An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
In this chapter of Hebrews the apostle makes a practical application of the theme of the epistle. Having set forth at length the amazing grace of God toward His believing people by the provision He has made for them in the Mediator and Surety of the covenant, having shown that they now have in Christ the substance of all that was shadowed forth in the ceremonial law, the tabernacle, and the priesthood of Israel, we now have pressed upon us the responsibilities and obligations which devolve upon those who are the favored recipients of those spiritual blessings. First, that which is fundamental to the discharge of all Christian duties is exhorted unto: the continuance of brotherly love (verse 1). Second, instances are given in which this chief spiritual grace is to be exemplified: in Christian hospitality (verse 2), and in compassion for the afflicted (verse 3). Third, prohibitions are made against the two most radical lusts of fallen nature: moral uncleanness (verse 4) and covetousness (verse 5), for the indulgence of these is fatal to the exercise of brotherly love.
Having in our last article dealt at length with the merciful provision which God has made for the avoidance of moral uncleanness—the ordinance of marriage—we now turn to the second great sin which is here dehorted against, namely, covetousness. "Let your conversation be without covetousness, and be content with such things as ye have" (v. 5). Here is an evil and its remedy set before us side by side, as was the case in the previous verse, though there the remedy is given before that which it counteracts. We will follow the order of the our present text and consider first the vice which is here forbidden, before we contemplate the virtue which is enjoined: yet it will be helpful to keep them both in mind, for the latter casts light upon the former, enabling us to determine its exact nature as nothing else will.
"Let your conversation be without covetousness." The Greek word which is here rendered "covetousness" is literally "lover of silver," and the R.V. renders our text "Be ye free from the love of money." Now while it be true that the love of money or worldly possessions is one of the principal forms of covetousness, yet we are satisfied that the translation of the A.V. is to be preferred here. The scope of the Greek verb is much wider than a lusting after material riches. This appears from the only other verse in the N.T. where this word occurs, namely, 1 Timothy 3:3, in a passage which describes the qualifications of a bishop: "Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous." The very fact that a previous clause specifies "not greedy of filthy lucre" makes it clear that "not covetous" includes more than "not a lover of money."
A comment or two also requires to be made upon the term "conversation." This word is limited today unto our speech with one another, but three hundred years ago, when the A.V. was made, it had a much more comprehensive meaning. Its latitude can be gathered from its employment in the Scriptures. For example, in 1 Peter 3:2 we read, "while they behold your chaste conversation:" note "behold" was not "hear!" The term then has reference to behavior or deportment: "But as He which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation" (1 Pet. 1:15). It is not to be restricted to that which is external, but includes both character and conduct. The Syriac renders our word "mind," probably because both covetousness and contentment are mental states. "Let your conversation be as it becometh the Gospel of Christ" (Phil. 1:27): this obviously means, Let your affections and actions correspond to the revelation of Divine grace you have received; conduct yourself in such a manner that those around will be impressed by the principles, motives, and sentiments which govern you.
So it is here in our text: let not covetousness rule your heart nor regulate your life. But exactly what is "covetousness"? It is the opposite of contentment, a being dissatisfied with our present lot and portion. It is an over-eager desire for the things of this world. It is a lusting after what God has forbidden or withheld from us, for we may crave, wrongly, after things which are not evil or injurious in themselves. All abnormal and irregular desires, all unholy and inordinate thoughts and affections, are comprehended by this term. To covet is to think upon and hanker after anything which my acquirement of would result in injury to my neighbor. "We may desire that part of a man’s property which he is in-dined to dispose of, if we mean to obtain it on equitable terms; but when he chooses to keep, we must not covet. The poor man may desire moderate relief from the rich, but he must not covet his affluence, or repine even though he does not relieve him" (Thomas Scott).
Now some sins are more easily detected than others, and for the most part condemned by those professing godliness. But covetousness is only too often winked at, and some covetous persons are regarded as very respectable people. Many professing Christians look upon covetousness as quite a trifling matter, while the world applauds it as legitimate ambition, as business shrewdness, as prudence, etc. All sorts of excuses are made for this sin and plausible pretenses argued in its favor. It is indeed a very subtle sin, which few are conscious of. In one of his sermons Spurgeon mentions a prominent man who had a great many people come to him to make confession, and this man observed that while different ones acknowledged all sorts of outrageous crimes, he never had one who confessed to covetousness. Few suspect that this is one of the prevailing iniquities of their hearts, rather are they inclined to regard this vice as a virtue.
But the Holy Scriptures are very explicit on this subject. The Divine law expressly declares, "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 (Ex. 20:17). "The covetous, whom the Lord abhorreth" (Ps. 10:3). To His disciples Christ said, "Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth" (Luke 12:15). The votaries of Mammon are linked with "drunkards and adulterers," and such are excluded from the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:10). The covetous are branded with the most detestable character of idolaters (Col. 3:5)—no doubt this is because they who are ruled by this lust adore their gold and put their trust in it, making a god of it. How we need to pray, "Incline mine heart unto Thy testimonies, and not to covetousness" (Ps. 119:36).
