Would you please explain the meaning and application of the Tenth Commandment for us today?


The Tenth Commandment can be found in Exodus 20:17 and in Deuteronomy 5:21.  Exodus 20:17 reads: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.” Deuteronomy 5:21 words it slightly differently, namely: “’You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife; and you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, his male servant, his female servant, his ox, his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

We should note that the order of “wife” and “house” is reverse, and that Deuteronomy adds the word “desire” to the word “covet.” Also, the word “field” is added in Deuteronomy.

Commentaries are trying to explain the reverse order, but without convincing arguments. It appears that in God’s eyes, one is as bad as the other. In addition, the examples are given in Exodus and elaborated in Deuteronomy to make clear that nothing which belongs to our neighbor is to be coveted or desired by us.

The definition of “covet” is helpful. In Hebrew, it can mean “delight,” “lust after” and “desire,” and it is used in a wrong way in both passages above. The dictionary defines “covet” as “yearn to possess or have (something).“ In this respect, something that does not belong to us. When we covet our neighbor’s wife or our neighbor’s house, we are resentful as to what our neighbor has, and we desire to have them instead.

Synonyms for “covet” are “lust, desire, thirst for, fancy” or “want.”

The Tenth Commandment is related to man’s relationship to his fellow man. It is one of the last six commandments which defines how to love our neighbor (The first four commandments tell us how to love God).

“You shall not covet [nor desire] your neighbor’s house” tells us that it is wrong to desire in the wrong manner our neighbor’s dwelling place—his house and his field. Is it bigger than ours? Is it newer than ours? If it is, then why are we not happy for him and follow the admonition of Paul in Philippians 4:11, which tells us: “Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content…” Another admonition worth noting is “Now godliness with contentment is great gain.  For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.  And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content” (1 Timothy 6:6-8).

Some people are never happy, thinking that physical possessions and a nicer house are what life is all about, and that those things will give us more happiness in life. But what does the Scripture tell us? “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses” (Luke 12:15).

The key is to be happy with what we have (or not have) and to be happy for those who have more than we. All of this is temporary anyway.

The Tenth Commandment goes on to say, in Exodus 20:17: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.” This, in effect, prevents committing adultery in our minds. Christ told us in Matthew 5:28: “But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Here again, one must be content with what one has or with what one does not have. If one is married, be content and happy with your wife and don’t look for “alternatives.” If you are not married and want to be married, then wait for God to provide you with a wife in His due time, but don’t covet the wife of your neighbor. Proverbs 31:10-12 tells us that a virtuous wife is very precious: “Who can find a virtuous wife? For her worth is far above rubies. The heart of her husband safely trusts her; So he will have no lack of gain. She does him good and not evil All the days of her life.” If such a wife belongs to our neighbor, it would be a terrible sin to desire her, visualizing adultery in our mind, and then to perhaps even initiate actions to break up such a marriage.

We are also told in the Tenth Commandment not to covet our neighbor’s “male servant, nor his female servant.” What this is telling us is not to be envious of and covet the things which our neighbor has, which makes life easier for him—a butler and people who come and cut his lawn or take care of his field or his yard, clean his house and do chores around the house for him.

We are finally admonished not to covet our neighbor’s “ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is [our] neighbor’s.”

We are not to become envious of our neighbor’s possessions and covet those—be they a nice car and, again, those things that help make work easier for him regarding his yard: Things like a riding lawnmower or a snowblower which our neighbor may have, while we may have to push our mower and shovel snow by hand.

What God tells us in the Tenth Commandment is that we must overcome covetousness by being happy for the other person. Covetousness, if not repented of, may turn into envy and jealousy. Jealousy goes down to the marrow of the bone. This may lead to hatred and the desire to hurt our neighbor (who has something which we want to have). This attitude has caused a lot of suffering in this world. That is why God gave us His commandment against covetousness.

Being happy for others removes covetousness and brings joy and peace into our hearts. Envy and jealousy are many times the root cause for life-lasting rivalries, destroying families and friendships. It is almost impossible to deal with someone who is envious and jealous.

The key is to be happy with what we have (or don’t have) and not to look lustfully on our neighbor’s wife or covet our neighbor’s servants, nor focus on our neighbor’s animals or other things which our neighbor may have–even if they are nicer, bigger, or more expensive than ours.  We are to focus on those things which build treasures in heaven and we are not to get caught up in coveting, jealousy and envy, knowing that this life with all its physical blessings is only temporary. In the final analysis, covetousness is idolatry (Colossians 3:5), as we place something else before the true God who told us not to covet, but to love Him first and foremost.

Lead Writer: Rene Messier (Canada)

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