Beware of Covetousness
Good News Magazine
May 1983
Volume: VOL. XXX, NO. 5
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Beware of Covetousness
Clayton D Steep  

So warns God's Word. But what does it mean to covet, and how can we avoid doing so? Here's a practical look at the Tenth Commandment.

   Where does sin — the breaking of God's laws (I John 3:4) — begin? What is its origin, its starting point in your life?
   To be sure, you sometimes sin by accident, or through ignorance of the law.
   Maybe you didn't know that biscuit you ate during the Days of Unleavened Bread had baking powder in it. Or maybe when you were first learning about God's truth you worked late Friday evening, not realizing that the Sabbath begins and ends at sundown rather than at midnight.
   So, though you were transgressing one of God's laws, you weren't even aware of it. And you certainly didn't want to do it. Those things happen. They are sins, nevertheless.
   Most such sins are, however, relatively easy to repent of. Why? Because they do not involve an overriding inner desire on our part. We do not have strong feelings to contend with in such cases.
   But most of the sins we commit are not that way. They start out as a sentiment in the heart: jealousy, envy, hatred, rebellion or, in the case of the Tenth Commandment, a desire to do what we are not supposed to, or to have what does not belong to us.

Lust — the desire to get

   The Bible calls this desire "lust" or "covetousness." We may not even be consciously aware at the time that we are lusting, so deceitful are our hearts (Jer. 17:9). But lust is a basic part of our carnal natures. It is automatic. It wants to get for the self and acts like a giant magnet, drawing everything to it. It is the exact opposite of the desire to give. This pull within us — this lust, whether it is purposeful or not — opens and keeps open the door to sin (Jas. 1:14-15). Is it any wonder that Jesus Christ warned His followers to "Take heed and beware of covetousness" (Luke 12:15)?
   But how did such evil pulls come to be within us in the first place? Did God create a wicked nature and place it in us?
   No, our carnal natures are actually the result of satanic influence. We were born into a world that has a climate of evil. It is everywhere.
   Satan permeates the atmosphere with his rebellious, lustful, perverted attitude. He broadcasts it into our unsuspecting minds when we are very young, until we develop a carnal, lustful nature of our own. Satan does not cease trying to agitate and keep alive that evil nature by his broadcasting and persuasion.
   The point is, Satan is the real originator of lust and covetousness. Jesus told some unconverted people of His day: "You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer [and what causes murder, killing, wars? Lustful desires — James 4:1] from the beginning" (John 8:44).
   It goes back to the beginning — before human history. Back to the time when Satan, as the archangel Lucifer, lusted for additional power. Not satisfied with what he had, he coveted more.
   It is not a coincidence that Satan is compared, in Ezekiel 27 and 28, to a greedy prince of Tyre. Tyre was an ancient commercial hub, as important in its time as London, New York or Tokyo is today.
   Tyre was a trading center. But trading to what end? To share? To give? No, to get. To obtain. To give as little as possible and to receive in return as much as possible. To make a huge profit at the expense of others, just as is done in the world today.
   Inferior products, cutthroat competition, deceptive advertising, crooked deals — it is all a part of the self-oriented "corruption that is in the world through lust" (II Pet. 1:4). And it all began with Lucifer.
   "You were blameless in your ways," God told Lucifer, "from the day you were created, till iniquity was found in you" (Ezek. 28:15, Revised Standard Version).
   Notice one of the ways Lucifer's iniquity was manifested, leading to his downfall: "In the abundance of your trade ["multitude of thy merchandise" — King James Version] you were filled with violence, and you sinned... By the multitude of your iniquities, in the unrighteousness of your trade" (verses 16, 18, RSV).
   We may be sure that whatever "merchandise" he dealt with, whatever "trade" he was engaged in, it was done with the greedy, grasping, get motive, just as is true in the economic system he has palmed off on man's world. It is Satan's system! Finally Lucifer's covetousness and lustful ambition drove him to try seizing the very throne and ruling position of God Almighty.

