A Study on Coveting

Lord, dig the earth out of my heart!

You shall not covet. Exodus 20:17

Observe the holiness and perfection of God’s law, which forbids the first motions and risings of sin in the heart. The laws of men take hold of actions; but the law of God goes further—it forbids not only sinful actions—but sinful desires. These lusts and desires after the forbidden fruit are sinful.

The world is an idol. It is lawful to use the world, yes, and to desire so much of it as may keep us from the temptation of poverty; and as may enable us to honor God with works of mercy. But the danger is—when the world gets into the heart! Water is useful for the sailing of the ship; the danger is—when the water gets into the ship.

What is it to covet? It is an insatiable desire of getting the world; or an inordinate love of the world.

(1) A man may be said to be given to covetousness, when his thoughts are wholly taken up with the world. A godly man’s thoughts are in heaven; he is thinking of Christ’s love and eternal recompense. “When I awake I am still with You,” that is, in divine contemplation. Psalm 139:18. A covetous man’s thoughts are in the world; his mind is wholly taken up with it; he can think of nothing but his shop or farm. The imagination is a mint-house, and most of the thoughts in a covetous man’s mint are worldly. He is always plotting and projecting about worldly things. “Their mind is on earthly things.” Philippians 3:19

(2) A man may be said to be given to covetousness, when he takes more pains for getting earth than for getting heaven. He will take many a weary step for the world; but will take no pains for Christ or heaven. A covetous man, having had a relish of the world, pursues after it, and never ceases until he has got it; but he neglects the things of eternity. He hunts for the world—but he only wishes for heaven.

(3) A man may be said to be given to covetousness, when all his discourse is about the world. “He who is of the earth, speaks of the earth.” John 3:31. It is a sign of godliness to be speaking of heaven, to have the tongue tuned to the language of Canaan. “The words of a wise man’s mouth are gracious;” he speaks as if he had been already in heaven. So it is a sign of a man given to covetousness to speak always of secular things, of his wares and business. A covetous man’s breath, like a dying man’s, smells strong of the earth. As it was said to Peter, “Your speech betrays you;” so a covetous man’s speech betrays him. He is like the fish in the gospel, which had a piece of money in its mouth. Matt 17:27. “The words are the looking-glass of the heart,” they show what is within. “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.” Luke 6:45.

(4) A man is given to covetousness when he so sets his heart upon worldly things, that for the love of them, he will part with heaven. For the “wedge of gold,” he will part with the “pearl of great price.” When Christ said to the young man in the gospel, “Sell all, and come and follow Me”, “He went away sorrowful.” Matt 19:22. He would rather part with Christ than with his earthly possessions. Cardinal Bourbon said, he would forego his part in paradise, if he might keep his cardinalship in Paris. When they will rather part with Christ and a good conscience than with their estate, it is a clear case that they are possessed with the demon of covetousness! “Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world.” 2 Timothy 4:10

(5) A man is given to covetousness, when he overloads himself with worldly business. When a man does not have time for his soul, he is under the power of covetousness.

(6) He is given to covetousness whose heart is so set upon the world, that, to get it, he cares not what unlawful means he uses. He will have the world by fair means or foul; he will wrong and defraud, and raise his estate upon the ruins of another. Pope Sylvester II sold his soul to the devil for a popedom.

The DANGER of covetousness. “Take heed and beware of covetousness!” Luke 12:15. It is a direct breach of the tenth commandment. It is a moral vice, it infects and pollutes the whole soul.

(1) Covetousness is a SUBTLE sin. It is a sin that many cannot so well discern in themselves. This sin can dress itself in the attire of virtue. It is called the “cloak of covetousness.” 1 Thess 2:5. It is a sin which wears a cloak, it cloaks itself under the name of frugality and good taste. It has many pleas and excuses for itself; more than any other sin—such as providing for one’s family.

(2) Covetousness is a DANGEROUS sin. It checks all that is good. It is an enemy to grace; it damps holy affections, as the earth puts out the fire. The hedgehog, in the fable, came to the cony-burrows, in stormy weather, and desired harbor; but when once he had got admission, he set up his prickles, and never ceased until he had thrust the poor conies out of their burrows! Just so, covetousness, by fair pretenses, winds itself into the heart; but as soon as you have let it in, it will never leave until it has choked all good beginnings, and thrust all piety out of your hearts. “Covetousness hinders the efficacy of the Word preached.”

In the parable of the sower, the thorns, which Christ expounded to be the cares of this life—choked the good seed. Matt 13:22. Many sermons lie dead and buried in earthly hearts. We preach to men to get their hearts in heaven; but where covetousness is predominant, it chains them to earth, and makes them like the woman which Satan had bent down for eighteen years, so that she was unable to stand up straight. Luke 13:11. You may as well bid an elephant fly in the air—as a covetous man live by faith. We preach to men to give freely to Christ’s poor; but covetousness makes them like the man in the gospel, who had “a withered hand.” Mark 3:1. They have a withered hand, and cannot stretch it out to the poor. It is impossible to be earthly-minded and charitably-minded. Covetousness obstructs the efficacy of the Word, and makes it prove abortive. Those whose hearts are rooted in the earth, will be so far from profiting by the Word, that they will be ready rather to deride it. The Pharisees, who were covetous, “derided Him.” Luke 16:14.

