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Bible Commentaries

The Biblical Illustrator
Exodus 18



Verses 1-6

Exodus 18:1-6

I, thy father-in-law, Jethro, am come unto thee.

Family gatherings

I. That this family gathering was permitted after long absence, and after the occurrence of great events.

II. That this family gathering was characterized by courtesy, by a religious spirit, and by devout conversation.

III. That this family gathering derived its highest joy from the moral experiences with which it was favoured.

IV. That this family gathering was made the occasion of a sacramental offering to God. Lessons:

1. That God can watch over the interests of a separate family.

2. That God unites families in a providential manner.

3. That united families should rejoice in God.

4. That the families of the good will meet in heaven, never more to part.

5. Pray for the completion of the Divine family in the Father’s house. (J. S. Exell, M. A.)

Character not deteriorated by honour

Nothing tests a man more than his bearing toward his former friends after he has passed through some experiences which have brought him great honour and prosperity; and when, as in the present instance, he comes back with his old frankness and cordiality, and is not ashamed of his old piety, he is a great man indeed. Too often, however, prosperity deteriorates character, and honour freezes the heart. The head swims on the giddy height, and the son returns a comparative stranger even to his father’s house; while the family worship, which used to be so enjoyed, is smiled at as a weakness of the old people’s, and avoided as a weariness to himself. Old companions, too, are passed without recognition; or, if recognized at all, it is with an air of condescension, and with an effort like that which one makes to stoop for something that is far beneath him. The development of character also estranges us from those whom we once knew intimately, and who were once, it may be, the better for our fellowship. But the consolation in all such cases is, that there can be no value in the further friendship of those who can thus forget the past. He is the really good friend--as well as the, truly great man--who, in spite of his deserved eminence, resumes with us at the point at which we separated, and carries us at length with him to the throne of grace, to acknowledge there our obligations to the Lord. There are men whom one meets from time to time with whom he has always to begin anew. They are like a book in which you never get fully interested, and which, whenever you take it up, you must commence to read again at the very preface; until, in absolute disgust, you cast it away from you, and never lift it more. There are others who are like a well-beloved volume, with a bookmark in it, which you can open at any moment, and resume where you broke off; and which, though you may be often interrupted, you contrive to read through to the end. Such a friend was Moses to Jethro, and Jethro to Moses; and though there came a final separation of the one from the other on earth, they would renew their conference in heaven. (W. M. Taylor, D. D.)

Ashamed of parents

A fellow student of mine had very poor parents, but they had a great desire to give their son the very best possible education; and if you had looked into that home, you would have seen much pinching and self-denying on the part of those parents to give their boy a university training. Once, when he was away at college, they went up with proud hearts to see him, for was it not with great efforts on their part that he was there? He was walking in the street with a fellow student when he met them, and he tried to avoid them. You ask me, why? Because he was ashamed of them in their simple dress, and he was not going to own them until his friend had gone. That man reached the Presbyterian ministry, but he did not long stay in it, He fell from his position, and the brokenhearted parents followed him step by step. He went down lower and lower until a fellow minister and myself have rescued him again and again from police cells. Oh, the foulness of heart of one who is ashamed to own his mother, however poor. And yet there is still a greater sin; to be ashamed of That self-sacrificing love that nailed to the Cross the Son of God. (J. Carstairs.)

Verses 1-27



Exodus 18:1-27.

The defeat of Amalek is followed by the visit of Jethro; the opposite pole of the relation between Israel and the nations, the coming of the Gentiles to his brightness. And already that is true which repeats itself all through the history of the Church, that much secular wisdom, the art of organisation, the structure and discipline of societies, may be drawn from the experience and wisdom of the world.

Moses was under the special guidance of God, as really as any modern enthusiast can claim to be. When he turned for aid or direction to heaven, he was always answered. And yet he did not think scorn of the counsel of his kinsman. And although eighty years had not dimmed the fire of his eyes, nor wasted his strength, he neglected not the warning which taught him to economise his force; not to waste on every paltry dispute the attention and wisdom which could govern the new-born state.

Jethro is the kinsman, and probably the brother-in-law of Moses; for if he were the father-in-law, and the same as Reuel in the second chapter, why should a new name be introduced without any mark of identification? When he hears of the emancipation of Israel from Egypt, he brings back to Moses his two sons and Zipporah, who had been sent away, after the angry scene at the circumcision of the younger, and before he entered Egypt with his life in his hand. Now he was a great personage, the leader of a new nation, and the conqueror of the proudest monarch in the world. With what feelings would the wife and husband meet? We are told nothing of their interview, nor have we any reason to qualify the unfavourable impression produced by the circumstances of their parting, by the schismatic worship founded by their grandchildren, and by the loneliness implied in the very names of Gershom and Eliezer--"A-stranger-there," and "God-a-Help."

But the relations between Moses and Jethro are charming, whether we look at the obeisance rendered to the official minister of God by him whom God had honoured so specially, by the prosperous man to the friend of his adversity, or at the interest felt by the priest of Midian in all the details of the great deliverance of which he had heard already, or his joy in a Divine manifestation, probably not in all respects according to the prejudices of his race, or his praise of Jehovah as "greater than all gods, yea, in the thing wherein they dealt proudly against them" (Exodus 18:11, R.V.). The meaning of this phrase is either that the gods were plagued in their own domains, or that Jehovah had finally vanquished the Egyptians by the very element in which they were most oppressive, as when Moses himself had been exposed to drown.

