“What We Want”
Ten Commandments Series, No. 11
August 5, 2018
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
We conclude this series of sermons on the Ten Commandments with one final reading of the Law, this time from the rendition provided in Deuteronomy 5.
v.21 Notice the addition of our neighbor’s “field” in the list of things we must not covet. “His field” did not occur in the commandment in the form first given at Sinai and found in Exodus 20. The reason, obviously, was that traveling through the wilderness as Israel was, there were no fields to covet. But when Deut. 5 was written Israel was poised to enter and to take possession of the Promised Land and Canaan was dotted with already cleared and cultivated fields that would soon fall into the hands of the people of Israel. In other words, the law was adjusted to address the new circumstances faced by the people of God. We no more expect to worry about coveting our ox or donkey today than we expect to find our neighbor’s car, computer, or television in Deuteronomy. The law is written in such a way that it is easy to adjust its relevance to changing circumstances.
Anyone who has thought seriously about the Ten Commandments realizes that the tenth is not simply another commandment like the others, one more part of that obedience that God requires of human beings and supremely of his people. This commandment is, as the old writers used to say, a mother commandment, because the sin of covetousness is a mother sin. This is, this is a sin that becomes the root of the other sins that are forbidden in the Ten Commandments. Its being placed last in the list is some indication of its special character. Think of how covetousness, the desire for things that God has given to others but not to us, produces the other sins.
The man who commits adultery, who violates the 7th commandment, before he committed that sin obviously had committed the sin forbidden in the tenth commandment. He coveted his neighbor’s wife. The man who steals and so violates the 8th commandment obviously first broke the tenth, wanting what did not belong to him. That is obvious enough. But the same thing is true of the man or woman who violates the first commandments – those having to do with our immediate duty toward God. The Apostle Paul – who, as we shall see had thought a great deal about the tenth commandment – makes a point of this in Ephesians 5 when he writes:
“For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.”
Paul identifies covetousness, or greed, with idolatry, the worship of idols rather than the one true God. Break the 10th and you will have, in the nature of the case, broken the first and the second as well. And Paul’s reasoning is hardly difficult to understand. The covetous person worships and serves the things he or she desires. They love them more than God; nor do they revere God, or they would honor his wisdom which determined how much of this world’s goods any person would obtain.
More than simply one more rule, the tenth commandment thus serves as a witness, within the law itself, to the spirituality of the law of God, to the fact that the law governs not only our outward behavior but the thoughts and motives of our hearts. It has been possible for vast multitudes of human beings – within and without the church – to indulge the illusion that he or she has kept the sixth or the seventh commandment, for example, because he or she never actually murdered anyone or slept with someone else’s spouse. That kind of wooden and superficial understanding of the law was commonplace in the Judaism of the Lord’s Day. It was what made possible the rich young ruler’s remark to Jesus that he had kept all the commandments from his youth. It was precisely that same superficial understanding that had nourished Paul’s pride and his antipathy to Christian teaching when he first encountered it. And he tells us, in Romans 7, precisely what it was that undid his self-confidence, that revealed to him the full extent of his disobedience to God, the full measure of his sin and guilt. It was the tenth commandment. It was the last one that put paid to the illusion which he had so long indulged that he was a righteous man. He had never broken into someone’s home to steal the man’s property. He had never slept with another man’s wife. He had never taken a life, or so he thought.
But then, utterly without warning, the Holy Spirit brought the 10th commandment home to his heart. As he put it:
“…if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness… I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died.”
