In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used the commandments prohibiting murder and adultery to illustrate the truth that obedience begins in the heart. The religious leaders of his day didn’t understand this truth; they believed a person was obeying God if he simply refrained from committing the physical acts of murder, adultery, and stealing.
Their outward compliance to the law with no regard for the heart had reduced God’s statutes to cold, sterile, legal precepts, separate from their true meaning and intent. God wants us to fulfill the law, or His commandments, through the way we express our love for Him and for others. When we study the tenth commandment, “Thou shall not covet,” we must understand that true obedience to God begins in the heart.
Coveting is not a physical act, although it almost always leads to a sinful action. The Hebrew word for covet, hamad, means to desire, crave, long for, or lust for. Like the love (lust) for money, the sin of coveting is the root of all sorts of evil behavior. That is why God addressed it in His commands to the Israelites:
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor (Exodus 20:17 NAS).
Biblical Examples of Coveting
Coveting often begins with the lust of the eyes. A person sees something and begins to be consumed with a desire to possess it no matter what the cost, as we see in the case of King David (2 Samuel 11-13; 15-18). One evening David was on the roof of his palace when he saw a beautiful woman bathing close by. He inquired about her and discovered that she was married.
David should have dropped the matter immediately but he allowed his attraction to blossom into coveting his neighbor’s wife. He then abused his power by sending for Bathsheba and having sexual relations with her. He may have gotten away with it (in man’s eyes) but she became pregnant. In an attempted cover-up, David ordered that Bathsheba’s husband be put in the hottest part of the battle so he would be killed by the enemy. Then David took Bathsheba as a wife.
The result of David’s sin opened up and brought pain and tragedy, including to himself and his family:
All this tragedy came because David coveted another man’s wife—he lost the battle with sin in his thought life before he committed the physical acts that brought judgment on his house and kingdom. It was the covetousness in his heart that led to adultery and murder.
David was not the only king to fall to covetousness. Ahab was ruler over the northern kingdom of Israel. One of his desires was to possess a vineyard that belonged to his neighbor, Naboth (1 Kings 21). Ahab tried to purchase it but Naboth refused to sell. Up to this point, Ahab had done nothing wrong. But when he could not have the land legally, covetousness gripped his heart. His desire for the land was so strong that he became depressed and pouted like a little child who does not get his way.
Through an elaborate scheme devised by Jezebel, Ahab’s wife, Naboth was wrongly accused of treason. Though he was innocent of the charges, he was declared guilty and stoned to death. Once Naboth was out of the way, Ahab was “legally” able to come acquire the land. Once again, the innocent suffered because of the covetousness of a man’s heart. But God is a God of righteousness. God cannot be mocked. He is the God of truth and justice. As in David’s case, the Lord did not allow this act to go unpunished. He sent his prophet Elijah to pronounce judgment upon Ahab and Jezebel for the murder of Naboth and the theft of his vineyard. Soon after, Ahab was killed in a battle and Jezebel was thrown from a balcony in fulfillment of the prophecy.
The message of the Lord is clear: flee covetousness at all costs. Be content with the things that the Lord has given you. This is not only true of wives and land, but position, as well.
Korah was a Levite, the tribe chosen to minister before the Lord and the congregation. He should have been satisfied with such a privileged position, but he wanted more. He coveted Moses’ position so much that he led a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. Moses was grieved in his heart and fell on his face to ask God what he should do. God replied to Korah:
Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the rest of the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to Himself, to do the service of the tabernacle of the Lord, and to stand before the congregation to minister to them; and that He has brought you near, Korah, and all your bothers, sons of Levi, with you? And are you seeking for the priesthood also? Therefore you and all your company are gathered together against the Lord. (Numbers 16:9-11 NAS)
Korah was guilty of not recognizing that all position and authority are given by God, and in his lust for power and influence, he forced a confrontation with Moses and Aaron. He didn’t realize that his rebellion was actually against God Himself. The Lord vindicated Moses and Aaron in the presence of all the people when He caused the earth to open up and swallow Korah and his followers. Their covetousness resulted in the destruction of them and their entire families.
I once heard someone explain God-given authority and position like this: if other people overheard when God was giving Moses the blueprint to the tabernacle in the desert, and they ran out and constructed it according to His specifications, would God be obligated to honor the duplicate or the one built by the person He gave the assignment to?
Every one of us has giftings and callings, and it’s a privilege to be a part of what God is doing. But we need to be content with what He has given us. Too often we covet what others are doing or what they have. We compare ourselves. But God is no respecter of persons. He does not want us to compare ourselves but to steward what He has given us to do.
The destructive fire of covetousness rages in the heart and thoughts of man until it births sin and destruction. David and Ahab obtained the object of their lust, but lost much of the good that they possessed. Korah never saw his lust fulfilled, and was destroyed just the same.
The battle against covetousness is waged in the heart and mind and it is there that the victory must be won.
