The Pulpit Commentary

Exodus 18:13-26 (Exodus 18:13-26)

- The Pulpit Commentary

Exodus 18:25 (Exodus 18:25)

Moses chose able men . It appears from Deuteronomy 1:13 , that instead of selecting the men himself, which would have been an invidious task, Moses directed their nomination by the people, and only reserved to himself the investing them wit h their authority. Heads over the people . From the time of their appointment, the "rulers" were not merely judges, but "heads" of their respective companies, with authority over them on the march, and command in the battle-field ( Numbers 31:14 ). Thus the organisation was at once civil and military.

- The Pulpit Commentary

Exodus 18:13-27 (Exodus 18:13-27)

The appointment of judges.

During the few days that Jethro was with Moses, he did the latter an essential service, and initiated nothing short of a revolution in the manner of conducting judicial business. Besides its immediate lessons (noted below), this incident of the appointment of judges is valuable as illustrating—

1 . The scope left in the arrangements of Israel for the independent action of the human mind. Various examples of this occur in the history— e.g; the retention of Hobab as a guide in the wanderings ( Numbers 10:31 ), and the suggestion of the spies ( Deuteronomy 1:22 ).

2 . The truth that in God's ways of dealing with Israel, existing capabilities were utilised to the utmost. We have seen this in regard to the miracles, ,rod again in the conflict with Amalek; it is now to be noted in the formation of a polity. The same principle probably applies to what is said in Exodus 18:16 of Moses making the people to "know the statutes of God and his laws." That Moses, in giving forth these statutes, acted under supernatural direction, and frequently by express instruction of God, is not to be denied; but it is equally certain that existing usages, embodying principles of right, were taken advantage of as far as they went. We cannot err in supposing that it is this same case-made law which, in its completed form, and under special Divine sanction, is embodied in the code of chs. 21-23. But neither in substance nor in form is this code, so various in its details, a direct Divine product. It grew up under Moses' hand in these decisions in the wilderness. Traditional materials were freely incorporated into it.

3 . The assistance which a man of moderate gifts is often capable of rendering to another, greatly his superior. Jethro's was certainly a mind of no ordinary capacity; but we do this excellent man no injustice in speaking of his gifts as moderate in comparison with the splendid abilities of Moses. Yet his natural shrewdness and plain common-sense enabled him to detect a blunder in Moses' system of administration of which the lawgiver himself was apparently oblivious, and furnished him, moreover, with the suggestion of a remedy. The greatest minds are in this way often dependent on the humblest, and are, by the dependence, taught humility and respect for the gifts of others. There is no one who is not his neighbour's superior in some matter—none from whom his neighbour may not learn something . The college-bred man may learn from the rustic or mechanic, the merchant from his clerk, the statesman from the humblest official in his department, the doctor of divinity from the country minister, studious men generally, from those engaged in practical callings. Let no man, therefore, despise another. Jethro could teach Moses; and the plainest man, drawing on the stores with which experience has furnished him, need not despair of being of like service to those above him. It is for our own good. that God binds us together in these relations of dependence, and we should be thankful that he does so. "The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need. of thee: nor, again, the head to the feet, I have no need of thee," etc. (l Corinthians 12- Exodus 14:31 ). Observe—

I. MOSES ' ERROR ( Exodus 23:13 ). He took upon himself the whole burden of the congregation. He sat from morning till evening to hear their causes. We naturally wonder that the suggestion of appointing judges was left to come from Jethro—that so obvious an expedient for getting rid of the difficulty did not occur to Moses himself. It is astonishing, however, how wise a man may be in great things, and yet miss some little bit of sense which is right before his vision, and which is picked up at once by another and possibly a more ordinary mind. It is of Sir IsaActs Newton the story is told, that being troubled by the visits of a cat and kitten, he fell on the expedient of making two holes in his study door to admit of their entrance and exit— a large hole for the cat, and a small hole for the kitten ! Moses' error, we may be sure, did not arise from that which is a snare to so many in responsible positions—an exaggerated idea of his own importance. He would not fancy that everything must be managed by himself, because no one else was able to do it so well. But:—

1 . The burden which now pressed upon him had probably grown from small beginnings. It is proverbially easier to set a system in operation, than to get rid of it again, when it presses and becomes inconvenient.

2 . Moses probably accepted the position of judge and arbiter, as inseparable from the peculiar relation in which he stood to the people. They naturally looked to him, God's delegate, and in some sense their spiritual father, as the proper person to hear their causes, and settle their disputes. He felt the burden, but submitted to it as inevitable.

3 . It was a further difficulty in the situation that no code of laws had as yet been formed; he was making the law as well as deciding cases. This may have seemed a bar in the way of the appointment of deputies.

4 . The method by which the reform could be accomplished was not obvious. Jethro's scheme exactly met the case; but it had not as yet been suggested. Even had it occurred to Moses, he might have shrunk from entertaining it. There is always a hesitancy felt in entering on reforms which necessitate a large recasting of the frame-work of society, which involve new and untried arrangements. Difficulties might have been anticipated in finding the requisite number of men, in imparting to them the requisite amount of instruction, in making the scheme popular among the people, etc. It is useful to observe that when the scheme was actually set on foot, these difficulties did not prove to be insuperable. Nor, when Jethro made his proposal, do the difficulties seem to have been much thought of. Moses saw the wisdom of the plan, and readily adopted it. We are often thus kept back from useful undertakings by the ghosts of our own fears.