There is another expression, in the first verse, which deserves to be remarked. How do the friends of a successful man think of the scenes in which he has borne a memorable part? They chiefly think of them in connection with their own hero. And amid all the story of the Exodus, in which so little honour is given to the human actor, the one trace of personal exultation is where it is most natural and becoming; it is in the heart of his relative: "When Jethro ... heard of all that the Lord had done for Moses and for Israel."

We are told, with marked emphasis, that this Midianite, a priest, and accustomed to act as such with Moses in his family, "took a burnt-offering and sacrifices for God; and Aaron came, and all the elders of Israel, to eat bread with Moses' father-in-law before God." Nor can we doubt that the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, who laid such stress upon the subordination of Abraham to Melchizedek, would have discerned in the relative position of Jethro and Aaron another evidence that the ascendency of the Aaronic priesthood was only temporary. We shall hereafter see that priesthood is a function of redeemed humanity, and that all limitations upon it were for a season, and due to human shortcoming. But for this very reason (if there were no other) the chief priest could only be He Who represents and embodies all humanity, in Whom is neither Jew nor Greek, barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free, because He is all and in all.

In the meantime, here is recognised, in the history of Israel, a Gentile priesthood.

And, as at the passover, so now, the sacrifice to God is partaken of by His people, who are conscious of acceptance by Him. Happy was the union of innocent festivity with a sacramental recognition of God. It is the same sentiment which was aimed at by the primitive Christian Church in her feasts of love, genuine meals in the house of God, until licence and appetite spoiled them, and the apostle asked "Have ye not houses to eat and drink in?" (1 Corinthians 11:22). Shall there never come a time when the victorious and pure Church of the latter days shall regain what we have forfeited, when the doctrine of the consecration of what is called "secular life" shall be embodied again in forms like these? It speaks to us meanwhile in a form which is easily ridiculed (as in Lamb's well-known essay), and yet singularly touching and edifying if rightly considered, in the asking for a blessing upon our meals.

On the morrow, Jethro saw Moses, all day long, deciding the small matters and great which needed already to be adjudicated for the nation. He who had striven, without a commission, himself to smite the Egyptian and lead out Israel, is the same self-reliant, heroic, not too discreet person still.

But the true statesman and administrator is he who employs to the utmost all the capabilities and energies of his subordinates. And Jethro made a deep mark in history when he taught Moses the distinction between the lawgiver and the judge, between him who sought from God and proclaimed to the people the principles of justice and their form, and him who applied the law to each problem as it arose.

"It is supposed, and with probability," writes Kalisch (in loco), "that Alfred the Great, who was well versed in the Bible, based his own Saxon constitution of sheriffs in counties, etc., on the example of the Mosaic division (comp. Bacon on English Government, i. 70)." And thus it may be that our own nation owes its free institutions almost directly to the generous interest in the well-being of his relative, felt by an Arabian priest, who cherished, amid the growth of idolatries all around him, the primitive belief in God, and who rightly held that the first qualifications of a capable judge were ability, and the fear of God, truthfulness and hatred of unjust gain.

We learn from Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 1:9-15), that Moses allowed the people themselves to elect these officials, who became not only their judges but their captains.

From the whole of this narrative we see clearly that the intervention of God for Israel is no more to be regarded as superseding the exercise of human prudence and common-sense, than as dispensing with valour in the repulse of Amalek, and with patience in journeying through the wilderness.


We are now about to pass from history to legislation. And this is a convenient stage at which to pause, and ask how it comes to pass that all this narrative is also, in some sense, an allegory. It is a discussion full of pitfalls. Countless volumes of arbitrary and fanciful interpretation have done their worst to discredit every attempt, however cautious and sober, at finding more than the primary signification in any narrative.(32) And whoever considers the reckless, violent and inconsistent methods of the mystical commentators may be forgiven if he recoils from occupying the ground which they have wasted, and contents himself with simply drawing the lessons which the story directly suggests.

But the New Testament does not warrant such a surrender. It tells us that leaven answers to malice, and unleavened bread to sincerity; that at the Red Sea the people were baptized; that the tabernacle and the altar, the sacrifice and the priest, the mercy-seat and the manna, were all types and shadows of abiding Christian realities.

It is more surprising to find the return of the infant Jesus connected with the words "When Israel was a child then I loved him, and I called My son out of Egypt,"--for it is impossible to doubt that the prophet was here speaking of the Exodus, and had in mind the phrase "Israel is My son, My firstborn: let My son go, that he may serve Me" (Matthew 1:15; Hosea 11:1; Exodus 4:22).

How are such passages to be explained? Surely not by finding a superficial resemblance between two things, and thereupon transferring to one of them whatever is true of the other. No thought can attain accuracy except by taking care not to confuse in this way things which superficially resemble each other.

But no thought can be fertilising and suggestive which neglects real and deep resemblances, resemblances of principle as well as incident, resemblances which are due to the mind of God or the character of man.

In the structure and furniture of the tabernacle, and the order of its services, there are analogies deliberately planned, and such as every one would expect, between religious truth shadowed forth in Judaism, and the same truth spoken in these latter days unto us in the Son.

