David Guzik Commentary on the Bible
Exodus 18 - Jethro's Counsel to Moses
A. Jethro and Moses meet.
1. (1-6) Moses meets with Jethro, his father-in-law, in the desert of Midian.
And Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses' father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people; that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt. Then Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses' wife, after he had sent her back, with her two sons, of whom the name of one was Gershom (for he said, "I have been a stranger in a foreign land") and the name of the other was Eliezer (for he said, "The God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh"); and Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, came with his sons and his wife to Moses in the wilderness, where he was encamped at the mountain of God. Now he had said to Moses, "I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you with your wife and her two sons with her."
a. Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses' father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people: The greatness of God's work through Moses and for the people of Israel became known to surrounding peoples, especially those with an interest in Moses as Jethro.
i. Jethro was the priest of Midian - likely a descendant of one of Abraham's other children through Keturah named Midian (Genesis 25:1-2). Because of this connection with Abraham, we have good reason to believe he was a true priest, and worshipped the true God.
ii. "Some think that Jethro was the brother-in-law of Moses (the word is equally capable of this rendering), Reuel being his father (Exodus 3:1)." (Thomas)
b. Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses' wife, after he had sent her back, with her two sons: Moses was here re-united with his wife Zipporah and his two sons Gershon and Eliezer. Apparently Moses sent his family back to Midian at some time, perhaps during the plagues of Egypt.
i. "This is the first, and only, mention of Moses' second son, whose very name suggests a rekindling of faith in Moses' heart, compared with the despair shown in the name 'Gershom'." (Cole)
c. I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you: Moses had a special relationship with Jethro. Even though he was raised in all the wisdom and education of Egypt, Moses perhaps learned more about real leadership from the priest and shepherd Jethro - whose flocks Moses tended until his call at Sinai.
i. "It is almost certainly quite out of its chronological place here. It most probably happened later, as the people were about to depart from Sinai. Compare Numbers 11:14-17 and Deuteronomy 1:7-14." (Morgan) Adam Clarke has a long section where he deals with the matter of this event not following chronological sequence.
2. (7-12) Jethro glorifies God when Moses reports what the Lord has done.
So Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, bowed down, and kissed him. And they asked each other about their well-being, and they went into the tent. And Moses told his father-in-law all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel's sake, all the hardship that had come upon them on the way, and how the Lord had delivered them. Then Jethro rejoiced for all the good which the Lord had done for Israel, whom He had delivered out of the hand of the Egyptians. And Jethro said, "Blessed be the Lord, who has delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians and out of the hand of Pharaoh, and who has delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the gods; for in the very thing in which they behaved proudly, He was above them." Then Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, took a burnt offering and other sacrifices to offer to God. And Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses' father-in-law before God.
a. Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, bowed down, and kissed him: Though he was the leader of a nation, Moses honored Jethro both as his father-in-law and as a legitimate priest of God. His position of leadership did not make Moses proud.
i. "The whole scene is typical of eastern courtesy. Both men are now great chiefs in their own right and behave accordingly." (Cole)
b. All the hardshipand how the Lord had delivered them: Moses gave Jethro an honest report, describing both the hardships and the deliverance.
c. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the gods: It is possible Jethro knew this before, because he was the priest of Midian (Exodus 2:16, 3:1, and 18:1). But when he heard of God's great works over the gods of Egypt, it brought this truth to Jethro more clearly than before.
i. "This may not be true monotheism (the belief that there is only one god), but it certainly leads to monolatry (the worship of one god to the exclusion of others) as a logical sequence." (Cole)
B. Jethro's advice to Moses.
1. (13-16) Jethro observes Moses as he settles disputes among the children of Israel.
And so it was, on the next day, that Moses sat to judge the people; and the people stood before Moses from morning until evening. So when Moses' father-in-law saw all that he did for the people, he said, "What is this thing that you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit, and all the people stand before you from morning until evening?" And Moses said to his father-in-law, "Because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a difficulty, they come to me, and I judge between one and another; and I make known the statutes of God and His laws."
a. Moses sat to judge the people: Among such a large group there would naturally be many disputes and questions of interpretation to settle. Apparently Moses was virtually the only recognized judge in the nation, and the job of hearing each case occupied Moses from morning until evening. Jethro noted this and asked Moses about it.
i. Moses sat to judgethe people stood before Moses: "Sat stood are technical terms of Semitic law, denoting 'judge' and 'litigant' respectively." (Cole)
b. And I make known the statutes of God and His laws: Because Moses knew God and His Word, he was able to fairly settle disputes among the children of Israel. Yet taking all this responsibility by himself was a massive burden.
2. (17-18) Jethro advises Moses to change his current approach.