Casting Down Vain Imaginations: The Key to Victory
Coveting begins with a thought, so the thought life must be kept under control. If a covetous thought is entertained, it can blossom into imaginations of what it would be like to possess the object in question. As these imaginations capture the affections of the heart, lust is conceived and the individual rationalizes actions that he or she would never do under normal circumstances.
These deceptions (vain imaginations) usually take the form of thoughts, such as, I’ll never truly be happy unless I can have a certain person’s wife, husband, job, or property. Or unless I can do this or become that.
These types of thoughts are maneuverings of the conscience that will lead a person to steal what belongs to another. These lusts are insatiable and, ironically, once the object of the lust is obtained, there is no joy in the possession, only sorrow and heartbreak. The only thing that gives satisfaction to a longing of our hearts is when we honor God and His ways and care for people. Much pain and suffering will be avoided if we will rely on the Lord and take control of these vain imaginations before they lead to covetousness, then to lust, then to a place of license, and then to stealing that which belongs to another.
The apostle Paul taught about bringing thoughts into conformity with the truth of God’s Word. He urged the Corinthian church to diligently fight the war to control the thought life by the power of God’s Spirit:
For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: for the weapons of our warfare our not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds; casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:3-5 KJV).
The longer a covetous thought is pondered, the more entrenched and powerful it becomes. Any imagination, argument, or internal conflict that is entertained in the thought life can become a stronghold that can only be pulled down or destroyed by force.
It is vital that we recognize covetous thinking immediately and “cast it down” by believing God’s Word instead of thoughts that are contrary to it. According to the Bible, Christians have the power to resist vain imaginations and bring all thoughts into captivity or conformity to the truth of God. Through prayer and meditation on the Word, we become immersed in the very nature and character of God. As the mind is renewed and washed through God’s truth, a stability takes place that makes it difficult for the lies of the enemy to take hold and lead to sin.
It is renewal of mind and spirit and not the power of the will (the flesh) that causes our thoughts to obey Christ. When a person attempts to resist vain imaginations in the power of the flesh, conflict and stress increase. Only by submitting to God and the leading of the Holy Spirit can the victory ultimately be achieved.
Satan has deceived many sincere believers through their failure to promptly cast down vain imaginations. Once the door to fantasies and speculations has been opened, it becomes difficult to discern what is true versus Satan’s lies.
Oftentimes, those closest to God are targeted by Satan’s attacks. A certain pastor and apostolic leader was used as a peacemaker in a strife-torn region. In a time of great ethnic tension and devastation, the leaders of the Christian community came to this man and asked him to act as a mediator to end the violence and killing. Because of the high profile of his ministry, he had many enemies who threatened his life and his family. A bodyguard was retained and, even with great personal risk, the leader remained faithful to the call of God on his life.
During this time, his wife began to entertain vain imaginations against her husband. All of a sudden, she thought he wasn’t loving enough, or that he was emotionally unavailable, and before long she entered into an adulterous affair with her bodyguard. Satan planted the thoughts in her mind, but she did not bring them captive to the obedience of Christ. When her deception had completed its work, Satan had his man there to make sure that her covetousness was fulfilled. Despite many pleas by her husband for reconciliation, she refused to return to him and the marriage failed.
We can go on with story after story. Husband cheats on wife. Wife cheats on husband. People steal reputations, or they want credibility by association. Each time, covetousness begins with a vain knowledge or desire for something that belongs to someone else. We need to be content. And if we are faithful to what God has called us to do, He will give us an increase of responsibility and stewardship.
We should never covet something that belongs to someone else. Instead, we need to respect them, honor them, and rejoice in their blessings instead of bringing them down to our level so we can take from them what we want.
A Perfect Ten
The prohibition against coveting is a fitting capstone to God’s commandments because it relates closely to all the others. After all, how can you say that you love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength when you are coveting the possessions of others? How can you say that you love others as yourself when you are scheming to possess what belongs to them?
The late Dr. Edwin Louis Cole defined love as “the desire to give to others at the expense of self.” Lust, he said, desires to get, take, or receive at the expense of others. It is never satisfied. It screams, Me, me, me! I want, I want, I want! It acquires, but is not fulfilled. It obtains, but is not satiated. There is no appeasing the covetous desires of our hearts except by subduing them through the contentment and peace that come through a relationship with Jesus Christ and a mind that has been renewed to think and act in agreement with God’s Word.
It is not easy, but through the power of the Spirit, the battle against covetousness can be won. If we become aware of areas of covetousness that are attempting to control our life, we must resist them by the mercy and grace of God. When the Lord reveals to us that we are entertaining vain imaginations, we simply must humble ourselves before Him and say, “Lord, now that You’ve exposed this situation to me, help me to bring these thoughts into obedience to Your truth. Wash my mind through the power of Your holy Word and the presence of Your Spirit that I might subdue every wicked thought and pull down every vain imagination or argument that exalts itself against Your truth. Help me to overcome the desires of the flesh and be obedient to Your will and not my own.”
As we humble ourselves in this manner, God will replace our covetousness for unholy things with a pure desire for the things of God.
Click here to listen to this message from Doug’s weekly podcast along with the rest of the Golden Rule series.