From Coveting to Contentment (1 Kings 21)

Recently, I’ve been reading a book called:   The Year of Living Biblically. The author, AJ Jacobs, describes himself as agnostic, but decides that for a year he’s going to try to study the Bible and live by it as literally as possible. One of the first commandments he focuses on is the tenth commandment – You shall not covet. He says it’s probably the hardest commandment. He lives in New York, which he says is built on coveting. We could probably say the same about our city.

He lists all the things he covets in one day. He covets the hand-held electronic devices others have that he doesn’t, he covets the large yard his friend has that he doesn’t, he covets the level of fame others have that allow them to do things that he can’t. Yet he realises his coveting is for more than just things. He’s constantly comparing himself to others, to people at work, to friends or family members, he compares his achievements to theirs, he compares his earnings to theirs, he is constantly coveting what others have. He gives this amazing admission for a secular agnostic:

The Bible is right, jealousy (coveting) is a useless, time-wasting emotion that is eating me alive…[1]

That’s an interesting admission isn’t it? He’s not a Christian, yet he recognises coveting is a big issue for him. In fact it’s a much bigger issue than he realises. Do you realise how serious an issue coveting is for you? As we look at 1 Kings 21 let’s notice: 1. Some symptoms of coveting 2. Some consequences of covering 3. How we can be moving from coveting to contentment.

1. Some symptoms of coveting:

Covet: yearn to possess (something, especially something belonging to another) (Oxford online Dictionary).

Coveting is a strong desire to own something that is not yours. Refusing to be content with what God has given you.

You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour (Exodus 20:17)

It’s a very wide command, everything’s included! God wants us to be content with what he gives us and to not desire what isn’t ours. In the NT coveting is closely connected with greed:

Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed (ESV: covetousness); a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. (Luke 12:15)

 Greed and covetousness are also closely connected with idolatry:

everyone who is greedy (ESV:covetous) (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God (Ephesians 5:5)

Put to death…evil desire, and greed (ESV:covetousness), which is idolatry (Colossians 3:5).

You can see the close link in those verses between coveting or greed, and idolatry. Coveting breaks the 10th commandment, but it also the 1st commandment: You shall have no other God’s before me. We covet something when we want it so much it becomes more important to us than God. Instead of delighting in God and being content in who he is, and what he’s done for us, we covet.

In 1 Kings 21 we see  Ahab coveting Naboth’s vineyard. He wants it, though Naboth refuses to give it to him. Look at v4 So Ahab went home, sullen and angry because Naboth … had said, “I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers.” He lay on his bed sulking and refused to eat.

Think of what Ahab had: he’s a king, he has a palace, he has a wife, he has lots of land and possessions already, should he really be so upset about a vineyard? Yet all of us are well off too aren’t we? If I asked how many people in this room had at least two pairs of shoes, I’m sure it would be all of us. How about a TV, running water, a roof over your head, food to eat, a telephone? We’re all very wealthy in terms of the world, yet were there things, perhaps even this week, that we were sulky or angry about not having?

If you want to see coveting in your life, those are two symptoms to look for: sulkiness, and anger. Are there things recently you’ve been sulky about not getting? It can be all sorts of things: are you feeling sorry for yourself because other people have something you really want? Are you sulky because you desire something from someone, but they don’t give you what you really want? What is it that you are distracted by, what is it that your mind keeps going to? What is it that you are coveting, what is it that has become an idol for you?

 2. Some consequences of coveting

Some might say: what’s the big deal about coveting, it doesn’t effect anyone else does it? What harm does it do? AJ Jacobs recognised that coveting was harming himself. Yet coveting has more significant consequences. We’ve mentioned how breaking the 10th commandment generally involves breaking the 1st commandment, but notice what other commandments are broken in this chapter as a result of coveting:

a) False testimony / lying

In v10 we see Jezebel instructing some elders to seat two scoundrels opposite Naboth and get them to claim he was guilty of a capital offence – cursing God and the king. Why two men? You needed at least two witnesses to be convicted. That rule was meant to protect people, but here we have two false witnesses, prepared to lie. Coveting has resulted in lying.

Very often lying is because of coveting. We want something so much we’re prepared to lie to get it.

b) Murder: Because of the testimony of these two scoundrels, Naboth is taken outside the city and stoned to death. 2 Kings 9:26 tells us Naboth’s sons were also killed at this time. His family line was wiped out. He had been accused of cursing God. Naboth is innocent of the charges brought against him, yet he is murdered, why? The root is Ahab’s coveting, he wanted this field.

Though we may not have literally murdered others, often our hatred or dislike of others comes from jealousy or coveting, wanting what they have.

c) Stealing: v16 When Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, he got up and went down to take possession of Naboth’s vineyard.

Ahab took possession of what wasn’t his. When Ahab had come to Naboth to ask for his land, look at his reply in v3: But Naboth replied, “The LORD forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers.” God had told the Israelites the land was a gift entrusted to them…every Israelite shall keep the tribal land inherited from his forefathers (Numbers 36:7). Naboth viewed his land not as something he could sell, but as an inheritance from God, to be passed on to his children. Naboth feared God and would not part with the land God had given him. Ahab coveted what Naboth had. Coveting can lead to lying, murder or stealing.