The heart of the problem

   What a tragic thing it is to be driven by lust and greed! And yet that is what has motivated the world — Satan's world — from the time Eve was enticed into coveting the forbidden fruit up until today.
   It's the reason wars have been fought. It's responsible for the mass movements of history — the rise and fall of nations. It is the main reason most people get up in the morning — to get, to obtain, to procure for themselves.
   Jeremiah very accurately described the primary motivation of far too many people today: "From the least of them even to the greatest of them, everyone is given to covetousness" (Jer. 6:13).
   The Bible clearly associates lust with pride (vanity) (I John 2:16-17). Indeed, the Bible lists covetousness as one of the ways in which people are "lovers of themselves" (II Tim. 3:2).
   When the self is served and its desires pampered, it is exalted. It becomes a god. That is why the apostle Paul wrote in Colossians 3:5 that "covetousness... is idolatry." See also Ephesians 5:5.
   God wanted His people Israel to be different. He called them out of the world, as He has called us, to be a separate people, not to follow the selfish, lustful "will of the Gentiles" (I Pet. 4:3).
   After giving Israel the first nine points of His great law, each of which could be fulfilled in the letter by a physical people, God gave as the 10th point a commandment that has to do with man's heart — his mind. That is where coveting takes place. It is a mental or spiritual act and involves more than the mere letter of the law.
   The Seventh Commandment forbids adultery. The Eighth, stealing. But the Tenth Commandment forbids even desiring to do these things. This commandment gets to the heart of where much sin really originates: "You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor's" (Ex. 20:17).
   No wonder physical, unconverted Israel could not keep the Tenth Commandment (I Cor. 10:6)! It was against their nature.
   Even the apostle Paul had to especially battle to keep this point of God's law. Years after his conversion he was still having to struggle to keep from coveting (Rom. 7:7-25). He concluded: "For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal... O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (verses 14, 24). The answer? "I thank God [it shall be] through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (verse 25).
   Paul goes on in the next chapter to show that it is through the power of the Holy Spirit that we must put down, mortify, the fleshly nature (verse 13), of which covetousness is such a basic part.


   It is not wrong to want something. You can want a house or a wife or a husband or an ox or an ass or a maidservant or a manservant. But not your neighbor's! (Unless, of course, your neighbor wants to sell his ox or ass or house. Then it may be all right for you to want it, as long as you go about obtaining it in a fair and proper manner.)
   Coveting is an illegal or illicit desire to obtain. It is wanting that which is off limits. When something comes to mind and your feeling concerning it is "I want that," be quick to ask yourself whether it is truly available to you. Or is it something to which you have no right? If it is, you are entertaining a wrong desire. You are coveting.
   On the other hand, suppose the object under consideration is available to you, that there is no prior claim to it. You could still be guilty of coveting if your motive for acquiring it is selfish.
   It is right to want to better your living conditions, to improve the quality of your clothing, your dwelling, your diet. It is right to work for money in order to purchase these things. But why do you want them? That is an important key to determine whether or not lust is involved.
   Do you want them just for selfish reasons? Do you want to amass wealth purely for your own use and enjoyment? Do you want to get without giving or sharing in return? Do you worship material possessions? Do you set your heart on them? If so, that is coveting. And it is sin.

What are you after?

   It would benefit us all, in this age of desperate quest for physical luxuries, to stop often and really think deeply about Jesus' words: "Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses" (Luke 12:15). And again: "What is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?" (Matt. 16:26).
   God's way is the way of giving; covetousness is the way of getting (Prov. 21:26). What are you really after in this life? The Bible warns against setting one's heart on selfishly obtaining material wealth.
   "Do not overwork to be rich," Proverbs 23:4-5 instructs, "... for riches certainly make themselves wings." They don't last. "For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out," explained Paul. Then he gave a vital principle: "And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content" (I Tim. 6:7-8).
   Covetousness is actually a manifestation of ingratitude. We should be thankful for what we have, rather than having our thoughts continually dwell on what we do not have. It just so happens that the more possessions human beings acquire, the easier it is to become wrapped up in coveting more.
   Paul continues: "But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some [Christians!] have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows" (verses 9-10).

Seek what counts

   It isn't worth it. We have a far greater reason for being alive than the search for temporary pleasures. Paul reminded Timothy, "But you, 0 man of God, flee these things and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, gentleness" (verse 11). These are what count.
   Seek the real riches — God and His Kingdom and righteousness — first, "and all these things [the fulfillment of your needs — and even your wants and desires as it is good for you] shall be added to you" by God Himself (Matt. 6:33).

The Last — But Not the Least by Richard H Wilkinson

   Not too long ago a prominent clergyman wrote that in all his years of listening to confessions, he had not once heard the sin of coveting confessed.
   Interesting. Could it be because, humanly, it is easy to think of the Ten Commandments as descending in order of importance, and to not take the Tenth Commandment as seriously as the nine before it?
   The last of God's Ten Commandments, "You shall not covet" (Ex. 20:17), is just as encompassing and significant as any of the others.
   The English word covet in the Bible is translated from seven different words that illustrate the different forms coveting may take. Let's look at the meanings of these words.
   1) That which is not ours. The word usually translated "covet" means to desire in a negative way, to want what is not rightfully ours. This is the Hebrew word used in Exodus 20:17; the verse speaks of our neighbor's property.
   An interesting example of the use of this word is in Exodus 34:24, where God promises ancient Israel: "I will cast out the nations before you and enlarge your borders; neither will any man covet your land when you go up to appear before the Lord your God three times in the year."
   God promised to protect His people's property from the greed of their neighbors if Israel would obey Him and keep His festivals. When Israel didn't keep God's Holy Days, God did not protect them from this basic form of human covetousness (Judg. 2:11 -23).
   2) Dishonest gain. Another word often translated "covet" has the connotation of wanting something but not being willing to pay the price for it. It is not necessarily that the object of desire could not rightfully be ours, but we want it dishonestly. Ezekiel speaks of princes of Israel who were " like wolves tearing the prey, to shed blood, to destroy people, and to get dishonest gain" (Ezek. 22:27). The phrase dishonest gain is translated from this second word.
   Gambling, in its various forms, reflects this kind of coveting when it is based on the human desire to get and yet avoid paying the price.
   3) Wanting for the wrong reasons. A third Old Testament word for "covet" means wanting something for the wrong reasons. It is in this sense that the prophet Amos wrote, "Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord" (Amos 5:18). We can desire a good thing for wrong reasons.
   4) Overvaluing the physical. In the New Testament we find instruction regarding another kind of coveting: setting too high a value on some physical thing. Paul wrote, "I have coveted no one's silver or gold or apparel" (Acts 20:33).
   In Genesis 25:29-34 we see this attitude displayed in Esau's desire for Jacob's pottage. Hebrews 12:16 warns us against being a "profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright." The word profane here means not putting enough value on the proper things, and especially the things of God.
   5) Wanting more and more. Ever heard the expression, "Some people are never satisfied"? One of the words translated "covet" in the New Testament comes from a root meaning "to get more," "to overreach," "to be moved by greed."
   It is not wrong to exercise diligence and the principles of success, but God's Word clearly says that a dissatisfied attitude — one of always desiring more — is only another form of covetousness. Paul used this word when he wrote of "covetousness, which is idolatry" (Col. 3:5 ).
   6) Obsessive desire. Another word used in the New Testament refers to a deep desire. A desire is not wrong of itself (see I Timothy 3:1), but this word can also reflect an inordinate or obsessive desire.
   Paul used this word when he wrote to Timothy, "The love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows" (I Tim. 6:10, Authorized Version). The desired object, money, is not wrong, but any physical desire that becomes an obsession leads to ruin (verse 9).
   7) Envious desire. This seventh word translated "covet" is used in Acts 17:5 to describe certain Jews at Thessalonica who became "envious" of Paul. The same word is found in James 4:2: "You murder and covet and cannot obtain."
   Envy and jealousy are almost always the result of a covetous attitude. If we find such feelings in our lives, we should do everything we can to overcome them and develop right relationships with others.
   God wants us to bring our human desires under control through the guidance of His law (II Cor. 10:5). But that does not mean that we should ignore our proper needs and wishes. Rather, we need to learn to look to God as the provider of all good things (Jas. 1:17).
   The truth is that to the degree we seek God He will supply not only our physical needs and our mental and emotional desires, but also even our highest spiritual aspirations (Ps. 37:3-6). To covet is to forget that God desires to bless us with even the desires of our own hearts.

How Should the Ten Commandments Be Numbered? by Clayton D Steep

   In some religious circles the Ten Commandments are not numbered correctly. According to this erroneous but widespread system, the Sabbath commandment is the Third Commandment instead of the Fourth, the commandment against adultery is Sixth instead of Seventh and so forth.
   How did this happen?
   The different method of numbering came about in the fourth century after Christ, when Augustine devised a new method of counting the Ten Commandments by combining the First and Second Commandments of Exodus 20:1-6.
   But in reality, the first two commandments refer to two distinct principles. The First Commandment forbids the worship of false gods. The Second Commandment forbids the use of pictures, images or statues in worship.
   In order to retain a total of 10 commandments (see Deuteronomy 10:4), Augustine divided the Tenth Commandment. According to Augustine commandment number nine was, "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house." Then, the Tenth Commandment was, "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife... " etc.
   This is a totally artificial division. In quoting the Ten Commandments, the apostle Paul made no distinction between coveting your neighbor's house and coveting his wife — one principle.
   In Romans 7:7, Paul said, "For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, 'You shall not covet.'" See Romans 13:9, where Paul listed "You shall not covet" as a separate command.
   The law about coveting constitutes one commandment — the Tenth. This is the correct way to number the Ten Commandments — the method Jesus, the apostles and the Jews have always recognized.

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Good News MagazineMay 1983VOL. XXX, NO. 5