Bible Commentaries
Exodus 18

Coke's Commentary on the Holy BibleCoke's Commentary



Jethro bringeth to Moses his wife and children; and advises him to constitute rulers over the people: Moses follows his counsel; and Jethro departs into his own land.

Before Christ 1491.

Verse 1

Exodus 18:1. When Jethro the priest, &c.— Houbigant and others translate this, When Jethro the prince of Midian, the kinsman or relation of Moses, heard, &c. See note on ch. Exo 2:18 and Genesis 14:17. Like Melchisedec, he was, most probably, both prince and priest; see Exodus 18:12. Father-in-law, throughout the chapter, should be read kinsman.

Verse 2

Exodus 18:2. After he had sent her back The Vulgate, which Houbigant follows and approves, renders this quam remiserat; whom he had sent back. See ch. Exodus 4:24, &c.

Verse 3

Exodus 18:3. And her two sons Their names are mentioned, Gershom, a stranger, and Eliezer, God is my help; expressive of the state of Moses in Midian, and his confidence in God's care of him. Note; We are all strangers upon earth, as our fathers were; but we have a child born unto us, to comfort us, the true Eliezer, even Emmanuel, the incarnate God, our helper.

Verse 5

Exodus 18:5. At the mount of God See note on ch. Exodus 3:1. The Israelites were not yet come to this mount of God; but Moses, says Houbigant, being about to relate the departure from Rephidim to the desart of Sinai, where was Horeb, the mountain of GOD, first finishes what was to be related concerning Jethro, and annexes the departure to the mountain of God, mentioned in Exo 18:1 of the following chapter, to those miracles which were wrought in that mountain, as to the principal event; and not to the visit of Jethro, which was a kind of episode, and which was not of so great moment as to interrupt the future narration. There is no impropriety therefore in Moses's neglecting the order of time, where the cause appears why he relates those things first which happened afterwards. It is, however, supposed by many, that this event is recorded in its due place.

Verse 6

Exodus 18:6. And he said The Vulgate renders it, mandavit ad Mosem: he sent persons to tell Moses. The word אמר amar is sometimes used in this sense, which is certainly just in this place; as it appears from the following verse, that Jethro and Moses had not yet met: it should therefore be rendered, and he sent to tell Moses; so the Arabic renders it. The Syriac has it, it was told Moses; and the LXX use the word ανηγγελη, which is of the same import.

Some, however, think, that Jethro wrote a letter to Moses, in which number is Sir Isaac Newton; who is further of opinion, that the use of letters was very early among the Midianites; and that Moses, "marrying the daughter of the prince of Midian, and dwelling with him forty years, there learned the art of writing." See his Chronology, p. 210.

Verse 7

Exodus 18:7. Welfare In the Hebrew, peace; the usual inquiry and salutation among the easterns: a word implying all temporal and spiritual good.

Verse 9

Exodus 18:9. And Jethro rejoiced The Hebrew word חדה chidah, signifies to be transported with great joy: the LXX, therefore, translate it, very properly, εξεστη, he was in an exstacy. Jethro appears to have been a good man, and a believer: the context seems to prove this, as well as the marriage of Moses into his family; nor can we be of the opinion of those who think that he was now made a proselyte to the Jewish faith. He speaks of Jehovah as a Being well known to him, Exodus 18:10. Jethro said, blessed be Jehovah, who hath delivered you, &c. And when he says, Exodus 18:11 now know I that Jehovah is greater than all gods; he may be well understood to express no more than what any Jew, or true believer, might express; that now, from this miraculous display of power, he had a full and convincing testimony of the omnipotence and all-ruling superiority of Jehovah. See Psalms 135:5; Psalms 95:3; Psa 97:9 and note on ch. Exodus 15:11.

Verse 11

Exodus 18:11. For in the thing wherein they dealt proudly, &c.— Jethro, in the former part of the verse, expresses his belief in the superiority of Jehovah over all false gods: a belief, confirmed by the reason subjoined; and which shews, that the false gods, to which he more particularly alludes, were the idols of Egypt. Or it may refer to the Egyptians themselves, and mean, for in the thing wherein the Egyptians dealt proudly, (designing entirely to enslave or destroy the people of God,) God proved himself above them, to the salvation of his own people, and to their destruction. And, thus interpreted, all gods must signify false gods in general. The Chaldee paraphrase has it, because in what the Egyptians thought they should judge Israel, in that he hath judged them. The Arabic, Houbigant, &c. interpret in the same manner. Perhaps, however, a better translation may be given, and one more consistent with Neh 9:10 where the same expression is used. The Hebrew particle ki, which we render for, for in the thing, &c. signifies very frequently yea, certainly, even, &c. (for proof of which see Noldius, 4. 6. 9.) and therefore we might read the verse, even by the very thing in which they dealt proudly against them; i.e. I know that the Lord is above all Gods, especially by his so exerting his superiority, as to cause the destruction which the Egyptians intended to bring upon his people, to fall on their own heads. This appears to be the true meaning of the phrase.

