Opening Prayer: Our Father, we thank for giving us your word, and we thank you that your word has become flesh in Jesus Christ. We ask that you would be near to us now by the power of the Holy Spirit to teach us, correct us, rebuke us, and train us up that we might reflect Jesus in all that we do and say. Through Jesus our King, Amen!
Remember that God’s initial sign to Moses was that he would return with the people of Israel to worship at that mountain where God originally appeared to him (Ex. 3:12). That it is where the people are going after the Exodus. God’s first “sign” was a promise, and this is an indication of what all signs are.
Moses’ father-in-law is the priest of Midian (18:1). Moses greets his father in-law with great respect (18:7ff). While many commentators puzzle over whether Jethro worshipped the God of Israel, it seems very plain that he did. First, Moses married his daughter (remember Joseph married the daughter of a priest in Egypt). Secondly, Moses surely knew that the Midianites were distant relatives, descended from Abraham from his second wife Keturah (Gen. 25:2). Just as Abraham had sought out a wife for Isaac from distant relatives and Jacob had fled (and found a wife) with distant relatives, so it is likely that Moses had similar aspirations. Thirdly, if in the off chance, Jethro really was not yet a worshipper of the true God, after this story, he surely is (18:10-11). We know that Moses had brought his family back to Egypt with him prior to the Exodus (4:20), but apparently he had sent them back to his father in-law at some point during the Exodus because they return to him now. Notice how Jethro is a striking contrast to Amalek (also a distant relative of Israel, a descendent of Esau). Jethro offers offerings and sacrifices to God, and Aaron and the elders of Israel eat bread together “before God.”
Moses and the Judges
The next day Moses apparently goes about his daily task of sitting before Israel morning till evening to hear the disputes between the people (18:13-16). Notice that this overturns the reluctance of Israel to have Moses as their judge early on (Ex. 2:14). We imagine petty lawsuits were not unusual for a people with such complaining as we have seen. Jethro says that this is not good, and it is wearisome for both Moses and the people (18:17-18). Instead of sitting before the people all day, Jethro suggests that Moses stand before God for the people (18:19). Notice that besides judging, Jethro suggests teaching (18:20). The designation of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens is probably not meant to be understood in a strict literal sense. Understood strictly and applied to the estimated population, one estimate said that there would have been over 78,000 judges! These units are probably military terms (e.g. Num. 31:14ff, Dt. 20:9) which designate particular family units (perhaps thousands is tribe, hundreds is great-grandfather and down, fifties is grandfather and down, and tens is the immediate family or something along those lines cf. Dt. 16:18). It should be pointed out that there were already “elders” in Israel (cf. 18:12). The “elders” were already part of Israel’s identity when Moses began his ministry in Egypt up to the present (3:16, 12:21, and 17:5-6). Later the “elders” and “judges” will be spoken of as coexisting (e.g. Dt. 21:2, Josh. 8:33, 23:2). But what Moses is doing is appointing “rulers” who will “judge.” This is most likely the office of “judge” found in the book of Judges (cf. Ruth 1:1). This is a civil office, but at the same time, there is a general principle here that applies to all forms of government: in the multitude of counselors there is safety (Pr. 11:14, 24:6). This basic wisdom is what was built into the “checks and balances” of our civil government; the same is at work in Presbyterian church government. We have households, elders, pastors, presbytery, and council which are all layers of accountability, wisdom, and counsel. This explains both why we have church officers and why we consider church membership important (Acts 20:28, Heb. 13:17).
Judge as Savior
Biblically speaking, a judge is not merely one who decides what is right or one who rules; he is one who rules in such a way to deliver and vindicate the one who is right. Yahweh is the judge who will deliver the righteous out of Sodom (Gen. 18:25). Moses is accused of being a judge because he is seeking to defend Israel from mistreatment (Ex. 2:14). Later, it is the “judgments” of Yahweh that deliver Israel out of Egypt (6:6, 7:4). Throughout the book of Judges, judges are raised up to deliver Israel. Thus, Israel understands that a judge is like a mini-king, one who fights for his people and delivers them (1 Sam. 8:20). Judges are shepherds (1 Chr. 17:6). They are to condemn the wicked and justify the righteous (Dt. 25:1, 1 Kgs. 8:32), but notice (as this plays out in history) who the righteous ones are. Who are the righteous? The “righteous ones” are the ones who are God’s covenant people. They are righteous because they cling in faith to their righteous God. This is what it means to be justified by faith. This is what it means to stand before the throne of God faultless. ‘Jesus is Lord’ means he is Lord of our sin.
Conclusions and Applications
Rulers are normally men. This does not mean that women never serve in positions of leadership (e.g. Deborah, etc.), but it means that when men are being faithful, men will lead.
One of the other lessons of this passage is that of honor your father and all those in authority. Jethro is a priest of Midian, but throughout the passage, he is referred to as Moses’ father in-law. All authority is ultimately an extension of the basic command to honor father and mother. Our culture does not understand this and has openly rebelled against this for many years now. It is something that we must teach our children; but it is ultimately something which we must embody to our own parents.
Lastly, one of the easiest places to offend or be offended is in the area of advice and counsel. Take advice and give advice carefully. In a covenant community, there will be many opportunities to disagree or merely have different ways of going about things. Submit to one another in love. Be quick to listen to advice; be slow to give advice unless asked.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen!
Closing Prayer: Almighty God, we thank you that you have adopted us and made us your children and that you are our father. We honor you and praise you as our first father, and we thank you that in Jesus you have no favorites, but you are well pleased with all of us. Teach us to honor all those in authority and to teach this to our children faithfully.