Honorable Conduct and Thought
“Thou shalt not steal … bear false witness … [or] covet” (Exodus 20:15-17).
By Dan Wesol
“Thou shalt not steal” (Exodus 20:15). The underlying principle of Commandment 8 is that people have a right to their possessions and their good name. No one has the right to take what does not belong to them. They should honor what belongs to others.
To help the Israelites understand how important it was to respect the property of others, the penalties for stealing an animal, if killed or sold, were five oxen for stealing an ox and four sheep for stealing a sheep (Exodus 22:1). If the animal was found alive in the thief’s possession, he would restore double to the rightful owner (Exodus 22:4).
If an Israelite chose to steal during the night, he also took his life into his hands. If a thief was caught breaking in and the rightful owner killed him before the sun rose, there would be no blood guilt upon the one protecting his property. If the sun had risen and the thief was caught, he was required to make restitution.
If he could not make restitution, he would be “sold for his theft” (Exodus 22:3). The Law goes further to show the high regard every Israelite was to have for their neighbor’s liberty. If an Israelite were to deprive anyone of their freedom or steal them from their family to sell them, the penalty was death (Deuteronomy 24:7).
If someone even harbored the thought of stealing, the law was meant to prick the conscience, that not only was it wrong, but it was also a sin against Jehovah and his fellow Israelite.
Spiritual Israelites, those who truly love God, will not allow their minds to consider using their mental and physical resources to steal from anyone. Instead, they are drawn in the opposite direction, to the spirit of the Law which is love. The mind should be filled with the desire to do good to others. Jesus distilled the Law and the prophets into one simple, yet profound, golden rule. “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12).
Israelites that appreciated the author of the Law understood that the wisdom in its commands were for the good of all people. When Israel was given a king, even he was subject to the Law of God. He was to write a copy of the Law in a book, keep it with him and read it all the days of his life. In this way he was to reverence Jehovah, keep all the words of the Law and do them, that his heart be not lifted above his brethren and turn aside from the commandments (Deuteronomy 17:18-20). What a difference this would have made had their kings obeyed! If King David had read the Law each day, would he have stolen the beautiful wife of his faithful soldier, Uriah? (2 Samuel 11:2-4). If King Ahab had read the Law each day, and appreciated its principles, would he have stolen Naboth’s vineyard? (1 Kings 21:1-29). Probably not.
They would have perceived Jehovah’s love that flowed from the Law as described in Leviticus 19:17-18. “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart: thou shalt surely rebuke thy neighbor, and not bear sin because of him. Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people; but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself: I am Jehovah” (ASV).
Rather than concentrating on what we should not take from others, a deeper principle is generosity, freely giving of our possessions to bless others. Generosity is a God-like quality. In the Law, Jehovah taught every Israelite to cultivate generosity of spirit and desire to bless others. Exodus 23:4, 5 says, “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey wandering away, you shall surely return it to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying helpless under its load, you shall refrain from leaving it to him, you shall surely release it with him” (NASU).
If every Israelite followed this wonderfully kind instruction, how many of their enemies would have become friends? By practicing compassion, how many hearts would have been softened? When strangers travelled through Israel, what lessons of kindness would they take back to their homes from the Israelites who helped and blessed them?
Jesus expanded on this generosity of heart when he taught his disciples, “If any man would go to law with thee, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy: but I say unto you, love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you; that ye may be sons of your Father who is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:40-45 ASV).
In his letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul followed Jesus’ instruction, saying, “Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labor, working with his hands the thing that is good, that he may have whereof to give to him that hath need” (Ephesians 4:28 ASV). New Creatures in Christ are to work to obtain so they have the means to provide for their own household and to help those in need. This spirit is the opposite of stealing.
Bro. Russell said, “In proportion as the spirit of the Lord fills and permeates his home and his life, he would have pleasure in the giving of earthly good things to all in need. Generosity is an element of the new heart.”
“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). Another way of expressing this commandment is, “do not tell a lie about your neighbor.” No one wants false statements made about them, so no one should make false statements about others.
Leviticus 19:11 elaborates further. “Neither shall ye deal falsely, nor lie one to another” (ASV). Verse 16 adds, “Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people.” The ninth commandment is designed to protect the character and reputation of every Israelite.
Jesus Defines “My Neighbor” When asked, “who is my neighbor,” Jesus broadened our responsibilities by giving the parable of the Good Samaritan. Both the priest and the Levite passed by their wounded countryman. But the despised Samaritan understood his obligation. He saw the “half dead” man and was moved with compassion. Being an Israelite or a Samaritan had no bearing on his decision to stop and help. It was a fellow man in need. He bound up his wounds, sat him on his own animal and brought him to an inn.
