The Covetous Heart

We come now to the last of the Ten Commandments, the prohibition of covetousness. And with this requirement, we come to the fountainhead of all our love to our neighbor — a prohibition of any sinful refusal to be glad and grateful for the blessings of others. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s” (Ex. 20:17).

First, we must set aside a widespread misunderstanding of this commandment. God nowhere prohibits or disparages the material blessings of the world — they are a gift from Him. He everywhere warns against the idolatry of greed, of serving the gift instead of the Giver. “Honor the Lord with your possessions, and with the firstfruits of all your increase; so your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will overflow with new wine” (Prov. 3:9-10).

Thomas Watson compares material blessings to the water of the ocean. When the ship is in the water, everything is as it should be. But when the water is in the ship, disaster follows. Float your service to God and His kingdom on the water of His material blessing — but do not let those blessings sink that service.

Covetousness refers to a sinful demeanor of the heart. God’s prohibition of this sin here shows (along with countless other places) that the religion of the Old Testament was not a religion of external performance. It was the same religion as ours, with more external supports than we have, but the same focus on the state of the heart. From Genesis to Revelation, the people of God are to love Him with all their hearts, and are to love their neighbors as themselves. Of necessity this is His way.

Carnal religion in all ages wants a list of things to do. The gospel reveals that we must be a certain kind of creature, which we cannot accomplish. The only salvation possible is that provided by free and sovereign grace.

Consider the apostle’s testimony — this commandment worked him over, and prepared him for the grace to follow. “What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire” (Rom. 7:7-8).

And Christ undid the self-righteousness of the rich young ruler by addressing a violation of this commandment (Matt. 19:16-22). When they spoke together of his keeping of all commandments, this one was noticeably absent.

But we want off the hook in other ways. God requires that we be grateful that they have everything which He has given them. And He insists that we may not chafe because His providence for them has not been given to us. And we cannot be this way apart from grace.

We say that we would not commit this sin over trifles — our desire is justified by the greatness of what we want; the lust is overpowering. When we want his wife, the name of this is “love and finding someone who meets our needs.” When we want his house, it is called “economic justice.” And we content ourselves with the obedience of not coveting his parking space.

We may tolerate this sin in ourselves because we commit it only in trifles — “Why did she have to find that dress?” This door is closed too. We may not covet anything that is our neighbor’s.

St. Paul refers to a “cloak for covetousness.” (1 Thess. 2:5). We may call our sin by many other names. This is one sin which is often respected in the church. It is called frugality, or industry, or hard work. If tolerated, it can choke out the Word of God. Christ said that the Word, the good seed, was choked out by the cares of this life (Matt. 13:22). And what does it profit a man, if he gains all the world, everything he ever coveted, but loses his soul. Thomas Watson again. “Many sermons lie dead and buried in earthly hearts.”

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