Don’t go hankering after your buddy’s stuff. That’s the gist of the tenth commandment, which speaks against discontentment with one’s lot in life. To be more accurate, the tenth commandment states, “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).
But what does it mean to covet? And how does covetousness differ from envy? To envy is not the same as to covet. To envy is dislike or hate somebody because of their good fortune or possessions while to covet is to wish for the possessions of another person (while also perhaps doing so enviously). Thus covetousness deals specifically with our desires in relation to possessions rather than our feelings toward a person or group of people.
One might wonder why there is a need for the tenth commandment, given the fact that several other commandments implicitly forbid coveting. Jesus makes clear that the seventh commandment’s prohibition of adultery includes a prohibition of lusting for a woman in one’s heart, which is to say that it forbids coveting another man’s wife (Mt 5:28). Similarly, the eighth commandment forbids theft, but we would agree that the heart of the commandment is such that it also forbids lust for money, which includes coveting the possessions of another person (1 Tim 6:10).
Calvin and other theologians answer this question by making a distinction between plans and desires. When we sin, we often first entertain desires only after which our desires eventuate into a plan which leads to harming our neighbor. And while the seventh and eighth commandments focus more on those plans, the tenth commandment focuses on the desires. Often we are able to hide our desires so that others never see them; the tenth commandment warns us to kill any immoral desire the moment it arises.
Once we’ve aimed our desire at something or somebody that is not ours, we’ve not only sinned but set the stage for further sin. In Joshua, Achan confessed that he had coveted the Babylonian garment and treasure, leading to his theft of those items and eventually to his judgment at the hands of God and Israel (Josh 7:21). Similarly, David coveted Bathsheba when he saw her bathing (2 Sam 11:2-4); he nurtured this desire by having her brought to the house, committing adultery with her, and eventually having her husband killed.
How many problems have been caused by disobedience to this commandment? How many marriages and families have been destroyed by coveting a person who is not one’s spouse? How many people have been killed by unjust wars waged for the acquisition of land or wealth? Indeed, we must weed out sin, starting at its roots, by killing covetous desires the moment we experience them.
With God’s help, we can and should be content with what he has given us. As the apostle Paul wrote, “Now godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Tim 6:6). Indeed, we should ask God to cultivate in us the settled disposition and belief that the life we have is the one that God has given us for now. We may try to improve our lot through hard work, but we may not chase after those things which are not ours.
It should be noted that this commandment has implications for our “market-driven” economy and its support industries. Consider for example, contemporary marketing. Although “marketing” has been around in one form or another for millennia, contemporary marketing is persuasive and pervasive, drawing upon psychology, sociology, demographic profiling, and other tools to market products and services. Contemporary marketing can catalyze covetousness, and some marketers do so in ways that are deceitful or invasive.
And yet, the viewer or listener of these marketing campaigns is culpable as well. The only reason the marketer stays in business is that we buy what they’re selling. The worst aspects of marketing would be curbed if listeners and viewers curbed the materialism in our own hearts. We must realize that consumption will not save us.
It should also be noted that, when the Bible forbids covetousness, it is not prohibiting all forms of desire. The Bible often speaks approvingly of a person’s desire for children (Gen 30:22-23; Ps 127:3-5). It similarly speaks well of people who desire to improve, earn, and acquire (Prov 13:4; 24:27). The Song of Solomon praises a husband’s desire for his wife. Jesus himself desired food (Mt 4:2), drink (Jn 19:28-29) and rest (Lk 8:23). And yet, we are told to desire God more than anything else (Ps 42:1-2; 73:25), and that our desire for God will in turn cause us to desire only the things that are good, and to desire them in a way that is not disordered or disproportionate.