Well, we come today to the tenth and final word — the tenth and final commandment — spoken by God from the mountain.
Now, looking back, we remember that the first four commandments were all about how to love and imitate God. But then the fifth commandment marked a big change of direction, from how to love God to how to love people. And that seemed strange to us until we realised that God was still describing how he wants his people to love and imitate him: one of the most important ways we love God is by loving people. And the next few commandments just added detail to this concept: love means not murdering, not committing adultery, not stealing. Or, to put those in positive terms: love means a life defined by reconciliation, by reverence for the institution of marriage, by taking responsibility for our inheritance. These are three of the most important ways we can imitate God: by practicing reconciliation, reverence, and responsibility.
But then last week, the ninth commandment marked another big change: from talking about actions to talking about words themselves. And we were tempted to think that a commandment about words must be less important than commandments about actions…until we realized that true human speech is actually the foundation of every well-ordered society, just as true divine speech is actually the foundation of all creation. All of the “action” commandments that came before actually depend upon the ninth commandment for their continued existence.
But now we have come to the tenth and final commandment, which says:
 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
And here we find yet another change of direction. The 10 Commandments began with how to love God through our actions. Then they shifted to how to love God by loving people through our actions. Last week they shifted to how to love God by loving people through our words. And now we find this final move from words to desires.
We have just completed a movement from the external to the internal: from actions, to words, to what we modern people call psychology. It seems God is not just interested in regulating actions, he is not just interested in regulating words, he is even interested in regulating what goes on in the human heart!
And that feels a bit intrusive, doesn’t it! We can understand why regulating language is important, because what we say to each other does have an impact on society. But how does what we feel about one another have an impact on society?
Well, we did talk a bit about this a few weeks ago, when we were looking at the sixth commandment. We realised that physical murder always begins with murderous feelings — like jealousy, hatred, fear — and that even if a person never physically murders somebody, if their internal psychology is dominated by jealousy, anger, fear and distrust, then those feelings will lead them to consistently murder their relationships — destroy their relationships. So:
Our internal psychology definitely has an impact on society. So of course God is interested in regulating what goes on in the human heart.
But now, as we think further about it, this commandment begins to feel a bit unfair.
Because look: all the other commandments are physical in some way. If someone breaks one of the first nine commandments, that sin can be investigated and verified with evidence. Even the words we speak can be investigated and verified through two or three witnesses. And so it is possible for a community of God’s people to help one another stay on the right road; we are able to point out when someone is going off course, because we can see it happening.
But how in the world does God expect us to enforce this commandment? How are we supposed to see into someone’s heart and witness whether they are coveting their neighbor’s stuff or not?
Well…we can’t see into someone’s heart. In fact, the bible says we can’t even see into our own hearts.
Which means God cannot possibly expect us to enforce this commandment, right? — since we can’t even enforce it for ourselves!
And it is interesting to note that the apostle Paul makes this exact point in his Letter to the Roman Church in the New Testament. He says, “I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death.”
Paul is describing how this commandment is unenforceable — not from without and not even from within!
But now we have some really serious questions to ask.
It already seems unfair for God to make a law that he knew would be unenforceable. But even more concerning: since God knew that sin would spring to life through this commandment and put his people to death as Paul describes, does this mean God issued a bad commandment? What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful?
Certainly not! We cannot say that God issued a sinful law — a commandment that forces people to sin. That would mean that God created sin, and the bible says clearly that he did not do that. If we start believing God created evil, then there is no good God, which means there is no good in creation, which means we are really truly free to do whatever we want and no one can ever say that what we are doing is wrong.
So how can we make sense of this unenforceable commandment that — according to Paul — opens the door to sin, deception, and death?
Well, the best way for us to make sense of all this is by going right back to the very beginning and asking the same question about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: since God knew that, through his command not to eat from the tree, sin would spring to life and put his people to death, does this mean God issued a bad commandment and created sin?
Let’s reason it through:
The tree itself was good. We know this because the bible says the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom.
The command not to eat was also good. We know this because that commandment was actually God’s first lesson in how to discern between good and evil. Without that commandment, there was nothing to discern. Through that commandment, Adam and Eve learned that good means keeping the commandment, evil means breaking the commandment. And that is good! Learning to discern is the beginning of all wisdom.
Okay so far? The tree was good; the commandment was good.
However, when God created that good tree, that act of creation did not just result in the tree. Something else also sprang into being at the same moment: the tree’s shadow. That shadow did not exist before the tree. When the tree appeared, so did its shadow. But did God create the shadow? No. He created the tree. The tree created the shadow. God himself contains no shadow, he casts no shadow, because he is pure light. Shadows are cast by everything that is not God.