But in the emancipation, the progress, and alas! the sins and chastisements of Israel, there are analogies of another kind, since here it is history which resembles theology, and chiefly secular things which are compared with spiritual. But the analogies are not capricious; they are based upon the obvious fact that the same God Who pitied Israel in bondage sees, with the same tender heart, a worse tyranny. For it is not a figure of speech to say that sin is slavery. Sin does outrage the will, and degrade and spoil the life. The sinner does obey a hard and merciless master. If his true home is in the kingdom of God, he is, like Israel, not only a slave but an exile. Is God the God of the Jew only? for otherwise He must, being immutable, deal with us and our tyrant as He dealt with Israel and Pharaoh. If He did not, by an exertion of omnipotence, transplant them from Egypt to their inheritance at one stroke, but required of them obedience, co-operation, patient discipline, and a gradual advance, why should we expect the whole work and process of grace to be summed up in the one experience which we call conversion? Yet if He did, promptly and completely, break their chains and consummate their emancipation, then the fact that grace is a progressive and gradual experience does not forbid us to reckon ourselves dead unto sin. If the region through which they were led, during their time of discipline, was very unlike the land of milk and honey which awaited the close of their pilgrimage, it is not unlikely that the same God will educate his later Church by the same means, leading us also by a way that we know not, to humble and prove us, that He may do us good at the latter end.

And if He marks, by a solemn institution, the period when we enter into covenant relations with Himself, and renounce the kingdom and tyranny of His foe, is it marvellous that the apostle found an analogy for this in the great event by which God punctuated the emancipation of Israel, leading them out of Egypt through the sea depths and beneath the protecting cloud?

If privilege, and adoption, and the Divine good-will, did not shelter them from the consequences of ingratitude and rebellion, if He spared not the natural branches, we should take heed lest He spare not us.

Such analogies are really arguments, as solid as those of Bishop Butler.

But the same cannot be maintained so easily of some others. When that is quoted of our Lord upon the cross which was written of the paschal lamb, "a bone shall not be broken" (Exodus 12:46, John 19:36), we feel that the citation needs to be justified upon different grounds. But such grounds are available. He was the true Lamb of God. For His sake the avenger passes over all His followers. His flesh is meat indeed. And therefore, although no analogy can be absolutely perfect, and the type has nothing to declare that His blood is drink indeed, yet there is an admirable fitness, worthy of inspired record, in the consummating and fulfilment in Him, and in Him alone of three sufferers, of the precept "A bone of Him shall not be broken." It may not be an express prophecy which is brought to pass, but it is a beautiful and appropriate correspondence, wrought out by Providence, not available for the coercion of sceptics, but good for the edifying of believers.

And so it is with the calling of the Son out of Egypt. Unquestionably Hosea spoke of Israel. But unquestionably too the phrase "My Son, My Firstborn" is a startling one. Here is already a suggestive difference between the monotheism of the Old Testament and the austere jealous logical orthodoxy of the Koran, which protests "It is not meet for God to have any Son, God forbid" (Sura 19:36). Jesus argued that such a rigid and lifeless orthodoxy as that of later Judaism, ought to have been scandalised, long before it came to consider His claims, by the ancient and recognised inspiration which gave the name of gods to men who sat in judgment as the representatives of Heaven. He claimed the right to carry still further the same principle--namely, that deity is not selfish and incommunicable, but practically gives itself away, in transferring the exercise of its functions. From such condescension everything may be expected, for God does not halt in the middle of a path He has begun to tread.

But if this argument of Jesus were a valid one (and the more it is examined the more profound it will be seen to be), how significant will then appear the term "My Son," as applied to Israel!

In condescending so far, God almost pledged Himself to the Incarnation, being no dealer in half measures, nor likely to assume rhetorically a relation to mankind to which in fact He would not stoop.

Every Christian feels, moreover, that it is by virtue of the grand and final condescension that all the preliminary steps are possible. Because Abraham's seed was one, that is Christ, therefore ye (all) if ye are Christ's, are Abraham's seed, heirs according to promise (Galatians 3:16, Galatians 3:29).

But when this great harmony comes to be devoutly recognised, a hundred minor and incidental points of contact are invested with a sacred interest.

No doctrinal injury would have resulted, if the Child Jesus had never left the Holy Land. No infidel could have served his cause by quoting the words of Hosea. Nor can we now cite them against infidels as a prophecy fulfilled. But when He does return from Egypt our devotions, not our polemics, hail and rejoice in the coincidence. It reminds us, although it does not demonstrate, that He who is thus called out of Egypt is indeed the Son.

The sober historian cannot prove anything, logically and to demonstration, by the reiterated interventions in history of atmospheric phenomena. And yet no devout thinker can fail to recognise that God has reserved the hail against the time of trouble and war.

In short, it is absurd and hopeless to bid us limit our contemplation, in a divine narrative, to what can be demonstrated like the propositions of Euclid. We laugh at the French for trying to make colonies and constitutions according to abstract principles, and proposing, as they once did, to reform Europe "after the Chinese manner." Well, religion also is not a theory: it is the true history of the past of humanity, and it is the formative principle in the history of the present and the future.

And hence it follows that we may dwell with interest and edification upon analogies, as every great thinker confesses the existence of truths, "which never can be proved."

In the meantime it is easy to recognise the much simpler fact, that these things happened unto them by way of example, and they were written for our admonition.


Verse 7

Exodus 18:7

They asked each other of their welfare.

Friends meeting after separation

I. This world is not a scene adapted or intended to afford the pleasure and benefit of friendship entire. Men cannot collect and keep around them an assemblage of congenial spirits, to constitute, as it were, a bright social fire, ever glowing, ever burning, amidst the winter of this world. They cannot surround themselves with the selectest portion of humanity, so as to keep out of sight and interference the general character of human nature. They are left to be pressed upon by an intimate perception of what a depraved and unhappy world it is. And so they feel themselves strangers and pilgrims upon earth.

