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“Thou Shall Not Covet” Is Not a Defense of Capitalism

“Thou Shall Not Covet” Is Not a Defense of Capitalism (It’s Actually an Indictment of It.)

(Note: For those who are new to my website, when I critique capitalism, I am in no way suggesting we should embrace the wicked economic/political system known as socialism.)

I recently saw a tweet admonishing Christians not to engage in the politics of envy (which the author ascribed to socialists) because to do so violates the 10th Commandment. I saw another that said God is the ultimate capitalist. These sentiments are not disconnected. In fact, those who think capitalism is “God’s ordained economic system” usually attribute envy (as the primary motivation) to anyone who challenges their worship of capitalism.

Does every Christian who uses the “envy card” to defend capitalism worship capitalism? Of course not, but some do. I make this bold charge of worshiping capitalism because some Christians ascribe to capitalism qualities and purposes reserved solely for God, forgetting that God does not give his glory to another person or thing. I’ve heard some speak of a capitalist paradise; others describe capitalism as the only moral system. In their world, it seems, wealth inequality always occurs as a natural consequence of laziness versus hard work or because of government intervention into the economy and never occurs as a natural consequence of sinners operating in a free market. In their world, wealth accumulation should be one’s goal, the more the better. So anyone who mentions inequality or who challenges capitalism engages in the politics of envy and acts wickedly. And, according to them, the 10th Commandment proves their point.

Here is what the 10th Commandment says:

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. —Exodus 20:17

Words Matter

We should be suspicious of any claim that envy violates the 10th commandment when the word doesn’t appear in the verse. The KJV, NIV, NASB and ESV all use the English word covet to translate the Hebrew word chamad which means to desire or to delight in something.1 So we must ask, why didn’t the translators use the word envy?

The English word envy comes from the latin word invidere which literally means “’to look askance at,’ or ‘to have hatred or ill will toward another’ because of their possessions or advantages.”2 If Bible translators thought this was the meaning of chamad, they would have used the word envy instead of the word covet when translating the 10th Commandment into English. But they didn’t.

The Hebrew word chamad, used in the 10th Commandment, means to desire intensely anything that becomes a substitute for love and devotion due to God. The intensity of this desire overpowers the moral demands of the law so that the coveted object must be attained by any means.3

When Jewish scholars produced a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (called the Septuagint) they used the Greek word epithumeo for the Hebrew word chamad when translating Exodus 20:17. Epithumeo means to set your heart upon, long for, covet, desire.4 It can be used to express evil desires opposed to the will of God. Exodus 20:17 forbids this kind of desire because it represents a heart not fully devoted to God.5 Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.

Covetousness ≠ Envy

Well, you might say, the 10th Commandment does refer to envy because the English words envy and covet are synonyms and are interchangeable in common usage. Doesn’t matter. What matters is the meaning of the biblical text in the original language. What matters is what sin does the 10th Commandment prohibit.

The problem with using envy and covetousness interchangeably is that the Hebrew words translated into covet and envy do not have the same meaning. As noted above, covetousness is the desire for something in place of God while envy is the resentful dislike (or hatred) of another who has something we desire. Envy seems to describe socialists very well, problem is, that’s not the word used in the 10th commandment.

Covetousness = Idolatry

Both Colossians 3:5 and Ephesians 5:5 label covetousness as idolatry:

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.

—Colossians 3:5 (ESV)

For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.

—Ephesians 5:5 (ESV)

Covetousness fits well within these lists because, in the Bible, idolatry is often compared to sexual immorality. See Ezekiel 6:9; Jeremiah 3:6-10, 19:5; Isaiah 57:5-8; Ezekiel 16:15-19; Hosea 3:1-5.

So we see that the 10th commandment prohibits desiring the things of the world to the point of being unfaithful to God. Those who violate the 10th Commandment fail to love God with all their heart, mind, soul and strength and instead lust after the things of the world, thereby becoming enemies of God (James 4:4).

An Indictment of Capitalism

Whenever we don’t make a distinction that the Bible makes, we will miss something important. And that “something” will likely convict us of our own sin rather than bolster our argument about someone else’s sin.

The Hebrew Bible uses the word qana to denote the concept of the English word envy. Qana denotes jealousy or to blush from strong emotion.6 As previously noted it is not used in the 10th Commandment. Proverbs uses qana to warn against envy of evil men (not righteous rich capitalists!) (Proverbs 3:31; 23:17; 24:1,19. See also Psalms 37:1 and 73:3).

Inserting the concept of envying the rich into the 10th Commandment to argue for the morality of capitalism is both tragic and wicked. It is tragic because it blinds those who do it to their idolatrous love affair with capitalism. It is wicked because it seeks to persuade others to follow them into their sin.

It is wicked, because instead of warning others to flee the world system and to not envy evil men, it encourages others to remain in the world system and admonishes them to not envy the rich.

The 10th Commandment stands as an indictment against any world system that seeks to make us unfaithful to God (1 John 2:15-17). Capitalism is one such system. Christians are called to come out of the world system (Revelation 18:4-5) not to defend it.

 

Did you like this article? For more on economics and the Bible, check out my book, The Narrow Road: Loving God In a World Devoted to Money, on Amazon.

 

Notes:

  1. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible
  2. S. Barabas, “Envy,” in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. Merrill C. Tenney (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 2:314.
  3. W. White, Jr., “Covet, Covetousness,” in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. Merrill C. Tenney (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 1:1016-1017.
  4. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible
  5. H. Schonweiss, “Desire, Lust, Pleasure,” in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 1:456-458.
  6. V. Cruz, “Envy,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 357.