Now, a shadow has no moral content — a shadow is not evil. But it is very useful as a metaphor for what also happened when God issued that first commandment.
Because, in the same way, when God said, “you must not eat from the tree,” that good commandment also cast a shadow. The commandment resulted in the potential for wisdom, but it also resulted in the potential for rebellion against wisdom. That potential obviously did not exist before the commandment. When the commandment appeared, so did the potential for sin. But did God create sin? No. He created the commandment. The commandment created the potential for sin. So:
No, we cannot say that God issued a bad commandment and created sin. God issued a good, wisdom-creating commandment that also contained the potential for non-wisdom.
And that first commandment was not just good but necessary, because without it Adam and Eve would have had no opportunity to learn how to discern between good and evil. They would have remained eternally innocent, but they would also have remained eternally naive in their knowledge of creation and of God — like young animals, really. Cute and cuddly and funny, perhaps, but not the sort of creatures you want to put in charge of ruling the earth — which was God’s design for them.
Adam and Eve needed to grow up in their own knowledge of God if they were to truly fill the earth with the knowledge of God, and God’s first commandment was the necessary first lesson to make that happen. But the creation of the necessary lesson also necessarily resulted in the potential to fail that lesson.
All this is why Paul says, “I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting.”
When Paul was just a naive toddler, coveting did not exist as a concept for him. There were just things in the world he wanted and things he did not want, there was no morality for him. But when he was old enough to recognize the concept of coveting, that commandment taught him that it is possible to want things you are not supposed to want. And suddenly he found himself wanting the things he was not supposed to want more than he wanted anything else.
This is why Paul says, “when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.”
But sin does not spring to life automatically, does it?
No, the commandment “you shall not covet” only results in the potential for disobedient coveting, just as the commandment “you must not eat” only resulted in the potential for disobedient eating. Sin actually has no living power of its own; it has to be brought to life by something outside of itself. The potential for sin is not actual sin. And the original potential for sin in the garden never would have become actual sin if it had not been given power from outside.
What is the thing that first empowered sin, that first actualised sin, so that sin sprang to life?
And, again, we can confirm this by going right back to the very beginning, to the point when the serpent showed up in the garden. We notice that he did not tell the woman to eat the fruit; he knew she would just say “No! You’re not the boss of me!” So instead, he pulled on a string that tickled her own internal desires. And so, we are told, when the woman saw the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom…then she took some and ate it.
The woman was deceived by the devil’s twisting of God’s Word. But ultimately that false word was just a virus that wormed its way into her heart and strengthened the idea of disobedience. In the end the woman persuaded herself to break the commandment — she allowed herself to be persuaded by her own internal desire. And that desire was a covetous desire: the first sinful human desire in history was the sin of coveting.
And this is how it works for all of us. The potential for sin remains only a potential until we give it life through our internal covetous desires. In the New Testament, the apostle James outlines this truth very clearly. He says, “each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”
So…we were wondering why God felt like he needed to issue a commandment about human psychology, about coveting?
Now we understand a lot better why this commandment is so important. It is not simply that evil desires lead to evil words and actions, and God wants to prevent that. He does! But at a deeper level, what we are discovering is that this commandment is the equivalent of God’s very first commandment, “You shall not eat.” Without this commandment against coveting, the potential for human wisdom would not exist. Without it, we would never grow, we would never learn how to discern between good and evil, we would never realize that the potential for good and evil actually begins within the human heart.
And so, what we are discovering here is that this commandment is actually foundational for all the other commandments:
If coveting other people’s stuff is not wrong, then lying to gain other people’s stuff is not wrong, and if lying to gain other people’s stuff is not wrong, then all the rest of the commandments can be redefined to suit our desires, and we all become a law unto ourselves.
But since God’s very first commandment and his last commandment here have both established that coveting other people’s stuff is wrong, this means that there is such a thing as true and false speech, which means that there is such a thing as true and false action.
Without this commandment in place, all the rest would fall apart.
But as we have already noticed, this commandment cannot actually be enforced. A community of God’s people can discipline its members for lying or stealing or committing adultery. But we can never directly discipline someone for coveting, because coveting leaves no direct evidence. And as the apostle Paul has pointed out, we can’t even enforce our own personal obedience to this commandment.
