23 May 2011

A Survey of the Old Testament Law--"You Shall Not Covet"

Last week we talked about lying. We talked about the fact that every single human being tells lies. But there was another point I wanted to make that I didn’t have time to get to. We lie. That’s all there is to it. Not excusing it by any stretch of the imagination, just making my point. We lie—but God doesn’t. And even more to the point than saying God does not lie, it is closer to the truth—the whole truth—to say that God cannot lie. We see this in several places in Scripture. Numbers 23:19God is not a man, that He should lie. Titus 1:2God, who cannot lie… Hebrews 6:18It is impossible for God to lie. 1st Peter 2:21-2221 Christ…22 who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth. We lie for one of two reasons: 1) if we don’t we will get in trouble; or 2) things didn’t work out the way we planned and we have to come up with some excuse as to why we screwed up. But God is never in trouble, and God never screws up. So God never has a reason to lie.

But the main reason it is impossible for God to lie is quite simple: He is perfectly righteous. He possesses neither the desire nor the ability to lie. Lying is a sin; it is a product of our fallen nature. God does not have any desire to sin because He does not possess a human nature. He is God; He is perfect in every way. In fact, He hates sin, and many times the Scriptures call Him the God of truth. For instance Deuteronomy 32:3-43 For I proclaim the name of the LORD: ascribe greatness to our God. 4 He is the Rock, His work is perfect; for all His ways are justice, a God of truth and without injustice; righteous and upright is He. Psalm 31:5Into Your hand I commit my spirit; You have redeemed me, O LORD God of truth. Isaiah 65:16He who blesses himself in the earth shall bless himself in the God of truth; and he who swears in the earth shall swear by the God of truth. Everything that is true is true because God says it is true. Because He is the source of all truth. Everything that is a lie is a lie because it comes from Satan, who is the father of lies. But in God, as James says, there is neither variation nor shadow of turning (James 1:17).

So now we come to the last of the Ten Commandments. Let’s read it first, and then we’ll discuss a little. Exodus 20:17“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.” To understand what God is saying here, let’s define what it means to ‘covet’. There are, actually, two ways one can covet something. We can covet in a good way. Webster’s dictionary has this definition: “To desire or wish for, with eagerness; to desire earnestly to obtain or possess; in a good sense.” One example from the NT is 1st Corinthians 6:10 (KJV)But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way. Other places this same Greek word is translated “be zealous for” or “earnestly desire.” But the prohibition in the Ten Commandments is against coveting in the negative sense. Webster’s: “To desire [in an excessive manner]; to desire that which it is unlawful to obtain or possess; in a bad sense.” Hebrews 13:5Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. 1st Corinthians 6:10Neither…thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. When God says “Thou shalt no covet” He’s forbidding us from setting our mind on what our neighbor has and desiring it so badly that we will do whatever we have to in order to obtain it—no matter how unethical, illegal, immoral or hurtful it may be.

A good example of this is King Ahab. 1st Kings 21:1-31 And it came to pass after these things that Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard which was in Jezreel, next to the palace of Ahab king of Samaria. 2 So Ahab spoke to Naboth, saying, "Give me your vineyard, that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near, next to my house; and for it I will give you a vineyard better than it. Or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its worth in money." 3 But Naboth said to Ahab, "The LORD forbid that I should give the inheritance of my fathers to you!" Naboth was not being stubborn or hateful in saying this. The reason he would not sell this was actually rooted in the OT Law. He inherited this particular land from his father. And according to the Law, in Numbers 36:7The inheritance of the children of Israel shall not change hands from tribe to tribe, for every one of the children of Israel shall keep the inheritance of the tribe of his fathers. Keil and Delitzsch—
“Naboth refused to part with the vineyard, because it was the inheritance of his fathers, that is to say, on religious grounds (חָלִילָה כִּי מֵיהֹוָה), because the sale of a paternal inheritance was forbidden in the law (Leviticus 25:23-28; Numbers 36:7). He was therefore not merely at liberty as a personal right to refuse the king's proposal, but bound by the commandment of God.”
So King Ahab went away sad, and said to himself, “Well, I guess that’s that.” Well, no, not really. Queen Jezebel got involved, and made sure Ahab got that piece of land. Skip down to 1st Kings 21:11-1311 So the men of his city, the elders and nobles who were inhabitants of his city, did as Jezebel had sent to them, as it was written in the letters which she had sent to them. 12 They proclaimed a fast, and seated Naboth with high honor among the people. 13 And two men, scoundrels, came in and sat before him; and the scoundrels witnessed against him, against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, "Naboth has blasphemed God and the king!" Then they took him outside the city and stoned him with stones, so that he died. This is the covetousness that is forbidden in this 10th Commandment. The kind of desire, or lust, or craving, or call it what you will, that leads a person to go above and beyond acceptable means of obtaining something. A desire/longing/craving that leads a man to take sinful actions to get that thing he wants.

