The ten commandments were given on two tablets. The first tablet covers how to love God. The second tablet covers ho to love our neighbor. The 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th commandments are simple and brief and they prohibit the most severe acts of violence we commit against one another, beginning with the most severe; you shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witness.
The tenth and final commandment is distinguished from those preceding it in both length and object. Instead of prohibiting actions, it prohibits a desire. It is directed toward the heart of man. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s” (Exodus 20:17). The verb covet means desire. This Hebrew word is used to describe Eve’s desire for the prohibited fruit, the desire that instigated the original sin. This covetousness, this desire, is not reserved for special hardened sinners. “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate” (Genesis 3:6).
Desire is at the heart, literally, of every human sin. “For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:16–17).
The desire prohibited in the 10th commandment is the desire of every human heart. It is the overarching commandment of the second table of God’s law because we unceasingly desire our neighbor’s goods and our neighbors, themselves. This rivalry is at the heart of human social relationships. Our desires, unmet, endanger the harmony and survival of all human communities, marriages, homes, businesses, neighborhoods, churches and nations.
Look at the news with its unceasing power struggles, the social justice movement, the Marxism, the politics of envy and identity – people desire what others have. This desire, unchecked, is the cause of our strife with one another. Look at your own anger, you own actions toward spouse, children, neighbors, co-workers and fellow Christians, even strangers. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death (James 1:14–15). But this death doesn’t just consume the individual, it leads to violating the 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th commandment.
This is the fundamental reality of fallen man and of men and woman being sanctified by the Lord Jesus. Yet, it is contrary to our self-image and understanding and humiliating to admit, so we prefer to deny it outright. The tenth commandment prohibits desiring our neighbors and their goods, attempting to prevent a host of sins that follow these unmet desires – violence we commit against one another. Everywhere we go we find neighbors. They are the model for our desires. Their marriages, their bodies and their belongings. Their emotional, spiritual, economic and social realities are the source of our fleshly desires. When our desire for someone else, something more, someone else’s – is thwarted – instead of accepting it and moving on, our desire resists our authority over it and intensifies our longing, expanding into actual violence. “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?  You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel” (James 4:1–2).
If we ceased to pursue the desires of this world, we would cease to desire the good of our neighbors, then we would never commit murder or adultery or theft or false witness. If we obeyed the 10thcommandment, the 6th -9th would be superfluous. I want to close with this. You are probably struggling to see this reality of this in your own lives. The framework I’ve described is death to self. We flatter ourselves, knowing that we are not actual perpetrators of real violence. But our Lord stated this reality in clear terms. “And [Jesus] said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him.  For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery,  coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:20–23). And Jesus’s standard is the very heart of man, for he knows that our self-deception runs deep enough to satisfy ourselves in our righteousness because of externals, instead of judging the heart. “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28).
The desire in our hearts for our neighbor and their goods is not mere death for us, unchecked, it is death to them as well. And we can do this violence to one another in the comfort and hidden place of our hearts. We have to realize how Jesus deals with this fundamental desire of our flesh, that Christ might set us free to have new desires.