Based primarily on their perception of the meaning of what the Bible states in the last of The Ten Commandments, many people regard all types of coveting as sinful, but is this perception correct?
First, we will see what this Commandment specifically says. [Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible, unless indicated otherwise.]
Exodus 20:17 declares,
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.
Likewise, Deuteronomy 5:21 asserts,
You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife; and you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, his male servant, his female servant, his ox, his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.
Strong’s Concordance connotes that the Hebrew word translated as covet in Exodus 20:17 expresses “delight in,” whereas the Hebrew word translated as covet in Deuteronomy 5:21 means “to wish for.” Regardless of which of these two meanings is most appropriate, it should be evident that neither to “delight in” nor “to wish for” something is fundamentally wrong.
Moreover, the term “covet” can have various other meanings. Among the most relevant synonyms for this term in Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus are the following: “aspire to, crave, envy, lust after, want, wish for, and yearn for.”
Webster’s Dictionary provides the following pertinent definitions of these synonyms, as follows:
Aspire: “to be ambitious to get or do something; seek”
Crave: “to ask for earnestly; to long for eagerly; desire strongly”
Envy: “a feeling of discontent and ill will because of another’s advantages, possessions, etc.”
Lust: “a desire to gratify the senses; sexual desire”
Want: “to feel the need of; long for; crave; to desire, wish or long”
Wish: “to have a longing for; want; desire; crave”
Yearn: “to be filled with longing or desire”
It is reasonable to believe that to aspire for something, crave something, want something, wish for something, or yearn for something is not inherently sinful. For example, there generally is nothing wrong with aspiring to own a nice house, craving a certain food, wanting a nice car, wishing for personal happiness, or yearning for “the good old days.”
Conversely, there is no valid reason to think that either envy or lust are ever appropriate. Both are sinful types of coveting, as indicated by scriptures such as the following: Matthew 5:28, Romans 1:29, Galatians 5:16, Colossians 3:5, Titus 3:3; 2 Peter 1:4, and 1 John 2:16.
It is reasonable to conclude that not all types of coveting are sinful. Therefore, it is important to correctly determine the kinds of circumstances in which the term “covet” pertains to sinful thinking.
We believe that desiring specifically what someone else possesses is the basic type of coveting that the Bible regards as sinful. Thus, as the Tenth Commandment indicates, desiring the spouse or any possession that belongs to someone else is the type of coveting that is sinful. In contrast, wanting a spouse or a possession that is similar to – or even essentially identical to – the one that belongs to someone else is not regarded by the Bible as sinful.
Furthermore, in the original King James Version of the Bible, two scriptures encourage certain types of coveting. First Corinthians 12:31a says, “But covet earnestly the best [spiritual] gifts. . . .” And, 1 Corinthians 14:39a states, “Wherefore, brethren, covet to prophesy. . . .” (With regard to these two biblical passages, however, the New King James Version of the Bible and most other modern Bible translations use wording such as “earnestly desire” or “desire earnestly,” rather than the term “covet.”)
We believe that another generally appropriate type of coveting occurs when someone makes a statement such as “I covet your prayers” to emphasize their sincere desire to have other people pray for them, although there is no specific support in the Bible for this viewpoint.
For those who sincerely want to comply with the Tenth Commandment, it would be prudent to thoughtfully consider the criteria we have mentioned as the basis for determining whether or not sinful coveting does – or will – exist in a particular situation.