The tongue is a restless evil. It sets the whole person on fire, James 3 tells us. And so the ninth commandment is aimed in part at bridling the tongue. It’s aimed at bridling the tongue with truth, teaching us to put off falsehood, to put off lying. In our culture, to accuse someone of telling a lie is a serious insult, so many people hesitate to even use the term. I think that this hesitancy reveals fallen man’s heart to shy away from this commandment—as well as his need of this commandment.
What does it mean that we think the command “thou shalt not lie” or the word lie is impolite? It probably indicates that in some ways we’re already shading the truth. We’re already pulling back from a full expression of what’s good, what’s right, and what’s true. And the ninth commandment convicts us of that. It points out our fallenness when it comes to our use of the tongue and the destruction that the tongue represents.
And, likewise, the tenth commandment: “Thou shalt not covet.” If you can imagine the heart having hands, coveting is like the heart grasping for things, desiring things, laying hold of things that don’t properly belong to it. What’s remarkable and beautiful about this commandment—about all of Scripture, in fact—is that even though the commandment addresses something inward (that inward grasp- ing of the heart), it also points out the social implications of that interior grasping. So we have “thou shalt not covet anything that is thy neighbor’s.” Not our neighbor’s spouse, not our neighbor’s cattle, not anything that belongs to our neighbor.
The tenth commandment sets for us a kind of boundary that protects against the way covetousness tends to cross lines. We are tempted to cross the line of desires, longing for things that aren’t properly in our possession. We cross the line of property, grasping for things that belong to another person (your neighbor’s cattle, your neighbor’s spouse). So our coveting actually, socially, does injury to our neighbor. And there’s another line that we cross. When we covet, what we’re actually saying is that God has not apportioned his creation properly because he hasn’t given us everything we desire. And so the heart, in its fallen, sinful way, grasps for things that don’t belong to it and seeks for things that actually belong on the other side of ownership—to the neighbor or to God.
These commandments speak to us, and they call us forth to truth- telling. And not just to truth-telling, but to the truth spoken in love. They call forth a bridling, a restraining, and a channeling of desire to things that are good and right. They call us to things that God has legitimately given to us for our enjoyment, and to be content in how God has distributed his blessing, how he rules his creation. They call us not to go outside of that contentment by taking things, for if we do, we destroy society, culture, and our neighbors. This is true even if the taking of what doesn’t belong to us is only a taking in heart.
Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness Against Thy Neighbour. Now dost thou, most gracious Lord, instruct me in this commandment, how I should use my tongue towards my neighbour, and behave myself concerning his name, forbidding me to bear false witness; in the which thou forbiddest me all kinds of slandering, lying, hypocrisy, and untruth. And why? Because, as “members of one body,” thou wouldest we should “speak truth one to another,” and be careful every one to cover others’ infirmity, and with our tongue defend the names of others, even as we would that others should defend ours: so that in this commandment, as thou forbiddest me all kind of evil, perilous, calumnious and untrue speaking, so dost thou command to me all kind of godly, honest, and true report and talk. . . . O how great a good thing is this unto me! If we consider the hurt that cometh by untruth, and by words wherethrough many are deceived, easily may we see a wonderful benefit and care of thee for us in this commandment.
Thou Shalt Not Covet. . . . Here, O most gracious Lord God, thou givest me the last commandment of thy law who having taught me what outward actions I shall avoid, that I do not thereby offend or undo my neighbour, as murder, adultery, theft, and false witness, now thou teachest me a rule for my heart, to order that well, from the abundance whereof all our works and words proceed, that I shall not covet any thing that is my neighbour’s. I know hereby that, if he have a fairer house than I, I may not wish for it; if he have a more beautiful wife than I, I may not desire her. . . . I may not desire to take from him his ox, nor his ass, no, not his dog, no, not the meanest thing he hath in his possession. So that, in the other commandments as thou hast forbidden all injuries and evil practice against my neighbour, so now thou chargest me to beware of thinking any evil thought against him. . . . The apostle said well, when he taught us, saying, “Cast all your care upon God, for he careth for you.” It is true, I find it true: thus thou “carest for us,” and wouldest have us to “care one for another.”