God Is Moral Part Nineteen

Numerous biblical passages refer to the sin of covetousness, which is of major concern to God. Consequently, it is important to understand the nature of covetousness, the issues related to it, and the implications for mankind.

The Nature of Covetousness
The Bible’s original languages (Greek and Hebrew) employed several words related to covetousness, revealing the nature of that sin.

Old Testament. The word awa means to “desire, lust, covet, crave, be greedy.”1 The term hamad refers to “inordinate, ungoverned, selfish desire.”2 The verb basa means “cut off, get, gain.”3 It refers to cutting off “what is not one’s own, or in the slang of our day, to take a ‘rip-off,’ thus to be greedy, covetous.”4 The noun besa signifies “unjust gain, covetousness.”5

New Testament. The verb epithumeo expresses “desire as impulse, as a motion of the will. It is, in fact, lust, since the thought of satisfaction gives pleasure and that of non-satisfaction pain.”6 It “is anxious self-seeking.”7 The noun philarguria means “love of money, avarice, miserliness.”8

The American College Dictionary defines avarice as “insatiable greed for riches; inordinate, miserly desire to gain and hoard wealth.”9

The word pleonektes refers to “one who is greedy for gain, a covetous person.”10 Its counterpart, pleonexia, signifies “greediness, insatiableness, avarice, covetousness.”11 In ancient Greek these words originally meant, “having more,” then “receiving more,” and finally “wanting more.” They were used to refer to wanting more material possessions but also nonmaterial possessions, such as positions of power.12

The combined meanings of these biblical words prompt the conclusion that covetousness is the “inordinate desire for gain or possession. COVETOUS implies especially excessive desire for what belongs to another.”13

The Seat of Covetousness
The word seat sometimes refers to “a place in which something prevails or is established.”14 Jesus said covetousness and other evils that defile people come “from within, out of the heart of men” (Mk. 7:21–23). Psalm 119:36 emphasizes the importance of the heart not inclining “to covetousness.” The apostle James referred to people who “have bitter envy and self–seeking in [their] hearts” (Jas. 3:14). The apostle Peter described false teachers who had “a heart trained in covetous practices” (2 Pet. 2:14).

The word heart in the Bible often refers figuratively to a person’s inner control center. New Testament scholar Johannes Behm claimed, “The heart is the centre of the inner life of man and the source or seat of all the forces and functions of soul and spirit.”15 The heart is the seat of the intellect. Proverbs 23:7 states that as a man “thinks in his heart, so is he.” It is also the seat of the will. The Bible refers to people who have “a willing heart” (Ex. 35:5), “purpose of heart” (Acts 11:23; 2 Cor. 9:7), and who are “determined in…heart” (1 Cor. 7:37).

The heart, too, is the seat of the sin nature. Jeremiah 17:1 refers to “sin” indelibly “engraved on the tablet” of the “heart.” And Jeremiah 17:9 claims that such a heart “is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” Certainly, such a heart is the seat, or place, where covetousness is established and prevails.

Objects of Coveting
People covet things that do not belong to them. God said, “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” (Ex. 20:17). Deuteronomy 5:21 adds a neighbor’s field to that list, and Proverbs 6:25 refers to lusting for a seductress.

Joshua 7:21 records Achan coveting and taking “a beautiful Babylonian garment, two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold weighing fifty shekels.” 1 Timothy 3:8 indicates that people are not to be “greedy for money.”

Motives for Coveting
The Bible presents at least two things that motivate people to covet: a desire for security and a desire for wealth. Habakkuk 2:9 states, “Woe to him who covets evil gain for his house, that he may set his nest on high, that he may be delivered from the power of disaster!” The verb translated “covets” means to “cut off, get, gain.” In this passage it refers to cutting off “what is not one’s own.”16 Thus this passage describes a person who is motivated to take what belongs to another for the purpose of making his own household secure from disaster.

The apostle Paul wrote, “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:9–10).

Characteristics and Methods of Coveters
Some people covet what others have because they are too lazy to earn possessions honestly (Prov. 21:25–26). Some enjoy hearing God’s Word but fail to obey it because their hearts are selfishly devoted to pursuing their own covetous gain (Ezek. 33:28–33). Others become covetous because they do “not like to retain God in their knowledge” (Rom. 1:28–32). Some covet because they are ignorant concerning God (1 Th. 4:3–6); others, because of a decision to serve their love of money instead of God (Lk. 16:13–14; 2 Tim. 3:1–2).

Covetous people are “lovers of themselves” (2 Tim. 3:1–2). Some are “deceptive” and have hearts “trained” in skillful methods of unjustly exploiting people (2 Pet. 2:1–3, 14).

