“Thou shalt not covet.” Any recitation of the Ten Commandments ends with the prohibition against covetousness, the desire to have the wealth or possessions of someone else. But Exodus 20:17 goes farther than merely forbidding covetousness, giving examples of things people covet: “your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Those particulars help explain covetousness so that we understand God’s intent and why covetousness is sin.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. One way we covet is through lust. Lust is a strong desire for something that God has forbidden. When we covet the spouse of someone else, we are emotionally leaving the one we pledged our lives to. We may never touch the person we covet inappropriately, but, in our hearts, we desire that which is not ours, and that is sin. Jesus equated inward lust with outward adultery (Matthew 5:28). While the latter has more devastating consequences in this life, the former is equally repugnant to God. It is impossible to love our neighbor while at the same time coveting his or her spouse (see 1 Peter 1:22; Mark 12:33). Covetousness causes us to see neighbors as rivals, and that creates jealousy and envy and may eventually lead to acting out our inward sin (James 1:14–15).
You shall not covet his male or female servant. In most cultures, having servants means that the household is doing well financially. Human beings are prone to comparison, and we judge our own success by how we think we compare to others. Modern-day coveting often takes the form of “keeping up with the Joneses” and leads to dissatisfaction with what God has given us.
For example, Mrs. Smith enjoys her small home and doesn’t mind the daily work it requires. Then she visits Mrs. Tate, who has a maid, a cook, and a butler. The home is spotless and the dinner superb. She goes home and feels dissatisfied with her own house. She imagines how much easier life would be if she had servants like Mrs. Tate has. She begins to despise her own simple recipes, the continual chore of laundry, and having to answer her own door. Coveting her neighbor’s servants will lead Mrs. Smith to an ungrateful spirit and a lack of contentment (Proverbs 15:16; Luke 12:15; Philippians 4:11).
You shall not covet your neighbor’s ox or donkey. In ancient economies, service animals represented a man’s livelihood. A man with several sturdy oxen could plow and harvest more crops. Donkeys were pack animals used by traders and merchants. Men with many donkeys were doing well and could even rent them to others, bringing in more revenue. Coveting the work animals of another meant dissatisfaction with one’s own livelihood. The attitude of covetousness created resentment toward God and jealously toward neighbors.
Today, coveting a neighbor’s ox or donkey may sound something like this: “Why does he get all the breaks? I work just as hard as he does, but I get nowhere. If I just had what he has, I could do better, too.” We cannot love and serve our neighbors if we are jealous of their station in life. Coveting another’s livelihood can result in believing that God is not doing a good job caring for us, as we accuse Him of being unfair in the way He has blessed someone else (2 Thessalonians 1:5–6).
You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor. This command covers all possessions. We need to guard our hearts against slipping into covetousness in any area.
King Ahab is a biblical example of someone overcome by the evils of coveting (1 Kings 21:1–16). As the king of Israel, Ahab had everything he needed, yet he saw a vineyard he did not own and coveted it. His covetousness led to discontent, pouting, and eventually murder when his wicked wife, Jezebel, seized the vineyard for him and had its rightful owner killed. When we allow covetousness to have its way, it can lead to greater evils.
First Timothy 6:6–10 gives us the cure for covetousness: “But 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. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people 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.” God gave us commands against coveting for our own good. We cannot be covetous and thankful at the same time. Covetousness kills contentment, joy, and peace. When we stay continually aware of all God has done for us, we safeguard our hearts against covetousness (1 Thessalonians 5:18).