Do Not Covet (Exodus 20:17)


This morning we’re finishing our series on the Ten Commandments. The final commandment may seem unimportant, saved for last as an afterthought.

It is an unusual commandment. Most of the previous commandments have to do with actions; this one is all about the heart. We tend to see coveting as good. In fact, we see it as the route to personal fulfillment.

Despite the fact that this commandment is last, and despite the fact that it seems strange to us, I want to show you that it is a profound commandment. It’s the climax of these commandments, kind of a bookend. In the tenth commandment, we come full circle and are back to the first. All the other commands are restatements and applications of the first and the last commandments.

So this morning let’s see what this command says; what problem it reveals; and what solution we need.

First, let’s look at what this command says.

Exodus 20:17 says:

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Deuteronomy 5:21 expands a little on this command:

You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbor’s house or land, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

We have to really look at this to make sure we understand what it’s saying. The term "covet" here basically signifies a strong desire. The word itself isn't inherently negative. The Bible never says that desire is a bad thing in and of itself. The problem in this passage is that the object of desire is off limits because it belongs to someone else. To desire what belongs to someone else means that my desire becomes more important than the relationship that I have with that person. It leads to all kinds of other problems too. I may lie or steal or kill in order to obtain what rightfully belongs to them. The focus in this command is relationships. Coveting kills relationships.

There’s more as we look at this command. God could have just said, “You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.” But he was very specific. He lists the things that we’re likely to covet: our neighbor’s house and property, wife, and donkey. It’s only after listing specifics that the command says “or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” The specificity of this command is very realistic. It anticipates the things that the Israelites were likely to covet. Today we might say, “Don’t covet your neighbor’s house or family, cottage, job, bank account, or car.” You can’t get off the hook with what this command teaches. We’re likely to look at our neighbor’s possessions, positions, and accomplishments and want what they have.

If you think about it, these are the things that many of us desire as more than just things. These are the very things that form our identities. We think that if we live in the right house or have the right spouse or drive that car or get that job that we will really matter, that we will count as someone. So coveting, we see, is a problem because it disrupts our relationships with neighbors. But it’s also a problem because our coveting is really a sign that our hearts are overvaluing some things.

In fact, when ancient scholars translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, they used a Greek word for this word covet. The word is epithumia. It’s a word that also appears throughout the New Testament to talk about coveting and desires. It’s often translated lusts or passions. What does it mean? It’s sometimes used in a positive sense, like a strong desire. But most often it’s used negatively. In these cases it means inordinate desire, that we want something too strongly.

What does this mean? It means that the problem isn’t really our desires. The problem is when our desires are disordered so that we desire some things too much and other things not enough. I love ice cream. I love my job. I love my family. There’s nothing wrong with loving any of these. The problem is when I love any of these in the wrong order – if, for instance, I love ice cream more than I love my job, or if I love my job more than I love my family, or if I love any of these more than God.

Centuries ago, Augustine said that our fundamental problem is that our loves are disordered. We desire the wrong things. It is wrong to set our affection on anything or anyone as if that thing or person was God. We will never find our fulfillment in that person or thing no matter how good or noble it is. The real problem with us is that our desires are out of order, and our greatest need is that our desires are reordered so that we desire the right things in the right order.

So putting all of this together, our problem is that we want what rightfully belongs to other people. What’s more, we tend to base our identities on these things. The problem is that these desires become inordinate desires that begin to control us so that we’re held captive by them. That’s what this command means.

Well, let’s ask what problem this reveals about ourselves.

At first glance, you wouldn’t think that this is such a big deal. Many of us would agree that it’s wrong to murder and lie and steal, but we don’t see what’s wrong with just thinking that we want what someone else has. But actually, this command reveals that there is something fundamentally wrong with us. This command gets to the heart of what’s wrong with us. It identifies the fault line that runs through all of our hearts.

We don’t think this command is any big deal, but James says that breaking this command leads to many of the problems that we experience. James 4:1-2 says:

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight.

James says that behind church battles and even unanswered prayers are a big problem: that we desire what we do not have. James 1:14 says that our over-desires are the sin beneath other sins:

…each of you is tempted when you are dragged away by your own evil desire (epithumia) and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

So these over-desires are not just one sin among many. Inordinate desire is the sin beneath the sin. The other sins that are more visible are the result of the inordinate desires of our hearts.