Verse 12

Exodus 18:12. Jethro—took a burnt-offering Hence it plainly appears, that Jethro was a priest of the true God; and that burnt-offerings, which were to be wholly consumed upon the altar, (Leviticus 1:9.) and sacrifices or peace-offerings, of which the people, as well as the priests, partook, (Leviticus 15:33.) were in general use among believers before the giving of the law. See Genesis 4:4. To eat bread, signifies to partake of the sacrifice. Before God means, either before the place where the Shechinah now appeared; or, if this visit was after the erection of the tabernacle, (as some commentators suppose,) it signifies, before the face of God's special presence there; see ch. Exodus 16:33-34. Or, before God may signify, as in Dan 6:10 before God spiritually considered, in a religious regard to the Divine Presence: Daniel kneeled in his house, and prayed, and gave thanks before his God. The expression, however, האלהים לפני lipeni haelohim, before the face, or faces of Elohim, is, most probably, derived from the Divine appearance in the cloudy pillar, and from thence in the sanctuary. See note on Genesis 3:24.

REFLECTIONS.—Moses meets his father with affection and respect; for though he is become great, he is not become proud with it. As his heart is full of God's mercy, he begins immediately, on the first salutation, to recount God's dealings. Note; It is our duty, and should be our delight, to tell of the things God hath done for our souls, for the encouragement and comfort of our brethren. Jethro is happy at the news, and blesses God for it. We must thus ever rejoice in the felicity of God's chosen, and give God the glory due to his name. And hereupon he makes a solemn profession of his faith in Israel's God, convinced of his greatness above all the powers of man, as well as above the enchantments of Egypt and her idols. In token of his faith he offers sacrifice to God, and entertains all the elders of Israel. Though not an Israelite born, yet he was by faith of the Israel of God. Note; It is well when friends meet, not only to welcome them to our board, but to bring them to the altar. Our meetings will be joyful, and our feasts sanctified, when the word of God, and christian conversation, and praise, and prayer, are our employment.

Verses 13-15

Exodus 18:13-15. Moses sat to judge the people Rather, which the context clearly proves to be the meaning, to administer justice to the people. The word שׁפט shapat, says Cocceius, denotes, at large, all regulation and disposal. Moses informs Jethro, that this was the case: he tells him first, Exo 18:15 that the people come to him to enquire of GOD. GOD, it is to be remembered, had been pleased to constitute himself the King and Lawgiver of the Jews, whose government is therefore called a Theocracy; and he had appointed Moses to be his great vicegerent to the people instead of God. See ch. Exodus 4:16. The people, therefore, came to Moses as to GOD himself, their supreme Judge and Lawgiver, to know his will, and receive his decisions in all cases of property and controversy. Moses explains this fully in the following verse: the people, says he, come to me to enquire and know the will of their great Legislator.

Verse 16

Exodus 18:16. When they have a matter, [דבר dabar, any subject of business or litigation] I judge between man and man; and, being in the place of God, and instructed by him, inform them of the statutes and laws by which he would have them governed. From hence it does not follow that the law was or was not given, since Moses had constant access to, and received answers from the Divine Oracle in doubtful cases; see Numbers 33:35; Numbers 25:4; Num 25:18 and in ordinary cases, no doubt, he was instructed by the eternal law of reason and equity; that candle of the Lord, by which he enlighteneth every man that cometh into the world. See Deuteronomy 1:17.

Verse 18

Exodus 18:18. Thou wilt surely wear away Thou wilt both consume thyself by too much fatigue, as well as the people, by this long and painful attendance, which they must necessarily give upon thee their sole judge.

Verses 19-20

Exodus 18:19-20.— Be thou for the people to God-ward] i.e. "Do thou continue still as the mediator between God and the people, going between them: bringing the causes of the people, or their affairs of consequence, before GOD, and receiving from him those statutes and ordinances, those declarations and decisions, which he shall make known to thee; and which thou, in consequence, shalt notify to them, shewing them the way wherein they must walk, and the work which they must do." For the rest, leaving the decision of smaller matters, as is advised in the next verse.

