The dictionary defines covet as “yearning to possess (something, especially something belonging to another).” A covetous person is therefore “greedy, acquisitive, grasping, avaricious and mean.” The Bible has a lot to say on coveting and the word features both in the Old and New Testaments. For starters, coveting is mentioned in one of the commandments (the tenth one).
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 belongs to your neighbor. Exodus 20:17
So, what does covet mean in the Bible?
The Hebrew word for covet is chamad which is translated to mean a strong desire for something. To covet. therefore means to lust after. In Greek, Covet can also mean lusting after (Epithumeō) or desiring to have more than you already do (Pleonexia). All these three definitions agree on the fact that covetousness has to do with greed.
Covet in Hebrew
The Hebrew word for covet is chamad (Strongs 2532). This word is used in the 10th commandment above as well as in other places in the Bible. It means to delight or desire strongly. Strictly speaking, not all desire is wrong. For instance, one can desire to have a deeper relationship with God, one can desire to be closer to their spouse, one can desire success in a career, etc. However, the desire that Chamad refers to in the 10th commandment is the kind that leads to sin. For instance, it is the desire for something that you are not meant to have (e.g. your neighbor’s wife or property).
In Deuteronomy 5:21, God instructs Israel not to covet the pagan gods of their neighboring communities. This reveals another meaning of coveting. If a desire results in idolatry, it can be termed as coveting. An idol is anything that takes God’s place. A good example is desiring something so much that it consumes and preoccupies your life. Maybe you saw a friend with a sports car and you started desiring it so much that you can’t even think about anything else. If you allow such desire to dominate you, you may be guilty of breaking the 10th commandment.
Even though coveting is a sin in itself, it is dangerous because it leads to even more sin. Once you covet something, you are willing to do almost anything to get it. A good example is given in the book of 1 Kings 21. King Ahab coveted Naboth’s vineyard and he went to great lengths to get it. At first, he offered to pay any amount that Naboth would quote. When Naboth said his vineyard was not for sale, the queen had him killed so that Ahab could take possession of it.
Covet in Greek
There are two Greek terms used in the New Testament to mean covet. These are Epithumeō and Pleonexia. Epithumeō has to do with lusting after something or someone. In Acts 20:33, Apostle Paul tells the saints how he had worked diligently to earn a living as he preached the Gospel and that he had not coveted anyone’s gold, silver, or property. The Greek word Epithumeō is used in this scripture to illustrate that Paul did not lust after material things. The same word is used in Romans 7:7-8 when Paul is reminding the Romans how the law of not coveting is what actually revealed the state of man’s heart – a state of lusting after things.
The Greek word Pleonexia has a different connotation though. It means a desire for more. In most English translations, the word greed has been used as the translation of Pleonexia. Greed is mentioned in several scriptures as one of the reasons why some people will be disqualified from heaven (1 Cor. 5:10, 6:10; Eph. 5:5, etc). There is a thin line between desiring to be better and greed. If the desire has ulterior motives, then it can be termed greed. For instance, if you desire to have more so that you can be a blessing to others, then it can be a good desire. However, if you just want more for the sake of it, there is a good chance you are living in greed. The word covet may not resonate with English speakers as greed does – but they mean the same thing. A greedy person is never satisfied.
A good illustration of Greed in the New Testament is given in Mark 10:17-21. In this passage, a rich young ruler comes to Jesus asking for the secret to enter God’s kingdom. Jesus asks him if he has kept the commandments to which the young man responds in the affirmative. However, Jesus is all-knowing and knows the young man had a problem with greed. So he tells him to go sell everything he had and give the proceeds to the poor. On hearing this, the young man walks away disappointed because he was not willing to let go of his possessions. Jesus then makes the following comment;
“how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God” Mark 10:24
This statement revealed that the problem the young man had was covetousness. When Jesus asked him to sell everything, he was trying to get him to stop putting his trust in his wealth and instead put it in God. But the young man couldn’t do it. In another instance, Jesus warned that you cannot serve God and mammon (money). That’s because a greedy person is driven by the desire to continue accumulating wealth – even if through questionable means.
To sum it up, to covet means to be greedy for something. This can take two forms – either lusting after something you do not have or lusting to have more of what you already have. God hates covetousness and has even included it in the 10 commandments. Every Christian must therefore be careful not to allow covetousness to set in their hearts.