sort of obsessive desire entailed in coveting, we’ve already failed to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. We’ve made the object of our desire an idol. We’ve forsaken trust in God’s provision. We’ve doubted God’s goodness. And we’ve become unthankful for what he has given us.
Brothers and Sisters, you can’t doubt God’s goodness and trust in him at the same time. And so this last commandment reminds us that membership in the people of God isn’t about dos and don’ts, but ultimately about faith. Yes, there are plenty of dos and don’ts. God wants a holy people who represent him to the nations. God wants a holy people who will be light in the darkness. And, on our own and because the darkness in this world is so deep, we often struggle to know how to be light. We often struggle to know how best to represent God to the nations. And so he speaks, he gives us his word and he gives us his Spirit to teach his people how to live as his people. He gives us the long lists of dos and don’ts. And—this is important—it takes both. The word doesn’t work apart from the Spirit and the Spirit doesn’t work apart from the word. Our problem today is one that theologians call anti-nomianism—that’s Greek for “anti-law”. A lot of Christians think that all we need is the Spirit. They’re wrong. The Spirit who renews our hearts and gives us a love for a God is the same Spirit who breathed out the Scriptures so that we can know what that love for God should look like and how it should manifest itself in our lives. Yes, as people of the New Covenant we live by the law of the Spirit, but we’ll never grasp, never understand that law without the word spoken by the Spirit. That’s why Paul wrote to Timothy, saying:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
There’s no part of the Bible that we can disregard or live without. This is the Spirit’s word and without it we will never be complete or fully equipped for the life Jesus gives us through the Spirit. Hear this: the Spirit renews the desires of our hearts, turning them from self to God. But the same Spirit has also breathed out God’s word, the Scriptures, so that we can know how to act on and how to fulfil the desire for God he’s placed in our hearts.
So the dos and don’ts are important. They’re the practical side of being the people of God. But we’re reminded by this last commandment that faith is at the heart of being God’s people. Again, remember the preamble in verse 1: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The Lord calls his people to obey his commandments based on his history of faithfulness. He heard their cries. He defeated Pharaoh. He delivered them from slavery. He parted the sea. He drowned Pharaoh’s army. He brought water from the rock. He fed them with manna in the wilderness. At every turn the Lord has shown his might, he has shown his love, and he has shown his faithfulness.
It’s always remarkable to me that people refer to faith as a leap into the unknown. Brothers and Sisters, anyone who thinks that hasn’t read the Bible, hasn’t read the story, the record of the Lord and his people. The Lord never asks his people to make a blind leap. He proves his goodness. He demonstrates his ability. He shows them his love. And then he says, “Trust in me.” And so the Lord tells his people: worship me and me alone. Worship me as I direct, not as the pagans worship their gods. Keep my sabbath. Honour your father and your mother. Don’t murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t witness falsely against your neighbour. And, finally, don’t desire what I have, in my goodness, given to your neighbour. It brings us back full circle to “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt”. Trust in me, have faith in me, follow me, be my witness to the nations and do it because I’ve shown you repeatedly that I am worthy of your worship and worthy to be trusted.
And, Brothers and Sisters, if that was true for Israel, consider how much more true it is for us, the Church, the New Israel. We can look back to the Lord’s deliverance of his people from Egypt and his provision for them in the wilderness, but we can also look back to the continued record of his faithfulness. He brought them into the land as he promised. Over and over and over through the centuries he watched over, provided, and cared for his people. They cried out and he raised up judge after judge. They cried out and he gave them a king. We see his faithfulness, too, in his discipline. The Lord was good to his word when his people were defeated, expelled from the land, and carried off to exile in Babylon. And he was good to his word, again, when he heard his people as they wept by the waters of Babylon, when he heard their repentant cries and returned them to the land.
But, Friends, most of all we see and know the goodness and faithfulness of God in Jesus. Right from the beginning of the Israel’s story we see her heart problem. We’re reminded of it here in the tenth commandment. And in the Old Testament we see the Lord’s promise to one day address this problem of the heart. We hear throughout the Old Testament the promise of a redeemer who will, once and for all, set this broken world and its broken peoples to rights. And in Jesus we see these promises fulfilled. And we see the costliness of it to God himself, the death of his own Son. We see in Jesus the supreme witness to God’s faithfulness and we kneel before Jesus and declare that he is Lord. We submit to his rule. We enter into his kingdom. It is no blind leap. And it is no blind leap because he has proved his worth, he has proved his might, he has proved his love, and he has proved his faithfulness. He has not only forgiven the sins that arose from our old rebellious hearts that rejected that external law written on stone, but he has also given us new hearts, hearts of flesh on which he’s written his law by his Spirit. He has finally taken the last and most difficult commandment and made it the first and the easiest. The Spirit has purged from our hearts a love for self and poured into them a love for the God who first loved us.
Let us pray: Most merciful Father, we humbly thank you for the gifts you have so free given us; for life and health and safety; for the ability to work and for leisure to rest; for all that is beautiful in creation and in the lives of mankind; but above all we give you thanks for our spiritual mercies in Christ Jesus our Lord. Strength our faith as remember your faithfulness, that we always love you with heart, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbours as ourselves. Through our Lord Jesus we pray. Amen.