THE PROHIBITION OF THIS LAW
Davis W. Huckabee
The importance of this law is to be seen in that it has the most extensive explanation of the ten laws, with the possible exception of the fourth commandment. This extensiveness is, in itself, an indication that this law was capable of being misunderstood, misapplied, or mistakenly limited in its meaning. And the very broadness of this law would make it all the more apt to be perverted by the corrupt nature of man.
But to see what is prohibited by this law it is necessary to understand what is meant by "covet" which is the key word in this law. In the Hebrew the word rendered "covet" means simply to desire, yet the context shows that it is not all desire that is indicted, but only that desire that is of an evil nature. The limitation lies in the qualification "thy neighbor’s…" In the New Testament, the more common words for "covet" are epithumeo—"to fix one’s desire upon," pleonexia—"to desire to have more," and philarguros—"love of money."
The desire for possessions is not in itself evil, for the Lord has decreed that man is to have certain property rights. There would be no need for any such commandment as this one if that were not so. But what makes the desire for possessions to be classified as covetousness is if that desire is excessive in degree, or if it is directed to the detriment of one’s neighbor, or if it is for the wrong reason. For example, if a person desires money sufficient for his needs, there is nothing wrong with that. But if he desires money or possessions for their own sake that he might be rich or to indulge his lusts, or to attain position over others, etc., it becomes covetousness. Or if he desires to attain possessions at the expense of his neighbor, then it is covetousness. This is the primary thought of Exod. 20:17, for everything that is listed here is qualified by the words "thy neighbor’s." B. H. Carroll lists five limitations set on the lawful desire for gain.
(2) He must not so desire property or so accumulate wealth as to harm himself. When this desire and the means of its attainment bring about harm to the man’s body, or to his soul, or hereafter, he has stepped over the bound.
(3) This relates to only one of the items in the commandment. It says, ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.’ So a limitation here is that he must not invade the rights of his wife. Suppose a man already has a wife, and desires another wife; it violates the rights of the wife he has.
(4) He must not so desire to accumulate property as to harm his neighbor; the acquisition must not be done at the expense of the neighbor. He has a right to a piece of land, but he has no right to covet his neighbor’s piece of land.
(5) He must not harm society in any of its organized forms. God made man social, and society is spoken of as an organism, each one of them is a member of the body, and whatsoever harms one will harm all."—An Interpretation of the English Bible, Vol. II, pp. 222-223.
There are seven things specifically prohibited in this law. Seven, in Scripture numerology is almost always associated with completeness, so that in this case it sets forth the total prohibition of coveting anything that belongs to another.
All covetousness is a form of lust, for Paul declares, "I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet," Rom. 7:7. Therefore, this law prohibits lust, for it is contrary to the grace of God. For any Christian to be covetous is for him to deny the grace of God that he has received. "For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world; looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ," Tit. 2:11-13.
But like the other commandments, this one has a positive side to it as well as a negative. This commandment is expressed negatively, prohibiting covetousness, but by implication it prescribes something also. We pass on to note—
THE PRESCRIPTION OF THIS LAW
This law recognizes as a basic truth, the rights of others. There could be no morality without this, for one man cannot have rights that intrude upon or take away from, the rights of others. One person may, by ambition and ability, gain more possessions than another, or he may be given more than another, but if a man once legitimately gains something, it is his personal property, and no one has the right to covet it or take it away from him. And Scripture sets forth the extent of lawful gain in III John when it says, "Beloved I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth." If any worldly prosperity hinders in any way the prosperity of the soul, that becomes evil. Thus, the warning of I Tim. 6:9-10 against coveting comes in here.
One of the many great evils of the Communistic system of government is that it tramples under food the rights of the individual, and indeed, recognizes no individual rights of its citizens. But such a system is clearly a far cry from the morality and individual rights set forth in the Bible, and this is to be expected in any atheistic system.
This tenth law finds its basis in the second of the two great laws set forth in the Bible, namely, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself," Matt. 22:39, for Jesus went on to say that "On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets," Matt. 22:40. No one that tries to fulfill the spirit of this second great law will purposefully violate this tenth commandment, for these are mutually exclusive. One cannot covet another’s possession, and at the same time love him. The one exception to this is the command to "Covet earnestly the best gifts," I Cor. 12:31, for these are to be used for the mutual edification of the brethren. "Even so ye, forasmuch as ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church," I Cor. 14:12. But, as we have before said, the Greek word used in I Cor. 12:31, is not the same as the three that define the sin of covetousness.
