As my pastor recently emphasized, the Ten Commandments come from the mouth of God. He speaks them into existence. They are the Word of God. So they represent his character. And yet interestingly, when Jesus gives the New Law in Matthew 5–7, he internalizes the commandments.
Instead of murder alone, Jesus cites anger as equally a sin (Matt 5:22). Rather than adultery alone, the Lord calls lust itself adultery in our heart (Matt 5:28). Jesus as the original divine Law Giver can of course modify his requirements. But I do not think that is the case.
I think Jesus deepens the logic already implicit in God’s Ten Commandments. He certainly gets to the heart of the matter. But what he gets at was already present in Exodus 20, albeit without the same level of specificity.
What The Tenth Commandment Says
After giving nine commands, God gave Moses the tenth and last one: “You shall not desire your neighbour’s household; you shall not desire your neighbour’s wife, male servant, handmaiden, ox, donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour” (Exod 20:17).
The command “you shall not desire” appears twice in the last command to emphasize the point. Of all the Ten Commandments, it is the only command repeated twice. Likely, this not only emphasizes the importance of the injunction but also highlights the comprehensive nature of the command—as the following examples of what not to desire confirm (i.e., the people and things listed in Exod 20:17).
The word “neighbour” with the personal pronoun “your” in the singular is repeated three times. This language makes the “desire” personal; it is not abstract. God prohibits the desire for “your neighbour’s” wife and possessions. He cuts to the quick, right to the heart of the matter.
This leads us to ask the question of how we should understand “desire” in context.
What Desire Means
The ESV, NIV, and KJV translate the Hebrew word “desire” (chamad) as “covet.” This is a venerable translation which makes perfect sense in context. To desire something that should not be ours means “to covet.” Even so, the translation of “covet” cannot capture the full sense of the Hebrew term— not because there is any weakness in the translation but because of the normal limitations of translation from one language to another.
To desire (chamad) often refers to delighting in something desirable (Prov 1:22; Isa 1:29). God sees a mountain as desirable in Psalm 68:16, while Achan desired (coveted) a beautiful cloak and money in Joshua 7:21. So the word itself can be used honourably or dishonourably. One can desire the good or the evil. God desiring the mountain does not mean he coveted it. He rightly desired it.
One way to think about is this: God has made us with the capacity or power to desire. Desiring itself is not wrong. Actually, there is a virtuous desire and an unvirtuous desire (e.g., coveting). This way of thinking begins to show us how internalized the tenth command really is.
God cares about how we want, how we desire. He shows us that obedience does not mean simply avoiding the theft of a neighbour’s property or adultery with his wife. Instead, obedience starts at the level of wanting what is right.
How the Tenth Commandment Relates to the Other Nine Commandments
This begins to show how the tenth commandment comes to interpret the prior nine commandments, and how Jesus follows, I suspect, the internal logic of the Ten Commandments. We must not commit adultery (Exod 20:14)—yet we must not even desire another person’s spouse! We must not steal (Exod 20:15)—yet we must not even desire what our neighbour owns!
It becomes fairly obvious how the command of desire relates to murder and to false witness. We should not even desire to murder our neighbour, that is, to hate someone. We should not lie to get something that we should not have (vengeance, someone’s property, or so on). Obedience to parents should be done because we desire to honour them and to gain the promise of long life in the land.
The first four commands also seem to invite the tenth’s interpretive key. God wants us to worship him alone. Yet he does not want rote obedience but a truly desired obedience out of love. The prophets confirm this when, for example, Hosea 6:6 says: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”
Jesus And Desire
More could be said here, but I think the point has been made. When Jesus therefore associates adultery with the mere unlawful desire of another woman, he follows the logic already embedded within the Law.
Granted, as the Lord and Law-giver, he specifies and intensifies the law’s application to highlight the monstrosity of our corrupt inner-desires. Yet even here, we must remember that God does not merely forgive us. He begins a good work in us to heal our loves and desires.
He teaches us to want and provides the Spiritual means to desire rightly. Desire itself may have been corrupted in the Fall—but the Spirit purifies us through an implanted seed of righteousness. “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion” (Phil 1:6).
Whereas the Ten Commandments gave us an impossible standard to fulfill due to our fallen and broken power of desire, Christ makes it possible through the gracious bestowal of the Spirit who makes us new creations. We can do what the law requires.
Remember, Christ died “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:4). He did not die to leave us the mire. He died to bring us out of it.