We are all guilty of breaking this commandment. And since breaking this commandment leads inevitably to breaking all of the other commandments, and since breaking all of the other commandments leads ultimately to us rejecting our Heavenly Father and losing our inheritance as his children…does this mean we actually have no hope of stopping our inevitable slide into darkness and damnation?
Yes. That is correct. We have no hope of stopping our inevitable slide into darkness and damnation.
That is the practical point God is making with this foundational, final commandment. The reality that this commandment cannot actually be enforced is meant to cast us into despair. We cannot even control our own desires, we cannot even keep from poisoning our own personal lives, so what chance do we have of creating and sustaining any kind of well-ordered human society?
The reason God makes this sudden turn from the external to the internal — from actions to words to psychology — is to make sure his people do not miss this central point: we have no hope at all of keeping these 10 Commandments.
But this gives rise to yet another serious question — a serious objection — to this whole program: how is it right or fair of God to set a bar so high that it is impossible for any human being to leap over it?
And that is a fair objection to make — if that is what God has actually done here.
But that objection actually makes two assumptions: first, that God has set a really high bar; second, that no human being can leap over it.
And the bible does not actually say either of those things. In fact, the bible says the opposite:
To answer the first assumption — that God has set an impossibly high bar — Moses himself says this in his Book of Deuteronomy: “Now, what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, nor is it beyond the sea. No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.” In other words: this is not a high bar. This is actually quite a low bar. It is actually quite attainable. All God is really asking is that we love one another. Is that really so hard?
But if this bar is so low, so attainable, then why does everybody fail? Doesn’t this just prove that — no matter how low the bar is — God has set up a bar too high for any human being to leap over it?
No. That is faulty reasoning. Just because you fail and I fail and everybody we have ever met has failed does not mean that success is impossible for any human being.
So the real question we should be asking is this: what kind of human being would find God’s commandments really easy to keep?
And to answer that question, Moses himself says this, also in the Book of Deuteronomy: “What does the Lord your God ask of you but to observe his commands and decrees?” Easy, right? “Yes,” Moses says, “because all you have to do is circumcise your hearts.” In other words: a human being with a circumcised heart will find God’s law easy to keep, because the fundamental desires of a circumcised heart have been cleansed and transformed.
So all we have to do is this thing we have discussed several times before in this series: all we have to do is change our internal psychology so that we are no longer committed to self-love. All we have to do is change our fundamental motivations so that we are outward facing, committed to loving others more than we love ourselves. If we just made this small change, suddenly obedience would become second nature to us! We would never even experience the desire to covet, which would remove the need to lie, which would result in perfect obedience to all the rest of the commandments.
But as we have discussed several times before in this series, that is impossible for us to do. Self-love and shame and fear have become so interwoven with our human natures that we simply cannot cut those things out of us without killing ourselves — just like it is impossible to reinstall the operating system on a computer without wiping it. So:
God’s law is actually quite a low bar, it is actually very easy or a human being with a circumcised heart. It’s just impossible for you or for me to keep, because it is impossible for us to circumcise our own hearts; it is impossible for us to restore our own internal psychology so that we want to keep God’s law.
And this is why, as I pointed out before, we have no hope of stopping our inevitable slide into darkness and damnation. That is the practical point God is making with this final commandment. The reality that this commandment cannot actually be enforced is meant to cast us into despair for ourselves and for our human societies.
But now this raises yet another serious question, a serious objection: does God really want his people to despair? Is that really the kind of thing a good Heavenly Father wants his children to experience?
And the answer is: yes.
Every good father on earth wants his children to grow up into wisdom, learning how to discern good from evil.
But how is this accomplished? Does a good father give his children everything they want whenever they want it? No! — that is how we get spoiled, self-centred adults who have never learned to regulate their own desires.
Rather, a good father knows how to set up appropriate boundaries for his children, so that they get a chance to learn that this belongs to me, that belongs to someone else; it is right for me to take responsibility for this, but not right for me to take responsibility for that; everything God created is good, but not everything belongs to me all the time. Basically, a good father knows how to set up conditions where his children have to practice discernment and self-restraint.
And so, on a more subtle level, a good father knows how to make sure his children experience the frustration that comes from discovering that they have limitations: there are good things they want that they cannot have; there are good things they want to do that they do not have the ability to do.
But why is frustration — and even despair — a good thing for children to experience? First, because children need to practice regulating their own desires in order to learn self-restraint. But second, children need to experience limitation in order to discover that they need someone else outside of themselves. Children need to learn that, just because I cannot do it does not mean no one can do it.
