On Covetousness

 

The other day it occurred to me that one almost never hears the old-fashioned Bible words "covet" or "covetousness" any more. Once in awhile someone may say, "I covet your prayers" but I can't remember anyone saying out loud to a neighbor, "I have been coveting your new Mercedes lately." In spite of the rarity of open discussion of the subject of covetousness, I suspect that the underlying problem the Bible calls by this name is greater in our time than it has ever been before in history.

The word "covet" can indeed be used in a positive sense, for instance we sometimes say, "I covet our time together," which means "to value highly." Another Biblical example of the positive use of "covet" is Psalm 21:11-16,

"Come, O sons, listen to me, I will teach you the fear of the LORD. What man is there who desires life, and covets ('dheb) many days, that he may enjoy good? Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it. The eyes of the LORD are toward the righteous, and his ears toward their cry. The face of the LORD is against evildoers, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth."

Almost always "to covet" in the Bible means to desire for oneself something which belongs to another, to crave for, to lust after, or to inordinately desire to possess or control something (or someone).The preceding nine of the Ten Commandments deal more or less with external behavior. This one touches profoundly upon the deep desires of the heart. What a strange malady covetousness is, too! We are driven to get, to own, to possess more than we need or can ever use. We can not allow a neighbor to outshine us in clothing, in cars, in house, furniture or friends. This form of lust is insatiable, irrational, and all-consuming. It makes no sense to be malcontents in a universe where God so generously provides us with all we need for happiness and well-being. But driven we are by the hidden compulsions of this demon-force within the heart.

The Law of Moses says,

"You shall not covet (Hebrew: hamad) your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's." (Exodus 20:17)

Scattered through the Old Testament are various warnings against coveting:

"All day long the wicked covets, ('awa) but the righteous gives and does not hold back." (Proverbs 21:26)

The first attempt Joshua attempted to conquer the Canaanite city of Ai, the army of Israel suffered a horrific defeat. Joshua examined the people of God and the cause of the defeat was finally traced to a single act of covetousness on the part of one man, Achan. This Old Testament shows us in vivid terms that sin in one member of God's family greatly affects the spiritual vitality of the whole. Here is the account: (1)

"But the people of Israel broke faith in regard to the devoted things; for Achan the son of Carmi, son of Zabdi, son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of the devoted things; and the anger of the LORD burned against the people of Israel. Joshua sent men from Jericho to Ai, which is near Bethaven, east of Bethel, and said to them, "Go up and spy out the land." And the men went up and spied out Ai. And they returned to Joshua, and said to him, "Let not all the people go up, but let about two or three thousand men go up and attack Ai; do not make the whole people toil up there, for they are but few." So about three thousand went up there from the people; and they fled before the men of Ai, and the men of Ai killed about thirty-six men of them, and chased them before the gate as far as Shebarim, and slew them at the descent. And the hearts of the people melted, and became as water. Then Joshua rent his clothes, and fell to the earth upon his face before the ark of the LORD until the evening, he and the elders of Israel; and they put dust upon their heads. And Joshua said, "Alas, O Lord GOD, why hast thou brought this people over the Jordan at all, to give us into the hands of the Amorites, to destroy us? Would that we had been content to dwell beyond the Jordan! O Lord, what can I say, when Israel has turned their backs before their enemies! For the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land will hear of it, and will surround us, and cut off our name from the earth; and what wilt thou do for thy great name?"

The LORD said to Joshua, "Arise, why have you thus fallen upon your face? Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant which I commanded them; they have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, and lied, and put them among their own stuff. Therefore the people of Israel cannot stand before their enemies; they turn their backs before their enemies, because they have become a thing for destruction. I will be with you no more, unless you destroy the devoted things from among you. Up, sanctify the people, and say, `Sanctify yourselves for tomorrow; for thus says the LORD, God of Israel, "There are devoted things in the midst of you, O Israel; you cannot stand before your enemies, until you take away the devoted things from among you." In the morning therefore you shall be brought near by your tribes; and the tribe which the LORD takes shall come near by families; and the family which the LORD takes shall come near by households; and the household which the LORD takes shall come near man by man. And he who is taken with the devoted things shall be burned with fire, he and all that he has, because he has transgressed the covenant of the LORD, and because he has done a shameful thing in Israel.'" So Joshua rose early in the morning, and brought Israel near tribe by tribe, and the tribe of Judah was taken; and he brought near the families of Judah, and the family of the Zerahites was taken; and he brought near the family of the Zerahites man by man, and Zabdi was taken; and he brought near his household man by man, and Achan the son of Carmi, son of Zabdi, son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, was taken.

