This chapter takes place in the afterglow of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. God had desired that all of the surrounding nations would hear of His greatness through their deliverance, and because He is God Almighty, they did hear. Jethro, priest of Midian and Moses’ father-in-law, comes to Moses and brings along Moses’ wife Zipporah, whom we last heard about in Exodus 4. Moses’ and Zipporah’s two sons Gershom and Eliezer also come. Moses and Zipporah must not have had a very amenable marriage after the events of the circumcision in Exodus 4:24-26. Her long absence in the Bible from Exodus 4 until Exodus 18 suggests that she lived with her father during the intervening years.
But Jethro, as the priest of Midian and living far away, has heard of the deeds that have been done to free God’s people. This proves that news of their freedom and the methods by which they were freed had spread far and wide. Hearing this, Jethro brought Moses’ family back to him. As the son-in-law, Moses is still subservient to Jethro after a fashion, and we see evidence of that in their greeting and in their communication. When Moses relates the recent events to Jethro, he gives the Lord all of the credit and takes none for his own. In fact, Jethro is now convinced of the Almighty God’s singularity and power in Exodus 18:11: “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the gods; for in the very thing in which they behaved proudly, He was above them.” As a priest of Midian, Jethro was more than likely a polytheistic priest, but after these events, news of which had spread all over the land, he is convinced that God is truly God over all.
The second half of this chapter shows us how desperately man needs a ruler. We need authority and governance and this passage underlines how difficult and taxing that can be to manage. As the nation’s figurehead, spiritual guru, leader, and relator of divine messages, Moses had a responsibility to judge the people and to make sure that they acted in line with the principles of God. As yet without the ten commandments and a structure by which to govern, Moses was left to oversee by default. Matters large and small were brought before him daily so that he could rule and decide what should happen for the questioning parties. As Jethro watches these hearings and judgments occur, he notices the toll it is taking on Moses and can see how, in the future, it will burn Moses out.
Jethro, in his mature wisdom, suggests that Moses teach the people about God and that he appoints men capable of judging over different-sized factions of the population. The two-pronged approach of teaching and appointing capable judges will greatly lessen the burden. With the absence of anything to refer to or a decree of some sort, the people needed guidance. Teaching the people the statutes, the laws, and how to live will help them to know for themselves what is wrong and what is right. The newly appointed judges (judging over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens) will help the people in matters that they are not able to handle for themselves – disputes, points needing clarity, and the like. There is a sort of implied hierarchy in this informal structure as well, where one supposes that the men more proficient at making judgments will oversee the higher number of people. These men will fear God, seek the truth, and hate covetousness. What a desirable triad of qualities we should all have!
But this need to disperse information and share the burden of oversight among capable men is a sort of precursor to the model of organization we see in the new testament church with deacons and elders. God recognizes that there are those among us that are prepared to guide, oversee and help, while there are others in His kingdom that need the benefits of these blessings. I Corinthians 12:4: “For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function.”
Jethro’s advice boils down to what the business or manufacturing world thinks of as process improvement. Simplify and improve to use less energy to accomplish greater output.
The best and biggest lesson for us in this chapter is that at best, we need help to govern ourselves. This is true at the community level, the church level and the personal level. Even the most faithful Christian among us falters and needs guidance, or at least a shoulder to lean on. It is often quoted, but Jeremiah 10:23-24 categorically encapsulates our need for God’s Word to govern our lives: “O Lord, I know the way of man is not in himself; It is not in man who walks to direct his own steps. O Lord, correct me, but with justice; Not in Your anger, lest You bring me to nothing.”
Each of us needs loving yet difficult correction from God. Without Him, we are rudderless ships in a sea, seeking a port in the storm, rarely finding peace. And if we should find peace without God, it is shallow, fleeting, and brittle. Only the true, lasting peace that God offers through His infinite mercy can prepare us for the deep troubles of life.