It was the law and it was in particular the tenth commandment that exposed to the proud Jew the actual moral sewer that was his own heart. On the outside Paul continued to appear what he had always thought he was, the righteous Jew, the man God would certainly approve for all his good works. But the commandment, as it settled into his conscience, forced him to admit that on the inside, in his heart where he was his truest self, he was mass of selfish desires and passions that must have been deeply offensive to God. His heart was, he now realized, as John Owen the English Puritan described it, “a standing sink of abominations.” Paul was enough of a biblical scholar to know that it was the human heart that told the tale; that God looks upon the heart and judges a person according to what is in his or her heart; that out of the heart flow the issues of life, and that God is hardly fooled by the placid and attractive exterior that hides beneath an inner life of envy, ill-will, lust, pettiness, and relentless selfishness. As he learned more and more of the teaching of Jesus he would have learned that a distinctive of that teaching was that the Lord was always going down to the bottom of human action; that he was always concerned with the motives. Indeed, it was here that he found the nub of the problem with the Pharisees. It was not that did the wrong things – fasting or prayer or giving to the poor – they did the right things. But they did those things because they were covetous of praise, recognition, and reward. And that utterly ruined the value of their works.
It was the tenth commandment that showed Paul the enormity of his problem with sin and so it was the 10th commandment that, in time, led Paul to the realization that Jesus Christ was his only hope for peace with God. He needed someone both to take away his guilt and to cleanse his heart, things he now accepted he could never do by himself, but that God had done for him through his Son, by his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. It was the tenth commandment that made Paul a Christian and it has had the same effect upon untold numbers of people ever since.
No other commandment lays bare in such an incontrovertible way the universal human problem with sin, with moral failure, with the defective nature of human life. No truer words were ever spoken than those of Jeremiah the prophet (6:13): “From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain.”
Everywhere and always human life is both characterized and troubled by discontent: the desire to have more or to have something else than what one has. One desires a different lot than the lot God has apportioned to him or to her. There is never enough recognition, never enough pleasure, never enough money, never enough security, never enough contentment, never enough health, and so on. And so, it is the tenth commandment that lays bare the human predicament and the absolute necessity of a radical solution. There can be no papering over the human problem unmasked by the universal desire for more or for something else.
Nine out of ten human beings is a Faust, who would sell or has sold his or her soul for more money, a bigger house, a better job, a better husband or wife, a greater name, more power. Covetousness rules the world. This is something that Karl Marx never understood. No revolution of the working class would ever have overcome the human desire for more, as the Communist experiment proved in such a dismal and discouraging way.
There can be no denying this because our world is chock full of the evidence of this covetousness, and we see that evidence even within ourselves. It is a daily fact of human life. Think of the astonishing power of human imagination. God has given us the capacity to place ourselves in a completely different situation, to see ourselves in another set of circumstances. There are so many holy uses to which our imagination might be put, but what uses do people usually make of it? We daydream and what are our daydreams about? So much of the time they are exercises in covetousness, dreams of more, or dreams of a different life than the life that God has given us. So many movies nowadays are exercises in covetousness; their stories appeal to us precisely because they enable us to imagine ourselves in a world where we have more of this or that, something different than what God has actually given us.
Madison Avenue knows the human heart and so it constantly appeals to its covetousness. Its message to us is always “You should have more,” “you should not have to live without this,” “your neighbor has one of these and you should too,” and “to make it possible, we’ve put this item on sale or now offer a rebate.”
We Christians too, from time to time, need to take stock here so that we do not forget the terrible reality that is exposed by the tenth commandment. For though we believe in Jesus and trust him both to forgive our sins and to cleanse our hearts, unless we continue to reckon with the full extent of our sinfulness, we will come to take those mighty gifts for granted and fail to treasure them as we should or to love God for them as we must, a tendency that the godly have to their shame always recognized within themselves. So, tell me: how powerful are your desires for Christ and for what would please Christ in your heart and life. You know what your desires are; you know only too well. How many of them every day and throughout the day are desires for Christ and for serving and honoring Christ, desires that a God who is looking upon your heart would approve? This is the test which we must put to ourselves from time to time. We must never find ourselves among those who have forgotten how thoroughly our hearts were overtaken by covetousness. We must come to Christ anew every day, but will we if we do not remain conscious of our great need to do so?
