The Tenth Commandment reads, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s” (Ex. 20:17; Dt. 5:21; NKJV). The notorious scoffer, the late Christopher Hitchens, thought that this was absolutely ridiculous: “. . .it demands the impossible . . . One may be forcibly restrained from wicked actions, or barred from committing them, but to forbid people from contemplating them is too much” (god is not Great, p. 100). He tried to argue that this was “proof” that “religion is man-made” (p. 99). Hitchens then went on to suggest that covetousness was the basis for American capitalism, and on that point he may well been correct.
On the other hand, according to the distinguished Jewish biblical scholar Umberto Cassuto, this particular commandment is part of what makes the Ten Commandments so revolutionary. “It is a fundamental duty of man not only to refrain from committing adultery with his neighbor’s wife and from stealing what belongs to his fellow, but also not to yearn for another person’s wife or property. This very desire is a grave sin against the principles of the Divine declaration’ (Exodus, p. 240). This is part of what set the religion of the Israelites apart from all the rest of the ancient world.
Cassuto is right. The Ten Commandments meant to be more than just a summary of a civil law code. Rather, they underscore man’s moral obligation to his Creator. They are a statement of those universal moral principles that are binding on all human beings regardless of place, time or culture. And the Tenth Commandment in particular points to our hearts, the deepest part of our inmost being, and looks at the motives behind our actions.
God is love, and He wants us to love Him with all of our heart and soul and might, and each other as ourselves. The only true religion is heart religion, and God is not impressed with hypocrisy. “. . .these people draw near with their mouths / And honor Me with their lips, / But have removed their hearts far from Me, / And their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men” (Isa. 29:13). God can read our hearts and knows our true desires. Thus to do good outwardly but devise evil inwardly hardly counts as righteousness. Our true self, our inward self, is evil.
If we desire to do evil, it is the desire itself that is evil. And therein lies the whole problem. Our hearts are filled with pride, greed, envy and lust. When we are crossed we become angry and seek revenge.
“The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men,
To see if there are any who understand, who seek God.
They have all turned aside,
They have altogether become corrupt;
There is none who does good,
No, not one.” (Ps. 14:2,3; 53:2,3).
But Mr. Hitchens protests. “It demands the impossible!” And, in a sense, he is right. God is perfectly holy and just. We are sinners by nature. In actual practice it is impossible for us to meet the Creator’s standards of righteousness.
But Mr. Hitchens, we are afraid, has missed the whole point of morality. Right and wrong are ultimately determined by God’s own standards of justice and humanity, but by our depraved appetites. The fact that we routinely fall short of God’s Law does not reflect negatively on the Law, but on us. The question is not, why does God command what is right, but rather, why do we do what is wrong?
But does this mean, then, that there is no hope? That we are in the impossible position of being judged by a law that standards of which we cannot meet? Fortunately there is more to the picture than that. For it is precisely this point that the gospel comes into the picture.
The apostle Paul tells us that the ultimate purpose of the Law is to lead us to Christ. The purpose of the Law is to show us how utterly sinful we are, and how incapable we are of justifying ourselves before a holy God. “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:19,20). “Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24). The “tutor” (Gk., paidagogos) was typically a slave who escorted young boys to and from school. The law serves the same purpose – it leads us to Christ by showing us our sin and our need for salvation. We can then find salvation in Christ.
What we need as human beings are two things: the forgiveness of our sins and a new heart. Only Christ can give these to us. We must come to Him in repentance and faith, and receive Him as our Savior. Only then will we have the relationship with God that we were meant to have.