II. It is contrary to the design of God that the more excellent of this world’s inhabitants should form together little close assemblages and bands, within exclusive circles, detached as much as possible from the general multitude. On the contrary, it is appointed that they should be scattered and diffused hither and thither, to be useful and exemplary in a great number of situations; that there should be no large space without some of them. Thus it is a world that dissociates friends. Nevertheless, friends do sometimes meet; and then it is quite natural to do as Moses and Jethro did--“ask each other of their welfare.”

III. In the meeting of genuine friends, after considerable absence, these feelings will be present.

1. Kind affection.

2. Inquiry.

3. Reflective comparison.

4. Gratitude to God for watching over them both.

5. Faithful admonition and serious anticipation. (J. Foster.)

Family reunions

I. As to the salutations at meeting.

1. Courteousness. This excludes--

2. A hearty welcome.

II. As to the subjects of conversation.

1. On public affairs.

2. On social matters.

3. With recognition of God.

4. Fit for mutual response (Exodus 18:10-11).

III. As to the mode of festivity.

1. That such festivity may not be confined to the family.

2. That it may be preceded by an act of worship.

3. That it should be with consciousness of the Divine presence.

To eat as before God, will make us--


1. It is not unbeseeming the highest places or persons in kingdom or Church of Christ to give due respect to relations.

2. Grace doth not unteach men manners and civil carriage respectively unto men.

3. Natural affection and expressions of it to friends beseemeth God’s servants.

4. It is a natural duty for relations to inquire of and wish each other’s peace.

5. Conduct to a tent for rest is suitable for travellers that visit their relations (Exodus 18:7). (G. Hughes, B. D.)

Religious intercourse between parents and children

One Sunday night I said, “Ah! you mothers will say that your children are all in bed; never mind, go upstairs and wake them, and talk to them about their souls.” A mother (this I know to be true) went home, and her little girl was in bed and asleep. She woke her and said, “Jane, I have not spoken to you, dear child, about your soul. The pastor has been exhorting us to-night, and saying that even if you were asleep you should be wakened.” Then said Jane, “Mother, I have often wondered that you did not speak to me about Christ, but I have known Him these two years.” The mother stood convicted. She brought her daughter round on Monday and said, “Let this dear girl be baptized and lore the church.” I said to her, “Why did you not tell your mother?” “Well,” said she, “you know, mother never seemed to come up to the subject; she never gave me a chance.” Then the mother said, “Quite right; I have not been to my children what I ought to have been; but, please God, there shall never be another child of mine that shall steal a march on her mother, and find Christ without her mother knowing it.” God graciously rebuked that mother. (C. H. Spurgeon.)

Religious conversation

Among the means to be used in times of religious interest we may mention conversation. Many neglect it, but none can deny its power for good. Says Dr. Archibald Alexander, in his book on “Religious Experience”: “Religious conversation, in which Christians freely tell of the dealings of God with their souls, has been often a powerful means of quickening the sluggish soul and communicating comfort.” It is, in many cases, a great consolation to the desponding believer to know that his case is not entirely singular; and if a traveller can meet with one who has been over the difficult parts of the road before him, he may surely derive from his experience some salutary counsel and warning. The Scriptures are favourable to such communications. “Come and hear,” says David, “all ye that fear God, and I will declare what He hath done for my soul.” Dr. Watts thought so much of the “talent for parlour teaching,” that he declared that the man who had it could do more good than the minister by his public discourses. Said one who was under sentence of death: “When the minister spoke to me he seemed like one who was standing far above me; but when Alexander, that good man that everybody knows is the holiest man in the place, came in, he stood like one at my side, and when he classed himself with me, and said, ‘Sinners like me and you,’ I could stand it no longer.” Saurin, the great French preacher, said, in his sermon on Christian conversation: “Are we returning from a sermon? Why not entertain one another with the subjects we have been hearing? Why not endeavour to imprint on one another’s memories the truths that have been proved, and to impress upon one another’s hearts such precepts as have been enforced? Have we been visiting a dying person? Why not make such reflections as naturally occur on such occasions the matter of our conversations? Why not embrace such a fair opportunity of speaking on the vanity of life, the uncertainty of worldly enjoyments, and the happiness of a pious departure to rest? Have you been reading a good book? Why not converse with our companions on the information we have derived from it?”

Verses 9-12

Exodus 18:9-12

Jethro rejoiced for all the goodness.


1. The Church’s friends rejoice in all the good done for it, and deliverance of it.

2. As Jehovah is the cause of good and deliverance to His Church, so He is the object of their joy (Exodus 18:9).

3. Joyful hearts for the Church’s good are thankful hearts to God for the same.

4. Deliverance of special relations, but especially of the Church, from powers of enemies is just matter of thanksgiving (Exodus 18:10).

5. Experience of the mighty works of God perfects the knowledge of Himself.

6. The great works of God set Him above all that are so called.

7. The pride of enemies exalts the power of God above them (Exodus 18:11).

8. Knowledge of God is best expressed in sacrificing and worship of Him.

9. Holy feasting is consistent with God’s holy worship.

10. God’s glory must terminate all sacrificing and eating among His people.

11. Eminent members of the Church may not disdain communion with true proselytes (Exodus 18:12). (G. Hughes, B. D.)

Verses 13-16

Exodus 18:13-16

Moses sat to Judge the people.


