Summary: The tenth commandment is different because it addresses attitude. The first nine commandments apply to actions. This one simply says, “Do not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.” The sins of action are obvious. This sin of attitude is hidden, kn
GETTING A GRIP ON GREED
Newscaster Paul Harvey tells how an Eskimo kills a wolf. The grisly account offers insight into the destructive, devouring, nature of desire without discipline:
The Eskimo coats his knife blade with animal blood and allows it to freeze. He then adds layer upon layer of blood, until the frozen blood com-pletely conceals the blade. The hunter next fixes the knife in the ground with the blade up. A wolf smells the blood and when he discovers the bait he licks it, tasting the fresh-frozen blood. He licks faster, more and more vigorously, lapping the blade until the keen edge is bare. Feverishly now, harder and harder, the wolf licks the blade in the arctic night. In his mad craving for blood he does not notice the razor sharp sting of the naked blade on his tongue, nor does he recognize the moment when his insatiable thirst begins to be satisfied by his own warm blood. His carnivorous appetite just craves more—until the dawn finds him dead in the snow [ Chris T. Zwinglelberg, “Sin’s Peril,” Leadership 8 (Winter 1987), 41]!
The wolf provides an apt metaphor showing how illicit desire blinds us to our own destruction. God knows that we gravitate toward greed and that our lustful nature is tyrannical and enslaving. The tenth commandment is another Statute of Liberty. It is God’s declaration of independence from the grasping grip of greed.
I. WHY DO WE COVET?
The tenth commandment is different because it addresses attitude. The first nine commandments apply to actions. This one simply says, “Do not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.” The sins of action are obvious. This sin of attitude is hidden, known only to God.
The word translated covet can also be rendered “desire” or “delight.” Desire, delight and the experience of pleasure are wonderful God-given gifts, but covetousness is desire gone wrong. It is longing for or even “panting after” that which belongs to another. God wants to set us free from the consequences of such lustful craving.
The tragedy of covetousness is rooted in the sinful nature of humanity. It is “a self-destructive passion, a craving which is never satisfied, even when what had been craved is now possessed” [John R. Stott, Social and Sexual Responsibilities in the Modern World [Involvement, II], (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1985), 120]. Schopenhauer said, “Gold is like sea water—the more one drinks of it, the thirstier one becomes” [quoted by Stott]. The forbidden treasure may be gold, money, sex, position, or power. Whatever it is it seduces our hearts from God and imprisons them in a dungeon of deceit. It promises fulfillment, but provides only futility.
Covetousness has even invaded the church. A current false doctrine has brought it unblushingly to the altar. One contemporary songwriter puts it like this:
Name it and claim it, that’s what faith’s about!
You can have what you want if you just have no doubt.
So make out your “wish list” and keep on believin’
And you will find yourself perpetually receivin’ [ John G. Stackhouse, Jr., “The Gospel Song” [an unpublished parody], quoted by Kent & Barbara Hughes, Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1987), 48]..
The New Testament word for coveting is the Greek word epithumia, usually translated, “lust” in English. It is a panting passion for the inappropriate. Jeremiah’s graphic picture of lust is a she-camel in heat, frantically searching the desert for a male.
What an insulting comparison! Yet, this was the analogy that astonished a proud, high-minded, pharisaic Jew. Paul desired above all things to know God, but the tenth commandment mirrored something in himself he had never seen before. He describes it in Romans 7:
What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed 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 (vv. 7-11).
Paul would quickly declare that he kept the commandments to the letter. He thought himself faultless as he admits in Philippians 3:6, until he detected in himself a bit of covetousness. The more he sought to stamp it out, the more it gripped him. Lust for things beyond his grasp began to dominate him.