Exodus 20:17 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor's.
That which is here prohibited is concupiscence or an unlawful lusting after what belongs to another. In our exposition of the previous Commandments, we have pointed out that while their actual terms are confined to the forbidding of outward acts, yet the scope of each one takes in and reaches to the condemnation of everything which has any tendency or occasion to lead to the overt crime. Here in the final precept of the Decalogue we find clear confirmation of the same, for in it God expressly imposes a law upon our spirits, forbidding us to so much as lust after whatever He has forbidden us to perpetrate. The best way to keep men from committing sin in act is to keep them from desiring it in heart. Thus, while the authority of each of the first nine Commandments reaches to the mind and the most secret intents of the soul, yet the Lord saw fit to plainly and literally state this in the Tenth, where He specifically reprehends the first motions of our hearts toward any object He has fenced, and therefore it is the bond which strengthens the whole.
Evil concupiscence consists of those secret and internal sins which go before the consent of the will and which are the seeds of all evil. Concupiscence or lusting is the firstborn of indwelling depravity, the first risings and expressions of our corrupt nature. It is a violent propensity and inclination toward what is evil and contrary to the holy will and command of God. The soul of man is an operative and vigorous creature, ever putting forth activities suitable to its nature. Before the Fall, the soul of man was drawn forth toward God as its supreme Object and the End of all its exercise, but when man apostatized and turned from God as his only Good or satisfying Portion, his soul became enamored with the creature. Thus, the soul of fallen man, being destitute of Divine grace and spiritual life, craves sinful objects to the slighting of God and inordinately lusts after things which in themselves are harmless, but become evil because he neither receives them as from God nor uses them for His glory. Concupiscence, then, is that irregular disposition of soul which is here termed "covetousness."
4 Degrees of Covetousness
The Puritan Ezekiel Hopkins (to whom we are indebted for much in this article, as also for many helpful points in the preceding ones) has pointed out that there are four degrees of this sinful concupiscence or coveting.
1. Sinful Thoughts Enter the Mind
There is the first film and shadow of an evil thought, the imperfect embryo of a sin before it is shaped in us or has any lineaments or features. These are what the Scriptures term "every imagination of the thoughts" of our hearts, and they are expressly declared to be "evil" (Genesis 6:5). Such are the first risings of our corrupt nature toward those sins which are pleasing to our sensual inclinations. They are to be steadfastly watched, hated and resisted—stamped upon as the sparks of a dangerous fire—for as soon as they begin to stir within us, they pollute the soul. Just as the breathing upon a mirror sullies it, leaving a dimness there, so the very first breathings of an evil desire or thought within our breasts defiles the soul.
2. Sinful Thoughts are Entertained
A further degree of this concupiscence is when these evil motions of our corrupt nature are entertained in the mind with some degree of complacency. When a sinful object presents itself before a carnal heart there is an inward response that affects it with delight and begets a sympathy between them. As in natural sympathy a man is often pleased with an object before he knows the reason why he is so, so in this sinful sympathy or response the heart is taken with the object before it has time to consider what there is in it which so moves and affects it. At the very first sight of a person, we many times find that we are more drawn to him than to a whole crowd of others, though all may be equally unknown to us. So the very first glimpse of a sinful thought in our minds reveals that there is that in us which works a regard for the same before we have leisure to examine why it is so. This second form or degree of concupiscence is harder to eject than the former.
3. Sinful Thoughts are Approved
If such evil motions are entertained by us, then follows assent and approbation of the sin in the practical judgment, which, being blinded and carried away by the strength of corrupt and carnal affections, commends the sin to the executive faculty. The understanding is the trier of every deliberate action so that nothing passes into action which has not first passed trial there. Whether this or that action is to be done is the great question canvassed in that court and all the faculties of the soul await what definite sentence will be here pronounced and so passed accordingly. Normally two things appear and put in their plea to the understanding or judgment about sin: God's law and God's vicegerent, the conscience—the law condemns and the conscience cites the law. But then the affections step in and bribe the judge with promises of pleasure or profit, thereby corrupting the judgment to give its vote and assent unto sin. Note how all of this receives illustration in the colloquy between Eve and the Serpent before she partook of the forbidden fruit.
4. Sinful Thoughts are Executed
When any sinful motion has thus secured an allowance from the judgment, then it betakes itself to the will for a decree. The understanding having approved it, the will must now resolve to commit it, and then the sin is fully formed within and lacks nothing but opportunity to bring it forth into open act.
James 1:14-15 But every man is tempted when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed; then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth (open) sin; and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.
Thus we have endeavored to show what concupiscence or coveting is, and the several degrees of it—the first bubblings up of evil thoughts in our hearts, our delighting in the same (and it is altogether against corrupt nature not to love these firstborn of our own souls), the assent and allowance of our judgment, and the resolution of our wills. Each of these is expressly forbidden by the Tenth Commandment, and if the sin proceeds any further, then it exceeds the bounds of this Commandment and falls under the prohibition of some of the former ones, which more specifically forbid the outward acts of sin.
This final word, then, utters its solemn protest against sin in the inner life. Therein we may behold and adore the boundless dominion or sovereignty of the great God. He proclaims His rights over the hidden realm of desires. His authority reaches to the soul and conscience and lays an obligation upon our very thoughts and imaginations, which no human laws can do. It would be vain for men to impose statutes upon that of which they can take no cognizance, and therefore our desires and lustings are free from their censure, except so far as they discover themselves by overt acts. But though they escape the commands and notice of men, yet they escape not the scrutiny and sentence of God, for He sees not as men see, neither judges He as men judge. The secrets of all hearts are open and naked before His eyes—not the least breath of a desire can stir in our souls but it is more distinctly visible to Him than the shining of the midday sun is to us.
God's Law, like His knowledge, reaches to the most secret recesses of the soul, searches every corner of the heart, judges those lusts which no human eye can espy, and if they be harbored and approved of, condemns us as a transgressor guilty of eternal death, no matter how fair our external deportment may be. Then how vain it is for us to content ourselves with an outward conformity to God's Law! How we should labor to approve our hearts in sincerity and purity before God—otherwise we are but Pharisaical hypocrites who wash merely the outside of the cup while within we are still full of unclean lusts! How many there are who suppose God's Law reaches only to the outward man, and that though they entertain and cherish wicked desires and evil purposes in their hearts—so long as these break not forth into external crimes—they will not be charged to their account. But the Day of judgment will show it is far otherwise. How very few reflect upon heart sins! How very few pray, "Cleanse me from secret faults O God"! Be not deceived, God is not mocked, and cannot be imposed upon by external shows.
See here the wisdom of God in setting this Commandment at the close of the Decalogue, as a fence and guard to all the rest. It is from inward defilements of the soul that all the visible sins of our acts and lives have their rise. All Sabbath-breaking proceeds from the restlessness which is born of unholy desire. "Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries" etc. (Matthew 15:19)—observe well that Christ places "evil thoughts" in the front, as the leader of this vile regiment!
"Thou shalt not covet"—you shall not set your heart upon or have the least hankering after what belongs to another. An objector may say, "It is impossible to prevent the desire for what we admire." Very true, yet in that fact is revealed the fallen condition of man, the desperate wickedness of his heart, and that such desire is sinful and damning is only discovered in the light of this Commandment. He who honestly faces this final word of the Decalogue must be convicted of his sinfulness and brought to realize his helplessness which is its ultimate design: the Law is given to demonstrate that our case is hopeless in ourselves—to shut us up to Christ!
Taken from Studies in the Scriptures, Vol. 20, No. 12, December 1941.