Read selections from 1 Kings chapter 21 to start.
Who here can recite the ten commandments? Probably most of us are pretty familiar with those. We’re going to look at one of those this morning. It’s not one of the really high profile commandments, not one that gets a lot of attention, such as “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart” or ‘Thou shalt not kill.” We can see several of the commandments being violated in the passage we just read, such as bearing of false witness, and stealing, and obviously thou shalt not kill went right out the window. Those are obviously good and important commandments to follow. But those are not the ones I want to look at today. Frankly, we all know that it’s wrong to kill, that shouldn’t need any explaining. We all know it’s wrong to lie, and it’s wrong to take what belongs to others, and hopefully as adults we all understand this, although we might need reminders from time to time, and if you have children you probably need to remind them of those things on a more regular basis. But we know those commandments, and we understand what they are about.
No, the commandment I want to look at today is the 10th and final commandment – thou shalt not covet.
Keep your finger in 1 Kings, but perhaps you might want to flip over to Exodus 20 for a minute or two. I’m going to read one verse from there. 17 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.
What does it mean to covet? It’s not a word that we use in our everyday speech I don’t imagine. It’s not something that we have as a specific crime or a moral wrong in our society, as so many of the other commandments are. The word covet is not one we really use. If you asked a dozen people on the street what they thought about coveting, you might get some confused looks. Not the same response as if you asked about murder or stealing, people are going to say those are wrong, or they might attempt to rationalize bad behaviour when it comes to lying or committing adultery. But coveting, what even is that? That’s the sort of reaction you might get. Well, to understand what something actually means, it’s most helpful to look at what the original word was, what that means. The Hebrew word used here, and there are several different words that we have translated in the Bible as covet or, or covetous, or covetousness, but the word used here, Chamad, (HAW-mawd) is more often translated as desire.
That’s a word that we know a lot better. Let’s modernize the commandment a bit. You shall not desire your neighbour’s house. You shall not desire your neighbour’s wife — or husband for that matter, it’s not just men who covet, you shall not desire your neighbour’s general prosperity and success and the fact that he has people who work for him, you shall not desire your neighbour’s car, you shall not desire your neighbour’s boat, nor any of the other expensive and cool stuff which belongs to your neighbour.
Is that all clear? In short, don’t be wanting to have what the people around you have. It’s pretty straightforward, really. Or at least it should be. Here’s the thing, though. There are ten commandments. The first four deal with our relationship with God – no other gods, no graven images, no taking God’s name in vain, and honouring the Sabbath. Yeah, we’re not going to talk about how this world falls down on those, it’s pretty bad. The other six talk about our relationship with other people. But none of them have even half so much detail as this last one, the one about coveting.
Let’s compare for a minute, reading from verse 12 of Exodus 20. 12 Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee. 13 Thou shalt not kill. 14 Thou shalt not commit adultery. 15 Thou shalt not steal. 16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
Now look at verse 17 again. 17 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s. There are more words in that verse than in all four of the previous commandments put together, and if you omit the reason why you should honour your father and mother, then there is more time spent on coveting than on all the other commandments dealing with our fellow man put together. Do you think that might be because it’s important? God certainly seems to think so. Otherwise there would not be so much detail here. You don’t include a lot of detail without a reason.
The verse makes it abundantly clear that it’s not okay to covet anything your neighbour has. Not his house, his wife, his property, not any of it. There is no out here, no wiggle room for us to say that it is okay. People want that wiggle room, though, even if it is entirely imaginary.
There are an awful lot of people who would say that coveting is not so bad, that’s it’s not even a problem. Let’s face it, if you thought that our culture was doing badly when it comes to the first four commandments that concern how we relate to God, well, our society basically runs on coveting. If you don’t believe me, think about it for a moment. We are rapidly approaching the Christmas season, two months from this Wednesday. You’ve probably noticed your weekly flyers have already started getting bigger and heavier, with more pages and bigger deals. We spend money at Christmas, because we all want more stuff, and the stores are eager to sell it to us. There are stores that would not make it through the year, they would not remain in business if not for the profits they bring in during the month of December.
But it’s not just Christmas shopping. Who here has a new phone that they got within the last year and a half? If so, was the old one broken or lost, or did it just need an upgrade to something newer and better? We all want newer, better things, and we want them all the time. Think of the clichés we use, from the grass is greener to keeping up with the Joneses. What is that apart from wanting to have more? Think of commercials on TV, telling you that you should have more, that you deserve more, that you’ve earned more, that you’re worth more. Think of the songs you hear on the radio, think of how many of them use the word “want.” I could spend the next ten minutes giving you a list. We are conditioned and expected to covet. We might not call it that, we might not use the word, but we certainly fit the criteria.
