Is the first commandment and the last commandment essentially the same commandment? It’s a question worth thinking about, as John Piper recently explained in a sermon. Here’s how he posed the question and explained the implications.
Have you ever asked the question whether the first of the Ten Commandments and the last of the Ten Commandments are the same commandment? I wonder if you can remember what they are.
The first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).
The last commandment: “You shall not covet” (Exodus 20:17).
Paul says in Colossians 3:5, “[Put away all] covetousness, which is idolatry.” Oh! So, the first and last commandments are the same commandment. Only, the last one bends it out horizontally so you know what is really going on. Let’s try to define these commandments. The first commandment is, You shall not have any other gods before me. What does that mean? The words surrounding it, Exodus 20:5: I am the Lord your God. I am a jealous God.
“Where our exchange for the glory of God, the value of God, the beauty of God, the all-satisfying worth of God — where that exchange is happening and our desire for him and our satisfaction in him is getting weaker, other desires are going to come in to fill the void. That is called covetousness.”
So, put jealousy together with, You shall not have any other gods before me. God is like a husband. Israel is like a wife. And he is jealous if she consorts with another god. And so, what does not having any other gods before you mean? It means your love, your affection, your delight, God says, belong to me — only me. You can’t mix it up. All throughout the Old Testament, idolatry was called adultery. “You have given your affections away. You are desiring things more than you are desiring me. I am jealous.” A husband ought to feel that. Jealousy is only a sin when it is all out of proportion and in the wrong places. There. A husband who sees his wife fall in love with another man and doesn’t feel jealous is sick. He should feel a rage of jealousy. And he should win her back. And she should repent. God feels rage at his idolatrous people, and wrath comes from God.
The last commandment is, “You shall not covet.” And Paul quotes it that way. He doesn’t just say, Don’t covet your neighbor’s wife, or whatever. In Romans 7:7 he just says the commandment: “You shall not covet.” Well, what does “covet” mean? I remember as a kid trying to define “covet” and I never could. I always thought, “Well, it means wanting what you have. I want what you have.” That is not what “covet” means. “Covet” is much more widely used than just wanting what somebody else has.
What is interesting is that, in the Old Testament and the New, the Hebrew and the Greek, the word simply means “desire.” And so, the question then is: Well, when does “desire” become “covet”? Because desires aren’t bad. You can desire what is good and you can desire what is bad. And so, when does a desire along the way either in intensity or for something, when does it become bad? When does it become the coveting kind of desire? And my way of answering that is to take the tenth commandment and put it together with what we just said about the first commandment.
Paul says covetousness is idolatry, and we have just seen God as jealous for his wife’s affection and attention and glorification and love and devotion and treasuring. And here we have covetousness called idolatry and it is a desire. It is just desire for anything. So, here is my attempt at a definition based on that connection. I would say: Don’t desire anything in a way that would express lack of contentment in God. Covetousness is a desire that is going up because the desire for God is going down for anything: for Bible reading, preaching, writing books. Anything that you desire, and the desire is coming stronger because the desire for God is getting weaker, that is covetousness. That is evil. It doesn’t matter what you are desiring.
And so, I think what we have seen from Romans 1 and now from the Ten Commandments is, where our exchange for the glory of God, the value of God, the beauty of God, the all-satisfying worth of God, where that exchange is happening and our desire for him and our satisfaction in him is getting weaker, other desires are going to come in to fill the void, and they get stronger. All of that is called covetousness.