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2.10The Tenth Commandment

‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.’ Exod 20: 17.

THIS commandment forbids covetousness in general, ‘Thou shalt not covet;’ and in particular, ‘Thy neighbour’s house, thy neighbour’s wife, &c.

I. It forbids covetousness in general. ‘Thou shalt not covet.’ It is lawful to use the world, yea, and to desire so much of it as may keep us from the temptation of poverty: ‘Give me not poverty, lest I steal, and take the name of my God in vain’ (Prov 30: 8, 9); and as may enable us to honour God with works of mercy. ‘Honour the Lord with thy substance.’ Prov 3: 9. But all the danger is, when the world gets into the heart. Water is useful for the sailing of the ship: all the danger is when the water gets into the ship; so the fear is, when the world gets into the heart. ‘Thou shalt not covet.’

What is it to covet?

There are two words in the Greek which set forth the nature of covetousness. Pleonexia, which signifies an ‘insatiable desire of getting the world.’ Covetousness is a dry dropsy. Augustine defines covetousness Plus velle quam sat est; ‘to desire more than enough;’ to aim at a great estate; to be like the daughter of the horse-leech, crying, ‘Give, give.’ Prov 30: 15. Or like behemoth, ‘He trusteth that he can draw up Jordan into his mouth.’ Job 40: 23. The other word is Philarguria, which signifies an ‘inordinate love of the world.’ The world is the idol: it is so loved, that a man will not part with it for any good use. He may be said to be covetous not only who gets the world unrighteously, but who loves it inordinately.

[1] For a more full answer to the question, ‘What is it to covet?’ I shall show in six particulars, when a man may be said to be given to covetousness: —

(1) When his thoughts are wholly taken up with the world. A good man’s thoughts are in heaven; he is thinking of Christ’s love and eternal recompense. ‘When I awake I am still with thee,’ that is, in divine contemplation. Psa 139: 18. A covetous man’s thoughts are in the world; his mind is wholly taken up with it; he can think of nothing but his shop or farm. The fancy is a mint-house, and most of the thoughts in a covetous man’s mint are worldly. He is always plotting and projecting about the things of this life; like a virgin whose thoughts all centre upon her suitor.

(2) A man may be said to be given to covetousness, when he takes more pains for getting earth than for getting heaven. He will turn every stone, break his sleep, take many a weary step for the world; but will take no pains for Christ or heaven. After the Gauls, who were an ancient people of France, had tasted the sweet wine of the Italian grape, they inquired after the country, and never rested till they had arrived at it; so a covetous man, having had a relish of the world, pursues after it, and never ceases till he has got it; but he neglects the things of eternity. He would be content if salvation were to drop into his mouth, as a ripe fig into the mouth of the eater (Nahum 3: 12); but he is loath to put himself to too much sweat or trouble to obtain Christ or salvation. He hunts for the world, he wishes only for heaven.

(3) A man may be said to be given to covetousness, when all his discourse is about the world. ‘He that is of the earth, speaketh of the earth.’ John 3: 31. It is a sign of godliness to be speaking of heaven, to have the tongue turned to the language of Canaan. ‘The words of a wise man’s mouth are gracious;’ he speaks as if he had been already in heaven. Eccl. 10: 12. So it is a sign of a man given to covetousness to speak always of secular things, of his wares and drugs. A covetous man’s breath, like a dying man’s, smells strong of the earth. As it was said to Peter, ‘Thy speech bewrayeth thee;’ so a covetous man’s speech betrayeth him. Matt 26: 73. He is like the fish in the gospel, which had a piece of money in its mouth. Matt 17: 27. Verba sunt speculum mentis. Bernard. ‘The words are the looking-glass of the heart,’ they show what is within. Ex abundantia cordis [From the abundance of the heart].

(4) A man is given to covetousness when he so sets his heart upon worldly things, that for the love of them, he will part with heavenly; for the ‘wedge of gold,’ he will part with the ‘pearl of price.’ When Christ said to the young man in the gospel, ‘Sell all, and come and follow me;’ abiit tristis, ‘he went away sorrowful.’ Matt 19: 22. He would rather part with Christ than with all his earthly possessions. Cardinal Bourbon said, he would forego his part in paradise, if he might keep his cardinalship in Paris. When it comes to the critical point that men must either relinquish their estate or Christ, and they will rather part with Christ and a good conscience than with their estate, it is a clear case that they are possessed with the demon of covetousness.