He then paid the inn keeper and offered additional funds on his return should further care be needed (Luke 10:25-37). He was Jesus’ example of a neighbor who loved his others as himself. Once again, the Apostle Paul followed Jesus’ teaching. “Let everyone of us please his neighbor for good to edification” (Romans 15:2). Someone who believes in the principles of God will find ways to help build others up rather than tear them down. This principle was not limited to Israelites. In Leviticus 19:33, 34 the Law encouraged kindness to strangers and foreigners in the land. “If a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not do him wrong. The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were sojourners in the land of Egypt: I am Jehovah your God” (ASV).
Israelites were to treat foreigners living in the land as one of their own, which included not bearing false witness against them. A closely related command is found in Leviticus 19: 35-36 (ASV). “Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment, in measures of length, of weight, or of quantity. Just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin, shall ye have: I am Jehovah your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”
When Israelites bought and sold, they were to be truthful in their dealings. This included accurately measuring things bought or sold. They were not to use heavier weights when buying or lighter weights when selling (Deuteronomy 25:13-15). Such deception would be bearing false witness and detrimental to a neighbor or foreigner. It was simply another form of stealing, and Jehovah said, “all that do such things, even all that do unrighteously, are an abomination” (Deuteronomy 25:16 ASV).
On the other hand, Jehovah attached an extraordinary blessing to someone who simply used the correct weights and measures in their transactions. “A perfect and just weight shalt thou have; a perfect and just measure shalt thou have: that thy days may be long in the land which Jehovah thy God giveth thee” (Deuteronomy 25:15 ASV).
The Apostle Peter picks up this theme for the New Creation in 1 Peter 3:10-12. “He that would love life, And see good days, Let him refrain his tongue from evil, And his lips that they speak no guile: And let him turn away from evil, and do good; Let him seek peace, and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, And his ears unto their supplication.
But the face of the Lord is against them that do evil” (RVIC, compare Psalms 34:12-16). The New Creature is never to speak evil of anyone, bear false witness, or use deceit in any way. Fairness and truth must prevail. They must pursue peace and practice being peacemakers, that they might be called the sons of God. They will be born to the divine nature, sit down with their Lord Jesus on his throne, and uplift mankind to the righteous standards of God.
“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” (Exodus 20:17).
In this last commandment, Jehovah commands that His people regulate their thoughts and heart’s desires. This goes beyond laws written by man. Human laws regulate conduct and even words, but not thoughts. In describing God’s motive David wrote, “Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts” (Psalms 51:6). If David had remembered this before he coveted Bathsheba, igniting a chain reaction of sin, breaking at least four of the commandments, he could have avoided the pain, suffering, and death of his son.
This command reflects the law of love, not to even think of desiring what belongs to another. We are to stop envious thoughts before they take root and grow into sin. 2 Corinthians 10:5 tells us to bring “into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” Paul in 1 Timothy 6:6 advises us that “godliness with contentment,” the opposite of covetousness, “is great gain.”
The first sin ever committed began with covetousness, when Lucifer desired God’s throne. “Thou saidst in thy heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; and I will sit upon the mount of congregation, in the uttermost parts of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High” (Isaiah 14:13-14 ASV).
This spirit of disloyalty eventually led to his rebellion and fall, resulting in his name, Heylel, Lucifer, meaning “brightness,” changed to Satan, “opposer.” Ultimately, Satan’s spirit of disloyalty will lead to his death. It is a treacherous road that has a sad ending.
Jesus amplified this warning against covetousness. “Take heed, and keep yourselves from all covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth. And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: and he reasoned within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have not where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my grain 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. But God said unto him, Thou foolish one, this night is thy soul required of thee; and the things which thou hast prepared, whose shall they be? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:15-21 ASV).
In R5288 Br. Russell wrote, “Covetousness comes in first before the stealing, before the murdering, before the injury of slander. Covetousness is a heart disease which has to do with every other crime; for all sins have their basis in selfishness, and selfishness is covetousness. Well is this placed at the conclusion of the list. Whoever would keep the spirit of God’s Law must guard his heart against covetousness.”
The principle of this commandment is found in Hebrews 13:5. “Let your conversation [way of life] be without covetousness and be content with such things as you have, for he hath said, I will never leave thee nor forsake thee. So that we may boldly say, the Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me.”
The secret of contentment is knowing how to enjoy what you have, and losing all desire for things beyond your means and that belong to others. “Content whatever lot I see, Since ’tis my God that leadeth me.”