God’s Word also sets before us some fearfully solemn examples of the judgments which fell upon covetous souls. The fall of our first parents originated in covetousness, lusting after that which God had forbidden. Thus the very frontispiece of Holy Writ exhibits the frightfulness of this sin. See what covetousness did for Balaam: he "loved the wages of unrighteousness" (2 Pet. 2:15)—the honors and wealth which Balak promised were too attractive for him to resist. See what covetousness did for Achan, who lusted after the forbidden silver and gold: he and his whole family were stoned to death (Josh. 7). Look at Gehazi: lusting after the money his master had refused, and in consequence, he and his seed were smitten with leprosy (2 Kings 5). Consider the awful case of Judas, who for thirty pieces of silver sold the Lord of glory. Remember the case of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5). In view of these warnings shall we call this worst of iniquities "a little sin"? Surely it is something to be trembled at!
Covetousness is an inordinate desire of the heart after the creature; which is a fruit of man’s apostasy from the Lord. No longer finding in God the supreme object of his soul’s delight and confidence, fallen man loves and trusts in the creature (mere things) rather than the Creator. This takes on many forms: men lust after honors, wealth, pleasures, knowledge, for Scripture speaks of "the desires of the flesh and of the mind" (Eph. 2:3), and of "filthiness of the flesh and spirit" (2 Cor. 7:1). It is the very nature of the depraved heart to hanker after that which God has forbidden and to crave after what is evil, though this spirit may be developed more strongly in some than in others; at any rate, a larger measure of restraining grace is granted to one than to another. These irregular desires and inordinate thoughts are the firstborn of our corrupt nature, the first risings of indwelling sin, the beginnings of all transgressions committed by us.
"Thou shalt not covet" (Ex. 20:17). "The commandment requires moderation in respect of all worldly goods, submission to God, acquiescence in His will, love to His commandments, and a reliance on Him for the daily supply of all our wants as He sees good. This is right and reasonable, fit for God to command and profitable for man to obey, the very temper and felicity of Heaven itself. But it is so contrary to the desires of our hearts by nature, and so superior to the actual attainments of the best Christians on earth, that it is very difficult to persuade them that God requires such perfection, and still more difficult to satisfy them that it is indispensable to the happiness of rational creatures, and most difficult of all to convince them that everything inconsistent with this or short of it is sin; that it deserves the wrath of God, and cannot be taken away, except by the mercy of God through the atonement of Christ" (T. Scott).
The most common form of this sin is, of course, the love of money, the lusting after more and more of material riches. This is evident in getting, keeping, and spending. First, in getting. To acquire wealth becomes the dominant passion of the soul. An insatiable greed possesses the heart. This exists in varying degrees in different persons, and is demonstrated in numerous ways. That we may be quite practical let us mention one or two. Often this is manifested in a greedy and grasping effort after inequitable profits and by paying an unjustly small wage to employees, the chief design of its perpetrators being to amass fortunes for their descendants. Yet often these very men hold prominent positions in the churches and "make long prayers," while devouring widows’ houses and grinding the face of the poor. Alas, how the Gospel is dishonored and the sanctuary defiled by such sanctimonious wretches.
Again. Recently we read a faithful article wherein the writer took to task the lies and deceptions practiced by many shopkeepers and their assistants in palming off upon the public various forms of merchandise by misrepresenting their quality and value; the writer concluding with a solemn emphasis upon "all liars shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone" (Rev. 21:8). As he finished reading the same, this writer asked himself the question, And how far is a greedy and grasping public to blame? Who is largely responsible for this commercial dishonesty? Who tempt the tradesmen to mark their wares as "great bargains," "prices much reduced?" Is it not the covetous purchasers? How many today are possessed with an insatiable craving after "bargains," buying things "cheap," without any conscientious consideration of the real worth of the article: it is that which fosters so much fraud. Let the Christian buy only what he needs, and when he needs it, and so far as possible only from upright traders, and then he will be more willing to pay according to the value received.
Second, covetousness evidences itself in keeping. There is a miserliness which clings to money as a drowning man to a log. There is a hoarding up for self which is entirely reprehensible. "There is one alone, and there is not a second; yea, he hath neither child nor brother; yet is there no end of all his labor; neither is his eye satisfied with riches; neither saith he, For whom do I labor and bereave my soul of good? This is also vanity, yea, it is a sore travail" (Ecclesiastes 4:8). Yes, there are those who are utterly unconcerned about their eternal interests, and labor day in and day out, year after year, in order to add to what they have already accumulated, and who begrudge purchasing for themselves the bare necessities of life. They continue to amass money utterly regardless of Christ’s cause on earth or the poor and needy among their fellow-men. There are still those the language of whose actions is, "I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years: take thine ease; eat, drink, be merry" (Luke 12:18, 19).
