The Ten Words: The Tenth

The Law, though written on tablets of stone, is still able to condemningly penetrate into the depths of our hearts, and the last Commandment leaves us all with our “mouths stopped”, as Paul argues (Romans 3:19), that in our own strength we are unable to love the Lord our God with all our heart. Which is the tenth commandment? The tenth commandment is, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s” (Exodus 20:17).

To covet (in the Hebrew khamad) is to desire and in and of itself the word does not alone denote anything evil or wrong. The word is used for legitimate desires as it’s used in Psalm 19:10, “More to be desired are [God’s word] than gold, even much fine gold.”[1] What makes coveteous desire wrong is the object of that desire, namely, if it what you’re desiring does not belong to you because it already belongs to someone else. Hence the repeated emphasis of thy neighbor’s house, neighbor’s wife, neighbor’s ox, etc. This is the sin of envy. Seeing something or someone that belongs relationally or legally to someone else and wanting – desiring – that person or thing. And therein lies the penetrating depth of this commandment.

It's not merely acting on the desire that’s sinful. It is the desire itself that is sinful. That is, the mere desire of wanting that which is not yours, and entertaining that desire with any delight and approval and yearning, is itself rebellion against God, even if you have not outwardly acted on that desire. You may not have made the choice to take any action at all in taking away your neighbor’s wife from him, but the thought, the desire, still condemns you before God’s holy law. Does not Jesus himself strike this same note when he says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28)?

Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley are absolutely right when they say that “the desire for evil is evil and arises from a sinful heart.”[2] There’s much to ponder here, especially in our current climate where many folks, even from within the church, argue that desire – any desire at all – is not evil or wrong, but only acting on those desires. Not so, according to the tenth commandment. We of course, do not want to confuse temptation and enticement with desire, for we can be tempted toward something that we, in our fallen natures tend to desire, but for the Christian there is an ability to now refuse that desire any life or breathing room. Hence Paul in Romans 8 – “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:12-13).

Positively, the tenth commandment is calling us toward contentment. As the Westminster Larger Catechism puts it, “The duties required in the tenth commandment are, such a full contentment with our own condition, and such a charitable frame of the whole soul toward our neighbor, as that all our inward motions and affections touching him, tend unto, and further all that good which is his.”[3] This is nothing more than a happy willingness to accept all that God has for me and for my neighbors, trusting that in His good and sovereign providence, I have exactly what I need and my neighbor has exactly what he needs. Drawing us then to refocus our attention upon God, we’re made able to love our neighbor no matter his position in life. Thus, the commandment is highlighting the sins of murmuring and complaining, whether outwardly or inwardly, which are symptoms of envy and coveting.

Just as we’ve seen in other commandments the wide-ranging social implications each commandment has upon a people, so it is here in the tenth. Johannes G. Vos wisely inquires why communists particularly hate and are opposed to the tenth commandment. His answer focuses on Marx’s slogan that “religion is the opium of the people”, noting that “communism holds that Christianity, by this commandment... teaches people that it is their duty to be patient and contented with their situation in life, whereas communism would have the people improve their condition by violent revolution, the poor taking possession of the wealth of the rich, etc. According to Christianity, contentment is a virtue; according to communist doctrine, it is a vice.”[4]

Vos is correct. The sin of envy believes that you deserve what others have, and more often than not, when envy is put into policy action it ends up declaring that others shouldn’t have what they do have, all in the name of equity. Often enough, when envy becomes the driving vice of a social program, the results are devastating: squalor, wide-spread poverty, and no decrease in covetousness and envy. Indeed, “the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10), and once everyone has become poor, well, it doesn’t follow that people desire and love money less.

What is ultimately at stake is our love of neighbor. As Paul himself reminds us, “Love is patient and kind and love does not envy or boast” (1 Corinthians 13:4). We are called to rejoice in the merciful ways our God deals with our neighbors, even and especially when they become the recipients of blessings that we ourselves don’t have. “Rejoice with those rejoice”
(Romans 15:12). As for ourselves, well, “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). What a great reminder that our God is in full control over all of life and over everyone’s life, even mine.

May we ever pray the prayer of wise Agur, “Two things I ask of you; deny them not to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the Lord?” or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God” (Proverbs 30:7-9).

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

[1] Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology, vol 3: Spirit and Salvation (Crossway, 2021), p. 965

[2] Ibid., p. 966

[3] Westminster Larger Catechism, Question and Answer number 147.

[4] Johannes G. Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary, edited by G.I. Williamson (P&R Publishing, 2002), p. 403. Further on in Vos’ commentary on the Tenth Commandment he says this: “Is it true that ‘Religion is the opium of the people’? No doubt there have been some very corrupt and degenerate forms of Christianity that have tended to destroy people's ambition and make them satisfied to live in misery and wretched poverty without trying to do anything to change such conditions. But this is not true of real Christianity, and especially not of Protestant Christianity in its most consistent form (Calvinism, or the Reformed Faith). Everywhere that the Calvinistic system of doctrine has been accepted and taken seriously, it has stirred people up to vigorous activity in all spheres of life, and has tended to increase the material prosperity of the people in general. There have been three striking examples of this in three regions of the world which naturally are far from rich in wealth or material resources. The first is the little country of Holland, which is so situated that constant effort is required to hold the land against the encroachments of the ocean. The second is Scotland, largely a country of rocky hills, very poorly suited to agriculture, and apparently unable to support a large population. The third example is New England, a region of stony hillsides and very cold winters. In all three of these regions the Calvinistic form of Christianity was generally accepted and became the prevailing religion; and all three, despite their natural handicaps, became world-famous for their advancement and prosperity. In each case, Christianity led to honest government, initiative, hard work, and thrift, which greatly improved the condition of the people” (pp. 403-404). Some may read this and object that the success of these societies were built on the backs of others in the form of slavery. The rejoinder though is that all societies have (ab)used the institution of slavery in every land and at all times, and what is unique about those places where the Reformed faith became deeply believed and ingrained was that true liberty flourished and it was precisely out those societies where the slave trade was first outlawed and slavery abolished. The Tenth Commandment certainly had no little part to play in how this history evolved.


Stephen Unthank