1. God’s providence joins work to sacrifice, and His servants do unite them.

2. The morrow brings its own work from God unto His servants, not every day the same.

3. God’s substitutes are careful as to worship Him, so to do judgment to God’s people.

4. Good rulers sit close to deal judgment to their people.

5. Providence puts hard work upon God’s ministers sometimes, from morning to evening.

6. It is just to be unwearied in giving and receiving judgment when God calleth (Exodus 18:13). (G. Hughes, B. D.)


1. The greatest and best rulers disdain not to give an account of their judgment to reasonable inquisitors.

2. The access of souls unto rulers to inquire of God, is a just ground for them to attend the work.

3. The appeal of souls to man’s bar in matters, is and should be inquiring after God (Exodus 18:15).

4. Duties of people and rulers are correlate, they come with matters, and these must judge.

5. God’s laws and statutes axe the best rule to order judgment between men.

6. It is duty to rulers to make people know the statutes and laws of God. (G. Hughes, B. D.)

Consulting with God

My heavenly Father is my “other partner” in my business. I consult with Him. It is remarkable how I am relieved from the worry and anxiety so common to business men. Frequently, when I desire to “think over a matter,” it is really to consult with Him, after which my way is clear. And unto Him I render one-tenth. I often think this order should be reversed, and I take the tenth. (William A. Lay.)

Verses 17-22

Exodus 18:17-22

Thou wilt surely wear away.

Undue application to laborious duties

Various lessons may be gathered from the fact that Moses was wearing himself away by undue application to the duties of his office, and that by adopting Jethro’s suggestion and dividing the labour he was able to spare himself and nevertheless equally secure the administration of justice.

I. We see the goodness of God in His dealings with our race in the fact that labour may be so divided that man’s strength shall not be overpassed, but cannot be so divided that man’s strength shall be dispensed with.

II. It is a principle sufficiently evident in the infirmity of man that he cannot give himself incessantly to labour, whether bodily or mental, but must have seasons of repose. We shrink from the thought and the mention of suicide, but there are other modes of self-destruction than that of laying hands on one’s own person. There is the suicide of intemperance; there is also the suicide of overlabour. It is as much our duty to relax when we feel our strength overpassed, as to persevere while that strength is sufficient.

III. God has, with tender consideration, provided intervals of repose, and so made it man’s own fault if he sink beneath excessive labour. What a beautiful ordinance is that of day and night! What a gracious appointment is that of Sunday! When the Sabbath is spent in the duties that belong to it, its influence gives fresh edge to the blunted human powers.

IV. Each one of us is apt to be engrossed with worldly things. It is well that some Jethro, some rough man from the wilderness, perhaps some startling calamity, should approach us with the message, “The thing that thou doest is not good; thou wilt surely wear away.”

V. At last we must all wear away, but our comfort is that, though the outer man perish, the inner man shall be renewed day by day. (H. Melvill, B. D.)

Jethro’s advice to Moses; or, a word to ministers of the gospel

I. The power which ministers of the gospel should have. “Be thou for the people to God-ward.”

II. The work which ministers of the gospel should do.

1. Conduct Divine worship and establish suitable rules for the government of their people.

2. Give the right impetus to the moral and religious life of their people.

3. Explain to their people the duties devolving upon them.

III. The helps which ministers of the gospel have (Exodus 18:21-22).

IV. The qualifications which ministers of the gospel should possess.

1. Devout piety.

2. Truthfulness.

3. Disinterestedness.

4. Freedom. (W. Edwards.)


1. God may use men of mean, calling, and endowments to help for prudentials, for government in His Church.

2. The most morally good government may not be good in natural or civil respects (Exodus 18:17).

3. Imprudential over-acting in doing judgment may consume rulers and people.

4. Good and righteous work may be too heavy for the best and strongest shoulders.

5. Solitariness in dealing judgment may carry great weakness in it.

6. It is good prudence to undertake burdens proportionable for strength and no more (Exodus 18:18). (G. Hughes, B. D.)


1. Supreme governors had need of subordinate to carry on the burden of government.

2. Men entrusted with government should be eminently qualified with wisdom, knowledge, courage, etc. Each endowment may give a special observation.

3. Variety of bounds for power are requisite to the various capacities of rulers (Exodus 18:21).

4. Men so designed to rule ought all times reasonably to attend on judgment.

5. Matters of greatest moment have a just way of appeal from lesser to superior judges.

6. Smaller matters are reasonably to be concluded by lesser hands.

7. Such distribution of work in government maketh the burden more easy (Exodus 18:22).

8. Supreme rulers managing their affairs by others according to God’s command, walk safely.

9. Prosperity to prince and people may be well expected by keeping God’s commands (Exodus 18:23). (G. Hughes, B. D.)

The folly of solitary rulership

I. It causes an undue strain upon the solitary individual. Wicked men sometimes kill themselves by excess of pleasure. Good men should not kill themselves by excess of work even in the service of God. Many great lives are lost to the Church through excessive toils. The Divine Judge can never grow weary in His administration of the universe.

II. It interferes with the execution of the higher part of the judicial office. How often are ministers engaged with the technical and local when they might be engaged in the spiritual and universal. Justice needs more than administrative power; it needs spiritual discernment and those qualities of moral character which are the outcome of moral nearness to God; hence it requires men to be for the people God ward. Jesus Christ is now for the people God-ward, the one Mediator between God and man.

III. It leaves unutilized a vast number of able men quite equal to the ordinary requirements of justice. Ministers should not do all the work of the Church; they should call out latent talent for it. Society has many unrecognized judges.