Third, covetousness also manifests itself in spending. If there be those who are niggardly, there are others who are wastrels. If there be those who condemn the miser for his stinginess, often they are guilty in turn of wreckless prodigality. That which ought to be saved for a rainy day, is used to gratify a desire which covets some unnecessary object. But let us not be misunderstood on these points. Neither the possession nor the retention of wealth is wrong in itself, providing it be acquired honestly and preserved with a justifiable motive. God is the One who "giveth thee power to get wealth" (Deut. 8:18), and therefore is His goodness to be acknowledged when He is pleased to prosper us in basket and in store. Yet even then we need the exhortation, "If riches increase, set not thine heart upon them" (Ps. 62:10).
"Not slothful in business" (Rom. 12:11) is a Divine exhortation. So also there is a prudence and thrift which is legitimate, as is clear from, "There is that withholdeth more than is meet, but it tendeth to poverty" (Prov. 11:24). So also it is a bounden duty to make provision for those who are dependent upon us: "But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel" (1 Tim. 5:8). It is easy to swing to the opposite extreme and become fanatical, and under the guise of trusting God, tempt Him. To lay up for a rainy day is quite permissible: see Proverbs 6:6-8. Neither idleness nor extravagance are to be condoned. Those who through indolence or prodigality waste their substance and fail in business cannot be too severely censured, for they not only impoverish themselves but injure others, becoming the pests of society and a public burden.
Yet how difficult it is to strike the happy mean: to be provident without being prodigal, to be "not slothful in business" and yet not bury ourselves in it, to be thrifty without being miserly, to use this world and yet not abuse it. How appropriate is the prayer, "Remove from me vanity and lies; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me: lest I be full, and deny Thee, and say, Who is the Lord? or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain" (Prov. 30:8, 9). Romans 7:7 shows that it is only as the Spirit applies the Law in power to the conscience that we are taught to see the evil and feel the danger of covetousness; as, at the same time, it serves to check an avaricious disposition and curb inordinate fondness for the creature. That which most effectually strikes at our innate selfishness is the love of God shed abroad in the heart. A generous heart and a liberal hand should ever characterize the Christian.
A few words next upon the heinousness of covetousness. This evil lust blinds the understanding and corrupts the judgment, so that it regards light as darkness, and darkness as light. "If I have made gold my hope, or have said to the fine gold, Thou art my confidence; if I rejoiced because my wealth was great and because mine hand had gotten much... This also was an iniquity to be punished by the judge, for I should have denied the God that is above" (Job 31:24, 25, 28)—how little this is realized by the guilty one! It is an insatiable lust, for when covetousness rules, the heart is never satisfied: "He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver, nor he that loveth abundance with increase" (Ecclesiastes 5:10). It is a devouring sin: "the deceitfulness of riches choke the Word" (Matthew 13:22).
So terrible is this sin and so great is its power that, one who is governed by it will trample upon the claims of justice, as Ahab did in seizing the vineyard of Naboth (1 Kings 21); he will disregard the call of charity, as David did in taking the wife of Uriah (2 Sam. 11); he will stoop to the most fearful lies, as did Ananias and Sapphira; he will defy the express commandment of God, as Achan did; he will sell Christ, as Judas did. This is the mother sin, for "the love of money is the root of all evil." It is a gnawing and fatal sin: "But they that will be (are determined to be) rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition... which while some have coveted after they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows" (1 Tim. 6:9, 10).
It is the working of this evil lust which lies at the root of very much of the fearful Sabbath-desecration that is now so rife. It is the greed of gold which causes the ra
the Sunday editions of the newspaper. How the nations of Christendom are heaping up to themselves "wrath against the Day of Wrath!" God will not be mocked with impugnity. Those who believe the Scriptures must perforce expect that soon a far worse war than the last is likely to be sent as a scourge from Heaven upon the present Sabbath profaners.
It was the spirit of covetousness which prompted Israel of old to disregard the fourth commandment. "In those days saw I in Jerusalem some treading winepresses on the Sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and lading asses; as also wine, grapes, and figs, and all manner of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day: and I testified against them in the day wherein they sold victuals. There dwelt men of Tyre also therein, which brought fish, and all manner of ware, and sold in the Sabbath unto the children of Judah, and in Jerusalem" (Nehemiah 13:15, 16). Because of their Sabbath profanation, the sore judgment of God fell upon the nation. "Then I contended with the nobles of Judah, and said unto them, What evil is this that ye do, and profane the Sabbath day? Did not your fathers thus, and did not our God bring all this evil upon us and upon this city? yet ye bring more wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath" (Nehemiah 13:17, 18): "Hallow My Sabbaths and they shall be a sign between Me and you, that ye may know that I am the Lord your God. Notwithstanding, the children rebelled against Me: they walked not in My statutes neither kept My judgments to do them, which if a man do, he shall even live in them: they polluted My Sabbaths: then I said, I will pour out My fury upon them" (Ezek. 20:20, 21).
