Exodus 20:17. You shall not covet your neighbour’s house: you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbour’s.
This command is aimed at our secret motives and attitudes. Motives are not easily discernible but they can affect the way we react to life. So this tenth commandment addresses itself to the inner impulses of the human heart – the emotions. There are certain things which my hands can’t do but which are in my heart. There are things that take place in my life which are wrong but for which nobody can take me to a court of law – for instance lusting or hating someone.
Sometimes it’s possible for some people to stick to the letter of the law and yet do wrong. These hidden impulses are not always easy to define, so God controls them by giving us this law. It addresses itself both to our feelings and to our actions.
Firstly, we should look at the meaning of the word covet. It deals with something deeper than superficial feelings. This commandment refers to all possible undertakings which may involve gaining power over the goods or possessions of a neighbour by dishonest means.
Coveting is an emotion that drives a person to take action to obtain something which belongs to a neighbour. In Mark 10, Jesus said to the rich young ruler, ‘You know the commandments’. Then the Lord Jesus listed the commandments but He listed only the last five. When He came to the tenth commandment, he didn’t say, ‘You shall not covet’ – he said, ‘You shall not defraud’. He was saying you shall not cultivate such strong emotions that it will make you take action to get something that does not belong to you. That is defrauding.
This commandment also forbids us to desire something or somebody in such a way that we may be driven to take action- either outside the law or by manipulating the law to make that person or property your own.
Let me define the meaning of the word house. It can be used in the narrow sense simply to mean ‘dwelling place’, but it can also be used in reference to the family. Here it refers to everything that may belong to your neighbour – his wife, his children, his happiness, his success, his property, and his prospects.
We need to learn to rejoice in another man’s prosperity. Don’t so desire his house (the things that belong to him) that you begin to think of ways in which you can manipulate circumstances so that it will become yours. At the base of all dishonesty and unfaithfulness lies the sin of covetousness.
Covetousness is jealousy at the success and good fortune of other people, envy at their happiness and a desire to have what they have. When action is put to this inward desire it can lead to all kinds of harmful behaviour and to the breaking of relationships which should be valued.
In the Garden of Eden Adam coveted God’s role as ruler. The result was Adam and Eve’s banishment and the difficulties which their progeny, live with, to this day.
The antidote to covetousness is contentment. And the secret to contentment is to recognise the sovereignty of God over all things in our lives. Be content and do not envy others, or covet what they have.