Even in Christendom, where we acknowledge that coveting is a sin, that it is a violation of God commandments, a lot of the time we would like to define coveting as something very specific and narrow, the idea that if I covet my neighbour’s house then I want to take his house so that he doesn’t have it any more and I do. And certainly, that is included within the spectrum of thou shalt not covet. It’s basically what we saw with Ahab and Naboth. But the scope of coveting goes far beyond that. The word used in the commandment is no more than a basic root word meaning to desire. We should not limit it, we should not exclusively apply that term to a certain type of envious desire in order to excuse our own behaviour. Just because I may not want to take what someone else has, but simply to have the same things as he does, or maybe something a little better, that doesn’t put me in the clear.
I mentioned a few minutes ago about songs on the radio talking about want. Well, he’s a good example. In 1969 the Rolling Stones sang “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” which is a true statement. You can’t always get what you want. Sometimes, though, you can get what you want. Sometimes you can get it even when you really shouldn’t. And sometimes that will destroy you. That is what happened to Ahab. Clearly Ahab coveted Naboth’s vineyard, by any definition of the word. If you ever wanted to say that coveting isn’t much of a problem, this chapter of 1 Kings is more than enough to prove that notion wrong. Coveting was the first step. Ahab saw the vineyard next door, and he desired to have it. It’s not an unreasonable thing, really, to want to have a nice piece of property adjacent to your own. As much as Ahab was an exceedingly wicked man, to the point where in 1 Kings chapter 16 he is described as having done more evil than all the previous kings who came before him, I can’t fault him for his initial approach to Naboth. But when Naboth refused to sell, Ahab, rather than leaving well enough alone, he went home and sulked. What did this lead to? It lead to a conspiracy against Naboth resulting in a false trial with false witnesses and the summary execution of an innocent man. Ahab’s covetousness resulted in deceit, murder, and theft, and not just on his part, but the elders of the city were also complicit in these crimes. What’s more, it also lead to Ahab’s own doom, as foretold by Elijah. We didn’t read the final section of the chapter, but Elijah delivered a prophecy of destruction to the king, how he and his entire line would be exterminated, which did indeed come to pass, starting with Ahab’s death in the very next chapter.
That’s a lot of trouble that arose from wanting to have another man’s vineyard. Did covetousness kill Naboth? Maybe not directly, but it absolutely set things in motion. If not for Ahab’s desire to have his neighbour’s property, none of this would have happened. And while this was hardly the only atrocity that happened during Ahab’s reign, scripture clearly paints this incident as the final straw. And it all stemmed from coveting, from wanting what he could not have.
Of course, Ahab is hardly the only person in scripture who can serve as an example of the danger of coveting. We’re going to look at several more, starting in the book of Joshua. To set the scene, I’ll read three verses from the end of chapter 6. This is talking about Jericho. 17 And the city shall be accursed, even it, and all that are therein, to the LORD: only Rahab the harlot shall live, she and all that are with her in the house, because she hid the messengers that we sent. 18 And ye, in any wise keep yourselves from the accursed thing, lest ye make yourselves accursed, when ye take of the accursed thing, and make the camp of Israel a curse, and trouble it. 19 But all the silver, and gold, and vessels of brass and iron, are consecrated unto the LORD: they shall come into the treasury of the LORD.
That’s pretty straightforward. Don’t take any spoils from this city. Valuable metals are to be given to God, and to Him alone, and Rahab is to be saved alive, but everything else is a write-off. Don’t keep any of it. It is all accursed. Those are the instructions.
I don’t claim to understand the reasoning behind destroying everyone and everything in Jericho, although I can suggest a few possible theories, but that is not our actual topic for today. The topic, and the issue at hand, is what happened at the start of chapter 7. 1 But the children of Israel committed a trespass in the accursed thing: for Achan, the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took of the accursed thing: and the anger of the LORD was kindled against the children of Israel.
