Bible Commentaries

F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary

Exodus 18

Verses 11-31

The hour had struck for God to act but Moses, who forty years before had been so forward, now shrinks backward. God had declared that He would send him, and He never sends any servant without bestowing adequate power for the carrying out of the mission on which he is sent. But for the moment Moses had his eye upon himself and not upon God. His language is "Who am I, that I should go?" During his many years in Midian he had forsaken all thoughts of his own greatness, which was good; but now he had passed to the other extreme and occupied with himself, was obsessed with the conviction of his own littleness. He had yet to learn that it is the way of God to take up and use just those who are little in their own eyes. Their littleness makes room for God to display His own power.

Hence the assurance God gave "Certainly I will be with thee." This of course guaranteed everything, but Moses was slow to believe it, hence God condescended to give him a token. When God made promise to Abraham, He took account of the frailty of our faith and confirmed His counsel by an oath, as we are reminded in Hebrews 6:17. With Moses He did not confirm His word by an oath, but by a token, which was fulfilled as we find later in this Book. But Moses had to accept the commission God was giving him and carry it out before the token came to pass; hence the assurance just given to him did not suffice to revive his confidence in undertaking the task.

So in verse Exodus 3:13 we find him raising a great question by way of further objection to what was proposed. The children of Israel had been in a land of idolatry for several centuries, and therefore knew well the names of the false Egyptian deities. Moses was to approach them in the name of the God of their fathers, but, confused in their minds by all that surrounded them, they would be sure to ask, What is His name?

This led to a fresh disclosure on God's part. He made Himself known as the great "I AM" — the One self-existent, ever-existent, unchanging; and therefore ever true to what He is in Himself. Israel were to prove themselves to be an unstable yet stiff-necked people, so had it not been "I AM" with whom they had to do, they would soon have disappeared in judgment. God bore long with them and will ultimately achieve all His purpose concerning them, because He is ever true to Himself. We do well to remind ourselves that though we now know God in a far more intimate way, as He has been revealed in Christ, yet we do not lose the value of these earlier revelations. The One whom we know as Father is still the "I AM" to us, as much as He was to Moses and the children of Israel.

This fact is expressly stated in verse Exodus 3:15. Looking backward, the "I AM" is "Jehovah God of your fathers." Looking forward, He declares it to be His name for ever and His memorial to all generations. Evidently then this great name carried the revelation of God to a climax, as far as the Old Testament is concerned. Verse Exodus 3:3 of chapter 6 may be consulted at this point. He had been known to the patriarchs as God Almighty, He had been mentioned as the Most High, but "Jehovah" carries within itself a fulness of meaning not found in these. The actual name, Jehovah, was known to the patriarchs, yet they did not understand its full import, which was now to come to light through Moses. Having come to light, it stands good for ever.

Having revealed Himself, and thereby answered Moses' question, God instructed him as to how he should approach the elders of Israel, and then with them approach Pharaoh. To the elders he was to declare God's remembrance of the fathers and His notice and concern regarding all that Egypt had done to them, together with His promise to bring them out, and then into the land flowing with milk and honey. Then to the king they were all to go with the request from Jehovah God of the Hebrews that they be let go three days' journey into the wilderness so that, free of the pollutions of Egypt, they might sacrifice to Him.

At the same time Moses was to be under no illusion as to the way the king would react to this request, so the last four verses of the chapter predict what would happen. As to Pharaoh he would powerfully and stubbornly resist. But Jehovah would stretch out His hand in wonders, smiting in judgment, so that the king's "mighty hand" would lose its might and he would release them. And God would do this in such a way that the common people of Egypt would be glad to see them go. The children of Israel would be able to ask great favours of them and go out enriched. Thus these four verses give a prophecy which we see fulfilled as we read the next ten or eleven chapters.

Unbelievers have seized upon the word "borrow" in verse Exodus 3:22, and raised the objection that it represents God as telling the people to practise deceit by pretending to borrow what they never intended to repay. The word occurs again in Exodus 11:2 and Exodus 12:35. But the word really is "ask," and is so translated in Darby's version. The people had been but slaves, working for a mere subsistence. The position was to be entirely reversed, and their former masters would fear them and give them what they asked. All they could carry out of Egypt would be a mere fraction of what was really due to them.

Moses was still not satisfied, and raised a third objection. The people would not listen to him nor believe the Lord had appeared to him. This we see in Exodus 4:1. He knew they were incredulous by nature. The Lord knew it too, and hence He did not rebuke Moses but rather gave him three miraculous signs, by which he might convince the people of the reality of his mission. Two of the signs were then and there performed on Moses himself.