We could say it like this: a good father knows how to use limitation, frustration — and even despair — to teach his children how to ask for help. And that is what our good Heavenly Father is doing here with this commandment, with all his commandments.
Through this despair of discovering that I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do, this I keep on doing…it is our discovery of that helplessness that inspires us to cry, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?”
So, in summary, here is the central point of this commandment, friends: we have no hope of keeping it, or — by extension — any of the others.
So if we are going to ask, as we like to do every week: what are we supposed to do with this text? How are we supposed to apply this to our lives?…this is the answer, here is our application: despair. Fall into despair. Because there is no one here who does good, not even one. Through the brilliant light that is the law, we cast a shadow that proves we are not God.
As the apostle Paul says in the New Testament: through the law we become conscious of our sin. Are you conscious of your sin yet? Good. Mission accomplished. Go home!
…no. No no no no no, don’t go home yet. Because the fact that we cast a shadow in relation to God’s law actually proves that God’s law is the source of light. Or, to put that another way: the existence of despair points to the reality of hope. It’s like this: if there was no light, there would be no shadow, just unrelieved darkness. In the same way, if there was no hope, no goodness, no law, there would be no despair, there would just be emotional flatness, psychological death. So the fact that we can experience despair actually means we are still alive! And as the old saying goes: “Where there is life there is hope.”
So what is the hope that this despair points us to?
This is our hope: the fact that we cannot circumcise our own hearts does not mean that no one can circumcise our hearts. That would be faulty reasoning. Just because you have failed to fix your internal psychology, and I have failed, and everybody we have ever met has failed, does not mean that it cannot be done — it just means it cannot be done by us. Even the most gifted heart surgeon in the world could not perform a heart transplant upon himself, but someone else could perform a heart transplant upon him.
And this is, in fact, what Moses ends up saying near the end of his Book of Deuteronomy. It was near the beginning of that book that he said, “All you have to do is circumcise your hearts and it will be easy to keep God’s law!” But near the end of the book he revisits that idea, and he admits that it is actually impossible for the people to circumcise their own hearts. They are inevitably going to fall into sin and despair, darkness and damnation. But then Moses makes this prophecy, he says: “After you have completely failed to keep God’s law, and completely rejected him as your Father, after you have completely lost your inheritance and your hope in the world, then God himself will go out and bring you back to himself. And after he has done that, the Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.”
And about 1000 years later, the first part of Moses’ prophecy came true: after hundreds of years of rebellion against their Heavenly Father, the people of Israel finally lost their inheritance. They were scattered among the nations, despairing and lost, without hope in the world. But then God spoke through a prophet named Ezekiel and repeated the second half of Moses’ prophecy. He said this: “I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”
Well, more than 2500 years have passed since Ezekiel wrote that promise. Has that prophecy been fulfilled?
Yes. Just one generation after Ezekiel, God did go out and bring the Jewish people back to their land. But it soon became obvious that their hearts were still not circumcised. So they waited, and waited, and 400 years later a child was born to a young virgin in the town of Bethlehem.
And the testimony of the young woman, along with the testimony of various other people — like some local shepherds and some foreign kings from the far east — combined to say that this child had been conceived by the Holy Spirit in an act of unique creation. And what this meant is that this child, from conception onward, was fully human and fully divine: he was fully man and fully God.
And the main benefit of being fully man and fully God was this: he was a human being born with a circumcised heart. From infancy onward, he found his Heavenly Father’s law easy to keep. He never even experienced the desire to covet, which removed any need for him to ever bear false witness, which resulted in his perfect obedience to all the rest of the commandments.
But how do we know that he never even experienced the desire to covet?
Well, the apostle Paul, in the New Testament, makes the argument that this man’s birth as a human being is the evidence that he never coveted anything. Paul points out that, since this man was fully divine, then that divine nature had always existed, that divine nature had always been God for all eternity past. “But,” Paul says, “even though he was in very nature God, he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”
That man’s name is Jesus, the eternal Son of God. And the fact that he consented to be conceived as a human being by the Holy Spirit shows that he did not even covet his Father’s position of ultimate authority. The Son of God has been eternally contented with who he is in relation to his Father, and he proved that by becoming a human being, and passing through the entire human experience: learning obedience from what he suffered just as we do, being tempted in every way, just as we are, and dying just like us. The only difference is that he was born with a perfected psychology, a circumcised heart, and so he did not sin.
Jesus proved that it is possible for a human being to keep God’s law, that God’s commandments are not too difficult or beyond reach for a man with a circumcised heart.
But how does the fact that Jesus had a circumcised heart help us? How did Jesus’ birth and death fulfill Exekiel’s promise that God would transplant the hearts of his people?