Thus, not only is covetousness a fearful sin in itself, but it is also the prolific mother of other evils. In the poor, it works envy, discontent, and fraud; in the rich, pride, luxury, and avarice. This vile lust unfits for the performing of holy duties, preventing the exercise of those graces which are necessary thereto. It exposes to manifold temptations, whereby we are rendered an easy prey to many spiritual enemies. The more we yield to this evil spirit, the more do we conduct ourselves as though we desired our portion in this world, and look no further than present things, contrary to "while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen" (2 Cor. 4:18). It tends to cast contempt on the mercies which are ours and quenches the spirit of thanksgiving. It turns the heart away from God: "How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!" (Mark 10:23).
Let us now go deeper and solemnly observe the comprehensiveness of God’s searching law, "Thou shalt not covet" (Ex. 20:17). Light is cast upon those words by, "I had not known sin, but by the Law; for I had not known lust (‘concupiscence,’ margin) except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet or "lust" (Rom. 7:7)—"concupiscence" is an evil desire, an inordinate affection, a secret lusting after something. What the apostle means is, I had never discovered my inward depravity unless the Spirit had enlightened my understanding, convicted my conscience, and made me feel the corruptions of my heart. Man ever looks on the outward appearance—and as a Pharisee of the Pharisees Paul’s actions fully conformed to the Law—but when the Spirit quickens a soul, he is made to realize that God requires "Truth in the inward parts" (Ps. 51:6) and cries "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me" (Ps. 51:10).
"Thou shalt not covet." That which is here forbidden is concupiscence, or those imaginations, thoughts, and desires, which precede the consent of the will. Herein we may perceive the exalted holiness of the Divine Law—far transcending all human codes—requiring inward purity. Herein, too, we may recognize one of the fundamental errors of Romanists, who, following the Pelagians, deny that these lustings are sinful until they are yielded to, and who affirm that evil imaginations only become sinful when the mind definitely assents to them. But the holy Law of God condemns that which instigates unto what is forbidden, condemns that which inclines toward what is unholy, and denounces that which inflames with cupidity. All irregular desires are forbidden. Corrupt imaginations and unlawful inclinations that precede the consent of the will are evil, being the seeds of all other sins.
Again we say, Herein God’s Law differs from and is immeasurably superior to all of man’s laws, for it takes note of and prohibits all the hidden desires and secret lustings of the heart. It is this tenth commandment which, above all others, discovers unto us our depravity and shows how very far short we come of that perfection which the Law requires. There is first an evil thought in the mind causing us to think of something which is not ours. This is followed by a longing after or wishing for it. There is then an inward delight by way of anticipating the pleasure that object will give; and then, unless restraining grace intervenes, the outward act of sin is committed—see James 1:14, 15. The first evil thought is involuntary, due to the mind’s being turned from good to evil, even though that evil be simply lusting after a new but unnecessary hat! The longing is caused by the heart’s being enticed by the delight promised. Then the consent of the will is gained, and the mind plans how to gain the coveted object.
This concupiscence or evil lusting of the heart is called "the law of sin which is in my members" (Rom. 7:23). It is what the older theologians term "original sin," being the fountain of evil within, corrupting all our faculties. Discontent with our lot, envy of our neighbors, yea, even the very "thought of foolishness is SIN" (Prov. 24:9). How high is the standard set before us: "Let none of you imagine evil in your hearts against his neighbor; and love no false oath; for all these are things that I hate, saith the Lord" (Zech. 8:17). Does the third commandment interdict any blasphemous oath upon the lips? then the tenth prohibits any risings of the heart against God. Does the fourth commandment interdict all unnecessary work on the Sabbath? then the tenth condemns our saying "what a weariness is it." Does the eighth commandment interdict every act of theft? then the tenth prohibits our desiring anything which is our neighbor’s.
But it is not until after a person is regenerate that he takes notice of the inward motions of sin and takes cognizance of the state of his heart. Then Satan will seek to persuade that he is not responsible for involuntary thoughts (which come unbidden), that evil desires are beyond our control—infirmities which are excusable. But God says to him "Keep thine heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life" (Prov. 4:23), and makes him realize that every lusting after what He has forbidden or withheld is a species of self-will. Therefore we are accountable to judge the first inclination toward evil and resist the very earliest solicitations. The fact that we discover so much within that is contrary to God’s holy requirements should deeply humble us, and cause us to live more and more out of self and upon Christ.