Soon after the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, a small boy was listening to the radio. He looked at his father anxiously: ‘I hope they haven`t found any more commandments’.
That small boy`s thinking is often the modern approach to the commandments because we think it would cramp our style to have any more. Many think that a pass mark of around 30 or 40% is acceptable and will be sufficient for a place in heaven. If you were asked to recite the ten commandments, would you be able to do it? Most, if they can name any, can name 3 or 4 because they are those they think are most important. They used to be written up in all Anglican churches and read each Sunday. Today, however, Christians say they are not ‘under law but under grace’, which is true, but does that mean the commandments have no relevance for Christians today. I hope, that by looking at them, we will find the real reason why God gave them and what they mean for us today.
Here is the way Elton Trueblood summed them up in a few words:
Above all else love God alone;
Bow down to neither wood or stone.
God’s name refuse to take in vain;
The Sabbath rest with care maintain.
Respect your parents all your days;
Hold sacred human life always.
Be loyal to your chosen mate;
Steal nothing, neither small nor great.
Report, with truth, your neighbours deed;
And rid your mind of selfish greed.
God wrote The Commandments himself on tablets of stone, so I think He considers them all important. I have been reading the book ‘The Way of the Master’, by Ray Comfort and I was struck afresh how Jesus used the Commandments to bring conviction of sin. I have decided to consider them in reverse order similar to the way J John did in the ‘Just 10’ series.
‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour’. (Ex 20:17).
Covetousness is defined as: ‘A strong or inordinate desire of obtaining and possessing some supposed good; usually in a bad sense, and applied to an inordinate desire of wealth or avarice’. One modern commentator saw this commandment as the ‘Weak Sister’, and continued; ‘It has occurred to me, that whoever approved the final order of these commandments didn’t have much of a sense of suspense or climax. He put all of those dramatic, intriguing sins like stealing, adultery, and murder, first. Then he ended with coveting. It would have seemed more logical to begin with the bland, throw-away sin like coveting, and then work up to the big stuff.’ I am thankful that the One who decided on the order of the Commandments knows better than that commentator does!
The apostle Paul said that this ‘Weak Sister’ was the very one that, when he understood it properly, brought conviction of sin so that he realised how much under God`s wrath he was. There is no legislation against coveting. How could there be? This is a state of the heart. ‘The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?’ (Jer 17:9). Although we might look squeaky clean on the outside, God looks deeper, ‘I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve.’ (Jer 17:10).
Most people live their lives as if God gave man Ten Suggestions. The Ten Commandments are the basis for man to live in a right relationship with God and with one another. They have never been bettered and never will be. Their aim is not to show how good we are but to show us how bad we are. They show our desperate need of a Saviour when we see how far short of God`s standards we fall.
Let us consider some results of covetousness found in Scripture. We will begin with the story of Achan. The Israelites had crossed the Jordan under the leadership of Joshua and had destroyed the city of Jericho, devoting everything in it to total destruction, or so they thought. They had then gone up against the small town of Ai and instead of the victory they were expecting they were routed. We pick up the story in Joshua 7:7 with Joshua praying to the Lord.
Joshua said, “Ah, Sovereign LORD, why did you ever bring this people across the Jordan to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us? If only we had been content to stay on the other side of the Jordan! O Lord, what can I say, now that Israel has been routed by its enemies? The Canaanites and the other people of the country will hear about this and they will surround us and wipe out our name from the earth. What then will you do for your own great name?”
The LORD said to Joshua, “Stand up! What are you doing down on your face? Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies; they turn their backs and run because they have been made liable to destruction. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction. “Go, consecrate the people. Tell them, ‘Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow; for this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: That which is devoted is among you, O Israel. You cannot stand against your enemies until you remove it. In the morning, present yourselves tribe by tribe. The tribe that the LORD takes shall come forward clan by clan; the clan that the LORD takes shall come forward family by family; and the family that the LORD takes shall come forward man by man. He who is caught with the devoted things shall be destroyed by fire, along with all that belongs to him. He has violated the covenant of the LORD and has done a disgraceful thing in Israel!'”
