In II Sam. 19:27 Mephibosheth complains to the king that his servant had slandered him. Of the wicked among the people of Judah Jeremiah complains: “They are all grievous revolters, walking with slanders: they are brass and iron; they are all corrupters.” Jer. 6:28. And in chapter 9, vss. 2-5, he complains: “Oh that I had in the wilderness a lodging place of wayfaring men: that I might leave my people and go from them! for they be all adulterers and assembly of treacherous men. And they bend their tongues like their bow for lies: but they are not valiant for the truth upon the earth; for they proceed from evil to evil and they know not me, saith the Lord. Take ye heed every one of his neighbor, and trust ye not in any brother: for every brother will utterly supplant, and every neighbor will walk with slanders. And they will deceive everyone his neighbor, and will not speak the truth: they have taught their tongue to speak lies, and weary themselves to commit iniquity.” Also the term backbiting occurs in Scripture. In Psalm 15:3 we read: “He that backbiteth not with his tongue, nor doeth evil to his neighbor, nor taketh up a reproach against his neighbor.” And in Proverbs 25:23: “The north wind driveth away rain: so doth an angry countenance a backbiting tongue.” In Romans 1:30 backbiting is listed in the enumeration of the corruptions of those that are of a reprobate mind: “Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents.” And in II Cor. 12:20 we read: “For I fear, lest, when I come, I shall not find you such as I would and that I shall be found unto you such as ye would not: lest there be debates, envyings, riots, strifes, backbitings, whisperings, swellings, tumults.” Besides the word of God employs other terms to denote this same sin, such as talebearers, Ps. 10:18, 11:13, 12:17, 14:3, whisperers, Romans 1:29; Prov. 18:8, 26:20, 22; Ps. 41:7; and tattlers, I Tim. 5:13. No wonder that James in his epistle, James 3:6, thinking no doubt especially of this most despicable evil, calls the tongue a fire and a world of iniquity: “And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and is set on fire of hell.”
In close connection with backbiting and slandering, we must call attention to what the Heidelberg Catechism calls falsifying a man’s words. This too is a very common and very evil business. One can change and falsify a man’s words, either spoken in conversation or printed, in a very subtle way. It seems rather easy to report someone’s statement and to distort his words without apparently even becoming guilty of lying. Sometimes one does not even have to change the words. He can quote them literally, but the words are lifted out of their proper connection. They are quoted only in part, while the statement would appear in an entirely different light if the whole were quoted. Sometimes even a man’s word is falsified by laying stress and emphasis upon a different part of the statement made, emphasizing something which was not stressed at all by the original speaker. Or, the words are quoted in entirely different circumstances from those in which the original statement was made. And so they receive an entirely different meaning than they originally conveyed. Also in this way a man really becomes guilty of backbiting and slandering. For the purpose is the destruction of the good name of the neighbor or of the brother.
Finally, the Catechism sums up the matter in the statement, “that I avoid all sorts of lies and deceit, as the proper works of the devil.” This also includes the sin of lying about one’s self. This is true, for instance, of the sin of boasting. It is the sin of exalting one’s self above another, or of speaking about one’s self with the intention of giving others a high opinion about one’s self, about one’s deeds or accomplishments, or of the things belonging to one’s self. In the world there are even traditional boasters. God forbid that they should also appear in the church. Men and women that always vaunt about themselves, there are. Sometimes they are such traditional braggers that they do not care very much whether you believe them or not. They just like to boast anyway. On the other hand, one can lie about himself when he is accused of a certain sin or misdemeanor and tries to deny it. He is ashamed before the brethren that he has committed this sin, and so he denies it and lies about himself. Also this should not be found in the church, among the children of God: in the first place, because God in Christ Jesus demands that we shall always speak the truth in love, also concerning ourselves; but in the second place, too, because it is only in the way of truth and in the way of confessing the truth concerning ourselves that there is forgiveness of sin and peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. In the way of impenitence there is no mercy. And as the Heidelberg Catechism expresses it, we only bring down upon us the heavy wrath of God. But in the way of confessing our sin before God and before one another, there is grace and peace.