Then Joshua said to Achan, "My son, give glory to the LORD God of Israel, and render praise to him; and tell me now what you have done; do not hide it from me." And Achan answered Joshua, "Of a truth I have sinned against the LORD God of Israel, and this is what I did: when I saw among the spoil a beautiful mantle from Shinar, and two hundred shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels, then I coveted them, and took them; and behold, they are hidden in the earth inside my tent, with the silver underneath." So Joshua sent messengers, and they ran to the tent; and behold, it was hidden in his tent with the silver underneath. And they took them out of the tent and brought them to Joshua and all the people of Israel; and they laid them down before the LORD. And Joshua and all Israel with him took Achan the son of Zerah, and the silver and the mantle and the bar of gold, and his sons and daughters, and his oxen and asses and sheep, and his tent, and all that he had; and they brought them up to the Valley of Achor. And Joshua said, "Why did you bring trouble on us? The LORD brings trouble on you today." And all Israel stoned him with stones; they burned them with fire, and stoned them with stones. And they raised over him a great heap of stones that remains to this day; then the LORD turned from his burning anger. Therefore to this day the name of that place is called the Valley of Achor. (Joshua 7)

Seven centuries later the prophet Isaiah recorded God's anger and corrective chastening of the covetousness He saw in the heart of His people:

"For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: 'I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite. For I will not contend for ever, nor will I always be angry; for from me proceeds the spirit, and I have made the breath of life. Because of the iniquity of his [Israel's] covetousness (besa')I was angry, I smote him, I hid my face and was angry; but he went on backsliding in the way of his own heart. I have seen his ways, but I will heal him; I will lead him and requite him with comfort, creating for his mourners the fruit of the lips. Peace, peace, to the far and to the near, says the LORD; and I will heal him. But the wicked are like the tossing sea; for it cannot rest, and its waters toss up mire and dirt. There is no peace, says my God, for the wicked.'" (Isaiah 57:15-21)

The origin of defiling sin is within the human heart. We often think that temptation comes from the outside world, but this is only because the lustful desires in our hearts are projected onto external things and persons.

"And Jesus said to his disciples, 'Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?" (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, "What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, (Greek: pleonexiai) wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.'" (Mark 7:18-23)

Jesus said, "Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; (pleonexias) for a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." And he told them a parable, saying, "The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, `What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?' And he said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, `Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God." (Luke 12:15-21)

Tracing the step-by-step downward spiral of civilizations everywhere, the Apostle Paul teaches that evil springs from the human heart anytime God removes His restraints and His grace from our lives,

"Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct. They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, (pleonexia) and malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God's decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them." (Romans 1:24-31).

Ephesians and Colossians indicate that one deadly form of covetousness is sexual lust. Paul is speaking of our desire to use, possess, control and take advantage of another person for the gratification of our own selfish sexual desires: It is well known that what is popularly called "romantic love" in our culture is based on eros and not agape, on selfish desire, not upon self-giving love.

"Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But fornication and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is fitting among saints. Let there be no filthiness, nor silly talk, nor levity, which are not fitting; but instead let there be thanksgiving. Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure man, or one who is covetous (pleonexia) (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for it is because of these things that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience." (Ephesians 5:1-6)

"If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion (pathos), evil desire (epithumian), and covetousness, (pleonexian) which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you once walked, when you lived in them. But now put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth." (Colossians 3:1-8) (2)

Ray Stedman says,

When this word "greed," or "covetousness" appears in Scripture without being linked with idolatry, it is referring, of course, to avarice, to lusting after money and the things that money can buy. But in this particular context, linked with this word, "idolatry," it is greed to possess another person's body. That, says Paul, is idolatry---a powerful longing to lay hands on some other person and possess his or her body. It is what is called "falling in love," or what the world calls "having an affair," in which you allow another person to become so dominant in your thinking that he or she takes the place of God to you. Listen to the words of some of the love songs that are popular today: "You're all I need," "I can't live without you," "Help me make it through the night." All these expressions are saying, "You are like God to me. I am looking to you to fulfill the deepest longings and yearnings of my heart." Anyone who has lived very long knows that such is an impossible demand. No human can fill that need. Those who mistakenly feel that a new affair, a new love relationship, is going to meet all the hungers of their life find themselves again and again disillusioned and ultimately despairing. Every affair becomes less and less satisfying. They find themselves at last drifting aimlessly, lost on the sea of life. This has become so common today, as it was in the first century, that even Christians tend to accept these practices and to overlook the error of those who fall into them. The apostle says there are two things wrong that that acceptance. First, he says, "Because of these, the wrath of God is coming" ("keeps coming"--continuous present tense).

