Institutionalised Envy: How the Tenth Commandment Can Make or Break a Country

Tim Cantrell

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“You shall not covet” (Exod 20:17). How many Christians realise the political significance of those four words (only two words in Hebrew)? Consider with me for a moment the widespread implications of the tenth commandment. This awful sin and deadly vice of “coveting” includes all forms of greed, envy, and lust—any selfish desire for what is not ours. How different our world would be without coveting!

My Zambian friend and Christian author, Lennox Kalifungwa, recently summed up well the broader ramifications of the 10th commandment for our day:

Socialism is the politicized envy of wealth.
Feminism is the politicized envy of patriarchy.
Post-colonialism is the politicized envy of western civilization.
Statism and globalism are the politicized envy of divinity.
Envy produces great evil, and is inevitably never satisfied.

Biblical Summary

“The leech has two daughters: Give and Give!” (Prov 30:15). “The eyes of man are never satisfied” (Prov 27:20; cf. Eccl 1:8; 4:4). As our Lord Himself warned, “Beware of covetousness!” (Luke 12:15). Paul summed it up best: “covetousness . . . is idolatry” (Col 3:5; Eph 5:5), bringing us back full circle to the first commandment, showing how everything begins with right worship.

In recently catechising our youth in our home-school co-op, the tenth commandment has hit home to our hearts and our society with striking relevance:

Question 80: What is required in the tenth commandment?
Answer: The tenth commandment requireth full contentment with our own condition, with a right and charitable frame of spirit toward our neighbor, and all that is his.

Question 81: What is forbidden in the tenth commandment?
Answer: The tenth commandment forbiddeth all discontentment with our own estate, envying or grieving at the good of our neighbor, and all inordinate motions and affections to anything that is his.

Heart Diagnosis

Other ancient law codes cover the morals prescribed in the first nine of God’s commandments. But none have anything like the tenth commandment, climbing into the depths of my being, confronting my desires. If the first four commandments focus upward, and the next five focus outward, the tenth looks inward—penetrating to our innermost desires, unmasking how we view the possessions of others.

Notice that it is also the only commandment repeated; twice over we’re told, “You shall not covet,” as our Lord pounds away with double strength on the greedy cravings of our depraved hearts—to expose our sin, to drive us to Christ for forgiveness and cleansing, and to instruct us in His will and guide us in holiness.

John Calvin warns about excusing or rationalising this sin:

What shall be said of covetousness? It carries a bad sound, and no man will acknowledge that he is tainted with covetousness. A man will rather make such excuses as these: “I have responsibility for a wife and children, and why is it not lawful for me to seek bread for them? Again, should I not have a care for the future, that I may make good provision for them.” Covetousness has such a store of excuses that it is as if it were varnished with them, and the term has such a gloss put on it that it is almost taken for a virtue.

Biblical Examples

Consider all the ruin that has come from coveting—both at the most personal and national levels: Because of envy, Cain murdered his brother and built a city known for violence and polygamy (Gen 4). Achan coveted the forbidden spoils of Ai and his whole household were destroyed along with him and all the spoils (Josh 7). Saul was jealous for David’s popularity, and so lost his kingdom and his soul. David coveted Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, but paid dearly in the death of his son and demise of his family and nation.

On and on the biblical examples go, ringing out warning after warning. Truly the tenth commandment brings with it colossal consequences for the good or ill of society.

Political Application

As we in South Africa approach a major election, it is crucial for Christian voters not to be naïve or ignorant, but to recognise that all political systems are not created equal. Every form of government is fallen, but not in the same way or to the same extent.

Constitutional democracy and a free market are rooted in many biblical principles, when rightly applied. Socialism (and its end-goal, communism) is rooted in envy, greed, and covetousness. It has bred all kinds of theft and trampling over private property rights (as enshrined in the eighth commandment against stealing), and discourages a biblical work ethic. As Margaret Thatcher famously said: “The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.”

God’s biblical and proven cure to coveting is contentment—found only in our Lord Jesus Christ (Phil 4:11–13; 1 Tim 6:6–10). May we as His Church proclaim His Law boldly at the most private and public levels, so that repentant sinners will cry to Him for the mercy found only in the Savior.

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Tim Cantrell

Tim serves as Sr. Pastor of Antioch Bible Church and President of Shepherd's Seminary in Johannesburg, South Africa.