The first sign we have in verses Exodus 3:2-5. A rod is the symbol of authority. Cast to the ground, and thus debased, it becomes thoroughly evil, and even satanic, so that a man may flee from before it. But Moses seized the serpent by the tail, as he was commanded, and it became again a rod in his hand. The bearing of this is plain. In Egypt power was debased and satanic. As ordered by God, Moses was to seize it, when the authority, rescued from Satan would be in his hands. We live in a day when satanic power is increasingly in evidence. But as Christians we have no command to seize the serpent by the tail. If we attempt to do it before the time, we shall only get bitten in the process. That action is reserved for the One of whom Moses serves as a type. He will do it finally and gloriously at His second advent.

A second sign is given in verses Exodus 3:6-7. It deals, not with outward power like the first, but with inward defilement. Moses was to put his hand into his bosom and it came out leprous and defiled. It was not a case of his hand defiling his heart but of his heart defiling his hand. Here we have in picture what our Lord taught in His words, recorded in Mark 7:21-23. Then as commanded, Moses put his defiled hand to his heart again, and it was restored whole as the other. A sign this, that cleansing must begin in the heart, which is unseen. Only thus can the hand, which is seen, be cleansed.

The significance of these signs would not have been apparent to the people, and may not have been to Moses, but at least they would be evidence that the power of God was with him. But if even these two failed to bring full conviction, a third was enjoined. He was to take some water out of the Nile and pour it out, when it should become blood — a preliminary sample of the first plague that fell upon Egypt. This was a sign of simple judgment. The river Nile was the natural source of Egypt's fertility and prosperity. The earthly fount of their life should become death; their blessing should be made a curse.

We may remark that the record of Moses giving the people these signs is only found in verse 28, and there attributed to Aaron, who was acting as the deputy of Moses.

But even these signs did not remove the objections in the mind of Moses, and so in verse Exodus 3:10 we find him uttering a fourth, based upon his lack of ability in speech, as if the message of God needed human eloquence in order to make it effective. When we remember the statement of Stephen, referring to the time when he was still acknowledged as the son of Pharaoh's daughter, that he was "mighty in words," whereas he now pleads, "I am not eloquent, neither heretofore..." we are left wondering. But, knowing something of human nature in ourselves, we think it was not that he had really lost his powers of mighty speech, but that while the forty years of discipline in the desert had completely broken his self-confidence, he had also become self-occupied, and thus so unwilling to answer to the call and commission of God.

Therefore what he needed was to become so God-conscious that he might lose sight of himself altogether. Hence the words of the Lord to him, as recorded in verses Exodus 3:11-12. The mouth of Moses was to be simply like an instrument upon which the Lord would play, and whether Moses could play well upon it, or could not, was immaterial. This is a lesson which every servant of God needs to learn. The Apostle Paul had learnt it, as we see in 1 Corinthians 2:1, and again in 2 Corinthians 4:2; 2 Corinthians 4:7.

Once more, and for the fifth time, Moses wished to decline the honour of this commission from the Lord, as we see in verse Exodus 3:13. The man, who once ran unsent, now shrinks from running at the command of God, and with the assurance of His accompanying power! But this is just how the flesh acts in every one of us, though any service that the Lord may entrust to us is so minute as compared with his. Such shrinking back may have the appearance of humility but it really springs from self-occupation, and in the last analysis we find that the self-occupation is produced not by humility but by pride.

Now of all things pride is most distasteful to God, so "the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses." In result part of the honour and activity of this great commission was to be transferred to Aaron, who should be the spokesman. Moses however was to be to him "instead of God;" that is, the Lord would still deal direct with Moses and Aaron would get all his directions through him. The rod that Moses had had in his hand was now, as it were, given back to him from the hand of God, as a sign of the authority with which he was vested. The subsequent history shows the fulfilment of all this. Again and again we read, "The Lord said unto Moses;" and at critical moments the rod appeared in his hand.

At last Moses is prepared to obey. His way is opened in peace to return to Egypt with the rod — now called "the rod of God" — in his hand. But while now clothed with authority he needed to know just exactly what he had to face. God would give him the words, but in spite of the words backed with mighty deeds, Pharaoh would resist and God would harden his heart. Here we might read Exodus 9:16, which is quoted in Romans 9:17. This Pharaoh, whatever his name may have been as recorded in secular history, was evidently brought to the throne in some unusual way by the over-ruling hand of God, and had already pitted himself against the Almighty in such a way that the moment had now come for him to be abased in signal fashion. God would now harden his heart and thus seal his doom. We are to see in him what presently was seen in Nebuchadnezzar, "those that walk in pride He is able to abase" (Daniel 4:37).