Over against all this lying and slander and falsifying a man’s words and boasting of self stands the admonition of the word of God that we shall always speak the truth in love concerning one another and concerning ourselves, before the God of our salvation. But what does this imply? Does it mean that we shall speak the truth about our neighbor all the time and in all circumstances? Does it mean that always and everywhere I shall say all that I know about him? God forbid. This certainly would not be speaking the truth in love. Does it mean that I am obliged to publish all that I know about myself? Also this is not true. Of course not. Others certainly do not have to know all that I know about myself. There are many things that God only knows and has to know and that. I have to confess before Him alone. It would be quite impossible for the small beginning of the new life in us and the many sins we commit in thought, word, and deed, to live as a church of Jesus Christ if we knew about one another what God knows about us. Life would become impossible and intolerable. Such is not necessary. But to speak the truth in love certainly implies that we shall never bring a false report about our neighbor, yea, that if at all possible, we shall conceal an evil report about the brother, even though the report be true. And it implies that rather than spread the evil report about him, you shall visit him and speak with him face to face, in love, before God in Christ. When we speak the truth in love, it is our purpose to defend the honor and good reputation of the brother and sister, rather than maliciously to besmear one another’s name. In this there is a rich blessing for the church of Jesus Christ in the world, just as there is a curse in. sinning against the ninth commandment. The curse is that by the lie there is under the wrath of God, created an atmosphere of suspicion and malice and hatred and envy and distrust in which one chokes rather than lives. The liar destroys his neighbor, destroys himself, and destroys, if possible, the church of Christ. But if we speak the truth in love, there is, under the blessing of God, created an atmosphere of confidence, the confidence of love, of seeking one another’s well-being, in which it is a joy to live, in which one can breathe freely as a child of God in the Lord Jesus Christ. He that speaks the truth in love saves his neighbor, saves himself, and saves the church of Jesus Christ. For God dwells where the truth dwells. Hence, as children of God we have a double calling, or rather, one calling with two aspects: put off the old man, that moves in the sphere of lying: and put on the new man in Jesus Christ our .Lord, that always speaks the truth in love. Then there will be joy and peace and light in the midst of Zion, and God will dwell with us.
Q. 113. What doth the tenth commandment require of us?
A. That even the smallest inclination or thought, contrary to any of God’s commandments, never rise in our hearts: but that at all times we hate all sin with our whole heart, and delight in all righteousness.
Q. 114. But can those who are converted to God perfectly keep these commandments?
A. No: but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience; yet so, that with a sincere resolution they begin to live, not only according to some, but all the commandments of God.
Q. 115. Why will God then have the ten commandments so strictly preached, since no man in this life can keep them?
A. First, that all our lifetime we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and thus become the more earnest in seeking the remission of sin, and righteousness in Christ; likewise, that we constantly endeavor and pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we may become more and more conformable to the image of God, till we arrive at the perfection proposed to us, in a fife to come.
It is evident at first sight that in Lord’s Day 44 we have not only an explanation of the tenth commandment. There is much more. This Lord’s Day combines especially three elements. First of all, it speaks of the significance and the sense, the deep inner meaning, of the tenth commandment. In the second place, it raises the question as to the possibility of perfection in this life for the Christian: can the Christian keep this law of God perfectly? And it answers that question with a Yes-No. And thirdly, in connection with the negative part of the answer which the instructor of our Heidelberg Catechism gives to that second question, it raises the equally logical and natural question: why, then, should the law be preached so strictly, if no one can keep it anyway?
It is evident at once why the Catechism connects these last two questions with the exposition of the tenth commandment. The reason lies in the very nature of this commandment. This precept differs from the preceding nine in this, that openly and directly it points the finger to our inner life when it forbids us to covet. All the other commandments fail to do this. It is true that they all certainly imply this, and that they all concern our inner life: for the principle of the whole law is the love of God. But they do not directly point the finger at that inner life of the Christian, at his thoughts and desires, at his will, and at his deepest heart. All the other commandments,—Thou shalt not serve idols; Thou shalt not profane the name of God; Thou shalt observe the sabbath; Thou shalt honor father and mother; Thou shalt not kill, commit adultery, steal, or bear false witness,—these all, as to form, lay the hand upon our life in the outward sense of the word. It would seem that the Decalogue, until you come to the tenth commandment, is satisfied with the outward conformation to the precepts of God. To this the apostle Paul refers in Romans 7:7: “What shall we say then Is the law sin? God forbid. Howbeit, I had not known sin, except through the law; for I had not known coveting, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.”
The tenth commandment in its very form, in its literal expression, very clearly claims the whole inner life of man. It forbids covetousness. To covet is a question of my inner life, not of my outward act. No one can detect when I covet anything, unless, perhaps, it comes to manifestation in the expression of my eyes or face, It surely is none of another’s business whether or not I covet. My mere act of coveting surely does not injure my neighbor. And therefore, coveting does not appear to be a real sin whatsoever. Nevertheless, the tenth commandment approaches us with the prohibition: “Thou shalt not covet anything that is thy neighbor’s.”
