The Tenth Commandment

Exodus 20: 17

The Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, is to be taken as the embodiment of Yahweh’s legal representation of Himself to the Israelites at Mount Sinai. The motif emphasized a unique relationship between a people and their holy God, with the central testimonial of the separation of the Jewish nation from other worldly powers. Accordingly, it represents Yahweh’s gift of Himself and His expectation of those who belong to Him to reciprocate with their obedience. Therefore, the tenth commandment is directed specifically to relationship within the covenant community: to an individual member in relation to his neighbour.

The application of this commandment is determined by the word ‘covet,’ and its meaning is to desire, yearn for, or lust after someone or something, explicitly for one’s own use or gratification. It unambiguously refers to the mental and emotional interior processes of the mind and heart. So, “you are not to desire for yourself, your neighbour’s …” demarcated the boundary of law breaking; implying that a transgression in this respect amounts to a personal misdemeanor against God, as His identification with His covenant community was inseparable. A New Testament parallel to this symbolic community is the Body of Christ. Jesus redefined what it means to be ‘a neighbour’ in His Good Samaritan story, as anyone who needed our assistance (Luke 10:25-37): that includes potentially everyone!

The Tenth summarized functionally the commandments, where obsessive covetousness in the heart and mind shapes the inevitable gateway to breaking many of the other commandments. It describes the importance of attitude prior to the fruition of the deed. Before Ahab’s fixated desire for Naboth’s vineyard was met, the 9th and 6th commandments were broken (1 Kings 21). Before David’s lust for Bathsheba was sated, the 7th, 8th, and 6th commandments were violated (2 Sam 11–12). The hankering merchants of Amos’s day broke the 4th and 8th commandments in their vehement possessiveness (Amos 8:4–6). And in Jeremiah’s time, the citizens of Judah deifying their desires and longing after material security violated the 1st, 3rd, 6th, 7th, and 9th commandments, and by making Yahweh’s temple into a fetish, the 2nd commandment as well (Jer 7:1–15). As sin ultimately is a matter of the heart and mind, the Word of God certainly delimits its impact beyond the acts one commits. Jesus likewise teaches that our thoughts and feelings are sufficient to indict our sinfulness (Matt 5:21-30). The ‘house’ represented the neighbour’s comprehensive ownership of his possessions: from his most valuable possession in the Old Testament view, his wife, to the least.

Covetousness has been the bedrock of modern political, social, and commercial endeavours, driven by the insatiable material desires of the human heart, thereby distancing us from being contented with what God has provided for us in His wisdom. The Commandment does not prohibit from desiring the normal necessities of life, like a nice home or a good job, but its proscription steps in when our motivations are driven by other than contentment in Christ (Heb 13:5), and spills over into feeding our acquisitive enviousness over another’s belongings. God calls for his people to take an approach to their neighbours that respects them and their possessions—an approach they must agree to, if they want to please Him. Contentment means wanting what God wants for us rather than what we want for ourselves: a remedy for covetous desires (Matt 6:33; Phil 4:11; 1 Tim 6:6).