Exodus 20:16-17 (NIV)
16 You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
17 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.
The tongue is a restless evil. It sets the whole person on fire, James 3 tells us. And so the ninth commandment is aimed in part at bridling the tongue. It’s aimed at bridling the tongue with truth, teaching us to put off falsehood, to put off lying. In our culture, to accuse someone of telling a lie is a serious insult, so many people hesitate to even use the term. I think that this hesitancy reveals fallen man’s heart to shy away from this commandment—as well as his need of this commandment.
What does it mean that we think the command “thou shalt not lie”or the word lie is impolite? It probably indicates that in some ways we’re already shading the truth. We’re already pulling back from a full expression of what’s good, what’s right, and what’s true. And the ninth commandment convicts us of that. It points out our fallenness when it comes to our use of the tongue and the destruction that the tongue represents.
And, likewise, the tenth commandment: “Thou shalt not covet.” If you can imagine the heart having hands, coveting is like the heart grasping for things, desiring things, laying hold of things that don’t properly belong to it. What’s remarkable and beautiful about this commandment—about all of Scripture, in fact—is that even though the commandment addresses something inward (that inward grasping of the heart), it also points out the social implications of that interior grasping. So we have “thou shalt not covet anything that is thy neighbor’s.” Not our neighbor’s spouse, not our neighbor’s cattle, not anything that belongs to our neighbor.
The tenth commandment sets for us a kind of boundary that protects against the way covetousness tends to cross lines. We are tempted to cross the line of desires, longing for things that aren’t properly in our possession. We cross the line of property, grasping for things that belong to another person (your neighbor’s cattle, your neighbor’s spouse). So our coveting actually, socially, does injury to our neighbor. And there’s another line that we cross. When we covet, what we’re actually saying is that God has not apportioned his creation properly because he hasn’t given us everything we desire. And so the heart, in its fallen, sinful way, grasps for things that don’t belong to it and seeks for things that actually belong on the other side of ownership—to the neighbor or to God.
These commandments speak to us, and they call us forth to truth-telling. And not just to truth-telling, but to the truth spoken in love. They call forth a bridling, a restraining, and a channeling of desire to things that are good and right. They call us to things that God has legitimately given to us for our enjoyment, and to be content in how God has distributed his blessing, how he rules his creation. They call us not to go outside of that contentment by taking things, for if we do, we destroy society, culture, and our neighbors. This is true even if the taking of what doesn’t belong to us is only a taking in heart.