So, this morning let us, you and I, take the light of the tenth commandment down into the darkness of our hearts to see what we find there. What do I think about when I am alone? What are my daydreams? When there are no external influences to control my thoughts, what comes unbidden to my soul’s attention? What do I love to think about? And how much time and attention do I give to ordering my thoughts so that they conform to God’s law. Do I, do you desire and so think about first and foremost what God desires in me and in my life? Search your heart, number your desires, measure the strength of them. Your heart will not admit itself to you; it will not press you to think about this. You must search it out yourself and the primary reason why Christians remain as covetous as they do is that they stop looking for the sin, stop identifying it within themselves, and so accept it as normal. Christ will never be great in a heart that makes peace with the restless desire for something else!
So, it is the tenth commandment that ensures that we deal with the true extent and enormity of our sin, of which our heart, our inner life, and especially the desires of our heart are the true index. But this is only one purpose of God’s law: to show us our sin and our need of a Savior.
When once the fiery law of God has chased us to the gospel road,
Then back unto the holy law, most kindly gospel grace will draw.
When once we have acknowledged our sin and confessed it to God, when once we have turned in faith to Christ to take away our guilt and to give us new hearts that desire to serve him, these same commandments show us the way forward. We now want to be rid of our sins, including our covetousness, and we have the Holy Spirit within us to empower our efforts to kill our sins and replace them with true righteousness. And what is the righteousness required in the tenth commandment? Contentment!
In Romans 7 Paul tells us that it was the exposure of the raging covetousness in his heart that had prepared him for faith in Jesus Christ. In Philippians 4 Paul tells us how far along the Holy Spirit had taken him in obedience to the tenth commandment. “…for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.”
A proud man who would never have imagined living the life that he would eventually live, once Paul became a follower of Jesus Christ he stopped wanting a different life and a greater measure of this or that and began to concentrate on living the life that Christ had given him. That is contentment: a heart acceptance of the decisions that the Lord has made for your life. He’s given you this much money, so your calling becomes to make the very best use of the money he has given you. True enough, he may give you more money as you work hard and faithfully before him; or he may take away some of the money you now have. But the Christian’s calling is to serve the Lord faithfully with what the Lord has given, whatever the Lord has given.
Or the Lord has given you a wife or a husband. Isn’t this what the Bible says? “What the Lord has brought together let not man separate.” Our calling is not to spend our days wishing for a different spouse, but to love and serve the one God gave us, however easy or difficult that may be. True enough, husbands and wives ought to learn to love one another more and more deeply as the years pass and ought to sanctify themselves as husbands or as wives, but covetousness is no help in that work. It does not increase married love; it is an acid that dissolves it.
Or the Lord has given you a job, a post, a position. Your task is not constantly to wish for another position, a higher or a better job, but to prove yourself before God and man a faithful worker in the job you have. Nothing prevents you from seeking other work, if you can do so honorably, but the man whose eye is always on another man’s job is unlikely to be conspicuously effective in the job that he already has. After all, is that not the significance of “field” in Deuteronomy 5:21? It was an agricultural economy. The bigger and better one’s field, the better one’s job! But we are forbidden to covet our neighbor’s field!
The Puritans were successful people by and large, as the world measures success. But it was not because – at least in the case of the best of them – because they craved success and the worldly benefits that success brings with it. It was because they were committed to serving the Lord with their work, because they worked hard and well, and God blessed their labors. The best way; the only truly Christian way, to get more and more is for God to give it to you while you have sought to serve him faithfully in the station in which he placed you.
Do you see the point, the insight in all of this? What the tenth commandment teaches us is precisely that if we are to put our sins to death, and as we said covetousness is a mother sin, we must put them to death in our hearts. We surely must attend to our behavior, but sins spring up first in the heart and it is there they must be killed or quenched. The axe must be laid to the root of the tree.