The situation is graphically summed up in verses Exodus 3:22-22. God adopted Israel as His son, His firstborn, and demanded that he be released. If Pharaoh would not let him go, he would have his own son his firstborn, slain. The preliminary judgments are passed over in silence. The ultimate judgment is threatened, and in Exodus 12:1-51 we find it fulfilled.

The episode recorded in verses 24-26 is explained when we observe that God was interfering on Israel's behalf under the covenant He had made with Abraham, as recorded in Genesis 17:1-14. Of that covenant circumcision was the token or sign, and it was definitely stated by God that if circumcision was not observed death was to be the penalty. Here was Moses, chosen to be the chief actor in Israel's deliverance under that covenant, and he had not obeyed the sign! As the responsible person he was subject to the death penalty! It would appear that Zipporah, his wife, knowing nothing of the covenant, objected, but at last gave in and acted herself, though with annoyance. He was a husband of blood to her.

Just here the firstborn comes much into view. Israel is owned as God's firstborn. If Pharaoh refused to acknowledge this, God would slay his firstborn. And now the sentence of death has to come figuratively upon the firstborn of Moses. Had it not, death itself would have fallen on Moses at the hand of God. The significance of the rite of circumcision comes clearly into view here. It was the sign of death put upon the flesh. This meaning is corroborated by what the Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 3:3, "We are the circumcision, which... have no confidence in the flesh."

Circumcision accepted by Moses, we see in the last five verses of the chapter that the hand of God was with him, and everything moved with smoothness and precision. The Lord instructed Aaron, who obeyed and met him. Together they entered Egypt, consulted the elders of Israelwho believed and worshipped. This Moses, who had been rejected forty years before, was now accepted as their God-appointed leader. He was sent "a ruler and a deliverer by the hand of the Angel which appeared to him in the bush" (Acts 7:35).

Verses 1-11

The eighteenth chapter is somewhat parenthetical in its nature, inasmuch as it recounts an episode in which Moses' father-in-law played a considerable part. To get the more direct dealings of God with the people we have to read straight on from the end of Exodus 17:1-16 to the beginning of Exodus 19:1-25.

Jethro must have known the full story of Israel's sufferings in Egypt for Moses had dwelt with him for forty years. Now he had heard the wonderful story of their deliverance, and he came to rejoice with them, bringing Zipporah and her two sons. Only now do we learn that Moses had sent her back to her father, and what was the name of the second son.

The episode related in Exodus 4:1-31 had shown us that Zipporah was not prepared for circumcision, the sign of the covenant with Abraham, and the type of the cutting off of the flesh. And, in that chapter it is "son," in the singular, which we take as applying to Gershom, previously mentioned in Exodus 2:1-25. In naming his elder son Gershom, Moses revealed his consciousness of strangership in the world where he sojourned, and the cutting off of circumcision was very appropriate in regard to that. Now the second son is mentioned, and we pass from what is negative to what is positive, since Eliezer signifies, "My God is an help." This had now been made very plain, and in these two names we find Moses saying in principle what Joseph before him had said in the names of his two sons, which meant, "Forgetting," and "Fruitful."

Many see in this chapter a picture, though perhaps a faint one, of what will take place at the end of Israel's history. It is given to us before we turn from God's dealings with the people in grace, under the old covenant with Abraham, to the fresh covenant of law, with which Exodus 19:1-25 is occupied. Let us consider this picture in its broad outlines.

In the language of Deuteronomy 33:5, Moses was, "king in Jeshurun, when the heads of the people and the tribes of Israel were gathered together." In our chapter we find the heads of the people being selected, as Jethro counselled under God; for he only advised it, if "God command thee so." So it seems that here we have a little sample of the coming kingdom. Moses is king; the people are subject to him; the Gentile, in the person of Jethro, comes to rejoice with him and his people. Moreover his Gentile wife is there, though she had disappeared during the time when God was redeeming His people by powerful judgments, and in her we see a faint type of the church.

Further, in the men appointed as rulers under Moses we see a type of those who will reign with Christ in the day of the kingdom. This is in keeping with Daniel 7:14; Daniel 7:18, where we are told that while the Son of Man will take the kingdom as the supreme authority, the saints also will take the kingdom in that day. The men who took authority under Moses were to be, "able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness." This reminds us that the places of authority in the coming kingdom of Christ will be given to those who have approved themselves as worthy during the present time of responsibility here.