(5) A man is given to covetousness when he overloads himself with worldly business. He has many irons in the fire; he is in this sense a pluralist; he takes so much business upon him, that he cannot find time to serve God; he has scarce time to eat his meat, but no time to pray. When a man overcharges himself with the world, and as Martha, cumbers himself about many things, that he cannot have time for his soul, he is under the power of covetousness.

(6) He is given to covetousness whose heart is so set upon the world, that, to get it, he cares not what unlawful means he uses. He will have the world per fas et nefas [by fair means or foul]; he will wrong and defraud, and raise his estate upon the ruins of another. ‘The balances of deceit are in his hand, he loveth to oppress. . . . Ephraim said, ‘Yet I am become rich.’ Hos 12: 7, 8. Pope Sylvester II sold his soul to the devil for a popedom.

Use. ‘Take heed and beware of covetousness.’ Luke 12: 15. It is a direct breach of the tenth commandment. It is a moral vice, it infects and pollutes the whole soul.

(1) It is a subtle sin, a sin that many cannot so well discern in themselves; as some have the scurvy, but do not know it. This sin can dress itself in the attire of virtue. It is called the ‘cloak of covetousness.’ 1 Thess 2: 5. It is a sin that wears a cloak, it cloaks itself under the name of frugality and good husbandry. It has many pleas and excuses for itself; more than any other sin: as providing for one’s family. The more subtle the sin is, the less discernible it is.

(2) Covetousness is a dangerous sin, as it checks all that is good. It is an enemy to grace; it damps good affections, as the earth puts out the fire. The hedgehog, in the fable, came to the cony-burrows, in stormy weather, and desired harbour; but when once he had got entertainment, he set up his prickles, and never ceased till he had thrust the poor conies out of their burrows; so covetousness, by fair pretences, winds itself into the heart; but as soon as you have let it in, it will never leave till it has choked all good beginnings, and thrust all religion out of your hearts. ‘Covetousness hinders the efficacy of the word preached.’ In the parable, the thorns, which Christ expounded to be the care of this life, choked the good seed. Matt 13: 22. Many sermons lie dead and buried in earthly hearts. We preach to men to get their hearts in heaven; but where covetousness is predominant, it chains them to earth, and makes them like the woman which Satan had bowed together, that she could not lift up herself. Luke 13: 11. You may as well bid an elephant fly in the air, as a covetous man live by faith. We preach to men to give freely to Christ’s poor; but covetousness makes them like the man in the gospel, who had ‘a withered hand.’ Mark 3: 1. They have a withered hand, and cannot stretch it out to the poor. It is impossible to be earthly-minded and charitably-minded. Covetousness obstructs the efficacy of the word, and makes it prove abortive. They whose hearts are rooted in the earth, will be so far from profiting by the word, that they will be ready rather to deride it. The Pharisees, who were covetous, ‘derided him.’ Luke 16: 14.

(3) Covetousness is a mother sin, a radical vice. ‘The love of money is the root of all evil.’ 1 Tim 6: 10. Quid non mortalia pectora cogis, auri sacra fames! [O accursed lust for gold! what crimes do you not urge upon the human heart!] Virgil. He who has an earthly itch, a greedy desire of getting the world, has in him the root of all sin. Covetousness is a mother sin. I shall make it appear that covetousness is a breach of all the ten commandments. It breaks the first commandment; ‘Thou shalt have no other gods but one.’ The covetous man has more gods than one; Mammon is his god. He has a god of gold, therefore he is called an idolater. Col 3: 5. Covetousness breaks the second commandment: ‘Thou shalt not make any graven image, thou shalt not bow thyself to them.’ A covetous man bows down, though not to the graven image in the church, yet to the graven image in his coin. Covetousness is a breach of the third commandment; ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.’ Absalom’s design was to get his father’s crown, which was covetousness; but he talked of paying his ‘vow to God,’ which was to take God’s name in vain. Covetousness is a breach of the fourth commandment; ‘Remember the Sabbath-day to keep it holy.’ A covetous man does not keep the Sabbath holy; he will ride to fairs on a Sabbath; instead of reading in the Bible, he will cast up his accounts. Covetousness is a breach of the fifth commandment; ‘Honour thy father and thy mother.’ A covetous person does not honour his father, if he does not feed him with money. Nay; he will get his father to make over his estate to him in his lifetime, so that the father may be at his son’s command. Covetousness is a breach of the sixth commandment; ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Covetous Ahab killed Naboth to get his vineyard. 1 Kings 21: 13. How many have swum to the crown in blood? Covetousness is a breach of the seventh commandment, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ It causes uncleanness; you read of the ‘hire of a whore.’ Deut 23: 18. An adulteress for money sets both conscience and chastity to sale. Covetousness is a breach of the eighth commandment ‘Thou shalt not steal.’ It is the root of theft: covetous Achan stole the wedge of gold. Thieves and covetous are put together. 1 Cor 6: 10. Covetousness is a breach of the ninth commandment; ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness.’ What makes the perjurer take a false oath but covetousness? He hopes for a reward. It is plainly a breach of the last commandment; ‘Thou shalt not covet.’ The mammonist covets his neighbour’s house and goods, and endeavours to get them into his own hands. Thus you see how vile a sin covetousness is; it is a mother sin; it is a plain breach of every one of the ten commandments.