This week I was reading the account of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11. You see coveting having similar consequences there. David is on his roof, he looks out and sees Bathsheba, and he covets her. She is Uriah’s wife, but David desires her, and has her brought to him. Coveting leads to adultery, but also as here, to murder and to stealing – David murders Uriah to cover up his tracks, then takes Bathsheba for himself.

Coveting is serious, it is like a deadly poison in our hearts. Others may not see it initially, but it will eventually show itself in one of these outward ways as we break other commandments. Coveting is deadly. Look what Elijah is to tell Ahab in v19 ‘This is what the LORD says: In the place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, dogs will lick up your blood—yes, yours!’ ” The judgement is very graphic isn’t it? Ahab has committed a terrible crime, and the consequences for him and his household will be terrible.

Look what Elijah says in v20 “I have found you,” he answered, “because you have sold yourself to do evil in the eyes of the LORD.” That same description is used in v25: Ahab, who sold himself to do evil, in the eyes of the LORD. Coveting was one of the ways Ahab showed he had sold himself over to do evil. We see all the terrible bloodshed in this chapter, and we think – why – for a piece of land, when Ahab already had plenty of land? Coveting is not rational, it’s a desire that grips us, with terrible consequences.

3. Moving from coveting to contentment

Is it possible to move, from coveting to contentment? I mentioned earlier how AJ Jacobs said: The Bible is right, jealousy (coveting) is a useless, time-wasting emotion that is eating me alive. Yet he goes on to say in the next paragraph… Of course, stopping an emotion is not easy. The prevailing paradigm is that we can’t control our passions. [2]

He says, the Bible’s right, coveting is something he’d like to get rid of, yet he can’t see how it is possible. He quotes Woody Allen who made a relationship choice that even turned off many in Hollywood, yet said – the heart wants, what the heart wants. That Jacobs says is the prevailing wisdom: you can’t stop coveting, you can’t control what your heart wants.

In the book, he tries to stop coveting by not looking at so many ads. He subscribe to less magazines, so he doesn’t keep seeing all the ads for Jaguars, iPads and exotic holidays, but he realises he still covets other things. He also tries telling himself that the things he desires are unattainable for him to see if that helps. He says perhaps the best thing is just keeping busy. He’s written himself out a long list of the Bible’s commands, and says that he’s going to spend so much time reading and thinking about the Bible that he won’t have time to covet! All of these methods ultimately fail. Even when you are busy, your mind can still covet. When you stop even for a moment, your mind goes to wanting something more. In a way it’s a sad book to read, because the author sees something of the wisdom of the Bible’s commands, and even wants to live that way, but thinks it’s just not achievable.

There is a sense in which he is right – all of God’s commandments are to point us to Jesus. They show us how far we fall short of God’s standards, and point us to Jesus, the only one who perfectly obeyed them. They point us to the need we all have for a saviour if we are to be made right in God’s sight.

Yet, is that all the Bible is? A list of great principles that can never really be followed because in the end your heart wants what your heart wants? Is there no hope for human beings to change, and grow in godliness? In a famous sermon, Thomas Chalmers tells us the Bible’s answer:

the only way to dispossess [the heart] of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one. (Thomas Chalmers)[3] 

The only way for us to make progress in moving from coveting to contentment, is for a love to take hold of our heart that is so powerful it takes over the love for these other things we covet. This passage points us to that love through Naboth. You have to feel sorry for Naboth in this account. He seems to be living for God, then these two men falsely accuse him, and he is killed over a vineyard. It makes us think, what’s wrong with this world, there is so much injustice, why isn’t God doing anything about it? Until you realise, that God has done something about it. Naboth points us forward to Jesus. Like Naboth, Jesus had people stand up and falsely accuse him. Like Naboth, Jesus was taken outside the city, and put to death by the elders and leaders, but Jesus was doing it for a reason. Jesus went to death to bear on himself the sin of all those who would ever trust in him.

Jesus went to the cross, to glorify his father, but his motivation was also love for his people, love for all who turn and trust in him. He was making a way for sin to be forgiven.

If you think God could never show grace to you, look at the way he treats Ahab in this chapter, it’s unbelievable. Right at the end, we see Ahab very briefly humbling himself and acknowledging God, and God shows him some grace: v29 because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster on his house. Why does God do that? God loves to show mercy to those who will humble themselves before him. If he will show mercy even to Ahab who had sold himself out to sin, can’t he show mercy to you, if you humble yourself and ask?

The more you grasp Jesus love for you shown in the cross, the more your love for him grows, and expels the love in your heart for other things.

Paul says: I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. (Philippians 4:12). Interestingly, he says contentment is something he has learned. It’s not something that you snap your fingers and find, it’s something you can learn, as God opens your eyes to see his love shown so clearly in Jesus. As you see his love for you, you become content in knowing him and being loved by him, and it expels your love for others things.

It’s through the love of Christ, that we can do what AJ Jacobs, Woody Allen and others say they are not able to do: move from coveting to contentment.

 


[1] AJ Jacobs, The year of living Biblically, 28.

[2] AJ Jacobs, The year of living Biblically, 28

[3] Thomas Chalmers,  The Expulsive Power of a New Affection , 8.

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