Coveting—desiring something we shouldn’t have—is a dangerous trap for people both poor and rich. That’s why God says, “Thou shalt not covet.”
God gave us the 10 Commandments for our benefit, including the 10th Commandment: “Thou shalt not covet” (Exodus 20:17, King James Version).
To understand God’s law against coveting, it can be helpful to consider an example of the damaging effects of coveting.
It was plain and simple. He wanted it, and he wanted it now! Day after day, he wandered up and down the halls with his mind centered on a prize he simply could not rightfully win. It became such a fixation that he almost became sick over it.
Sadder still, this man did not really need anything—after all, he was a king! With all the treasures in the king’s house, what more could this man want?
When your name is Ahab, king of Israel, there is always something more. In this case it happened to be a vineyard that was next door to his palace. What started out as the pursuit of additional property, quickly turned into an ugly and sinful attitude.
When the negotiation didn’t go his way, King Ahab unleashed his ruthless wife on the hapless neighbor. Queen Jezebel thought nothing of taking what didn’t belong to them, at the cost of their neighbor’s life. And all because King Ahab gave in to the sinful attitude of covetousness.
“I want what you have!” Defining “covet”
Although listed as the last of the 10 Commandments given by God, the act of coveting carries with it the potential for a lifetime of tragedy and heartache. It is easy to reason in one’s mind that coveting is not as bad as murder, stealing or adultery, but make no mistake—coveting, which is a sin in itself, can lead to all of these sins and more!
To covet means to desire wrongfully or inordinately without regard for the rights and property of others. God knows the heart of man and also the intent of the heart (1 Chronicles 28:9). So when He presented the 10 Commandments to the children of Israel, God elaborated on some of the items that should not be coveted.
“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” (Exodus 20:17).
God knew that a heart that begins to covet is a heart that no longer focuses on Him, but looks inwardly. Coveting begins when the mind harbors an insidious desire to wrongfully obtain something that is forbidden, without due regard for the rights or property of others. Coveting places your thoughts and desires above those of everyone else.
Unfortunately, there have been many horrific examples of this in the world today. The act of coveting has even been made to appear stylish by the motion picture industry, where coveting is at times even glamorized. If a so-called hero or heroine pursues an already married person, “frees” her or him from the bonds of a less-than-affectionate spouse, it is portrayed as acceptable, even the desirable thing to do!
Granting ourselves an excuse to covet
The seeds of coveting sometimes begin with an innocent observation.
In the story of King Arthur and the knights of the round table, for example, the knight Lancelot, who just happened to be King Arthur’s closest friend, made a simple, but inappropriate comment to the king’s fiancée, Guinevere. He said that as long as she lived, he would love no other. Lancelot was intrigued by the future queen’s beauty and found himself attracted to her. But rather than honor the sanctity of marriage, Lancelot and Guinevere began to covet things that weren’t theirs—each other! In the story, their covetous behavior led to adultery and the weakening of a kingdom.
Sadly, incidents just like this are played out all too often today. By using selfish reasoning and motives, people decide to obtain possessions (or someone else’s mate) for their own personal gain. The desire to have what is not theirs grows so powerful that even people who are normally respectful and law-abiding will circumvent laws and rules in order achieve their goal.
Such is the backstory for countless incidents of theft, embezzlement, kidnapping, adultery and even murder. The results of coveting are powerful and destructive.
Coveting is a trap
Covetousness is the trap in which King Ahab found himself snared, as the account recorded in 1 Kings 21 reveals. The vineyard Ahab coveted was owned by a man named Naboth. It was his inheritance, and Naboth told the king of its priceless value to him and his family.
But rather than approach this as a goal he could not achieve, or perhaps as a failed business venture, Ahab chose to sulk and focus on his covetous desires. He was angry with Naboth, and he still wanted his vineyard. In his self-absorbed and immature mind, he demonstrated a behavior we see often in children and sometimes even adults—he began to pout and wallow in self-pity.
Sulking, pouting and self-pity over something we can’t obtain can turn into bitterness. Bitterness can then lead to twisted reasoning that may lead to a sinful action in an attempt to acquire what is coveted. Scripture reveals that Ahab’s covetous behavior led to the death of Naboth. It initially appeared that Ahab got away with his sin, but God ultimately intervened and brought about the demise of Ahab.
Casting down idols
In the Bible, covetousness is described as a type of idolatry. God’s perspective on coveting can be clearly seen in Paul’s instructions to the church in Colosse: “Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5, emphasis added throughout).
Why does God say covetousness is idolatry? Because covetousness can become all-consuming. The person or object that is coveted becomes uppermost in the mind and, in the process, becomes an idol. All rules, commandments and laws become trivial in comparison, making it easier and easier to justify irreverent and/or illegal behavior.
Whatever becomes an idol in the mind takes precedence over everything and everyone—including the true God. Covetousness is one of the reasons God will punish the inhabitants of the earth. As Paul wrote in the same passage: “Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience, in which you yourselves once walked when you lived in them” (verses 6-7).
How can we overcome covetousness?
What can be done to escape this sinful trap? In order to break free from this form of idolatry, one must be willing to take the necessary steps to cast down covetous behavior. The first step is controlling and reordering the thoughts of the heart.
King David (who also knew what it was like to struggle with coveting) asked God for His protection when it came to his thoughts. He wrote, “Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips. Do not incline my heart to any evil thing, to practice wicked works” (Psalm 141:3-4).
In another place David wrote that he would set nothing wicked before his sight (Psalm 101:3).
It is deceptive, because the sin of covetousness rarely looks evil. But in truth it is, and the quicker we understand that, the quicker we will be moved to repent of this sin.
In the process of reordering our thinking, we must move to the other end of the spectrum. The opposite of coveting is looking outwardly—not comparing ourselves with others, but looking for opportunities to give of ourselves in service to others who truly may be less fortunate.
Thankfulness to God
Then, when we do come upon something or someone we admire, we can keep it in the realm of proper admiration by actively giving thanks to God for the blessings He has bestowed on us.
We can take a personal inventory of all that God has given us and dwell on those things. If there is something else we like or would like to have, there is nothing wrong with making our request with a pure and contented heart. Whether it is a new car or a meaningful relationship, God knows what we need. So when our petition is made, we can ask in trust and faith, knowing that God has our best interest at heart.
As the writer of Hebrews so eloquently wrote, “Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Hebrews 13:5).
God is the giver of good things and promises to be there. He is always ready to hear the fervent prayers of those who diligently seek after Him. Covetousness has no place in the heart of the man or woman who truly desires to seek God. That’s why God said: “Thou shalt not covet.”
For more information, see “Tenth Commandment: You Shall Not Covet.”