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


Exodus 20:17

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.


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.

James describes how lust grows in the human heart: “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 (1:14-15).

King David’s adulterous sin with Bathsheba provides an excellent example. David should have been with his troops, but he indulged himself at home. He observed his soldier’s wife at her bath and coveted her. Lust led to adultery, and adultery led to death. Bathsheba’s husband was murdered; the baby conceived by this union died; later, Amnon and Absolom, two of David’s sons, met their deaths because of their father’s sin. Finally, the entire nation suffered as sin gave birth to death.


Covetousness deliberately rejects the wisdom of God. It makes us think we know better than God does what will make us happy. God gives good gifts. It is our responsibility to be grateful for what we have instead of focusing on what we do not have.

Covetous people are never satisfied. They seek things and thrills until they find them. Then, like an addict, they need something more. Such covetousness is a disease.

Jesus warned, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). When the Declaration of Independence was first drafted, Thomas Jefferson wrote about our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of possessions. Those working on the document changed the words to the more familiar “pursuit of happiness.” Still, there are many who feel their happiness is determined by the stuff they can accumulate. They are like the man Jesus told about in Luke 12:

“The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry’” (Luke 12:16-19).

He had plenty and could have assisted so many others, but he failed to see beyond his own consumptive greed. “I’ll tear down what I have and build bigger and better.” How American he sounds!

We should hear the Lord’s evaluation carefully. “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’” (v. 20). If you give yourself to a life of greedy consumption and surrender to the siren song of self-indulgence, these words will be your epitaph as well: “You fool!”

God said, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Sociologists called the 1980’s the decade of greed. Our appetites became insatiable. One of the Greek words for covet means “to have more”—just more and more and more. That’s what we came to expect.

Whatever we had, we anticipated better. We lived in the finest homes we have ever known, but we demanded bigger, better homes with bedrooms we don’t use. We craved better cars, better jobs, and better sex. The soft-porn magazines picture sexual partners with whom no one can compare, because real people can’t airbrush their flaws away. We began to covet the centerfold fantasy. We need reality, not fantasy. Richard Foster writes, “Lust produces bad sex, because it denies relationship. Lust turns the other person into an object, a thing, a nonperson. Jesus condemned lust because it cheapened sex; it made sex less than it was created to be. For Jesus, sex was too good, too high, too holy, to be thrown away by cheap thoughts” [ Richard Foster, Money, Sex and Power (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1985), 99].

Coveting, as Paul discovered, leads us to break all the commandments. David broke the tenth commandment coveting his neighbor’s wife. That led to adultery, which broke the seventh commandment. Then, in order to steal Bathsheba (thereby breaking the eighth commandment), he committed murder and broke the sixth commandment. He broke the ninth commandment bearing false witness against his brother. This all brought dishonor to his parents, breaking the fifth commandment. David eventually broke all the commandments that relate to loving one’s neighbor. He also dishonored God as well, finally breaking all of the commandments {J. Oswald Sanders, Bible Men of Faith (Chicago: Moody Press, 1974), 13].

Bill Hybels tells of a more contemporary coveter:

All he ever really wanted in life was more. He wanted more money, so he parlayed inherited wealth into a billion-dollar pile of assets. He wanted more fame, so he broke into the Hollywood scene and soon became a filmmaker and star. He wanted more sensual pleasures, so he paid handsome sums to indulge his every sexual urge. He wanted more thrills, so he designed, built, and piloted the fastest aircraft in the world. He wanted more power, so he secretly dealt political favors so skillfully that two U. S. presidents became his pawns. All he ever wanted was more. He was absolutely convinced that more would bring him true satisfaction. Unfortunately, history shows otherwise.

[He] concluded his life … emaciated; colorless; sunken chest; fingernails in grotesque, inches-long corkscrews; rotting, black teeth; tumors, innumerable needle marks from drug addiction. Howard Hughes died,… believing the myth of more. He died a billionaire junkie, insane by all reasonable standards [Bill Hybels, “Power: Preaching for Total Commitment,” Mastering Contemporary Preaching (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1989), 120-121].

And God said, “You fool!”


God wants to liberate us from the tyranny of things. He wants us to experience the freedom of contentment. He advises: “Do not wear yourself out to get rich; have the wisdom to show restraint. Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle” (Proverbs 23: 4-5).

Our money monopolizes us until our possessions possess us. Solomon knew this lesson well. By the time he wrote Ecclesiastes he was pessimistic about wine, women, money, and power. He said, “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless. As goods increase, so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owner except to feast his eyes on them?” (5:10-11).

Paul learned to be content in every situation. He could be happy with or without the good things of life. He was well qualified to advise:

Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs (1 Timothy 6:6-10)

Many have started out for God, but the allure of a few extra dollars, or the need to fix up the new house pulled them away from church and the fellowship of God’s people. It didn’t make economic sense to own that new boat and not take it to the lake on weekends. God got squeezed out of the relationship until finally the pressure built on the family. It has now dissolved. More and more stuff was not as important as love, and divorce has resulted. They have “wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”

Lot loved the fancy life of Sodom and chose its well-watered plain over his uncle Abraham. But he pierced himself with many griefs because of his covetousness. Finally, he lost all he had gained, leaving it behind as he fled Sodom to save his life.

Do you remember the Old Testament story of Elisha healing Captain Naaman of his leprosy? To express gratitude Naaman offered the prophet a generous gift. Elisha had simply done God’s work so he refused the gift. His assistant, Gehazi couldn’t resist profiteering, so he sought Naaman’s loot, only to discover that his loot included his leprosy!

What price are you prepared to pay for the things you covet? Are they worth the loss of your health? Are you willing to give up important friendships? Are you willing to forfeit your children’s’ respect to pay for those things?

Covetousness leads to discontent. Perhaps you have lived all your life in the desert of discontent. You don’t have to live that way. You needn’t be entrapped by worldly concerns the rest of your days. You can say, “I’m sorry, my values are distorted. I’ve been seeking the wrong goals. I’m ready to submit my life to Jesus Christ and claim His promise of salvation.”

Your discontent may spring from the fact that you have failed to take God at His word. Your devotional life is stagnant or non-existent. You have no burning desire to share the good news of Christ with others as you once did. You’re not living in the reality of His promise to supply your every need according to his riches in glory. Perhaps this is the day you will say, “With God’s help, I will sit loose to stuff. I’m going to put God’s tithe right up front where it belongs. Instead of consuming more and more on myself, I will give additional gifts to the Lord, and invest my life more faithfully in his service.”

Several years ago, Nelda and I were invited by friends to see the play, Becket. Thomas á Becket was a playboy buddy of King Henry II. The King is criticized by Church of England leaders for his libertine lifestyle and abuse of power. When the Archbishop of Canterbury dies, the King decides to make things easier for himself by appointing Becket to the post of Archbishop. His cohort in sin becomes the head of the English Church. Becket Henry didn’t realize that the nomination would transform Becket. He initially resists appointment to high-church office, but once ordained the sinner becomes a saint.

To be invested as Archbishop, Becket must give all his possessions to the poor. The destitute gather in the cathedral as their new archbishop prepares to distribute his wealth among them. In a dramatic scene, Becket stops, turns toward the front of the cathedral, points to the image of Jesus, and shouts, “You! Only you know! Only you know how easy this is [Anthony Campolo, Who Switched the Price Tags? (Waco: Word Books, 1986), 191-192].” Jesus Christ knew! He was rich, but became poor that you through His poverty might become rich. When covetousness is replaced by contentment in Christ we know true liberty.

Eleventh Message in a Series on the Ten Commandments