Exodus 19:1-25 opens with the people camping at the foot of Sinai in the third month after their deliverance from Egypt; and, reaching that spot, Moses was called by God to go up into the mount in order that he might receive from God and convey to the people a fresh proposal.

The people were reminded what God had done on their behalf, bringing them to Himself in His grace. They however had not responded aright. They lacked faith in God, and did not really know themselves. Would they now have their footing with God established on a legal basis? Should God's attitude towards them be governed by their attitude towards Him, so that, if they obeyed they should be in favour, and if they disobeyed they should be rejected?

In order more fully to grasp the difference between law and grace we may note the contrast between verses Exodus 18:4-5 of our chapter and 1 Peter 2:9. In Exodus the people were to be "a peculiar treasure," "a kingdom of priests," "an holy nation," but only if they obeyed God's voice indeed. In Peter the Christians of Jewish nationality are reminded what they are, without any "if." They are not only "a royal priesthood," "an holy nation," "a peculiar people," — three things almost identical with the three things of Exodus — but they are a fourth thing, which does not appear in Exodus. They are "a chosen generation," and that made a difference of immense import. They were a new generation of God's choice — a born-again people.

As a result of this, grace had set them in a new and wonderful position, and being this they were to show forth the praises of the One who had called them into it. In Exodus, the position of privilege before God was only to be theirs if their conduct merited it — if they obeyed. And, as we see in other Scriptures, they had to obey in everything and all the time. Hence the position was forfeited. They never had it, and on that basis they never will. Law can only say, "Do and live," whereas grace says, "Live and do."

This legal proposal was laid by Moses before the people, and their reply was promptly given, "All that the Lord hath spoken we will do." Evidently it never occurred to their minds that they lacked both inclination and power to do what the law of God would enjoin. It is just this that both they and we have to learn. But did not God know it? That, He most certainly did.

We may wish then to ask why did God propose the law, if He knew from the outset what the result would be? This is virtually the question that Paul raises in Galatians 3:19. He answers it by saying, "It was added because of transgressions," while they were waiting for the advent of Christ, the promised Seed. The force of this becomes clearer if we read Romans 5:13; and Romans 7:7-13. God gave the law to Israel that by it they might have their sinful state brought home to them. Sin is lawlessness, and it was filling the earth from the days of the fall; but, immediately the law was given, a clear line was drawn, and stepping over that line a man became a definite transgressor. His sin could now be imputed to him in a way not possible before. God intended that in Israel definite proof should be given of the fallen and sinful state in which men were found.

Let us not forget that Israel was chosen, not only to be the central nation in God's scheme for the government of the earth under Christ, but also to be the sample nation, in whom was to be made the test as to the real state of fallen humanity. They are a nation that has sprung from the finest human specimen — Abraham, who was "the friend of God." Moreover they came into being by a miracle — the birth of Isaac. They were specially separated from the idolatrous nations and divinely educated by the voices of the prophets. Nothing could be fairer than this test of humanity in this people, who were the finest obtainable sample. We Gentiles were never put under the law, but we must never forget that, when we speak of how the law brought condemnation on Israel, we are thereby condemning ourselves.

In our chapter then, we see the people accepting the law as the determining factor in their relations with God, and doing so in the confidence that they would be able to keep it all. Had they had any true knowledge of themselves they would never have done this. Having accepted it, however, a complete change came over the scene. God veiled Himself and came to Moses in a thick cloud, as verse Exodus 18:8 tells us, and from thence He would speak with Moses and make him His mouthpiece to the people.

Moreover, there would have to be special preparations on the part of the people. For two days they were to be set apart; they were to wash even their clothes, and bounds were to be set, preventing any from touching the mountain, under pain of death. The law was now to be given, and it was important that the people to whom it was given should be impressed with the holiness of the One who gave it.

From verse Exodus 18:16 to the end of the chapter we have a vivid description of the tremendous scene that took place on the third day when the law was given. The people were marshalled at the foot of the mount that they might meet with God, as far as it was possible for them to do so. On the crest of the mountain Jehovah descended in fire, heralded by thunders, lightnings, cloud and smoke, and also the loud sound of a trumpet and quakings in the earth. It must indeed have been a scene to strike terror into every heart. If we turn to Hebrews 12:21, we discover a detail which is not mentioned in Exodus — "So terrible was the sight, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake." Exodus tells us that the people trembled, but that Moses, accompanied by Aaron, went up into the mount. Hebrews tells us how he quaked as he did so.

