The key to understanding this commandment is in the definition of the word “covet.” Two different Hebrew words are used in the passages condemning coveting (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21), and both mean “to lust after or to long for with great desire.” Since the commandments are given as “you shall not’s,” the desire in this case is for something that is not the property of the desirer and not rightfully his to long after. In this commandment, the Israelites are told not to lust after their neighbor’s possessions—his house, land, ox or donkey, or the people in his life—his wife or servants, both male and female. The Israelites were not to desire, long for, or set their hearts on anything that belonged to anyone else.
Whereas several of the commandments prohibit certain actions, such as murder and theft, this is one of the commandments that address the inner person, his heart and mind. As James 1:15 tells us, the inner person is where sin originates, and in this case, covetousness is the forerunner of all manner of sin, among them theft, burglary, and embezzlement. At its root, coveting is the result of envy, a sin which, once it takes root in the heart, leads to worse sins. Jesus reiterated this very thought in the Sermon on the Mount when He said that lust in the heart is every bit as sinful as committing adultery (Matthew 5:28). Envy goes beyond casting a longing glance at the neighbor’s new car. Once dwelled upon, envy of the neighbor’s possessions can turn to feelings of resentment and hatred for the neighbor himself. That can turn into resentment against God and questioning Him: “Why can’t I have what he has, Lord? Don’t you love me enough to give me what I want?”
God’s reasons for condemning covetousness are good ones. At its very core, envy is love of self. Envious, selfish citizens are unhappy and discontented citizens. A society built of such people is a weak one because envious malcontents, as stated before, will be more likely to commit crimes against one another, further weakening the societal structure. Furthermore, the New Testament identifies covetousness as a form of idolatry, a sin which God detests (Colossians 3:5). In the end, envy and covetousness are Satan’s tools to distract us from pursuing the only thing that will ever make us happy and content—God Himself. God’s Word tells us that “godliness with contentment is great gain” and that we should be content with the basic necessities of life (1 Timothy 6:6-8), because true happiness is not attained by things, but by a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. By this alone do we gain that which is worthy, true, solid, satisfying, and durable—the unsearchable riches of God’s grace.