Scripture declares that the "wrath of God" is simply his judicial reaction to evil: it is the way a Holy God reacts to a civilization or individual who turns his back on moral absolutes and tries to ignore moral laws. The first chapter of Romans gives a vivid description of what God does in such a case. He removes the restraints within society against evil and lets it have its way, allowing it to produce what evil always produces---death in the midst of life. Romans 6 says, "the wages of sin is death." We all suddenly find ourselves facing a flood of evil practices. The restraints that once kept evil under bonds and within bounds, are lifted, and evil practices flood the scene. Laws are flouted, morality is cast aside, evil is praised and defended on every side. Finally we reach a stage in society where almost anything goes and we cannot legislate against anything; the moral fabric of society is destroyed. It is easy to see that this is right where we are today. Historically, it is always a prelude to the break-up of government and the overthrow of the forces for law and order within society. This is how the Roman Empire, and many other empires in history, fell apart. These are moral absolutes which men never can break with impunity. That is what Paul is pointing out. You may think that nothing happens when you allow yourself to fall into immoral practices, but something is happening---God has not lost his power. He is quite able to react to evil, and he does react. He allows it to have its head. He removes angelic restraints upon this dissolution of society and nothing man can do can prevent it. Colossians commentary)

"All Manner of Covetousness"

The Apostle Paul tells an amazing story about himself. He had left behind his old way of life as a self-righteous Pharisee. He had been thoroughly converted by an encounter with the resurrected Jesus while he was traveling to Damascus to continue his persecution of the early church. In the years which followed, Paul mastered the Old Testament and was personally taught by Jesus. Yet it was some time before he became aware of the seriousness of covetousness which was lying dormant in his heart. His story is a perfect illustration of the power of the Law to reveal hidden sin in the human heart. (3)

What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I should not have known sin. I should not have known what it is to covet (epithumian) if the law had not said, "You shall not covet." (epithumeseis) But sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, wrought in me all kinds of covetousness (epithumian). Apart from the law sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died; the very commandment which promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and by it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good. Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:7-25) (2)

What Paul's experience shows us is that we do not know ourselves very well, nor are we aware of the depths of the depravity in our own hearts. Sin can lie dormant inside for years. The light of God's Law ultimately exposes it, and if we are willing, the cancer can be killed by the Sword of the Spirit.

The Law of Moses is not a measuring stick for our performance or good behavior, it is there to show us our great and continuous need of mercy and forgiveness. It is a frightening thing to suggest (in today's world), but let us dare to ask our Lord to show us the covetousness He sees in most of us. It is so often excused and rationalized and covered up, it is no wonder that the great Apostle Paul found himself so needy and so wretched when the searching light of the Spirit brought to the surface what the Tenth Commandment shows us about ourselves: we are a greedy, selfish, materialistic people driven by ambition, by lust and by that old demon called "covetousness." To end this polemic on a positive note, may I recommend Psalm 119. This grandest of the Psalms provides the resolution we need to bring us into inner harmony with our God in this area of our lives. There is sufficient grace!

"Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool." (Isaiah 1:18).

When God took us into His family, He knew what He was in for in getting us all the way to the finish line and He has all we need to be more than conquerors in Christ Jesus.

Notes:

1. For Ray Stedman's comments on this incident see http://raystedman.org/adventure/0206.html.

2. Ray Stedman's notes on Romans 7 are found at http://raystedman.org/romans2/3517.html

3. Word study: COVET; COVETOUSNESS [Heb. hamad, also 'awa (Prov. 21:26), 'dheb (Ps. 34:12), besa' (Isa. 57:17); Gk. pleonexia, pleonektes (Eph. 5:5), epithymia, epithymeo, zelos (Jas. 4:2)]; AV also DESIRE (Dt. 5:21; 7:25), DESIRE TO HAVE (Jas. 4:2), LOVE (Ps. 34:12), LUST (Rom. 7:7), CONCUPISCENCE (v. 8); NEB also DESIRE (Ps. 34:12), CRAVINGS (Prov. 21:26), "for a time" (Isa. 57:17, with LXX), RUTHLESS GREED (Mk. 7:22; Eph. 5:3; Col. 3:5), GREED (Lk. 12:15; Eph. 5:5), WANT (Acts 20:33), RAPACITY (Rom. 1:29), WRONG DESIRES (7:8), BE ENVIOUS (Jas. 4:2). (On Jer. 51:13, AV, see THREAD.) Both Heb. hamad and Gk. epithumia indicate strong desire; the bad sense of evil desire is present only in certain contexts. While the AV sometimes uses "covet" in a good sense (I Cor. 12:31; 14:39), the RSV restricts its use to the unfavorable meanings. Gk. pleonexia always has the bad sense "greed," "avarice." (pleon, more plus echo, to have) For Heb. besa' see GAIN. See also DESIRE; GREED.

In the OT, covetousness is forbidden in the Decalogue; in the NT it is cataloged among the very gravest sins (Mk. 7:22; Eph. 5:3). Coveting is a basic and pervasive evil, for it is the very root of so many forms of sin: "Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction" (I Tim. 6:9). It lies behind biblical examples of theft (Josh. 7:21), lying (2 K. 5:20ff.), domestic trouble (Prov. 15:27), even murder (Ezk. 22:12). In Col. 3:5 it is termed "nothing less than idolatry" (NEB).