This is how:
After the Father rewarded his Son’s obedience by raising him up out of death into a transformed life — where his human body finally matched the quality of his circumcised heart — Jesus poured out his Holy Spirit upon all those who accepted that Jesus really is the Son of God, the Messiah sent to gather all of God’s people out of every nation on earth. Just as Ezekiel had promised, the Lord Jesus put God’s Spirit into God’s people, who cleansed them of their sins, saved them from slavery and judgement, and moved them to be careful to keep God’s laws.
Now, we were not there on that day, almost 2000 years ago, when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the new-born Church in Jerusalem. But Jesus also gave his Church the power to continue to pour out the Holy Spirit upon anyone who came after.
So if you are here today, and God’s commandments have brought you to despair over your complete inability to fix your own psychology, if you find yourself continually at the mercy of your own desires so that you feel out of control, enslaved by your own self, and if you are crying out, “Who will rescue me? What can I do to get a circumcised heart?”…then this is what you should do, according to the apostle Peter: “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off — for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
So believe, repent, and be baptised. Let Jesus’ Church sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. You will be saved from slavery, and from God’s judgement. The Lord will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. He will put his Spirit in you and move you to follow his decrees and be careful to keep his laws.
But now, what about those of us who have already believed, repented, and been baptised, is there a further application of this commandment to our lives? Is there a way for us to actually enforce this commandment in our personal lives and in our community?
Yes. There is. This is what we are supposed to do: now that we have the Holy Spirit, now that we have hearts of flesh that do desire to follow our Lord’s decrees, here are some practical steps we can follow:
First, we need to consciously agree with God that coveting is sin. That will be helpful.
Second we need to consciously commit to learning not to covet. Also helpful, and the goal of this commandment.
Third — and this might be the most helpful and practical step — as we focus on learning to control our own desires, we keep this truth before us: when our Father says “do not covet,” he is not saying “do not desire.”
This is very important! Because some Christians have gottn the idea that being a good Christian means suppressing all desire. But that is not true. Desire is the in-born engine that drives us; if we try to turn that off, we die! Our Father wants us to live. So the point is not to get rid of desire, the point is to re-orient our desires away from evil things and toward good things.
Going back to the beginning once more: Adam and Eve desired to eat from the tree of knowledge, and that was a good desire because desiring wisdom is good! Good desire only became coveting when Eve decided to eat the fruit before it had been given to her by her Father. The sin was eating the fruit before it belonged to her.
So, today, is it good to desire a wife? Yes! Just don’t desire your neighbor’s wife, because your neighbor’s wife has not been given to you. Is it good to desire a house, a home, children, an inheritance to pass on to the next generations? Yes! We should desire all these good things. Let’s just make sure the good things we desire do not already belong to someone else.
So going forward, let us train ourselves to ask these practical questions: Does this thing I desire belong to me? If it does, then: okay lah! Feel free to desire. But if it does not, then we ask: is it legally available to me, by God’s law and/or man’s law? If it is legally available, then: let’s seek counsel, asking our brothers and sisters whether our desire is good and godly, and act according to their counsel. But if it is not legally available, then let us remember that we have already agreed with our Father that coveting is a sin. And let us recommit ourselves to not coveting what does not and cannot and should not belong to us.
Which is very hard in our capitalist world. Our economy today is driven by manufactured desire. Every advertisement, every show, every social media feed is designed to make us discontent with what our Father has given us so that we will want things that he has not given us — things that previous generations never needed or wanted before, things that previous generations could not afford so easily. So we must be even more on our guard today than ever before, because we have a power to indulge our desires now that previous generations never even dreamed. So let us each learn to examine ourselves, and beware our own desires.
Here is the apostle Paul’s warning for us: “Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But,” he says, “godliness with contentment is great gain.”
Covetousness is born of sinful desire, sinful desire is born of discontent. The serpent first deceived the woman by making her discontent; the devil does the same to us. So if we were to close here by realising that this negatively worded commandment also has a positive side like all the rest, this would be it: “Do not covet” also means “be content.”
And that is probably the most powerful weapon we have in our fight against our own covetous desires: let us focus on all that we have already been given. Let us focus on all that we are destined to receive. Ultimately — quite apart from the new heavens and the new earth — that inheritance is Jesus Christ himself, the bridegroom who spent his own life to purchase us as a bride for himself. As our desire for him grows, our desires for the good things of this world will grow, while our desires for what has not been given us “will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.”
So let’s do that now.