Sermon

The Tenth Commandment (Exodus 20:17)

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The last—but certainly not least—of the Ten Commandments is: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, not anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Exodus 20:17). What is coveting? To covet means to strongly desire something. What does the Tenth Commandment prohibit? It is commonly believed that the Tenth Commandment prohibits coveting, but this is not true. Remember, the word covet means to strongly desire something. The Tenth Commandment is not a prohibition against coveting, but against coveting what belongs to your neighbor. Look at Exodus 20:17 again and you see that the prohibition involves the coveting of “anything that is your neighbor’s.” The Westminster Shorter Catechism says, “The Tenth Commandment forbids all discontentment with our own estate, envying or grieving at the good of our neighbor, and all inordinate motions and affections to anything that is his.”

Coveting ≠ Temptation

Sinful coveting is the last commandment given of the ten, but it precedes all others. Why do we steal? It’s because we desire/covet something that is not ours. Why do we commit adultery? It’s because we covet someone who is not our spouse. Why do we bear false witness? It is because we covet against our neighbor. This sin precedes other sins because this sin occurs in the mind. Dr. Laura Schlessinger said it this way: “This is a most interesting commandment. Unlike murdering, stealing, or perjuring, which are concrete acts or behaviors, this commandment concerns that arena of the mind: thoughts, desires, and feelings.”

Though coveting occurs in the mind, it is not the same thing as temptation. Temptation is desire but it is not sin. I like how the website Gotquestions.org phrases this: “Jesus was tempted (Mark 1:13; Luke 4:1-13), but He never sinned (Hebrews 4:15). Sin occurs when we mishandle temptation.”[1] James puts it this way: “What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask” (James 4:1-2). The progression of sinful behavior can be summarized in this way: 1) Temptation (not sin), 2) Giving into temptation and sinfully coveting, 3) Action (sin). Temptation occurs first and must be resisted. If we do not resist temptation, we give into it and begin to sinfully covet. If we do not abandon our sinful coveting, it gives birth to sin.

Do Not Desire What You Should Not Desire

Remember the Eighth Commandment “You shall not steal”? When we discussed this commandment, we learned: “The prohibition against stealing only makes sense with the understanding that there are things that belong to you and things that do not belong to you.” The Tenth Commandment is similar in that you are not to covet what does not belong to you. We are told not to covet “anything that is your neighbor’s”. The reason we must not covet these things is because they belong to our neighbor. God has blessed him/her with these things and therefore we must not desire to possess what God has blessed someone else with. We are told by James that “every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…” (James 1:17). God wants us to be content with what we have and not seek to take from our neighbor. Just to be clear, there is nothing sinful about recognizing something nice that belongs to your neighbor and appreciating it. There is also nothing wrong with seeing what your neighbor has and desiring to get it yourself. The prohibition is against desiring against your neighbor to take what is his.

Sinful coveting is graphicly illustrated with the story of King Ahab and Naboth in 1 Kings 21. Naboth was a man who owned a vineyard next to King Ahab’s palace. Ahab went to Naboth and asked to buy it. He even promised to trade him “a better vineyard in its place”. Naboth refused the offer and said, “The Lord forbid me that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers.” Thus far nothing sinful has happened but look what happened next. We learn that Ahab “came into his house sullen and vexed because of the word which Naboth the Jezreelite had spoken to him.” Ahab refused to eat because of his distress. His wife Jezebel (yes, that Jezebel!) asked him why he was so upset. After he told her of the conversation with Naboth, she devised an evil plan to have Naboth killed. Jezebel conspired with two worthless men to accuse Naboth of cursing God so that he would be put to death by stoning. The plan worked and Ahab was able to take possession of the vineyard. The Lord saw what happened and sent Elijah to warn Ahab of judgment to come. Ahab desired the vineyard (not sin), then he sinfully coveted his neighbor’s vineyard, finally he acted sinfully against his neighbor.

Desire What You Should Desire

Do not sinfully covet what is your neighbor’s, but please covet what is good. Remember, to covet means to desire. In Psalm 19:10 we read about God’s commands: “More to be desired [coveted] are they than gold.” Coveting is not in and of itself a bad thing. I remember growing up some people would say, “I covet your prayers.” I used to think this was a very odd statement until I realized that coveting is only sinful if you covet what is not appropriate. We are told what we should not covet sinfully, but what should we covet? Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 11:2, “For I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy; for I betrothed you to one husband, that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin.” What is godly jealousy? Godly jealousy is different from ungodly jealousy because the goal of the desires aligns with God’s will over our own. 

Let us strongly desire what is pleasing to God. Let us covet love and faithfulness. Let us covet grace and humility. Let us yearn for God’s mercy. Let us long for the day of Christ’s return. Let us work towards the good of each other and build one another up. Instead of coveting our neighbor’s goods, let us covet what is good for our neighbor.


[1] GotQuestions.org is a great resource for many common questions concerning Christianity.