You’ll remember that Moses was preparing the Israelites for life in the Promised Land of Canaan. Back in chapter 5, he taught them the Ten Commandments. And in the following chapters, Moses has been explaining and applying the Ten Commandments to life in the Promised Land of Canaan at that time. Moses has been showing the Israelites how to live as God’s people in the land he was giving to them.
And we’ve gone through these chapters, reading what Moses said to the Israelites and trying to see how the instructions for Israel at that time apply to believers like us today. We’ve also been trying to see how the things Moses said to the Israelites point us to Jesus Christ the Saviour and to his great work of redemption on our behalf.
Today we come to Moses’s explanation of the tenth commandment which forbids us from coveting, which is that strong desire for something which we do not possess. Let me remind you of the commandment as it appears in Deuteronomy 5:
You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbour’s house or land, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.
That’s the commandment. Listen now to what our church’s Shorter Catechism says about this commandment, because I think this will help us see how today’s passage from Deuteronomy relates to the tenth commandment. This is what the Shorter Catechism says:
Question 81. What is forbidden in the tenth commandment?
Answer. The tenth commandment forbids all discontent with our own state; envying and grieving at the good of our neighbour, together with all ungoverned longings and desires for things that belong to him.
That answers refers to three things which the commandment forbids. Firstly, it forbids all discontentment with our own state. In other words, not being thankful for what we have already. And that’s sinful, because, whatever we have has been given to us by the Lord. Every good thing we enjoy here on earth has come to us from him. But instead of being grateful for his good gifts, instead of being satisfied with what he has already given us, we are ungrateful and we won’t be happy until the have more.
In the last part of its answer, the Catechism refers to our longing and our desire for things that belong to our neighbour. So, the commandment not only forbids us from wanting more for ourselves, but it forbids us from wanting what our neighbour has. And isn’t that often our experience? When we see what others have, we want it for ourselves. Our attitude is very often:
He has it. Why can’t I have it?
He has a new phone. Why can’t I?
He has a new car. Why can’t I?
He’s going on a nice holiday. Why can’t I?
And then in the middle of its answer, the Catechism refers to envying and grieving at the good of our neighbour. That is, we’re envious of others because of what they have. And we feel aggrieved that they have something we don’t. So, not only do we want what others have, but we’re annoyed with them because that they have what we don’t have. We resent them. So, when the Lord forbids us from coveting our neighbour’s possessions, he’s referring to the way we resent our neighbour, and feel bitterness towards them, and we’re annoyed with them because they have what we don’t have.
What’s the opposite of this? Listen again to the Shorter Catechism:
Question 80. What is required in the tenth commandment?
Answer. The tenth commandment requires full contentment with our own condition, and a right and charitable attitude towards our neighbour and all that is his.
Instead of being discontented, we’re meant to be fully contented with our own condition and what we already have. And instead of resenting our neighbour, we should possess a right and charitable attitude towards him and all that he has. In other words, we will be glad for our neighour and thankful to God for our neighbour’s good fortune. So, when someone you know gets a new phone or car or holiday or whatever it is, instead of resenting them for having what you do not have, you should be pleased for them. You should be grateful to God for the kindness he has shown to you, because he’s given you lots of good things to enjoy; and you should be grateful to God for the kindness he has shown to your neighbour.
Having said that, let’s turn to today’s passage, beginning at verse 17 of chapter 24.
Some of the Bible commentators say that these first few verses relate to the ninth commandment, which forbids us from bearing false witness. And certainly, verses 17 to 22 are about depriving certain vulnerable people of justice, presumably by lying about them in court. However, others argue that these verses relate to the tenth commandment. And that’s how I’m taking them.
Moses tells the Israelites in verse 17 not to deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice; and don’t take a widow’s cloak as a pledge on a loan. The alien was a foreigner who came to live in Israel. And aliens and orphans and widows were the weakest and most vulnerable members of society, because they didn’t have any relatives to look after them. However, the Israelites were not to take advantage of such vulnerable people.