IV. That this folly is evident to wise old men who see solitary judgeships in operation. Others can form a more correct estimate of our work than we can. We are too near it to take the perspective of it. We are too much interested in it to form unprejudiced judgments concerning it. Let us be open to the voice of wise old men who often speak to young men as in the fear of God. Lessons:--

1. That positions of trust should not be monopolized by the few.

2. That the common crowds of men have unsuspected abilities.

3. That good men should not be prodigal of their physical and mental energy to the shortening of their lives. (J. S. Exell, M. A.)

Lessons on Exodus 18:17

I. Others view our acts.

II. Others can often see faults where we cannot.

III. Others reproving us may lead to a better course of action.


I. Men should interest themselves in the acts of their relatives.

II. Men should be faithful in giving reproof and advice.


I. The wisest have some defects in their conduct.

II. The wisest may be benefited by the advice of others. (J. S. Exell, M. A.)

Jethro’s justice of peace

Here is the archetype or first draught of magistracy. Scripture is the best man of counsel for the greatest statesman in the world.

1. It first gives order for the care and circumspection in the choice. “Provide.”

2. Secondly, it directs the choice by four essential characters of magistrates:--

3. Thirdly, it applies these four to magistrates of all degrees, in aa exact distribution of them, by way of gradation, descending step by step, from the highest to the lowest. “And place such over them to be rulers”--

4. Fourthly, it prescribes to the magistrates, thus qualified and chosen, their offices, viz., to judge the people in the smaller causes, etc., and their assiduity and industry therein. “And let them judge the people at all seasons, etc. And it shall be that they shall bring every great matter to thee, but every small matter they shall judge.”

5. Lastly, it propounds the blessed fruit and emolument that will necessarily ensue thereupon.

Need of a heroic spirit in judges

What heroical spirit had he need have, that must encounter the Hydra of sin, oppose the current of the times, and the torrent of vice, that must turn the wheel over the wicked; especially such roaring monsters, and rebellious Korahs, such lawless sons of Belial, wherewith our times swarm, who stick not to oppose with crest and breast, whosoever stand in the way of their burnouts and lusts! Surely if Jethro called for courage in those modest primitive times, and among a people newly tamed with Egyptian yokes, what do our audacious and fore-headless swaggerers require? Our lees and dregs of time, not unlike to those wherein God was fain to raise up extraordinary judges to smite hip and thigh, etc. What Atlas shall support the state of the ruinous and tottering world, in these perilous ends of time? For all these fore-named purposes, how unapt is a man of soft, timorous, and flexible nature I for whom it is as possible to steer a right course, without swerving to the left hand or right, for fear or favour, as it is for a cock-boat to keep head against wind and tide, without help of oars or sails: experience ever making this good, that cowards are slaves to their superiors, fellow-fools to their equals, tyrants to their inferiors, and windmills to popular breath, not being able to any of these to say so much as No! (T. Brooks.)

Divine ordinances of labour

How valuable is a little common-sense--and how scarce! Here was Moses, a man trained in kings’ palaces, deeply skilled in all the wisdom of Egypt, and yet he has to wait till Jethro comes--a mere man of the desert, before to a self-evident evil he can apply a self-evident remedy. Labour is good; but if we labour unwisely, so as to overtask and enervate our faculties, the labour which in itself is good becomes, through our perversity, an evil.

I. Labour is an ordinance of God. There is work for all, and need for every man’s work, of whatever sort it may be--from thinking the thoughts or pursuing the scientific discoveries which clear the road along which the world is to advance, down to working a loom or digging a field; from managing a large estate so as to develop all its manifold capabilities of service, down to trimming its hedges or hauling its coal.

II. The division of labour is an ordinance of God. It is the wise division and distribution of labour to which we owe all the services and comforts of civilized life; and the wiser the distribution, the higher the civilization. It is this division of labour which multiplies the products of labour, and not only sets men free to invent improved methods of labour, but also puts them in the way of inventing them. If, for instance, one man could make a tent in ten days, ten men, each of whom was trained to make his separate part, would turn out not ten, but fifty or a hundred tents in the same time; and each of the ten, always handling the same tools and working on the same substance--canvas, or wood for poles and pegs, or palm fibre or hemp for ropes--would naturally improve his tools to save his pains, and discover qualities and capabilities in the substance which only long familiarity could detect. From such simple beginnings as these has risen that division of the whole civilized community into separate trades and professions, and these trades and professions again into many component elements and specialities, which multiplies its productive power to an almost infinite extent, and keeps the discovery of our means and appliances of labour up to the level of our growing numbers and wants.

III. The intromission of labour is an ordinance of God. Not only has He given us an inward monitor which warns us when mental or vital powers are overtasked, to seek out holiday mirth and recreative sports, to change the air we breathe and the scenes on which we look if perchance we may thus change the wearing current of our thoughts; He has also fixed the bounds to our labour beyond which we cannot or ought not to pass. Seven times a week the day draws to to an end, and the night comes on in which most of us, at least, are compelled to rest. Once every week, too, there returns the Day of Rest, on which we cease from our toils, and withdraw our minds from the noisy labours and corroding anxieties of traffic. And when we are over eager in our labours for present good, or what we think good, God sends some rugged Jethro--some warning sickness or calamitous loss, some sorrow that, passing through all our defences, smites and cleaves our very heart. Not because He grudges our prosperity, or would abate our happiness, but because He would have us rise to that sacred rest and satisfying peace which even adversity cannot take away, He often sends a chastening whose message, if we will hear it, is, “The thing thou doest is not good. Thou wilt surely wear thyself away, and wastefully expend thy life on things which perish as you handle them. Turn ye at My reproof; for why should ye die?” (S. Cox, D. D.)