America’s Fight for Freedom

Whatever happened to America’s fight for freedom?

Don’t get me wrong. Americans still fight for freedom, but for many people it’s a different kind of freedom than previous generations fought for.

Yesterday morning, a day after celebrating our Fourth of July holiday, I wondered if my memory was accurate. It seemed to me that, during the Cold War, most Americans believed that the battle was between God-fearing nations and God-denying nations. Those who wanted to preserve individual freedom fought those who wanted to enslave individuals under collectivistic communism. The most effective pejoratives against communism were that it was godless and would take away our freedoms. It seemed clear—the Cold War pitted those who believed in a sovereign God and in the right of individuals to serve Him or to reject Him against atheists who demanded service only to the state. For Christians who knew their Bible, which system was good and which system was evil was easily discernible.

That was a major reason why the United States was determined to halt communism’s advance, even if it entailed great sacrifice.

But did we win the war?

Who Won the Cold War?

During the Cold War, the majority of Americans believed that communism was evil. Fast forward to today. Why do so many people in the U.S. believe socialism, which shares many of communism’s evils, is good?

I believe our secular society no longer cares much if we adopt a godless ideology, because in practice, most people already live as if God doesn’t exist. Thus, a call to fight godless ideologies will not have the effect it had on previous generations.

I also believe it is because we live in a secular society in which most people want to do what is right in their own eyes. Many Americans want freedom from religion so they can do whatever they want in their personal lives, including behaviors prohibited by Holy Writ. Many Americans want nearly unlimited freedom from government interference, believing the Bible imposes few if any restrictions on their economic activity.

Instead of fighting for freedom from a godless communism bent on taking away our freedom to serve God, too many of us fight for the freedom to serve our self. Now that our society has chucked God overboard on its journey to progressivism’s imaginary man-made nirvana, the argument has turned to economics.

Now, in what seems to me to be a capitulation to our culture’s dominant worldview, the main weapon many Christians use to fight socialism is a zealous promotion of capitalism, claiming it to be the only moral economic system.

What happened to God? Have Christians really come to believe that God will give his glory to another? Is it capitalism that will save us and demand our service?

Who won the battle for the hearts and minds of humanity that was fought in the Cold War? The West may have halted the geopolitical boundary expansion of communism, we may have won the battle against flesh and blood, but how did we fare “against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms?” (Ephesians 6:12)

The Task Ahead

It is sad that many Christians now fight against godless ideologies, not by proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom of God, but by proclaiming the gospel of capitalism. What message do we send to unbelievers when we are so ashamed of the gospel and the freedom it gives that we promote with all our might the freedom to pursue great wealth via capitalism? Jesus’ words in Mark 8:34-38 ought to sober up any Christian inclined to fight evil by employing the very weapons the enemy uses to destroy him (1 Timothy 6:6-10).

Our task hasn’t changed. Our mission is the same. True freedom comes from Christ (John 8:36). The pearl of great price cannot be obtained via capitalism or by voting into power a certain political party. Our job is to spread the good news of the kingdom of God.

 

Did you like this article? Check out my book, The Narrow Road: Loving God In a World Devoted to Money, on Amazon.

Suffering and the Prosperity Gospel

Resort Hotel

False teachers typically turn Bible doctrine on its head. They take passages out of their context and apply them to whatever point they want to make. Of course, in the process, they ignore many Bible passages that assert reality and disprove their message. The doctrine of suffering is an easy target for these charlatans because, simply put, no one wants to suffer. Read more

Why I Don’t Envy the Rich

Big house class envy

If you don’t subscribe to the idea that capitalism is the only moral economic system, an idea boldly proclaimed by Christians infatuated with Ayn Rand’s philosophy, and you dare mention inequality, you will probably be accused of class envy. Or, you will be labeled a socialist. It matters not to these ideologues that you reject socialism outright. Read more

The Speck In Our Brother’s Eye

Money creates problems for many people. Too much of it and we may disown God, too little of it and we may dishonor his name:

Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God

(Proverbs 30:8-9).

It also creates lots of confusion. We need look no further than our political divisions to see the problem. Read more

Let Your Collection of Idols Save You!

In the wake of cruise missile strikes in response to Sarin gas attacks in Syria, the U.S. dropping the largest conventional weapon in history on an ISIS target, and U.S. warships sailing toward North Korea, internet searches for World War 3 on Google have reached an all time high. Other people, especially those who believe this show of strength will deter aggression from other nations, show considerably less concern.   Read more

No Rules

sign that says no rules

Last Monday morning the social media world was in a huff because United Airlines denied boarding to teenage girls on one of their flights because of inappropriate attire. All the major news outlets reported the story.

How dare anyone tell us, the paying public, what to wear? Read more

A Look In the Mirror

I found the widespread description of this past presidential election as a choice between the lesser of two evils perplexing. From an issues standpoint, I considered nearly every presidential election in my voting lifetime to be such a choice. Why were people in such turmoil over this election and not the previous ones? Read more

Does America Have An Incurable Wound? – Part 1

Israel Had An Incurable Wound

In the book of Micah we learn that Samaria (the capital of Israel) had an incurable wound and like untreated gangrene it had spread to Jerusalem (the capital of Judah). What was the wound that was so loathsome to God?  The northern kingdom’s idolatry had reached a level from which judgment would no longer be withheld. As a result, God proclaims to the whole earth that he will make Samaria a heap of rubble. Read more