Judas was in charge of the Twelve’s money, as it happened, because he loved money and his position allowed him to steal from the fund from time to time. So, little was his covetousness checked in his heart that it grew worse and worse until it produced the greatest crime in the history of mankind. In the final analysis what led Judas to betray the Lord was his desire for more money than he had. Ahab was the king in Israel. He had greater wealth than anyone else in his kingdom. But covetousness was left so unchecked in his heart that he would not be content until he had stolen the vineyard of Naboth. Of Judas the Lord said that it would have been better had he never been born. Of Ahab the Lord said, “In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, shall dogs lick up your blood.” [1 Kings 21:19] These incidents remind us that if we allow our covetousness to go unchecked it becomes a greater and greater influence in our lives. And covetousness never produces anything noble, or pure, or pleasing to God.
The Bible is full of that warning. The Lord told parables that are a warning against covetousness; for example, the parable of the rich farmer in Luke 12, the man who wanted to build bigger barns to hold his increasing wealth but died before he could do so; or the parable of the sower in Matthew 13 in which the growth of the seed of the word of God was choked by the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches. No one who is concentrating on acquiring more in this world can devote the proper time and energy to the next world. As Jesus put it, “You cannot love both God and money.” As John put it, “if anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”
So, what is to be done? What is the opposite of covetousness and so what is to be done by that man or woman in Christ who wishes to put worldly desires to death in his or her heart? Well you must learn, as Paul did, to be content with what you have. The Lord taught us much that should make us champions of contentment! From his statement about how hard it is for the rich to be saved, to how unsearchable are the riches of Christ. But we must give our attention, we must take these truths to heart, both to the vanity of this world’s goods and pleasures and to the glories of eternal life.
Brothers and sisters, there are two sets of desires in your hearts. I know there are, because there are in my heart. There are the wise and holy desires that the Spirit of God has put there and there are the worldly desires left over from your original nature. There is the desire to have more of everything here – whatever the particular things are that you covet – and there is the desire to love and serve the Lord, to be content with what his perfect wisdom has given you, and to lay up your treasures in heaven. There are those desires for things and there is that desire to be pure in heart.
Well if you have both sets of desires – as we all do – the thing to do is to starve the one set and feed the other. Ludwig Feuerbach, the German atheistic philosopher, almost two centuries ago now famously said, “Man is what he eats.” Well there is truth in that. Feed your holy appetites and they will grow stronger; feed the unholy ones and they will grow stronger as well. Starve appetites and eventually they will wither and die. This is biblical truth and it is, at one and the same time, as simple and as difficult as that! With your thinking, your conversation, your reading, the company you keep, the way you spend your time, the attention to pay to divine worship, the time you invest in Christian witness and service, the faithfulness with which you pray, the earnestness with which you confess your sins, and the time you give to the contemplation of your eternal future, with these things you break the back of one set of desires or the other.
Some of you may be thinking: “My, what a lot of work and effort the Christian life is! What a burden to bear!” Does life really have to be so serious, such hard work? Isn’t life hard enough without our having to make it harder upon ourselves? Well, brothers and sisters, it was our Savior who said that it was better to cut off our right arm or gouge out our right eye than to be whole and healthy but then be cast into hell. It was he who said that he or who was unwilling to pick up the cross and follow him was not worthy to be his disciple. It was he who spoke of the straight and the narrow way which leads to life and of their being so few who find it and walk it, while the broad way that leads to hell is crowded with multitudes. And by his apostles it was that same Jesus Christ who commanded us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling because it is God who is in us both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
And as I conclude this series on the Ten Commandments, that transcript of the holy life to which we are called and for which our Savior shed his blood, let me say to all of us, to every earnest Christian in this sanctuary this morning, you know as I know that unless we learn from the law the full extent of our sinfulness and are humbled and troubled by it, unless we appreciate how much is actually required of us by these commandments, and unless we bend our wills to obey them out of love for God, gratitude to Christ, and appreciation for the illumination of the Holy Spirit, we will not be one whit more righteous, not one whit more useful to God and to our neighbors, not one whit more a reflection of the goodness of Christ at the end of our lives than we are today. No Christian should be able to bear that thought. “Oh, how I love your law; it is my meditation all the day.” A very wise man said that. And if we would be wise we will say the same thing to God, not once but time and time again; say it and mean it.