They did as the Lord said and Achan was selected. Then Joshua said to Achan, “My son, give glory to the LORD, the God of Israel, and give him the praise. Tell me what you have done; do not hide it from me.”
Achan replied, “It is true! I have sinned against the LORD, the God of Israel. This is what I have done: “When I saw in the plunder a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a wedge of gold weighing fifty shekels, I coveted them and took them. They are hidden in the ground inside my tent, with the silver underneath.”
So Joshua sent messengers, and they ran to the tent, and there it was, hidden in his tent, with the silver underneath. They took the things from the tent, brought them to Joshua and all the Israelites and spread them out before the LORD. Then Joshua, together with all Israel, took Achan son of Zerah, the silver, the robe, the gold wedge, his sons and daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent and all that he had, to the Valley of Achor. Joshua said, “Why have you brought this trouble on us? The LORD will bring trouble on you today.” Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest, they burned them. Over Achan they heaped up a large pile of rocks, which remains to this day. Then the LORD turned from his fierce anger. Therefore that place has been called the Valley of Achor ever since. (Josh 7:7-26)
The result of his covetousness was that the nation was not able to stand against a small town. Do you still think it the ‘Weak Sister’? ‘Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death’. (Jas 1:14-15).
This was the cause of Adam and Eve sinning. God gave them all they needed but instructed them not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. ‘The woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.’ (Gen 3:6). They coveted what God had forbidden and so in sinning brought death to us all.
We will next consider the false prophet Balaam. He was asked by the king of Moab to curse the nation of Israel but God used Balaam to bless the Israelites over and over again. But, as the scripture says, he ‘loved the wages of unrighteousness;’ so that although he wasn`t able to curse them, through his counsel, the Moabites seduced the Israelites into worshipping Baal.
Next we go to Saul, the first king of the Israelites. He was told, regarding the Amalekites, to do to them as Joshua had been told to do to the city of Jericho, to totally destroy everything. ‘He took Agag king of the Amalekites alive, and all his people he totally destroyed with the sword. But Saul and the army spared Agag and the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs—everything that was good. These they were unwilling to destroy completely, but everything that was despised and weak they totally destroyed.’ (1 Sam 15:8-9). I`m not sure which bit of destroy everything he didn`t understand but his excuse was that they wanted them for sacrifice. Samuel`s reply, ’Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice.’ (vs. 22). Isn`t there a greater lesson for us here, We covet things that are valuable not worthless things.
Take King David, ‘One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, “Isn’t this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her. Then she went back home.’ (2 Sam 11:2-4). Although he was ‘a man after God`s heart’, he was still tempted by the flesh. He should not have taken a second look. That is what temptation does, it takes a second look, at something we shouldn`t look at. The result of David`s coveting what didn`t belong to him was: (a) that he tried to cover up the act by the murder of Uriah; (b) the death of the child and (c) trouble for David for the rest of his reign.
Take Gehazi, Elisha`s servant, he coveted Naaman`s gift that Elisha had refused and got Naaman`s leprosy. (2 Kings 5:20-27)
It is the pattern throughout the Old Testament. ‘They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them. They defraud a man of his home, a fellowman of his inheritance.’ (Micah 2:2). We see by just these few examples the damage done by coveting to the individual but also to the wider community. God knew this and that is why this commandment is there.
When we come to the New Testament we are warned by Jesus to, “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.” (Luke 12:15). When Jesus was talking to the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:16-22 he doesn`t mention the 10th Commandment because Jesus knew what the man`s heart was like. He might have said that he wanted eternal life but not at the cost of his wealth. His was wealth was his god, and his desire to hold on to it, overrode his desire for eternal life. Remember the definition of coveting: an inordinate desire, a desire that over-rides everything else. He went away clinging on to his wealth at the cost of his life.
Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet. Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.” When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then the young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.
About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?” “Yes,” she said, “that is the price.” Peter said to her, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.” At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events. (Acts 5:1-11). They coveted the acclaim that Barnabas had received and lied to get it paying the price for it with their lives.
Jesus placed the reason for this within us. “What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man “unclean.'” (Mark 7:20-23).
John Stott said, ‘The 10th Commandment is in some ways the most revealing of all. It turns the Decalogue from an outward legal code into an inward moral standard. The civil law cannot touch us for covetousness but only for theft. For covetousness belongs to the inner life. It lurks in the heart and mind. What lust is to adultery and temper is to murder, that covetousness is to theft’. All around we see the results of covetousness yet Francis Xavier said, ‘I have heard thousands of confessions, but never one of covetousness’.
Paul, the Pharisee, the law-keeper ‘par excellence’, says, ‘I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead. Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death’. (Rom 7:7-11).
Isn`t this what coveting does? You tell a child not to do something and straight away the desire takes root and is there waiting to act. Perhaps that is why some parents never say no to their children. We don`t grow out of it but if we don`t master it, it will master us! Coveting will become a way of life. Paul`s solution is radical, ‘Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming’. (Col 3:5-6). In fact, when we see what Paul links coveting with, we see how serous God takes it. ‘Thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God’. (1 Cor 6:10).
It is the only one on this list that cannot be enforced by the law. We may be ‘whitewashed walls’, like the Pharisees, that is covering up all sorts of covetousness. It`s not what we look like on the outside. Because no one sees when we are coveting this is a most dangerous thing. We only see the results. So Jesus gives this instruction, ‘If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell’. (Matt 5:29-30). We have to be radical with anything that causes us to sin but if we did that would it solve the problem? No! Remember the last line of Elton Trueblood`s rhyme ‘rid your mind of selfish greed’. Coveting starts at the very core of our being. Jesus said that these things start much deeper, ‘out of men’s hearts’, and we can`t cut our hearts out. The heart of the problem is problem of the heart.
The apostle Paul said ‘covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints’. (Eph 5:3). Yet Samuel Chadwick said that, ‘Covetousness is the blight that is withering our church life in all directions’. Coveting starts with dissatisfaction with our lot. We want what is not ours to legitimately have. Maxie Dunnam put it like this, ‘What about position, money, opportunity? Most of us are guilty of looking at others, comparing ourselves to them, and seeing ourselves come out on the short end. We torture ourselves in this fashion, drive ourselves to depression by self-pity, thinking we deserve more. When we find ourselves jealous of what life is for someone else, dreaming of how happy we would be if we were in someone else’s situation, it’s a dead giveaway that we’re falling into the subtle, seductive hands of covetousness’. James says, ‘You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God’. (Jam 4:2).
What we need to do is ask God and be satisfied with His answer. But that doesn`t mean that we can ask for just anything, to win the lottery, or for someone else’s spouse, or someone`s job. These are not legitimate requests and they should warn us that we are being covetous. To win the battle over coveting is to put our needs in the proper perspective, and diminish our wants to a manageable level. ‘He is much happier that is always content, though he has ever so little, than he that is always coveting, though he has ever so much’. (Matthew Henry)
‘Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Heb 13:5). Do you find all your needs satisfied in God? Do you like Paul, ‘consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ’ (Phil 3:8)? Or are we always wanting something more? Paul had found the secret, ‘Godliness with contentment is great gain’. (1 Tim 6:6) It was all found in Christ. ‘I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want’. (Phil 4:11-12)
This commandment reveals what we are really like and whether we are truly satisfied with God. Has the 10th commandment, this ‘Weak Sister’, convicted you, as it has me, of being a law breaker and your need of someone to stand in the gap for you? Praise God that we have a Saviour, Jesus Christ, who has done just that, that we, though guilty, might be set free.
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided,
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!
Thomas O. Chisholm