Furthermore, when any of the Israelites were harvesting their fields, and happened to overlook a sheaf of corn, they must not go back and pick it up. Instead they were to leave it for the alien, the fatherless and the widows, who were allowed to come along afterwards and take whatever had been left in the field. If you recall the book of Ruth, this is what Ruth was doing in the fields belonging to Boaz. She had the right to go into his field and collect anything that his labourers left behind. And the Israelites were required to do something similar when collecting olives. The farmer would beat the branches with a stick and the olives would fall to the ground and be picked up. However, the farmer wasn’t to beat the branches a second time, but was to leave what was left for the poor. They were to do the same with their grapes. And they were to do this, says Moses, because they were once slaves in Egypt. In other words, they know what it’s like to be weak and vulnerable and poor. So, because they themselves had suffered so much for so long, they must remember to show compassion to their neighbours who are also suffering.
What has this got to do with coveting? Well, we can imagine the farmer who is not content with what he’s already collected going back to make sure he’s harvested every sheaf of corn and every single olive and every single grape. If he’s not happy with what he’s already collected, he will go more for me for himself. And because he wants more for himself, he’s not willing to help his needy neighbour, who has nothing. But the Israelites were not to be like that: they were to be content with what they gathered the first time; and they were to possess a right and charitable attitude towards their needy neighbours. The tenth commandment required the people to be kind and generous with the things God had given them.
In verses 1 to 3 of chapter 25, we read about men who were in dispute and who would take their dispute to court. If the judge decided that the guilty person deserved to be flogged, then the judge would determine how many lashes fitted the crime. However, the guilty person must not receive more that 40 lashes. If he received more than that, then Moses says ‘your brother will be degraded in your eyes’.
It’s hard to see how this law relates to the tenth commandment, except that the commandment required the people to have a charitable attitude to one another. Even though the guilty person deserved to be punished, they were to be charitable and ensure that the punishment was not excessive.
In verse 4 Moses commanded the people not to muzzle an ox while its treading the grain. The Israelites would use an ox to crush the ears of corn either by walking over it or by pulling a sledge over it. Instead of muzzling the ox, so that it could not eat while it worked, the people were to let the ox eat some of the grain while it worked. Well, a person who always wants more is unwilling to be generous. But instead of always wanting more for themselves, the people were to be kind to others, even to oxen. However, it’s possible that this law was understood proverbially to mean that human workers deserved to be paid for their labour. That’s how the apostle Paul understood it when he quotes this verse in 1 Corinthians 9 to say that preachers deserve to be paid for their work. And so, employers should not be stingy when it comes to paying their employees.
Verses 5 to 10 of chapter 25 are concerned with what’s known as Levirate marriage. Le-vir is the Latin word for ‘brother-in-law’. So, if a man dies without leaving a son to carry on his name and to inherit his property, the man’s brother should marry his widow and bear a son on his behalf. If the widow’s brother-in-law refused to marry her, Moses provided instructions on what ought to be done. It’s possible that a brother-in-law’s refusal was motivated by greed: he wanted his brother’s property for himself which he was likely to inherit if his brother left no children. And that was not right. Furthermore, by refusing to marry his sister-in-law, he was leaving her destitute. And that too was not right.
In verses 11 and 12, Moses imagines two men fighting and the wife of one of them comes to help her husband. If she seizes the other man’s genitals, her hand must be cut off as punishment, because what she did was indecent; and, if it caused permanent damage, it might prevent the man from having children. It’s not clear how this relates to the tenth commandment.
Verses 13 to 16 are clearly connected to the tenth commandment, because in these verses Moses forbids the people from cheating one another by using false weights. In biblical times, the people used scales to measure out what they were selling. If you were buying a pound of grain, then on one side of the scales you had a pound weight. And then you tipped out the grain onto the other side of the scales. And when the two sides were balanced, you knew they you had a pound of grain. Unless, that is, the merchant was using a false weight. You were paying for a pound of grain, but you only got two-thirds of a pound, because the seller was using a false weight — a weight that said one pound, but in fact it was less than a pound.
In verses 17 to 19 Moses commanded the people to remember what the Amalekites did to them whenever they left Egypt. Do you remember what the Amalekites did to them? In Exodus 17 we read that the Amalekites attacked the Israelites shortly after they had crossed the Red Sea. This was the battle when Moses had to keep his arms aloft, because whenever he dropped them, the Amalekites were winning; but when he held them aloft, the Israelites were winning. In the end, the Lord gave them the victory. Here, in Deuteronomy, Moses reminded the people that the Amalekites attacked them when they were weary and worn out; and they killed those Israelites who were lagging behind. They also did not fear the Lord. And so, Moses commanded the Israelites to blot out the name of the Amalekites by destroying them. ‘Do not forget!’ Moses says. Presumably they were to be destroyed like this as punishment because they did not have a right and charitable attitude towards the Israelites.