What happens next is that the Israelites went up against another city, a small city named Ai, and because of Achan’s sin, the Lord went not with them, and they lost. They were routed and fled before the men of Ai. In fact, we are told specifically that 36 of the Israelite soldiers died. For sake of time, we won’t read the entire account, but Joshua talked with God, and discovered that someone had taken of the spoils of Jericho, and that was the source of the problem. Lots were cast to find the guilty party, and Achan was revealed. He admitted his guilt when confronted, we’ll read again at verse 20 And Achan answered Joshua, and said, Indeed I have sinned against the LORD God of Israel, and thus and thus have I done: 21 When I saw among the spoils a goodly Babylonish garment, and two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold of fifty shekels weight, then I coveted them, and took them; and, behold, they are hid in the earth in the midst of my tent, and the silver under it.
Achan saw the valuable spoils, and he coveted them, so he took them. It’s a considerable amount of money, 200 silver coins, well, we know that Joseph was sold for 20 pieces of silver, so this is ten times that much. And the gold would have been worth more, 50 shekels of gold is probably a bit more than a pound of gold, and gold is worth a lot more than silver. This would have been the equivalent of many thousands of dollars today. Not sure how much a goodly Babylonish garment would be worth, but no doubt it was valuable as well, and certainly would have been something in short supply among the Israelites. Not a lot of opportunities to visit a high end tailor when you’ve been wandering in the desert for the last few decades.
The instructions were clear and plain, but Achan decided to ignore them. He went ahead and took some spoil from Jericho. He saw these items, he saw that he could enrich himself with them, and he wanted them. He coveted them, he took them, but they brought him no joy. All that money, buried under his tent. And that’s all he got to do with it, was to bury it, because he, and his possessions, including his family and his ill-gotten gains, were taken out to a nearby valley, the valley of Achor, which means trouble, and they were stoned to death, and their bodies burned, then everything was buried under a mound of stones.
They say money can’t buy happiness, and that is certainly true. We seem to think that it can, we want to test that hypothesis for ourselves, and see if it’s correct. But money does not buy happiness; at best it might rent it for a short while. It’s more likely to cause grief, pain, and destruction. Achan’s covetousness not only brought about his own demise, but that of his entire family. What’s more, the blowback from his sin was more far-reaching than he could have expected. In the attack on Ai, 36 Israelites lost their lives. Yes, when you fight battles there will be casualties, but these were entirely needless. They were only lost because the Israelites went up against Ai without God. That’s on Achan. That’s three dozen families who lost a father, a brother, a son, and that was entirely needless. We might think our covetousness is harmless, or that it will only hurt ourselves, but that is not the case. We can cause far more destruction, far more damage than we ever anticipate.
If you turn to the book of 2 Samuel, we’ll read another account of covetousness. The story is probably familiar, so I’ll only read the most pertinent verses. This is from chapter 11, reading at verse 2 And it came to pass in an eveningtide, that David arose from off his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king’s house: and from the roof he saw a woman washing herself; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon. 3 And David sent and enquired after the woman. And one said, Is not this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?
We probably know what happened next. David was not content to say “Oh, she’s pretty, Uriah is a fortunate man,” and go back to bed. No, he did not. He coveted his neighbour’s wife, and he, being king, was quite able to act upon it. This lead quickly to adultery, to an illegitimate pregnancy, to deception, and before long, it lead to the murder of Uriah. It also lead to the death of Bathsheba and David’s newborn son.
That’s a lot of fallout, and it all started with an act of covetousness. David was the king, he already had several wives, seven other wives in fact, that are named in scripture. He certainly did not need another, and even if for some reason he felt he did, Bathsheba was unavailable. She was already married, and married in fact to one of David’s mighty men. Uriah may have been foreign born, as a Hittite, but he was no doubt a loyal and a capable soldier. David betrayed him on so many levels, frankly it’s appalling when you think about it. He saw another man’s wife, and he wanted her, and it was his undoing. From this point on in David’s life he had family troubles and frequent strife. Two of his sons, Absalom and Adonijah, wanted his throne for themselves, and each lead a conspiracy to take it, Absalom’s culminating in a full scale rebellion and a civil war. David coveted another man’s wife, they coveted their father’s throne.
Such trouble comes from wanting want we should not have. We think that our coveting is harmless, but truly it is not. It leads down a dark and dangerous path. I have so many more examples that we could look at, so many different things that people in scripture have coveted. Ahab coveted a vineyard, Achan coveted money, David coveted his neighbour’s wife. And David was on the other side of coveting loving before that, though. King Saul, well, I’ll read just a few verses from 1 Samuel chapter 18, reading from verse 5 And David went out whithersoever Saul sent him, and behaved himself wisely: and Saul set him over the men of war, and he was accepted in the sight of all the people, and also in the sight of Saul’s servants. 6 And it came to pass as they came, when David was returned from the slaughter of the Philistine, that the women came out of all cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet king Saul, with tabrets, with joy, and with instruments of musick. 7 And the women answered one another as they played, and said, Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands. 8 And Saul was very wroth, and the saying displeased him; and he said, They have ascribed unto David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed but thousands: and what can he have more but the kingdom? 9 And Saul eyed David from that day and forward.