(3) Covetousness is a MOTHER sin. It is a radical vice. “The love of money is the root of all evil.” 1 Tim 6:10. “O accursed lust for gold! what crimes do you not urge upon the human heart!” Virgil. He who has an earthly itch, a greedy desire of getting the world, has in him the root of all sin. Covetousness is a mother sin. Covetousness breaks the first commandment; “You shall have no other gods but one.” The covetous man has more gods than one; Mammon is his God. He has a god of gold, therefore he is called an idolater. Col 3:5. The mammonist covets his neighbor’s house and goods, and endeavors to get them into his own hands. Thus you see how vile a sin covetousness is!

(4) Covetousness is a DISHONORABLE sin to religion. For men to say their hopes are above—while their hearts are below; to profess to be above the stars—while they “lick the dust” of the serpent; to be born of God—while they are buried in the earth; how dishonorable is this to religion! The lapwing, which wears a little coronet on its head, and yet feeds on dung, is an emblem of such as profess to be crowned kings and priests unto God, and yet feed immoderately on earthly dunghill comforts. The higher grace is, the less earthly should Christians be; as the higher the sun is, the shorter is the shadow.

(5) Covetousness is a DAMNING sin. It exposes us to God’s abhorrence. “The covetous, whom the Lord abhors.” Psalm 10:3. A king abhors to see his statue abused, so God abhors to see man, made in His image, having the heart of a beast. Who would live in such a sin—as makes him abhorred of God? Whom God abhors He curses, and His curse blasts wherever it comes!

Covetousness brings men to eternal ruin, and shuts them out of heaven. “This you know, that no covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.” Eph 5:5. What could a covetous man do in heaven? God can no more converse with him—than a king can converse with a swine! “Those who will be rich fall into a snare, and many hurtful lusts, which drown men in perdition.” 1 Tim 6:9. A covetous man is like a bee that gets into a barrel of honey, and there drowns itself. As a ferry-man, to increase his fare, takes in too many passengers, that he sinks his boat; so a covetous man takes in so much gold to increase his estate, that he drowns himself in perdition! I have read of some inhabitants near Athens, who, living in a very dry and barren island, took much pains to draw a river to the island to water it and make it fruitful; but when they had opened the passages, and brought the river to it, the water broke in with such force, that it drowned the land, and all the people in it. This is an emblem of a covetous man, who labors to draw riches to him, and at last they come in such abundance, that they drown him in perdition! How many, to build up an estate, pull down their souls! Oh, then, flee from covetousness!

The CURE for covetousness.

(1) Faith. “This is the victory that overcomes the world—even our faith.” 1 John 5:4. The root of covetousness is distrust of God’s providence. Faith believes that God will provide; that He who feeds the birds will feed His children; that He who clothes the lilies will clothe His lambs; and thus faith overcomes the world. Faith is the cure of care. It not only purifies the heart—but satisfies it; it makes God our portion, and in Him we have enough. Faith, by a divine chemistry, extracts comfort out of God. A little, with God—is sweet. Thus faith is a remedy against covetousness; it overcomes, not only the fear of the world—but the love of the world.

(2) The second remedy is, judicious considerations. Ah, what poor things, are these earthly things—that we should covet them! We covet that which will not satisfy us. “He who loves silver, shall not be satisfied with silver.” Eccl 5:10. Solomon had put all the creatures in a scale, and distilled out their essence, and behold—”All was vanity!” Eccl 2:11. A man with dropsy—”the more water he drinks, the more he craves.” Just so, the more a covetous man has of the world, the more he thirsts. Worldly things cannot remove trouble of mind. When King Saul was perplexed in conscience, his crown jewels could not comfort him. 1 Sam 28:15.

The things of the world can no more ease a troubled spirit—than a gold cap can cure the headache! The things of the world cannot continue with you. The creature has a little honey in its mouth—but it has wings to fly away. Earthly things either leave us—or we leave them! What poor things are they to covet!

(3) The third remedy for covetousness is to covet spiritual things more. Covet grace, for it is the best blessing, it is the seed of God. Covet heaven, which is the region of perfect happiness—the most pleasant climate. If we covet heaven more—we shall covet earth less! To those who stand on the top of the Alps, the great cities of Campania seem but as small villages; so if our hearts were more fixed upon the Jerusalem above, all worldly things would disappear, would diminish, and be as nothing in our eyes. We read of an angel coming down from heaven, and setting his right foot on the sea, and his left foot on the earth. Rev 10:2. Had we been in heaven, and viewed its superlative glory, how would we, with holy scorn, trample with one foot upon the earth and with the other foot upon the sea! O covet after heavenly things! There is the tree of life, the mountains of spices, the rivers of pleasure, the honeycomb of God’s love dropping, the delights of angels, and the flower of joy, fully ripe and blown. There is the pure air to breathe in; no fogs or vapors of sin arise to infect that air—but the Sun of Righteousness enlightens the whole horizon continually with His glorious beams. O let your thoughts and delights be always taken up with the city of pearls, the paradise of God! Were our hearts raised by the power of the Holy Spirit up to heaven, we would not be much absorbed with earthly things.

(4) The best remedy for covetousness is contentment. Be content! “In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being content—whether well-fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need.” Philippians 4:12. The best way to be contented, is to believe that condition to be best, which God by His providence carves out to you. If He had seen fit for us to have more—we would have had it. Perhaps we could not manage a great estate. It is hard to carry a full cup without spilling—and a full estate without sinning! Great estates may be snares! There is no better antidote against coveting that which is another’s—than being content with that which is our own.

(5) Pray for a heavenly mind. “Lord, let the loadstone of Your Spirit draw my heart upward. Lord, dig the earth out of my heart!Teach me how to possess the world, and not love it; how to hold it in my hand, and not let it get into my heart!”

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Thomas Watson, “The Ten Commandments”