Coveters obtain what belongs to others through use of unjust treatment, vio-lence, shedding of innocent blood, oppression (Mic. 2:2; Jer. 22:13–19), cun-ning secrecy, and deceptive and flattering words (2 Pet. 2:1–3; 1 Th. 2:5).

Effects of Coveting
Coveting has its side effects. One who is too lazy to act “covets greedily all day long” and gains nothing (Prov. 21:26). A wicked coveter boasts of his heart’s lust for unjust gain, blesses covetous people, and has contempt for God (Ps. 10:3). Some coveters want nothing to do with God’s Word (Jer. 8:9–10).

Some leaders are so consumed with greed for personal gain that they neglect the needs of their people and lead their nations into judgment (Isa. 56:10–12). Coveting causes some, who enjoy hearing God’s Word, to fail to obey it (Ezek. 33:28–33). Coveting can “plunge”17 some coveters into destruction and an “everlasting state” of judgment,18 cause them to stray from the faith, and inflict them with “severe and piercing self-accusations and pangs of conscience”19 (1 Tim. 6:9–10). Coveting defiles the coveters (Mk. 7:21–23).

The Bible also places coveters in the category of “the unrighteous” (1 Cor. 6:9–10). That category includes fornica-tors, idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, sodomites, thieves, drunkards, revilers, extortioners, the wicked, the malicious, enviers, murderers, strivers, deceivers, the evil–minded, whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, the violent, the proud, boasters, and inventors of evil things. The category also includes those who are disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful, lewd, evil-eyed, blasphemous, proud, and foolish (1 Cor. 5:11; 6:9–10; Rom. 1:28–32).

The Bible indicates that people in this category do not inherit the Kingdom of Christ and God (1 Cor. 6:9–10; Eph. 5:3–6). But they can be saved from that fate through personal, saving faith in God’s Son because “the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 Cor. 6:11; 1 Jn. 1:7).

Idolatry of Coveting
The Bible calls a covetous man an idolater and calls covetousness idolatry (Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5). Jesus shed light on why this is so: “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon“ (Lk. 16:13–14).

The word mammon refers to “anything of value.”20 The original source of the word is not certain, but “it most likely comes from” a word that refers to “‘that in which one trusts’ (J. Buxtorf).”21 The person or thing in which we place our ultimate trust for life, well-being, or destiny is our object of worship. It is that to which we commit our lives to serve. If that object is anything other than the God of the Bible, it is a false idol. So Jesus was saying that this is the watershed decision that every human being must make.

  1. Robert L. Alden, “’awa,” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (hereafter cited as TWOT), ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 1:18.
  2. Francis Brown, ed., with S. R. Driver and Charles A. Briggs, “hamad,” A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, based on the lexicon of William Gesenius as translated by Edward Robinson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 326.
  3. John O. Oswalt, “basa,” TWOT, 1:122.
  4. Ibid.
  5. John O. Oswalt, “besa,” TWOT, 1:122.
  6. Friedrich Buchsel, “epithumeo,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (hereafter cited as TDNT), ed. Gerhard Kittel, ed./trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, translated from Theologisches Worterbuch zum Neuen Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965), 3:171.
  7. Ibid.
  8. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, eds./trans., “philarguria,” A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (1952: translation and adaptation of Walter Bauer’s Griechisch-Deutsches Worterbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und der ubrigen urchristlichen Literatur, 4th ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 866.
  9. The American College Dictionary (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1948), s.v. “avarice,” 85.
  10. Arndt and Gingrich, “pleonektes,” 673.
  11. Ibid., “pleonexia,” 673.
  12. Gerhard Delling, “pleonektes, pleonexia,” TDNT, ed. Gerhard Friedrich, ed./trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968), 6:266.
  13. Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd ed., unabridged (Springfield, MA: G. & C. Merriam Company, 1939), s.v. “covetous,” 613.
  14. The American College Dictionary, s.v. “seat2,” 1094.
  15. Johannes Behm, “kardia,” TDNT, 3: 611.
  16. John O. Oswalt, “basa,” TWOT, 1:122.
  17. Arndt and Gingrich, “buthidzo,” 148.
  18. Albrecht Oepke, “apoleia,” TDNT, ed. Gerhard Kittel, ed./trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 1:397.
  19. Friedrich Hauck, “odune,” TDNT, ed. Gerhard Friedrich, ed./trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), 5:115.
  20. Friedrich Hauck, “mamonas,” TDNT, ed. Gerhard Kittel, ed./trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967), 4:388.
  21. Ibid., cited by Friedrich Hauck.

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