We may not have the word covet in this passage, but Saul clearly looked at what David had, at his fame and popularity with the people, and he felt short changed. Saul coveted David’s success, his prestige. Again, it’s not that Saul was without these things, he was the king of Israel, he had had tremendous success in the past, and he was well known of course by all the people. He had gone from being nobody to being the king, and now when he see someone else on a similar path, although David was of course not king at this time, would not be king for many years at this point, yet Saul coveted what it was that David had. Saul had slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands. He was king and had his name mentioned in song. That should have been enough for Saul, but he coveted more.
His covetousness lead down a dark and destructive path. He spent years hunting David, to no avail, while his kingdom, his rule, and his mind deteriorated. Ultimately, he died by his own hand after losing in battle to the Philistines, the same Philistines that David had defeated on so many occasions. Were David at Saul’s side, instead of in exile, perhaps things would have been different. Perhaps Saul would have died peacefully in old age, instead of on the point of a sword. Even after Saul’s death the legacy of destruction continued with a civil war between David and Saul’s last surviving son, a civil war that Saul’s house lost.
Saul could have existed in peace with his loyal servant, but he did not. He was not willing to let David have a greater measure of fame. He desired the pre-eminence for himself. He was not content. His discontent and covetousness was his undoing.
Covetousness comes from discontent. We see that in all the examples we have looked at this morning. Time fails me to go into detail on all the examples from scripture I would like to share, but here are two more in passing. In Numbers chapter 16, we read of the rebellion of Korah. Korah was a Levite, he had a useful role in the service of the tabernacle, but he wanted more, he wanted the priesthood as well, and so he lead a rebellion against Moses. He was not content with what he had, he coveted more, and it destroyed him and his entire family.
And of course we could read from Isaiah 14, where Lucifer said, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: 14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. We typically describe the sin of Lucifer as pride, in that he sought to exalt himself to the place of God, and certainly pride is a major component, but covetousness is right there too. One does not seek a higher place, a more glorious throne, if one is content with what he already has. One does not seek that which is not his, is not meant to be his, if one is already satisfied. Lucifer was an archangel, among the most magnificent of all created beings, but he coveted more. We know how that went, and how much destruction resulted from his ambition.
At its core, coveting stems from discontent. There’s a verse in Hebrews that you’re probably familiar with, I know it’s one that I’ve mentioned when the topic of discontent comes up at home, and when you have children, that comes up entirely too often. The verse, or at least the portion of the verse, is from Hebrews 13, verse 5: Be content with such things as ye have. We’ve probably all heard that, perhaps we’ve said it ourselves. That’s not the entire verse, though. There’s more to learn than simply a blanket statement against coveting. Let me read the whole verse. 5 Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.
Think on that for a moment. The ideas actually conveyed in the verse, let’s look at those in reverse order. God has said that He will not leave nor forsake those who follow Him. We see this in Deuteronomy; we see it in Joshua, we see it in the Psalms and the book of Isaiah, and we see it in Christ’s upper room discourse. If we understand this, and we believe this, when we should be content, we should be satisfied with what God has provided for us. If we do indeed trust that He will take care of us, when we need not be concerned with enriching ourselves, with exalting ourselves, with extracting the most that we can from what this world can offer us. If we trust, then we need not covet.
It is one thing when the world covets. The world does not know God, and so how can we expect those who are in the world, and of the world, to be content in Him? We can show people all the damage and harm that arises from coveting, and that harm, as we have seen, is truly great. But those who do not know God will never be at peace, not until they repent and turn to their creator.
As believers, as followers of Christ, we should not be like the world. It’s not just that we should know better, although yes, we should know better. But when we covet, it shows that we are not content. It shows that we are not satisfied with the things God has given us, with the blessings He has bestowed upon us. It suggests that we are seeking for our own good, our own solutions. All the problems that stem from covetousness, all the greater sins that arise from it, could be avoided if we only were content with such things as we have.
In conclusion, let me leave you with this thought. When we covet, we reveal a lack of trust in God. If you leave here this morning and retain only one thing, make it that.