Instead of coveting, and wanting more and more for themselves, the people were to remember to bring their tithes and offerings to the Lord. That’s what verses 1 to 15 of chapter 26 are about. So, once they had settled in the land, they had to take some of the firstfruits of their produce to the place of worship and bring it to the priest. And the priest was to take it and set it before the altar. According to verse 5, they were to recite a kind of creed or statement of faith about how their father was a wandering Aramean who went down to Egypt. That’s probably a reference to Jacob, who was the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. The Egyptians ill-treated them, but the Lord rescued them and brought them to the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And so, in view of the Lord’s kindness to them, they were to bring the firstfruits to the Lord. And they were to rejoice in what the Lord had given them.
It’s likely that they were to bring this offering every year. Furthermore, according to verses 12 to 15, every third year, there was to be a special collection for the Levites, the aliens, the fatherless, and the widows. On this occasion, they were to declare that they had removed from their house the sacred portion in obedience to the Lord’s command. They were therefore to promise that they had not defiled the tithe in any way. And since they had obeyed the Lord in this, they looked to him to bless them and to bless the land he had given to them.
Well, by bringing the firstfruits, they were demonstrating their gratitude to the Lord for all his good gifts. So, instead of being discontented with their own state, they were to be thankful. And instead of desiring more and more for themselves, they were to give away some of what they had to the Levites and to the poorest members of their society.
Verses 16 to 19 conclude what Moses has been doing since chapter 5. Moses refers to ‘this day’ in verses 16 and 17 and 18. While the text doesn’t describe what happened, it seems that the Lord and the people have — that day — renewed the covenant which they made with one another 40 years previously at Mount Sinai. And so, on that day, as they camped across the River Jordan from the city of Jericho, the Lord their God commanded them to follow his decrees and laws and to observe them with all their heart and soul. And on that day, they declared that the Lord was their God and that they would walk in his ways and keep his commandments. And on that day, the Lord declared that he would regard them as his treasured possession. He had committed himself to protect these people. The Lord also committed himself to honour the Israelites above the other nations. And he declared them to be his holy people, which means he had chosen them and had set them apart from the other nations to belong to him. They did not deserve to be chosen by God; and they did not earn his good favour by the things they did. Just like all the other nations, they were sinners who deserved nothing from the Lord, but condemnation. But he had graciously chosen them. And so, they must respond to his kindness by walking in his ways and doing his will in the Promised Land of Canaan, which they were about to enter.
As we think about what we can learn from this passage, let’s do what we did last week and think about how the tenth commandment reflects the character of God. The Lord our God commands us not to covet one another’s property, but to be kind and generous towards one anther, possessing a right and charitable attitude to our neighbour. And he commands us to be like this, because that’s what he is like. What do we have that we did not receive from him? He’s the one who has given us our life and our breathe and everything else. And instead of withholding his good gifts to us, he’s been generous to us, pouring down on us one good thing after another.
The person who is covetous wants more and more for himself, but the Lord our God has gladly given us more and more and more. Just as he clothes the flowers of the field and just as he feeds the birds of the air, so he takes care of us. And he’s happy to hear our prayers and to give us what we ask for. ‘Ask and it will be given to you’, he promises. ‘Seek you and will find.’ ‘Knock and the door will be opened to you.’ These are not the words of a God who is stingy and unwilling to help us. These are the words of a God who loves and cares for his creation. Indeed, the Lord Jesus taught us to go to him and to call him ‘Heavenly Father’ and to ask him for our daily food as well as for daily forgiveness. And the apostle Peter, writing under the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit, instructs us to cast our anxieties on the Lord, because he cares for us. And since he cares for us, then he commands us to be like him and to care for those in need. In the days of Moses, the farmers were commanded to care for the aliens and the fatherless and the widows by leaving food for them. He commanded them to feed their oxen. And he commanded them to tithe their produce in order to feed the Levites and the needy. They were to care for the weak and the vulnerable. And the Lord commands believers today not to become weary in doing good, but to do good to everyone and especially to those who belong to the family of God. He wants you to share what you have with others. He wants you to live like this, because this is what he is like and you are to be like him.
