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Volume 17, Issue 4: Husbandry

Comparisons

Douglas Wilson

The Tenth Commandment is the one commandment out of the ten that directly addresses the heart. Heart issues are obviously implied in all of them, as Jesus made plain on the question of adultery, but the prohibition of covetousness makes the heart issue explicit.

In Exodus 20, the prohibition of covetousness itemizes six things—a man may not covet his neighbor's house, wife, manservant, maidservant, ox or ass, or anything else he might have, which would include his riding lawn mower. In Deuteronomy 5, the items mentioned expand to seven, and explicitly include the neighbor's field.
The prohibition of covetousness means that a man can break the commandment entirely and completely within the confines of his own heart. With the other commandments, the heart issues clearly reside at the center, but the primary referent of the command is not broken until the object is actually stolen, the idol is carved, or the adultery is committed. God, who sees the heart, tags the disobedience to each of these in principle at its point of origin, which is the first stirrings of sin in the heart. But with the Tenth Commandment, the primary referent of the commandment is the heart. The command begins and ends there. A man, regardless of what he does or does not do in his photo-graphable life, is still not permitted to covet any of his neighbor's possessions. Among other things, the Tenth Commandment gives the lie to the view that Old Testament religion was concerned with mere externals. God has always cared about the heart, out of which come the issues of life.
Now the reason for discussing this in the context of marriage is that the neighbor's wife is off limits, just like his car, house, view, job, or lawn. And this means that we can learn some things about the nature of marital contentment and faithfulness by looking at the other things in the list that are not marital at all.
But before starting this discussion, certain matters must be taken as given. A man should be singularly devoted to his wife. He should be attracted to her alone; she should be the only woman in the world for him. He may not covet the wife of any other man in the world. To lust after any other women is identified by Jesus as tantamount to adultery. But with all this said, discontent still has a way of sneaking around, and so we have to work through the issues carefully.
Some men think that in order to live the truth this way, it is necessary to tell themselves a lie first. But this requires explanation, and this is where our neighbor's car, house, and field come in handy. If a man owns some beater of a car, and his neighbor owns a nice, new, shiny red one, the first man is required by this commandment to refrain from coveting his neighbor's car. But in order to do this, it is not necessary for him to believe that his own car is objectively better. He has to believe that in the plan and purpose of God, it is better for him, but he does not have to believe that it is a better car.
In order to be faithful, a man does not have to tell himself (or believe) that his wife is the most beautiful woman in the world. He does not have to believe that she would win any and every beauty contest she could possibly enter. But at the same time, to bring this up across the breakfast table would make that husband a cad and a fool. This is not being written so that a husband might say, "Although many women in the world are more beautiful than you, nevertheless I am devoted to you alone." In faithful marriages, this sort of thing doesn't really come up.
But it is an issue in some marriages nonetheless—mostly because of insecurities and covetousness. So the prohibition of covetousness addresses the heart in ways that require us to be ruthless with ourselves. For example, a man might say that he is not coveting his neighbor's car; he is just noticing it. The Bible doesn't say that he can't set up his lawn chair on the property line and look at his neighbor's car, does it? Of course, a man can do these things. But what is his heart doing?
The reason for writing this is that the principle here tends to be violated by those who are trying to be super-spiritual about it—wanting to say that faithfulness requires that we affirm explicitly what we know is not true. And so an insecure wife might ask, "Do you think that her hair is nicer than mine?" Or a covetous man might work it into conversation because he is supposedly just noticing, and not explicitly lusting or wishing aloud that he was still single. In either case it is bad news. Suppose a man tells his wife about a new couple he met at church. She hasn't met them, so he sets about to describe them. "He has white hair, kind of tall, and she is an attractive woman with auburn hair. . ." But she interrupts. "Attractive? How attractive?" There is a difference between being attracted and noticing that someone is attractive. But suppose she is insecure enough to ask, "Do you think she is more attractive than I am?" Only a fool would answer the question. And only a fool would ask.

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