Jethro’s advice

I. The giver of this advice. Jethro.

1. An old man. The father-in-law of Moses, who was now fully eighty years of age. Age has had experience of life. Time for observation. Old men have seen and noted causes of success and failure. Less likely than the young to give bad advice. Are less moved by passion. Taught by memory. Are near to eternity.

2. Thoughtful. His advice shows his thoughtfulness. Thought founded on observation. He saw the labour of Moses and the extent of the camp.

3. Affectionate. He was a relative of Moses. Looked kindly also on this great host of fugitives. Near relatives, amongst those who are most anxious for our welfare.

4. Disinterested. He had nothing to gain personally by giving it, save the satisfaction of his own mind and conscience.

5. Pious. Priest of Midian. Had a respect for the God of Israel. “Rejoiced for all the goodness which the Lord had done to Israel” (Acts 11:22-24). The advice of men that fear God, who are men of prayer, and love the Bible, not to be slighted; it will be agreeable to the mind of God.

II. The receiver of this advice. Moses. He did not slight Jethro’s advice, although--

1. He was in direct communication with God. And we should respect the words of good men, although we have also the Word of God. We have need to be reminded of words, precepts, and promises, that we may overlook; or of laws, etc., that we may not understand.

2. He had been eminently successful. Such a man, if not humble, might have been very self-reliant; and have spurned the advice of another. Success makes some unmanageable and proud.

3. He was himself an aged man. Might have thought himself too old to be taught. As competent to give advice as Jethro. Inexperienced youth often puffed up by a little knowledge. The more one really knows the more one feels his ignorance.

4. He doubtless laid the advice he received before the Lord. Jethro made this a condition (Exodus 18:23). Are we willing that the advice we give should be tested by the Word of God? Do we so test the advice we receive?

5. He acted upon it, and benefited by doing so. Much good advice is lost in this world. Evaded, though good, because of trouble, or indifference, or pride. The character of the adviser, or his opinion on other matters, made an excuse for neglecting his words. Will God excuse the neglecter?


1. To do good by word and deed, as we have opportunity, unto all men.

2. To get good, from all men, as opportunity offers. (J. C. Gray.)

Exhausting labour

Dr. Holland, after Mr. Bowles’s death, wrote as follows: “As I think of my old associate and the earnest, exhausting work he was doing when I was with him, he seems to me like a great golden vessel, rich in colour and roughly embossed, filled with the elixir of life, which he poured out without the slightest stint for the consumption of this people. We did not know when we tasted it, and found it so charged with zest, that we were tasting heart’s blood, but that was the priceless element that commended it to our appetites. A pale man, weary and nervous, crept home at midnight, or at one, two, or three o’clock in the morning, and while all nature was fresh and the birds were singing, and the eyes of thousands were bending eagerly over the results of his night’s labour, he was tossing and trying to sleep. Yet this work, so terrible in its exactions and its consequences, was the joy of this man’s life--it was his life.” (H. O. Mackey.)

A proposal for the public good

After Marcus Valerius had gained two great victories over the Sabines, in one of which he did not lose a single soldier, he was rewarded with a triumph, and a house was built for him upon Mount Palatine. The doors of the Roman houses generally opened inwards, but this was built to open outwards, to show that he who dwelt there was ready to listen to any proposal made to him for the public good.

God-fearing men for responsible positions

One of Stonewall Jackson’s peculiarities was to select for his chief of staff, not a military man, but a Presbyterian clergyman, a professor in a theological seminary, and to clothe him with the power of carrying out his mysterious orders when he was temporarily absent. In this he acted as did the greatest of all English commanders--Oliver Cromwell; who always surrounded himself with men of prayer. ( H. O. Mackey.)

Setting others to work

One of the best qualifications of a minister is the ability to set the membership at work. It is said that Mr. Spurgeon asks every person seeking admission to membership in his church. “Well, if you are received, what individual work are you going to take up and carry on for the Lord?” As a result, he has now enrolled in his church register, 5,756 communicants, who represent just so many willing workers under his leadership. He saves his own strength by doing nothing that his hearers can do equally well. And every minister who tries can carry the same rule into practice with a membership of one hundred as well as five thousand. Many ministers fritter away valuable time in doing what the laity might do as well, and sometimes better, for them. (Christian Age.)

Justice to be done in small matters

In one of the police courts up town in New York, one morning not long since, a very small boy in knickerbockers appeared. He had a dilapidated cap in one hand, and a green cotton bag in the other. Behind him came a big policeman, with a grin on his face. “Please, sir, are you the judge?” he asked in a voice that had a queer little quiver in it. “I am, my boy. What can I do for you?” asked the justice, as he looked wonderingly down at the mite before him. “If you please, sir, I’m Johnny Moore. I’m seven years old, and I live in One Hundred and Twenty-third street, near the avenue; and the only good place to play miggles on is in the front of a lot near our house, where the ground is smooth. But a butcher on the corner, that hasn’t any more right to the place than we have, keeps his waggon standing there; and this morning we were playing at miggles there, and he drove us away, and took six of mine, and threw them away off over the fence into the lot. And I went to the police-station; and they laughed at me and told me to come here and tell you about it.” The big policeman and the spectators began to laugh, and the complainant at the bar trembled so violently with mingled indignation and fright that the marbles in his little green bag rattled together. The justice, however, rapped sharply on the desk, and quickly brought everybody to dead silence. “You did perfectly right, my boy,” said he, gravely, “to come here and tell me about it. You have as much right to your six marbles as the richest man in this city has to his bank account. If every American citizen had as much regard for his rights as you show, there would be far less crime. And you, sir,” he added, turning to the big policeman, “you go with this little man to that butcher and make him pay for those marbles, or else arrest him and bring him here.” You see this boy knew that his rights had been interfered with, and he went to the one having authority to redress his wrongs. He did not throw stones or say naughty words, but in a manly, dignified way demanded his rights. (S. S. Chronicle.)