It gets even more serious than this. The Apostle Paul writes that our coveting – our inordinate desires – are really violations of the first command, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). So the first commandment and the tenth commandment are really the same. Paul says in Ephesians 5:5:

For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person–such a person is an idolater–has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

Again in Colossians 3:5-6:

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.

What is Paul saying? Paul is saying that when we see that someone else has something, and we begin to desire what they have in an inordinate way, that we are not just committing a little sin, as if there was such a thing. When we just have to have something, when we won’t rest until we’ve got that new car or house or job, and when we continually want more than we have right now, then we are no different from the person who goes to a temple and bows before a carved statue. We are idolaters. We have stopped worshiping the one true God at that moment, and we have instead begun to worship whatever it is that we long for.

This week I read about a child who was having a conversation with his mother about the gospel. The conversation went something like this.

Mother: “Why did Jesus die?” Son: “To save us from our sins.” Mother: “Have you sinned?” Son: “Yea, like when I scratched Cole last night.” Mother: “What is God’s punishment for sin?” Son: “He says we have to die. Like, in hell.” Mother: “How can you be saved from your sin?” Son: “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved. Hey, Mommy. You know what would be really great? Like, you know what would be really, really cool??” Mother: “What?” Son: “If we could have, like a million billion boxes of macaroni and cheese in our cupboard! Wouldn’t that be awesome??”

Now, I don’t want to be too hard on this boy. Who doesn’t like macaroni and cheese in their cupboards? But as I thought about this, I began to realize that you and I are not all that different. We can repeat all the facts about the gospel. We could say, “Jesus died for our sins, but do you know what would be really cool? A high-definition TV in the family room.” We believe in the gospel, but what really excites us is something else. We covet, we long for, something else – maybe not a million billion boxes of mac and cheese, but something. Whatever it is that excites us most, whatever it is that we long for the most, that is our idol.

This brings us back to the first commandment we looked at: “You shall have no other gods before me.” You see how the first and tenth commandments are bookends. Every other commandment is a variation of these two. These are the sins beneath all sins.

But this means we also have a very serious problem. The problem is that you can be a very moral person who goes to church and always does good things, and still break this commandment, because it’s a commandment of the heart. You may honor your parents, refuse to steal or lie or kill or commit adultery, but in your heart your affections are disordered. You have over-desires. And these over-desires mean that you are an idolater, which really makes you guilty of the command that is the foundation for all the others.

Saul, who later became the Apostle Paul, was a very moral man. Reflecting on his life, he mentioned this commandment as an example. He said that the command not to covet exposed his lost and sinful condition. The problem isn’t with the commands, he said. The problem is the human heart. Søren Kierkegaard said, “It is the normal state of the human heart to try to build its identity around something besides God.” We all have covetous and idolatrous hearts. This leads us to ask:

What is the solution?

What will reorder our affections so that we love God most, and love everyone and everything else in their place? What will keep us from committing the sin of idolatry, which is the sin beneath all sins?

I mentioned earlier that the word for desire means a strong desire. When it’s for the wrong things, then it’s a bad thing. When we make good things and turn them into ultimate things, then our desires are idolatrous. But the word desire can be used in a very positive way as well.

Jesus said in Luke 22:15, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” For centuries, the Passover meal pointed forward to the true Passover Lamb who would be sacrificed for the sins of his people. Now Jesus sat down with his followers, and he longed to as the true and better Passover Lamb. Jesus said, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you.” There’s that word: epithumia. From this we learn that Jesus has a strong desire, a good desire: to give his life for his people as a sacrifice for the sins of his people. What can set us free from our over-desires? Seeing and grasping what Jesus did for us when he offered his life for our sins.

There’s another passage that uses epithumia positively. This time it’s about angels. In 1 Peter chapter 1, the apostle Peter talks about “the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow” – the gospel. He concludes with this stunning statement: “Even angels long (epithumia) to look into these things.”

As Tim Keller says: Angels are smart, much smarter than any of us. Angels have been around a long time. They are much older than anyone here. And yet angels long to understand what Christ has accomplished for us through his death and resurrection.

The bad news is that we are idolaters. We set our highest affections on people and things other than God, which leads to bondage, conflict, and death. What should we do? Understand that Jesus has set his affections on us. Long to grasp the gospel and to understand all that Jesus did for us through his death and resurrection.

“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.” (Colossians 3:1)

Father, please reveal to us this morning the things that we over-desire. Help us to realize that this sin is the sin beneath all sins.

Most of all, take us to the one who desires us, and who gave his life for us. May we desire him above all. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada