THE TEN COMMANDMENTS AND GOVERNMENT — PART 2

This continues where the Introduction of this series left off. In this post we will discuss the relationship between the 10th commandment and government. What is the 10th commandment?

Exodus 20:17 New Revised Standard Version

You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.

What An Earlier Post Had To Say About This Subject

Not too long ago, Caleb of I Hold the Line (interesting blog, BTW) reminded me of a post I had written, What Does The Bible Say About Private Property? That post is similar to what I have written here, but not quite the same. In that earlier post, I used scripture as a defense of private property and Capitalism. This post is part of a series that argues that our nation’s laws saw their beginnings in the Bible and the Christian faith.

Oops! Somebody Got The Numbers Wrong

Before we consider what the 10th commandment requires we need to explain a minor controversy. Not all Christians number the Ten Commandments the same way. Why? Well, apparently God did not think it important, so the commandments are not numbered in the Biblical text. Thus, there is some disagreement as to how the commandments should be numbered.

Because it fits the version of the Ten Commandments we find in Deuteronomy 5:6-21, some religious groups prefer the following separation.

9. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.

10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods. (from here)

For the purposes of this discussion, we will consider the entire passage (whether from Exodus 20:17 or Deuteronomy 5:21) one commandment, a prohibition against wrongly coveting what belongs to someone else.

What Does The Tenth Commandment Require Of Us?

Coveting what belongs to someone else is not necessarily wrong.  Consider the following definition.

Covet \Cov”et\ (k?v”?t), v. t. [imp. & p. p. Covered; p. pr. &
vb. n. Coveting.] [OF. coveitier, covoitier, F. convoiter, from a derivative fr. L. cupere to desire; cf. Skr. kup to become excited. Cf. Cupidity.]
1. To wish for with eagerness; to desire possession of; –used in a good sense.

Covet earnestly the best gifts. –1. Cor.xxii. 31.

If it be a sin to covet honor, I am the most offending soul alive. –Shak.

2. To long for inordinately or unlawfully; to hanker after (something forbidden).

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house.

In his notes on the Bible, John Wesley (1703 – 1791) had this to say about Exodus 20:17.

Thou shalt not covet – The foregoing commands implicitly forbid all desire of doing that which will be an injury to our neighbour, this forbids all inordinate desire of having that which will be a gratification to ourselves. O that such a man’s house were mine! such a man’s wife mine! such a man’s estate mine! This is certainly the language of discontent at our own lot, and envy at our neighbour’s, and these are the sins principally forbidden here. God give us all to see our face in the glass of this law, and to lay our hearts under the government of it!  (from here)

Similarly, Matthew Henry (1662 – 1682) provided this observation in his Bible commentary.

The tenth commandment strikes at the root; Thou shalt not covet. The others forbid all desire of doing what will be an injury to our neighbour; this forbids all wrong desire of having what will gratify ourselves. (from here)

In its discussion of the Ten Commandments (using the Catholic Church’s numbering scheme), the Catholic Encyclopedia adds a legal dimension.

The precepts which follow are meant to protect man in his natural rights against the injustice of his fellows.

  • His life is the object of the Fifth;
  • the honour of his body as well as the source of life, of the Sixth;
  • his lawful possessions, of the Seventh;
  • his good name, of the Eighth;
  • And in order to make him still more secure in the enjoyment of his rights, it is declared an offense against God to desire to wrong him, in his family rights by the Ninth;
  • and in his property rights by the Tenth.

How Did The Founding Fathers Regard The Tenth Amendment?

How did the Founding Fathers apply the Tenth Commandment to our Law? Although the The Federalist Papers do not use the word “covet”, the papers still speak to the problems caused by coveting. Instead of “covet”, the authors used terms such as “envy” and “jealousy”. They spoke of the foolish passions aroused in us when we want what others have.

  • Understanding that men will covet what other men rightfully possess, they founded a republic to forestall the passions that coveting arouses. That we have addressed before in this post, THE ADVANTAGE OF A REPUBLIC OVER A DEMOCRACY. Here we quoted what James Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers: No. 10. This excerpt, in particular, is relevant.

    So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property.

  • In The Federalist Papers : No. 5, John Jay worried what might happen if the thirteen colonies formed separate confederacies instead of one united federation.

    Should the people of America divide themselves into three or four nations, would not the same thing happen? Would not similar jealousies arise, and be in like manner cherished? Instead of their being “joined in affection” and free from all apprehension of different “interests,” envy and jealousy would soon extinguish confidence and affection, and the partial interests of each confederacy, instead of the general interests of all America, would be the only objects of their policy and pursuits. Hence, like most other BORDERING nations, they would always be either involved in disputes and war, or live in the constant apprehension of them.

  • In The Federalist Papers : No. 18, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison explained why the thirteen colonies needed the Constitution to effect a strong union. They used Philip of Macedon’s conquest of Greece as an example.

    After the conclusion of the war with Xerxes, it appears that the Lacedaemonians required that a number of the cities should be turned out of the confederacy for the unfaithful part they had acted. The Athenians, finding that the Lacedaemonians would lose fewer partisans by such a measure than themselves, and would become masters of the public deliberations, vigorously opposed and defeated the attempt. This piece of history proves at once the inefficiency of the union, the ambition and jealousy of its most powerful members, and the dependent and degraded condition of the rest. The smaller members, though entitled by the theory of their system to revolve in equal pride and majesty around the common center, had become, in fact, satellites of the orbs of primary magnitude.

Using the Bible’s definition of wisdom, the Founding Fathers understood that might does not make right. We must be concerned for each other’s welfare. When we give in to covetousness, we all become losers.

To be continued: Next week we will discuss the 9th commandment of The Ten Commandments.

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