So if that’s what coveting is, what is coveting not? Is it wrong to drive by a house and say “Wow, what a pretty house, and a nice location! I’d like to buy that some day!” Or, in my case, “Ooh, a ’78 Cutlass! That’s purty!” Is it wrong to hope that that person sells that piece of property, or that ’78 Cutlass someday? No. That’s not coveting. Let’s think about this for a moment. If, by wanting to buy something that belongs to someone else, I am coveting, then I'm guilty every time I go to the store to buy a loaf of bread. Because the loaf of bread on that shelf belongs to the grocery store, and I want to buy it. It’s when the desire for that thing leads to sinful thoughts and/or actions that it becomes coveting. Adam Clarke—
“He breaks this command who by any means [attempts] to deprive a man of his house or farm by taking them over his head, as it is expressed in some countries; who lusts after his neighbor’s wife, and [attempts] to ingratiate himself into her affections, and to lessen her husband in her esteem; and who [attempts] to possess himself of the servants, cattle, etc., of another in any clandestine or unjustifiable manner.”
So there’s the difference. Just like we saw last week that the difference between lying and being mistaken is a matter of willfulness and intent, so too here the difference between wanting and coveting is the stirring up of sinful thoughts about gaining that thing. And of course, when it comes to the neighbor’s wife, even wanting her in any way is sinful. Matthew 5:27-28“27 You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not commit adultery.' 28 But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

The next thing I want to point out is this: If we look at the Ten Commandments, and if we think about it, we notice that the 10th commandment addresses something different than the first nine. What is it? Well, the first nine commandments deal with actions. The 10th commandment deals with what John Gill calls “The inward motions of the mind.” This is a commandment that deals with our thoughts. This was what the Pharisees didn’t realize—they didn’t get it. They were so busy trying to change people’s actions that they didn’t understand that they were sinning in their own thoughts. And this was the real purpose of the Law—not simply to make people righteous based on what they did and did not do. Fact of the matter is, using the Law to change people’s actions could never make any of them righteous. Galatians 3:21Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. What he’s saying here is kinda the flipside of “There is no law which can give life; therefore, righteousness does not come by the Law.” He told Peter, in Galatians 2:16“Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.”

As we saw when we started this journey many months ago, the purpose of the Law is not to show us how “good” we can be—the purpose of the Law is to show us how sinful we really are. And not only are our actions sinful, our thoughts can be equally sinful. Romans 7:7I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, "You shall not covet." We don’t realize that just because we don’t do things to wrong our neighbor doesn’t mean we don’t offend God. Even the thoughts we have and keep to ourselves can be counted as wrongs against God. And even having this Law cannot stop someone from coveting. Just like it can't stop a murderer from murdering or stop a thief from stealing, the commandments in the Law cannot stop a sinner from sinning. Even the apostle Paul realized, after he was delivered from bondage to this Law, that as strong as this Law seems, it is actually rather weak.

OK, you don’t believe me. Think of it this way—you can go out and buy a door that is 2” solid steel. The strongest steel on the planet. But if you mount that door on a frame made of Swiss cheese, then it won’t be any problem to knock that door down because it is mounted on a weak frame. Well, you could think of this Law in much the same way. Yes, the commandments are strong, but trying to pin your hopes of keeping this Law on the ability of your weak human flesh is just as silly as mounting that steel door on a Swiss cheese frame. Romans 8:1-41 There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law could not do—what could the Law not do? It could not make us righteous—what the Law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh—the Law cannot save us because we cannot keep it. Every time we try to keep that Law we fail and we fail miserably. We don’t even come close—what the Law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh—The Law does not save us—the Law condemns us. But God condemned sin in Christ. He punished our sins by sending His Son to bear the penalty of our sins in His body on the cross—what the Law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, 4 that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit—because, as Christ hung on the cross, He took the penalty we deserved, we are now counted as having fulfilled every single commandment of the Law if we accept Christ’s payment for our sins. Not just our outward actions; not just the times we steal and lie. But also every time we break this Law by our thoughts—every time we murder by hatred, and every time we commit adultery with our thoughts.

When you get home today, see if you can do this: go back through your life and count up every single sin you have ever committed, going all the way back to when you were an infant. Who thinks they can do it? YOU CAN'T! But God can! Psalm 90:8You have set our iniquities before You, our secret sins in the light of Your countenance. Hebrews 4:13And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account. Every single time we ever had even an impure thought, God knows it. And every single person who dies apart from Christ will have every one of those thoughts used against them when they stand before what is called the Great White Throne Judgment, where God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ (Romans 2:16). Think about it. If God counted even one of our sins against us—just one—we would be worthy of eternal Hell. So if He counts every single one, altogether, against us, as the Psalmist said, Psalm 130:3If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? BUT—for those of us who do know Christ, Psalm 32:1-21 Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. 2 Blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. Psalm 103:11-1311 For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; 12 as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us. 13 As a father pities his children, so the LORD pities those who fear Him. Jeremiah 31:34 (also Hebrews 8:12)—“No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

Before we wrap this all up I want to point out something. If you look at the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods besides Me”, and the last commandment, “You shall not covet anything that is your neighbor’s”, if you think about it you realize that all of the other 8 commandments are rooted in these two. Every sin we commit is because either (A) we want to serve a god other than God (and that god we want to serve is usually ourselves), or (B) someone else has something we want and we will do whatever we have to do to get it. The root of sin is that just like our old master Lucifer, we want to be God. Isaiah 14:13-14—"13 I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; I will also sit on the mount of the congregation on the farthest sides of the north; 14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High." We make graven images to worship, we treat God’s name flippantly, we profane His Sabbaths, we disrespect our parents, and we take others’ lives because we think we have that right—we think we are God.

We covet what other people have, so we lie in order to get it, we kill in order to get it, we commit adultery with the woman we want, or we just flat-out steal it. James 4:1-21 Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? 2 You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. We don’t ask God for what we want because He may not give it to us. Or, we do ask Him and He says “No.” So we say, “Well, I know better than God does, so I'm gonna get it some other way.” For some people, that means calling out to Mary or some other dead saint or an angel. But listen to this promise from Christ Himself, in Matthew 7:7-11“7 Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. 9 Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? 11 If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!” He will give us what we need, even if we don’t know we need it! Like, for instance, one to save us from our sins!

Jesus Christ is Lord. Amen.