Covetousness has always been a very serious menace to mankind. It was one of the first sins that broke out after Israel had entered into the Promised Land (Achan, Josh. 7), and also in the early Christian Church immediately after its founding (Ananias and Sapphira, Acts 5); hence the many warnings against it. A careful reading of the OT will show that a very great part of the Jewish law--such as its enactments and regulations regarding duties toward the poor, toward servants, concerning gleaning, usury, pledges, gold and silver taken during war--was introduced and intended to counteract the spirit of covetousness.

Eerdmans maintains (Expos. (July 1909]) that the commandment, "You shall not covet your neighbor's house" (Ex. 20:17), meant to the Israelite that he should not take anything of his neighbor's possessions that were momentarily unprotected by their owner. Cf. Ex. 34:23ff. Thus it refers to a category of acts that is not covered by the commandment "You shall not steal." It is an oriental habit of mind from of old that when anyone sees abandoned goods which he thinks desirable, there is not the least objection to taking them. Ex. 20:17b is probably an explanation of what is to be understood by "house" in v. 17a.

Other examples of covetousness include Saul (Isaiah. 15:9, 19), Judas (Mt. 26:14f.), and Balaam (2 Pet. 2:15; Jude 11). (W. EVANS, ISBE, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1979)


Addendum (10/22/06)

The Heart of the Matter

by Greg Laurie
http://www.harvest.org

A Roman Catholic priest who had heard the confessions of thousands of people over the years said that he heard people confess most every kind of sin - including adultery and even murder - but never the sin of covetousness.

That is significant because this particular sin actually made "God's Top 10," the Ten Commandments. In fact, it is the final one the Lord warns us about:

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 is your neighbor's. (Ex 20:17) While the other commandments to a large extent dealt with things we do outwardly, this one has to do with what we do inwardly; and while the other commandments deal with forbidden actions, this one deals with forbidden attitudes.

But what does it mean to "covet" something? To covet is to desire, wish, long, or crave something that isn't your own. It means to "eagerly desire that which belongs to another, to set the heart on something." In short, whenever you lust for something that rightfully belongs to another, you are coveting.

So how does coveting work?

The EYES look at an object

The MIND admires it

The WILL goes over to it

And the BODY moves in to possess it

Let's not misunderstand something.

You may notice one day that your neighbor has a new car in his driveway. You love everything about the choice he made, from the color to the options he chose. So, you go down to the same car dealer and buy the exact same car. Now that is copying, but it is not coveting, and the last time I checked, copying something is not a sin, though it might irritate your neighbor a bit.

However, if you look at the car, admire it, and you strongly desire it, so much so that your body moves over to possess it by jumping into the driver's seat, turning on the ignition, and driving off without the owner's consent - well, that's coveting. In this case, coveting is the heart attitude behind the act of stealing.

Likewise it's not wrong to desire a wife, and that's not coveting. However, if you look at a married woman, admire her beauty, and desire her to the point where you think about acting on your desire, you are coveting - the heart attitude behind adultery.

Coveting is a powerful and underestimated sin. It can cripple you spiritually and ultimately destroy you. It must not be underestimated or left unchecked.

Think of some of the people in the Bible who "threw it all away" because of greed and covetousness.

The Bible tells us the story of Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus. Judas was hand-picked to be one of Jesus personal friends and disciples. Yet Judas was so greedy, he sold his friend out for thirty pieces of silver.

And consider this. You don't necessarily need to be a wealthy person to be a materialistic and covetous one. Sometimes, those who have very little may still be under the control of sin.

They are always looking for the latest "get rich quick" scheme.

They find themselves pining for more and more.

They are never satisfied with what they presently have.

The Bible gives this warning about such an outlook on life:

For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some have coveted after they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. (1 Timothy 6:10)

It's not a sin to want to be successful in business and make a good living, but when you become obsessed with it and it becomes the most important thing in life to you, it has become idolatry. The Bible warns us of "covetousness, which is idolatry" (Colossians 3:5).

The Ten Commandments were not given to make us righteous, but to show us we need God's help. They were given to "open our eyes" and shut our mouths! Because none of us can live according to these very high standards, we surely need a new heart that only God can give us.

Have you ever committed adultery, stolen, lied or coveted? You know you've done some of these things. If so, you need to repent and ask God to forgive you right now. He is gracious and compassionate to all who come to Him in honest confession of their sinful condition.

Sometimes the cure is painful, like going to the dentist when you have a toothache. If you want to stop the pain and not have it get even worse, you must submit to the prescribed treatment. In the same way, God convicts us of our sin - not to drive us to despair, but rather to send us into the open arms of Jesus.

And that's really what the Ten Commandments are all about: to show us our need for Jesus.


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January 3, 2001.