So Moses' father-in-law said to him, "The thing that you do is not good. Both you and these people who are with you will surely wear yourselves out. For this thing is too much for you; you are not able to perform it by yourself."
a. The thing that you do is not good: It wasn't that Moses was unfit to hear their disputes; it wasn't that he didn't care about their disputes; it wasn't that the job was beneath him, and it wasn't that the people didn't want Moses to hear their disputes. The problem was simply that the job was too big for Moses to do. His energies were spent unwisely, and justice was delayed for many in Israel.
i. Moses needed to delegate, even as in Acts 6:2-4 when the apostles insisted they needed to delegate so they would not leave the word of God and serve tables.
b. This thing is too much for you; you are not able to perform it by yourself: Much to Moses' credit, he was teachable; when Jethro said the thing that you do is not good, Moses listened to Jethro. Moses knew how to not bow to the complaints of the children of Israel (Exodus 17:3), but also knew how to hear godly counsel from a man like Jethro.
i. "Men called by God to lead are always in danger of attempting to encompass more than they are able." (Morgan)
3. (19-20) Jethro advises Moses to pray and teach.
"Listen now to my voice; I will give you counsel, and God will be with you: Stand before God for the people, so that you may bring the difficulties to God. And you shall teach them the statutes and the laws, and show them the way in which they must walk and the work they must do."
a. Stand before God for the people: This was the first essential step in effective delegation for Moses. He had to pray for the people; Moses had to bring the difficulties to God. Prayer was an essential aspect of Moses' leadership of the people.
b. Teach them the statutes and the laws: For Moses to effectively lead and delegate, he had to teach the Word of God not only to those who would hear the disputes, but also those who might dispute.
i. If the people knew God's word for themselves, many disputes could be settled immediately. Also, if the people knew God's word for themselves, they would not be discouraged if they could not bring their case to Moses himself - they could know one of Moses' delegates was able give them counsel from God's wisdom.
ii. There is a clear analogy between the leadership of Moses for Israel and the leadership of a pastor among God's people. The analogy does not fit at every point, but in many aspects.
God was recognized as the true leader of the people.
The leader could not do the work of leadership alone.
The leader had a special responsibility for prayer and teaching.
The leader must select, train, and give authority to others to help in the work.
The people had a definite role in all this (Deuteronomy 1:13)
iii. "The Christian pastor is in some respects comparable to
4. (21-22) Jethro advises Moses to delegate the responsibility of resolving disputes.
"Moreover you shall select from all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. And let them judge the people at all times. Then it will be that every great matter they shall bring to you, but every small matter they themselves shall judge. So it will be easier for you, for they will bear the burden with you.
a. Select from all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth: This was the next step in effective delegation for Moses. Delegation fails if the job is not put into the hands of able, godly men. Only particular men were fit for this job:
Men of ability: able men
Men of godliness: such as fear God
Men of God's Word: men of truth
Men of honor: hating covetousness
i. This means that Moses had to fulfill an essential function of a leader: to develop and implement new leaders. "There is no greater art in the world than to develop the latent capacities of those around us by yoking them to useful service." (Meyer)
ii. Paul gave the same counsel to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:2: And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.
b. Every great matter they shall bring to you: For Moses to effectively delegate, he must still have oversight and leadership over those under him. Delegation is the exercise of leadership, not the abandonment of it.
5. (23) Jethro tells Moses the good result from his advice.
"If you do this thing, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all this people will also go to their place in peace."
a. If you do this thing, and God so commands you: Jethro knew that his advice came from outside the community of Israel, and was perhaps more from a school of management than from existing holy Scripture. Therefore he was careful to tell Moses that he had to be sure that God commanded this approach, and not Moses.
i. "All advice which we receive from men should be tested by remitting the same to God for ratification and amendment." (Morgan)
b. You will be able to endure: This was the first reward for effective delegation. Moses would enjoy life more and be able to do his job better than ever, avoiding the exhaustion of having to settle every dispute.
c. And all this people will also go to their place in peace: The second reward was that the people would be effectively served. It is said that justice delayed is justice denied, and disputes in Israel could be both prevented or settled by the parties themselves (by the teaching of God's law), or settled by the leaders appointed by Moses.
i. This method also had the advantage of settling problems quickly because people didn't need to wait in line for Moses. "The longer a controversy lasts, the worse the tangle becomes, the more hot words are spoken, the more bystanders become involved." (Meyer) Jesus said we should agree with our adversary quickly (Matthew 5:25).
6. (24-27) Moses follows Jethro's suggestions and Jethro departs.
So Moses heeded the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he had said. And Moses chose able men out of all Israel, and made them heads over the people: rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. So they judged the people at all times; the hard cases they brought to Moses, but they judged every small case themselves. Then Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went his way to his own land.
a. Moses heeded the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he had said: God taught Moses by someone from the outside, and Moses listened. Moses wisely followed Jethro's counsel, and surely this extended his ministry and made him more effective.
i. "God has many ways of making known His will to His servants." (Morgan)
b. Rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens: In Moses' method of administration, some had a higher position than others. Yet God honored the faithful service of the rulers of tens as much as the service of the rulers of thousands.
i. This was good for Moses. He could focus on the most important things and not be overwhelmed and overstressed by many smaller tasks.
ii. This was good for the leaders Moses chose. Capable men were given real responsibility and had the opportunity to serve God's people in meaningful ways and further God's work.
iii. This was good for the congregation. Prayed for and taught by Moses, they were able to settle more things themselves. When they did need a dispute settled, they received quicker attention and better attention from the delegated leaders than from Moses himself.
iv. "It is better to set a hundred men to work than to do the work of a hundred men." (D.L. Moody)
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