What the Lord said to Samuel when he was looking for God’s chosen son of Jesse to anoint as king of Israel is also His main concern when it comes to ethics: “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). God has never said that a mere external righteousness is sufficient; rather, His people are to be holy in their thoughts and affections, as well as in their deeds.
The tenth commandment, which addresses what happens in our hearts and minds, makes clear that the Lord forbids those sins that no one sees — our covetous thoughts and desires leading us to long wrongfully for what rightfully belongs to others (Ex. 20:17). This is the commandment that deals most specifically with the sins of the heart, showing us that though we might refrain from all outward acts of sin — murder, adultery, theft, and idolatry — we have failed to keep His law when our hearts are filled with jealous discontent.
In many ways, covetousness can be seen as the one sin that gives birth to all the others. Adam and Eve coveted God’s knowledge and ate the forbidden fruit in order to make themselves wise, an idolatrous grasp at the Lord’s prerogatives (Gen. 3:1–7). An adulterer must first want someone other than whom he married before he breaks the commandment (see David’s example in 2 Sam. 11:1–4). A thief is envious of his neighbor’s estate before he steals his goods. Voters grow jealous of what other people in a nation have and use the ballot box to “redistribute” wealth. Corporations covet the dominant position in the market and game the system to create laws that give them competitive advantages at the expense of other companies. People want to look good in the sight of others and covet the earned reputation of respected people, so they besmirch character and lie about their own accomplishments. The list of ways in which covetousness leads to other sins is endless.
The tenth commandment, in particular, proves that the Ten Commandments are not just civil laws for ancient Israel but statutes that penetrate the deep recesses of the heart. As such, they demand more than any other code. They are an expression of the righteousness of God, who searches the hearts of all those in Adam — all unrepentant human beings — and finds them wanting.
The answer to covetousness is not the absence of all desire, as in Buddhism, but rather the cultivation of contentment (1 Tim. 6:6–10). It can be a long journey on the way to discovering how to be content in every circumstance, but if we are endeavoring to be grateful to God for every blessing He has given to us, then we will be less inclined to covet that which is not ours. This day, let us be thankful to the Lord for the blessings we now possess.