(4) Covetousness is a sin dishonourable to religion. For men to say their hopes are above, while their hearts are below; to profess to be above the stars, while they ‘lick the dust’ of the serpent; to be born of God, while they are buried in the earth; how dishonourable is this to religion! The lapwing, which wears a little coronet on its head, and yet feeds on dung, is an emblem of such as profess to be crowned kings and priests unto God, and yet feed immoderately on terrene dunghill comforts. ‘And seekest thou great things for thyself? seek them not.’ Jer 45: 5. What, thou Baruch, who art ennobled by the new birth, and art illustrious by thy office, a Levite, dost thou seek earthly things, and seek them now? When the ship is sinking, art thou trimming thy cabin? O do not so degrade thyself, nor blot thy escutcheon! Seekest thou great things? seek them not. The higher grace is, the less earthly should Christians be; as the higher the sun is, the shorter is the shadow.

(5) Covetousness exposes us to God’s abhorrence, ‘The covetous, whom the Lord abhorreth.’ Psa 10: 3. A king abhors to see his statue abused, so God abhors to see man, made in his image, having the heart of a beast. Who would live in such a sin as makes him abhorred of God? Whom God abhors he curses, and his curse blasts wherever it comes.

(6) Covetousness precipitates men to ruin, and shuts them out of heaven. ‘This ye know, that no covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.’ Eph 5: 5. What could a covetous man do in heaven? God can no more converse with him than a king can converse with a swine. ‘They that will be rich fall into a snare, and many hurtful lusts, which drown men in perdition.’ 1 Tim 6: 9. A covetous man is like a bee that gets into a barrel of honey, and there drowns itself. As a ferry man takes in so many passengers to increase his fare, that he sinks his boat; so a covetous man takes in so much gold to increase his estate, that he drowns himself in perdition. I have read of some inhabitants near Athens, who, living in a very dry and barren island, took much pains to draw a river to the island to water it and make it fruitful; but when they had opened the passages, and brought the river to it, the water broke in with such force, that it drowned the land, and all the people in it. This is an emblem of a covetous man, who labours to draw riches to him, and at last they come in such abundance, that they drown him in perdition. How many, to build up an estate, pull down their souls! Oh, then, flee from covetousness! I shall next prescribe some remedies against covetousness.

[2] I AM, in the next place, to solve the question, What is the cure for this covetousness?’

(1) Faith. ‘This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.’ 1 John 5: 4. The root of covetousness is distrust of God’s providence. Faith believes that God will provide; that he who feeds the birds will feed his children; that he who clothes the lilies will clothe his lambs; and thus faith overcomes the world. Faith is the cure of care. It not only purifies the heart, but satisfies it; it makes God our portion, and in him we have enough. ‘The lord is the portion of mine inheritance, the lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage.’ Psa 16: 5, 6. Faith, by a divine chemistry, extracts comfort out of God. A little with God is sweet. Thus faith is a remedy against covetousness; it overcomes, not only the fear of the world, but the love of the world.

(2) The second remedy is, judicious considerations. As what poor things these things below are that we should covet them! They are far below the worth of the soul, which carries in it an idea and resemblance of God. The world is but the workmanship of God, the soul is his image. We covet that which will not satisfy us. ‘He that loveth silver, shall not be satisfied with silver.’ Eccl 5: 10. Solomon had put all the creatures in a retort, and distilled out their essence, and behold, ‘All was vanity.’ Eccl 2: 11. Covetousness is a dry dropsy — the more a man has the more he thirsts. Quo plus sunt potae, plus sitiuntur aquae [The more water is drunk, the more is craved]. Ovid. Worldly things cannot remove trouble of mind. When King Saul was perplexed in conscience, his crown jewels could not comfort him. 1 Sam 28: 15. The things of the world can no more ease a troubled spirit than a gold cap can cure the headache. The things of the world cannot continue with you. The creature has a little honey in its mouth, but it has wings to fly away. These things either go from us, or we from them. What poor things are they to covet!