Verse 21

Exodus 18:21. Moreover thou shalt provide, &c.— Jethro, advising Moses to retain his high office of mediator between God and the people, and to preserve to himself the supreme legislative power under God, (see Exodus 18:22.) exhorts him, very prudently, to establish subordinate rulers of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens; who were, at all seasons, to administer justice, according to the commission with which they were each entrusted. And, as nothing can be of greater consequence than that justice be truly and impartially administered, Jethro advises to select men of such qualifications as might render them fit for the office. He counsels, first, that they be able men, men of (חיל chil) persevering strength, firmness of body or mind, fortitude; a necessary qualification of judges, who, neither through fear nor favour, should be turned aside from the path of justice and integrity: the word also may include that patience and assiduity in hearing, weighing, &c. which is so requisite to just and impartial judgment. Secondly, That they be such as fear God, and, consequently, would bear in mind, that they also have a Judge in heaven. Thirdly, Men of truth; men whose veracity may be depended upon, who may be absolutely confided in and trusted, and, consequently, will never deviate from the paths of justice: indeed, truth and justice are so nearly allied, that the absence of the one from any tribunal must include the absence of the other. When Isaiah tells us, that judgment is turned away backward, and justice standeth afar off; it is because truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter, Isaiah 59:14. Fourthly, Hating covetousness: this corresponds with fearing God, and is, indeed, the necessary consequence of it; for they who fear God must hate covetousness, which is idolatry, and consequently the grossest contradiction to a sincere regard for the Deity. The word is strong here, HATING covetousness; holding it in the utmost detestation and abhorrence; it being a vice, of all others, most improper for a judge: whose eyes the love of money would fatally blind, and cause him sadly to pervert judgment. See Deuteronomy 16:19. 1 Samuel 8:3. Happy people they whose judges and magistrates are endued with these qualifications!

Verse 23

Exodus 18:23. If thou shalt do this thing, and God command thee, &c.— The humility of Jethro is as apparent as his wisdom. He was not so vain as to think that Moses should follow his counsel without the immediate approbation of GOD; and therefore he says, if GOD shall command thee to do what I advise, and approve that counsel which I have given, then mayest thou safely follow it, and reap the advantages of it. So that though Jethro gave the advice, Moses followed it not without the immediate consent of God; and we do not see what possible objection can lie against Moses for receiving from wise and good men hints for improvement in legislation, while he put not those hints in execution without the approbation of the Sovereign Lawgiver.

Verse 25

Exodus 18:25. And Moses chose able men It is thought by some, that this constitution continued only during their peregrination in the wilderness; and so is different from the institution of those seventy elders (Numbers 11:16.) who were of God's own nomination, and continued to have their name, title, and authority through all the changes of the Jewish state: but, this tribunal of the seventy being a peculiar jurisdiction, I do not see why the subordinate rule here established might not have continued, in a great measure, the same when the people were settled in Canaan. It is certain that the Hebrew was a kind of military government. (See Lowman on the Civil Government of the Hebrews, p. 78, &c.) What we render rulers of thousands, is, properly, princes or commanders. Possibly our old Saxon constitution of sheriffs in counties, hundredors or centgraves in hundreds, and deciners in decenaries, was formed upon the model here proposed; and as these were subordinate each to the other, so was it, most probably, with the Hebrews. Those causes, which could not be decided by the judge of ten, were brought before the judge of fifty, and so on; and those which were too hard for the first subordinate ruler, the ruler of thousands, were brought to Moses: the hard causes they brought unto Moses, Exodus 18:26. We shall have occasion to speak more fully on the civil government of the Hebrews hereafter.

Verse 27

Exodus 18:27. Moses let his father-in-law depart See Numbers 10:29; Num 10:36 from whence it appears, that Moses had the highest opinion of Jethro, and an earnest desire to have retained him, observing, in very strong terms, that he might be to them instead of eyes; and, indeed, from this specimen, one cannot fail to entertain a very great idea of Jethro's worth and wisdom. It is observed that the Rechabites, whose piety and virtue Jeremiah (ch. 35:) so much commends, came from the country of Jethro, (see 1 Chronicles 2:55.) who being, as we have remarked, a true believer before, was, no doubt, more zealous to support and propagate the right faith from the knowledge which he now acquired of God's miraculous interposition for Israel. What became of Zipporah and her children we have no further account. The disinterestedness of Moses is manifest throughout his history: intent upon the interests of the people of Israel, he never appears to have the aggrandizing of his own family in view.

REFLECTIONS.—Moses was their lawgiver and judge, as well as their deliverer; and faithful was he in the trust committed to him.

1. Observe how he is employed to decide in all matters of controversy, and to inform them in all doubtful cases concerning the will of God; easy of access, diligent and laborious in his office, and never diverted from the calls of business by any avocations. The greater a man is, the more useful he should labour to be. The servant of the public must not seek his own pleasure, but the good of the people.
2. Jethro's observation hereupon. It was inconvenient for the people, and too much for himself. The excess of business was attended with delay, and the greatness of the fatigue would shortly kill him. Note; (1.) A zealous minister is apt sometimes to forget that his bones are not brass, or his sinews iron, and even in well-doing may detroy himself; but this is neither for God's glory, nor the people's good. The continuance of his life and ministry is more desirable; and God is too great a master to need, and too good a master to require us to labour above our strength.

3. Jethro's advice, and Moses's approbation of it. Judges are accordingly appointed in several divisions, and in subordination one to another. Note; As we have reason to be thankful for the administration of justice, it is a farther privilege that we have a right of appeal to higher courts, where wrong determinations may be reversed, and equity soften the rigour of the letter of the law.

4. Jethro's return. It is pleasing to be with our friends: but we have calls at home which demand our presence, and we may then part with comfort, when, like Moses and Jethro, we have profited by each other's conversation.

Bibliographical Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Exodus 18". Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible. 1801-1803.