Freedom of resort

It is an honourable memorial that James the Fifth, King of Scots, hath left behind him, that he was called the poor man’s king; and it is said of Radolphus Hapsburgius, that seeing some of his guard repulsing divers poor persons that made towards him for relief, was very much displeased, and charged them to suffer the poorest to have access unto him, saying, that he was called to the empire not to be shut up in a chest, as reserved for some few, but to be where all might have freedom of resort unto him. (J. Spencer.)

Spiritual vocation the highest

Jethro counselled Moses to be “for the people God-ward, that he might bring the causes unto God.” The highest of all vocations is the spiritual. It is greater to pray than to rule. Moses was to set himself at the highest end of the individual, political, and religious life of Israel, and to occupy the position of intercessor. He was to be the living link between the people and their God. Is not this the proper calling of the preacher? He is not to be a mere politician in the Church, he is not to enter into the detail of organization with the scrupulous care of a conscientious hireling: he is deeply and lovingly to study the truth as it is in Jesus, that he may be prepared to enrich the minds and stimulate the graces of those who hear him. He is to live so closely with God, that his voice shall be to them as the voice of no other man, a voice from the better world, calling the heart to worship, to trust, and to hope, and through the medium of devotion to prepare men for all the engagements of common life. The preacher is to live apart from the people, in order that he may in spiritual sympathy live the more truly with them. He is not to stand afar off as an unsympathetic priest, but to live in the secret places of the Most High, that he may from time to time most correctly repronounce the will of God to all who wait upon his ministry. When preachers live thus, the pulpit will reclaim its ancient power, and fill all rivalry with confusion and shame. Let the people themselves manage all subordinate affairs; call up all the business talent that is in the Church, and honour all its successful and well-meant experiments; give every man to feel that he has an obligation to answer. When you have done this, go yourself, O man of God, to the temple of the Living One, and acquaint yourself deeply with the wisdom and grace of God, that you may be as an angel from heaven when you come to speak the word of life to men who are worn by the anxieties and weakened by the temptations of a cruel world. Many a man inquires, half in petulance and half in self-justification, “What more can I possibly do than I am already doing?” Let the case of Moses be the answer. The question in his case was not whether he was doing enough, but whether he was not doing too much in one special direction. Some of the talent that is given to business might be more profitably given to devotion, Rule less, and pray more. Spare time from the business meeting that you may have leisure for communion with God. (J. Parker, D. D.)

How to receive counsel

He might have thought: “what presumption in this Midianite to dictate to the ambassador of Jehovah!” But Moses was a man of a very different spirit. In Montreal, some years ago, a certain English nobleman who had been recently converted, and was preaching the gospel to large multitudes who gathered to hear him, unfortunately had his heart lifted up within him, and began to speak bitterly and scornfully of the Churches of Christ in the city. An excellent and revered Presbyterian elder approached the young nobleman in the kindest way, spoke with great appreciation of the value of his work in preaching the gospel, but suggested that it would be better for the cause if he would cease abusing Christians and Christian Churches, and confine himself to the preaching of Christ. In reply he curled his lip in scorn, and said, “I take my counsel from the Lord!” What a contrast between the grand nobleman of the olden time, and the small one of yesterday. Moses might with some reason have claimed a monopoly of Divine counsel. God had chosen him out from all other men to make known His will to him; but when Jethro, though an outsider, and one who had only good common sense on his side, makes his suggestion, Moses does not scorn to listen to his advice, and take it too. And the event showed that the Lord fully approved His servant’s course. (J. M. Gibson, D. D.)

Division of labour

We recognize the value of the principle of division of labour in manufactures, because there it cheapens the manufactured article, but we fail to see its importance in our own work, because there, in the first instance, it involves additional outlay. We cannot get a man competent to be the head of a department without paying him a handsome salary; for responsibility means character, and character always commands its price. So, to divide our work into so many departments, and to put over each a thoroughly capable man whom we will hold to a rigid account, requires the immediate expenditure of a large amount of money, and we say we cannot afford it. But all this is a shortsighted policy, for, in the long run, the greater amount of business done will more than reimburse the original outlay; and, in addition, you can go home, not to fret and worry over trifles, but to be the companion of your wife and the guide and director of your children. Moreover, instead of breaking down hopelessly under the strain of carrying everything on your own shoulders, and requiring to go abroad for years, or, it may be, to leave business altogether, your strength remains unimpaired--nay, perhaps it even increases; and you have the satisfaction of seeing your home happy, and your children growing up to follow in your footsteps, and to declare that their God is dearer to them because He is the God of their father.. . . One said to me, when I began my ministry, “Never do yourself what you can get another to do for you as well as you can do it yourself”; and though I confess that I have not acted on the maxim as much as I ought to have done, I see the wisdom of it more clearly, the longer I live. “Divide et impera,” was the maxim of the old Roman general--divide and conquer; and by dividing our labour into many sections, and holding some one responsible for each, we shall do more, we shall do it better, and we shall work longer than would be otherwise possible. (W. M. Taylor, D. D.)


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Bibliography Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Exodus 18:4". The Biblical Illustrator. 1905-1909. New York.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, November 28th, 2020
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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