The second consideration is the frame and texture of the body. God has made the face look upward towards heaven. Os homini sublime dedit, coelumque tueri jussit [He gave man an uplifted face, with the order to gaze up to Heaven]. Ovid. Anatomists observe, that whereas other creatures have but four muscles to their eyes, man has a fifth muscle, by which he is able to look up to heaven; and as for the heart, it is made narrow and contracted downwards, but wide and broad upwards. As the frame and texture of the body teaches us to look to things above, so especially the soul is planted in the body, as a divine spark, to ascend upwards. Can it be imagined that God gave us intellectual and immortal souls to covet earthly things only? What wise man would fish for gudgeons with golden hooks? Did God give us glorious souls only to fish for the world? Sure our souls are made for a higher end; to aspire after the enjoyment of God in glory.

The third consideration is the examples of those who have been condemners and despisers of the world. The primitive Christians, as Clemens Alexandrinus observes, were sequestered from the world, and were wholly taken up in converse with God; they lived in the world above the world; like the birds of paradise, who soar above in the air, and seldom or never touch the earth with their feet. Luther says that he was never tempted to the sin of covetousness. Though the saints of old lived in the world they traded in heaven. ‘Our conversation is in heaven.’ Phil 3: 20. The Greek word signifies our commerce, or traffic, or citizenship, is in heaven. ‘Enoch walked with God.’ Gen 5: 24. His affections were sublimated, and took a turn in heaven every day. The righteous are compared to a palm-tree. Psa 92: 12. Philo observes, that whereas all other trees have their sap in their root, the sap of the palm-tree is towards the top; and thus is an emblem of saints, whose hearts are in heaven, where their treasure is.

(3) The third remedy for covetousness is to covet spiritual things more. Covet grace, for it is the best blessing, it is the seed of God. 1 John 3: 9. Covet heaven, which is the region of happiness — the most pleasant clime. If we covet heaven more, we shall covet earth less. To those who stand on the top of the Alps, the great cities of Campania seem but as small villages; so if our hearts were more fixed upon the Jerusalem above, all worldly things would disappear, would diminish, and be as nothing in our eyes. We read of an angel coming down from heaven, and setting his right foot on the sea, and his left foot on the earth. Rev 10: 2. Had we been in heaven, and viewed its superlative glory, how should we, with holy scorn, trample with one foot upon the earth and with the other foot upon the sea! O covet after heavenly things! There is the tree of life, the mountains of spices, the rivers of pleasure, the honeycomb of God’s love dropping, the delights of angels, and the flower of joyfully ripe and blown. There is the pure air to breathe in; no fogs or vapours of sin arise to infect that air, but the Sun of Righteousness enlightens the whole horizon continually with his glorious beams. O let your thoughts and delights be always taken up with the city of pearls, the paradise of God! It is reported of Lazarus that, after he was raised from the grave, he was never seen to smile or take delight in the world. Were our hearts raised by the power of the Holy Ghost up to heaven we should not be much taken with earthly things.

(4) The fourth remedy is to pray for a heavenly mind. Lord, let the loadstone of thy Spirit draw my heart upward. Lord, dig the earth out of my heart; teach me how to possess the world, and not love it; how to hold it in my hand, and not let it get into my heart.

II. Having spoken of the command in general, I proceed to speak of it more particularly. ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife,’ &c. Observe the holiness and perfection of the law that forbids the motus primo primi, the first motions and risings of sin in the heart. ‘Thou shalt not covet.’ The laws of men take hold of actions, but the law of God goes further, it forbids not only actions, but desires. ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house.’ It is not said, ‘Thou shalt not take away his house;’ but ‘Thou shalt not covet it.’ These lusts and desires after the forbidden fruit are sinful. The law has said, ‘Thou shalt not covet.’ Rom 7: 7. Though the tree bears no bad fruit, it may be faulty at the root; so though a man does not commit any gross sin, he cannot say his heart is pure. There may be faultiness at the root: there may be sinful covetings and lustings in the soul.