And we’re to be like this, because this command also reflects the character of the Lord Jesus. Remember how the apostle Paul described him in Philippians 2? He said that the Lord Jesus was in very nature God. And yet, he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. In other words, he was not like the covetous man who grasps hold of his possessions and will not let them go. Instead of being like that, the Lord Jesus was willing to let go of his equality with God and he was prepared to become God’s servant and to come down to earth as one of us. And when he was born, he had nothing, because he was born in a stable. And he lived in poverty and obscurity; and throughout his public ministry, he did not have a home of his own. And when the time was right, he was taken by the guards and nailed to the cross to suffer and to die there for our sake. Even when he was buried, he was not buried in his own tomb, but in one that belonged to someone else. But even though he had to give up everything, and even though he possessed nothing of his own, he did not complain and he did not raise his voice in protest. He accepted these things, he was content with his own condition, for this was the will of his Father in heaven. And so, without complaining, without murmuring, he gave up all he had, including his life, for our sake and for our salvation.
And whereas the covetous man resents his neighbour for what he possesses, the Lord Jesus acted, not only out of love for his Father, but out of love for us. And so, he was willing to be cursed by God, so that we might receive by faith the blessing of God, including the forgiveness of sins and the hope of everlasting life. And he does not resent us for what we now possess by faith, because he only loves us and wants what is best for us. And even now, from this throne in heaven, he continues to do us good, sending his Spirit into our lives and blessing us with one spiritual blessing after another.
So, the tenth commandment reflects the character of the Lord Jesus. And he calls on you to be like this, because this is what he is like; and you are to be like him. He wants you to have the mind of Christ, so that you will not look to your own interests only, but to the interests of others. So, instead of thinking about what you want and need, you’re to think about what other people want and need.
And, of course, since these laws were necessary for the people of Israel at that time, it was one last reminder to them that the Promised Land of Canaan was not the true Promised Land. Yes, the land was a good land, a land flowing with milk and honey. But in the Promised Land of Canaan, there would be aliens and orphans and widows who would be weak and vulnerable; and the Israelites would be tempted to disregard them, rather than help them. In the Promised Land of Canaan, there would be legal disputes and they would have to be punished with floggings. In the Promised Land of Canaan, they would be tempted to withhold food from their oxen and wages from their workers. In the Promised Land of Canaan, husband would die and widows would not be cared for. In the Promised Land of Canaan, men would fight. In the Promised Land of Canaan, they would be tempted to use false weights to cheat one another. In the Promised Land of Canaan, enemies like the Amalekites would rise up against them. In the Promised Land of Canaan, they would be tempted to withhold their offerings and tithes so that the needy go hungry. Though they were coming to a good land, a land flowing with milk and honey, it was not the true Promised Land, where all of God’s people will live together in peace and safety. And instead of loving the Lord most of all, they would love other things and put their possessions before the Lord. And instead of loving their neighbour as themselves, they would love themselves and live selfishly. The Promised Land of Canaan was not the true Promised Land.
They had to wait for it. And we too must wait for it, because we too are not yet perfect and we sin against the Lord and we break all of his commandments, including this, the tenth commandment. Instead of being content with God’s good gifts, we want what our neighbour has. Instead of loving our neighbour, and rejoicing in his good fortune, we resent him for what he has. And instead of doing good to one another, we are selfish and self-centred and we hold on to what we have. And so, since we’re not yet in the true Promised Land, and since we sin against the Lord every day, we must go to the Lord every day to confess our sins and shortcomings and to ask for his forgiveness, trusting that he will do as he has promised and will pardon us for the sake of Christ who died for us. We must confess our sins daily. And we must seek the help of his Spirit to renew us inwardly, so that the desires of our hearts will become pleasing to the Lord and instead of desiring more and more things for ourselves, our heart’s desire will be to please the Lord and to honour him in all we do and say. And in that way, our life here on earth will reflect the glory of heaven above, where the angels and the glorified saints do not complain, but they give glory and praise to God always.