Verse Exodus 18:22 shows us that there were already in Israel men who were acknowledged as priests, and in chapter Exodus 24:5, we read of certain young men who were sent to sacrifice unto the Lord. Who these were is not disclosed, and not until we reach chapter 28 do we find Aaron and his sons named, as to be set apart for the priest's office. What does appear clearly in our chapter is that the special privilege connected with priesthood is that of drawing "near to the Lord," and that such nearness demands sanctification in no ordinary degree.

Verses Exodus 18:1-17 of Exodus 20:1-26 put on record the ten commandments which specially summarized the demands made by the holy law of God. The next chapter opens with the "judgments," which were to be set before them. If we turn to Malachi 4:4, we find both "statutes" and "judgments" mentioned as well as the "law." The three words evidently cover all the legislation that reached Israel through Moses, and as we begin to consider the legislation we shall do well to note that in the days of Malachi, nearly a thousand years after it was first given, it was still as binding as at the beginning. It was for "all Israel," and valid all through that dispensation. What God originates at the beginning of any dispensation stands good, and He never swerves from it however much His people may do so.

In giving the commandments God presented Himself to Israel as Jehovah, who had become in a special sense their God by having delivered them from Egypt, the house of their bondage. He addressed Himself therefore at the outset directly to the people, as verse Exodus 18:19 indicates.

In the first three commandments God demanded that His rights as Creator, and their Redeemer from bondage, should be respected. He alone is God, so they were in the first place to recognize no other "god."

In the second place they were to make no attempt to have an image or material representation of any unseen power. God is "in heaven above," and anything purporting to be an image of Him is forbidden. Many other powers there are both invisible and visible, and no representations of such are to be made. All the idols of the heathen are strictly forbidden, and in this connection the warning is issued as to the sins of the fathers descending in retribution on the children. God knew how terribly infectious such idolatrous practices are; and, that if the fathers start them the epidemic rages with tenfold virulence in the children, and brings down the judgment upon their heads.

On the other hand the government of God would be in favour of those who are obedient because they love Him. Thus at the outset was it indicated that love is what is really enjoined in the law. Love is the fulfilling of the law, as we know very well.

In the third place the name of the Lord is safeguarded. Though Jehovah Himself was unseen, His Name had been manifested, and His supreme place in their midst would soon be disregarded if His Name were to be used in an unworthy way.

It is remarkable that the commandments given with the object of asserting and safeguarding the glory and the rights of God should be three, and this long before the reality of the three Persons in the Godhead was brought to light. We cannot but see in the second the clearing away of all that would be calculated to confuse the issue when our blessed Lord Jesus appeared as "the image of the invisible God" (Colossians 1:15). In Him, and in Him alone, is found the true and perfect representation of all that God is.

Similarly it is remarkable that when the Holy Spirit — who is not incarnate, but invisible — was sent forth He was sent by the Father in the name of the Son (see, John 14:26). That name has to be safeguarded, and it is further to be noted that it is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, who has come in that name, which is the unpardonable sin.

The fourth commandment concerns the due observance of the sabbath day, which was to be the sign of the covenant which was just being established. The first three commandments lay down man's duty in regard to God; the last six his duty in regard to his fellows. Between these two divisions stands 'the sign of the covenant, for it of necessity drew a clear line of demarcation between Israel, who as God's people were to observe this weekly day of complete rest, and the rest of the nations, who did not observe it.

The Gentile nations had by this time lost all knowledge of the true God and of His work in creation. Israel alone had the knowledge of this and of the fact that God had rested on the seventh day. In the law God was enforcing His creatorial rights over man, and by Sabbath observance Israel was to have His creatorial work in constant remembrance.

We Christians are not under the law but under grace. The Sabbath, as the sign of the law covenant, has therefore lost its significance for us, as we see in such a Scripture as Colossians 2:16. Nevertheless there can be no doubt that a rest of one day in every seven is the wise and beneficent intention of God for man. The resurrection of Christ is the seal of our faith, and hence the first day of the week, on which He rose from the dead, became the day that Christians have from the very beginning devoted to His worship and service, and it has become the day on which we cease from our ordinary toil. Israel's week worked up to the day of rest. The Christian's week starts from the day of rest, based upon the resurrection of Christ.

The world around us has turned it into a day of amusement, sport and sin. Let us take good care to use it aright for the glory of God and our own blessing.

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Bibliographical Information
Hole, Frank Binford. "Commentary on Exodus 18". "F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/fbh/exodus-18.html. 1947.