Use. Let us be humbled for the sin of our nature, the risings of evil thoughts coveting that which we ought not. Our nature is a seed-plot of iniquity; like charcoal that is ever sparkling, the sparks of pride, envy, covetousness, arise in the mind. How should this humble us! If there be not sinful acting, there are sinful covetings. Let us pray for mortifying grace, which like the water of jealousy, may make the thigh of sin to rot.

Why is the house here put before the wife? In Deuteronomy the wife is put first. ‘Neither shalt thou desire thy neighbour’s wife, neither shalt thou covet thy neighbour’s house.’ Deut 5: 21.

In Deuteronomy the wife is set down first, in respect of her value. She (if a good wife) is of far greater value and estimate than the house. ‘Her price is far above rubies.’ Prov 31: 10. She is the furniture of the house and this furniture is more worth than the house. When Alexander had overcome King Darius in battle, Darius seemed not to be much dismayed, but when he heard his wife was taken prisoner, his eyes, like spouts gushed forth water, for he valued his wife more than his life. But in Exodus the house is put before the wife, because the house is first in order, the house is erected before the wife can live in it; the nest is built before the bird is in it; the wife is first esteemed, but the house must be first provided.

[1] Then, ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house.’ How depraved is man since the fall! He knows not how to keep within bounds, but covets more than his own. Ahab, one would think, had enough: he was a king; and we should suppose his crown-revenues would have contented him; but he was coveting more. Naboth’s vineyard was in his eye, and stood near the smoke of his chimney, and he could not be quiet till he had it in possession. Were there not so much coveting, there would not be so much bribing. One man takes away another’s house from him. It is only the prisoner who lives in such a tenement that he may be sure none will seek to take it from him.

[2] ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife.’ This is a bridle to check the inordinate and brutish lusts. It was the devil that sowed another man’s ground. Matt 13: 25. But how is the hedge of this commandment trodden down in our times! There are many who do more than covet their neighbours’ wives! they take them. ‘Cursed be he that lieth with his father’s wife; and all the people shall say, Amen.’ Deut 27: 20. If it were to be proclaimed, ‘Cursed be he that lieth with his neighbour’s wife,’ and all that were guilty should say, ‘Amen,’ how many would curse themselves!

[3] ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s man-servant, nor his maidservant.’ Servants, when faithful, are a treasure. What a true and trusty servant had Abraham! He was his right hand. How prudent and faithful he was in the matter entrusted with him, of getting a wife for his master’s son! Gen 24: 9. It would surely have grieved Abraham if any one had enticed away his servant from him. But this sin of coveting servants is common. If one has a good servant, others will be laying snares for him, and endeavour to draw him away from his master. This is a sin against the tenth commandment. To steal away another’s servant by enticement, is no better than direct thieving.

[4] ‘Nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.’ Were there no coveting ox and ass, there would not be so much stealing. First men break the tenth commandment by coveting, and then the eighth commandment by stealing. It was an excellent appeal that Samuel made to the people when he said, ‘Witness against me before the Lord, whose ox have I taken, or whose ass, or whom have I defrauded?’ 1 Sam 12: 3. It was a brave speech of Paul, when he said, ‘I have coveted no man’s silver, or gold, or apparel.’ Acts 20: 33.

What means should we use to keep us from coveting that which is our neighbour’s?

The best remedy is contentment. If we are content with our own, we shall not covet that which is another’s. Paul could say, ‘I have coveted no man’s gold or silver.’ Whence was this? It was from contentment. ‘I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.’ Phil 4: 11. Content says, as Jacob did, ‘I have enough. ‘Gen 33: 11. I have a promise of heaven, and have sufficient to bear my charges thither; I have enough. He who has enough, will not covet that which is another’s. Be content: and the best way to be contented, is, (1) Believe that condition to be best which God by his providence carves out to you. If he had seen fit for us to have more, we should have had it. Perhaps we could not manage a great estate; it is hard to carry a full cup without spilling, and a full estate without sinning. Great estates may be snares. A boat may be overturned by having too much sail. The believing that estate to be best which God appoints us, makes us content; and being contented, we shall not covet that which is another’s. (2) The way to be content with such things as we have, and not to covet another’s, is to consider the less we have, the less account we shall have to give at the last day. Every person is a steward, and must be accountable to God. They who have great estates have the greater reckoning. God will say, What good have you done with your estates? Have you honoured me with your substance? Where are the poor you have fed and clothed? If you cannot give a good account, it will be sad. It should make us contented with a less portion, to consider, the less riches, the less reckoning. This is the way to have contentment. There is no better antidote against coveting that which is another’s than being content with that which is our own.

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