Not only this commandment, but all of the ten are fulfilled in the word "love." The second table of the Decalog finds fulfillment in loving one’s neighbor. "Love worketh no ill to his neighbor: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law," Rom. 13:10. "If ye fulfil the royal law according to the Scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, ye do well," James 2:8. Therefore, on the basis of these passages, the positive prescription of all the second table of the Decalog is love to one another of an equal degree to love for oneself.
The prescription of this law so far as others are concerned, is fulfilled in showing love to them. But where the individual himself is concerned, the prescription is of another sort—it involves self-denial, for the positive side of the tenth commandment is the opposite of coveting what belongs to another. It is "Be content with such things as ye have," Heb. 13:5. These two things are antipodes to each other. Covetousness and contentment cannot exist in the same person. Therefore, if any one would obey the tenth commandment to "covet not," he must cultivate a spirit of contentment with such things as he has. However, contentment is a very hard virtue to cultivate, and the present age that has more supposed "necessities" than any previous age has known, and many more luxuries, increases the hardness in cultivating it. Nevertheless, the rewards for contentment are well worth the effort, for "Godliness with contentment is great gain," I Tim. 6:6, so that, "Having food and raiment let us be therewith content," I Tim. 6:8.
There are those, however, that have no concern about what is right or moral, but that are only interested in satisfying their own lusts. Therefore it will be well to note in closing—
THE PUNISHMENT OF THIS LAW
It is true that this sin, being a sin of the mind, is not capable of discernment by human eyes, and therefore so long as it abides alone, is not capable of punishment by human law. But it is still a sin in God’s eyes, Who sees all things in their proper prospective, and it will be punished. For this reason there is no civil punishment decreed for this sin, as there is in the case of the other commandments. However, this sin is often the motivation for, and is manifested in, other sins, such as the sins of stealing, adultery, etc.
God’s view of covetousness is manifest in such places as Ps. 10:3. "The wicked boasteth of his heart’s desire, and blesseth the covetous, whom the Lord abhorreth." To be abhorred by the Lord is hardly grounds upon which any person can find peace and expectancy of good. And Rom. 1 lists covetousness among other grave forms of ungodliness. Then the Apostle concludes by saying, "Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them," V32. There is a death penalty decreed for this sin, and though man may never be able to discern those guilty of breaking this law, yet the Lord does, and He will, in His own good time, punish all covetous persons.
This is also referred to in I Cor. 6:9-10. "Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, not effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God." This makes it very evident that God views this sin in a very serious light, for He equates it with sins of sexual promiscuity, thievery in its various forms, blasphemy, drunkenness, etc.
But the punishment of this sin is not alone a matter of the future. For this sin is one of those for which exclusion from the Lord’s table is decreed, so that no one can comfort himself that he is in good fellowship with his church if he is a covetous person. "I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world. But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner, with such an one no not to eat," I Cor. 5:9-11. This last phrase reads literally "With such you are not even to eat together." And since this was written to a church, and the subject immediately preceding had been exclusion from the church membership, it is clear that the "eating together" is of the Lord’s Supper. Thus it is church censure and excommunication that is meant.
One thing is for certain, if all of the covetous people in the churches were excluded for this sin, only as it relates to covetousness toward God’s tithe, it would considerably reduce the church membership. For this is a sin that is very evident in many churches when collections are counted. But covetousness is commonly committed without any actual taking of the possessions of God or man, and this is, for the most part, unknown except to the Lord. But this is sufficient, for He will deal with the covetous according to their covetousness.
One other thing may be noted in this connection, which is, that there is evidence that covetousness may shorten a person’s natural life. The wise man was inspired to say, "He that hateth covetousness shall prolong his days," Prov. 28:16. If the hatred of covetousness will prolong one’s days, then it must be that the opposite will have a shortening effect.
This concluding commandment differs from all that have gone before it and is distinguished from them in at least three ways.
Dear reader, have you seen in the Law of God your utter hopelessness by your own works? If so, then flee to the welcoming refuge of Jesus Christ, Who gave Himself for us "that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works," Tit. 2:14.