It is for that reason that the Heidelberg Catechism correctly sees in this tenth commandment the manifestation of the perfection of the law. The spiritual perfection of the whole law becomes revealed in the tenth commandment. And it is because of that character of the tenth commandment that the Catechisms with it joins the question: can anyone keep that law perfectly; can the Christian keep that law of God without fail? And of course, for the same reason the next question follows: what, then, is the, use to preach the law of God, if no one can keep it perfectly anyway?
That the Catechism does indeed see the perfection of the whole law reflected in the tenth commandment is at once evident from the way in which it explains it in Question and Answer 113. It does not even take pains to enter into a literal interpretation of, this commandment whatsoever. The very question is put positively, rather than negatively: what doth the tenth commandment require of us? Besides, let us notice that in the answer to Question 113 it passes by the idea of coveting in the narrower sense of the word altogether. It does not even call attention to the literal sense of the tenth commandment. Literally, as we know, the tenth commandment reads: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house; thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.” With the literal language of this commandment the Catechism does not appear to be concerned whatsoever. Instead, it at once strikes at something far deeper. Negatively speaking, this precept of the Decalogue, according to the Heidelberg Catechism, means “that even the smallest inclination or thought, contrary to any of God’s commandments, never rise in our hearts.” Literally this tenth precept of the Decalogue does not seem to refer to any thought or desire that may rise in our hearts against any of the commandments of God. But it simply speaks of coveting the neighbor’s goods. And on the other hand, the Catechism explains the positive requirement of this tenth commandment as follows: “That at all times we hate all sin with our whole heart, and delight in all righteousness.” The interpretation of the Heidelberg Catechism, therefore, is all-embracing and very profound. And we understand, of course, that this is not the narrower sense of this commandment; but it is the conclusion which the Catechism draws from it with regard to the entire law of God.
As to the literal and narrowest sense of this commandment, it is very evident that it simply forbids us to covet, that is, to covet sinfully, covet the earthly goods that belong to the neighbor. We understand: of course, that in itself it is not sinful to covet. To covet simply means to desire, to long for with eagerness, to wish for the possession of anything. In itself this cannot be sinful, for the simple reason that God has created us in such a way that we must desire and long for many things. The very power to covet is a God-given gift. No one can help to covet. And the apostle Paul admonishes the church at Corinth: “But covet earnestly the best gifts.” I Cor. 12:31. You can no more help to covet than you can help to see with your eyes and to hear with your ears and to taste with your mouth. God gave us a soul and body that must covet and that covets all the time. This is true simply because we are dependent creatures, dependent ultimately and absolutely upon the God that created us, but at the same time dependent mediately upon many things in the world round about us. If we are hungry, we covet food. If we are thirsty, we covet drink. We covet a home to live in, and we covet clothing to cover and protect our bodies. Moreover, we are originally created in the image of God, in true knowledge, righteousness and holiness, adapted to stand in the covenant of friendship with the most high. And that means that we were created with the very power and faculty to covet the fellowship of friendship with the living God. Apart from sin, our mind covets to know God, and we hunger and thirst for the love of the most high. It is this sinless and pure coveting which the psalmist expresses in Ps. 42:1, 2: “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God?” And the same sinless coveting is expressed in Ps. 84:2: “My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the Lord: my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God.” In fact, the Catechism, in its answer to Question 113, refers to the same coveting when it explains “that at all times we hate all sin with our whole heart, and delight in all righteousness.” Man, therefore, must normally covet. To covet is to desire something. It is to present something before the mind and to desire to possess it and to enjoy it. Man cannot help to covet as long as he is man: But the question is: what is the object of his coveting? On what does he set the desire of his heart? He must covet the right things. As man stood originally in paradise, he certainly was a coveting creature. And as you and I hope to stand before the throne of God in perfection, dwelling in His tabernacle forever, we shall never cease to covet. We shall forevermore covet with all our heart, with all our mind, with all our soul, and with all our strength. But there the central object of our coveting shall be God, and all other things in relation to Him. God in Christ shall forever be the desire of our hearts. He will have the love of our hearts, even as we covet His love to us in Christ Jesus our Lord.
But when the Scriptures refer to the sin of covetousness, they refer to the fact that our hearts, our minds, our will, and all our desires have become fundamentally corrupt. Covetousness, according to the Bible, is one of the sins that make it impossible for us to inherit the kingdom of God.