II. JETHRO 'S EXPOSTULATION ( Exodus 23:14-19 ). If Moses did not see the mistake he was committing, Jethro did. To his clearer vision, the evils of the system in vogue were abundantly apparent, he saw:—

1 . That Moses was taking upon himself a task to which his strength was quite unequal ( Exodus 23:18 ).

2 . That, notwithstanding his exertions, the work was not being done.

3 . That the time and energy which Moses was expending in these labours could be bestowed to infinitely better purpose ( Exodus 23:20 ).

4 . Above all, that this expenditure of strength on subordinate tasks was unnecessary, seeing that there were men in the camp as capable as Moses himself of doing a large part of the work ( Exodus 23:21 ). On these grounds he based his expostulation. The lessons taught are of great importance.

III. THE PROPOSAL OF THE APPOINTMENT OF JUDGES ( Exodus 23:19-27 ). Jethro's scheme had every merit which a scheme of the kind could have. It relieved Moses, provided for the overtaking of the work, and secured that, while being overtaken, the work would be done with greater efficiency. It was a bold, comprehensive measure, yet withal perfectly workable. It would also have an important effect in welding the nation together. It is to be noted concerning it:—

1 . That it reserved to Moses various important duties ( Exodus 23:19 , Exodus 23:20 ). he was still to be the teacher of the people in the ordinances and laws of God, and had the duty of trying and of deciding upon causes of special difficulty. This would fully occupy his powers, while his relation to the people, as God's vicegerent, would be better preserved by his retaining a position apart, and keeping himself from their petty strifes.

2 . That special stress is laid upon the character of the men to be selected as judges ( Exodus 23:21 ). Ability is not overlooked, but peculiar importance is attached to their being men that fear God, love truth, and hate covetousness. Happy the country which has such judges! Jethro's insistance on these particulars shows him to have been a man of true piety, and one who had an eye to the true interests of the people, as well as to the good of Moses.

3 . The scheme, before being adopted, was to be submitted for God's approval ( Exodus 23:23 ). This should be done with all our schemes. Jethro, having accomplished this useful bit of work, returned to his home in peace ( Exodus 23:27 ).— J . O .

- The Pulpit Commentary

Exodus 18:17-27 (Exodus 18:17-27)

The Economy of Force.

"The thing that thou doest is not good," etc. Exodus 18:17 , Exodus 18:18 . In the error of Moses, and the amendment suggested by Jethro, are to be discovered most valuable lessons. This day in the life of Moses was a microcosm of all his days. His whole life was service. So with all true life. But in such a life mistakes are possible. We inquire then what are the Divine conditions of a life of true ministry?

I. CHARACTER . The elements were laid down by Jethro as qualifications of the new judges. Certain that Moses possessed them. So must all who aim at usefulness ( Exodus 18:21 ).

1 . Ability . Strange that ability comes first; but so it must be. Piety without ability can adorn only obscurity. Service and responsibility demand the man of power. Ability may be natural; but is also to be acquired. Hence duty of hard work, especially in morning of life.

2 . Piety . Ability is the engine of the soul, the fear of God the helm. Richard Cobden was wont to say:—"You have no security for a man who has no religious principle." Said his colonel to Hedley Vicars, offering him in 1852 the adjutancy of his regiment:—"Vicars, you are the man I can best trust with responsibility.''

3 . Truth .

4 . Disinterestedness .

II. ECONOMY , i.e; of force and of resource ( Exodus 18:17 , Exodus 18:18 ) . Remark:—

1 . That the most earnest are likely to neglect it. It is not the hack but the thoroughbred that needs to be held in. The energy of Moses led him into error. So earnestness kills itself with excess of work.

2 . That there is necessity for economy . As with money, one must not spend 25s. a week, if one has only 20s.; so there is a limitation as to strength (of every kind), time, and opportunity.

3 . That the economy is easy . The Christian worker should not attempt that which is above, beside , or beneath his power or vocation. Nor all that is on the level of his ability.

4 . That the consequences will be abundant and rich . The result of division of labour in a factory; so with spiritual enterprise, the effects will be the enrichment of the Church, and the largest service for the world.

III. CONCENTRATION . The more we withdraw effort from that which is not within our own province, the more must we accumulate and concentrate energy upon that which is.— R .

- The Pulpit Commentary

Exodus 18:13-27 (Exodus 18:13-27)

Good counsel well taken.


1 . Moses' strength was overtaxed, his spirit needlessly burdened.

2 . There was delay for the people with its vexation and loss. The most self-sacrificing love will not of itself make our methods the best and wisest.


1 . Affectionate interest and care. The people's need and Moses' burden both weigh upon Jethro's spirit.

2 . Wisdom. A better way is clearly conceived, all the requirements of the case are grasped and met.

3 . Honest plainness.

4 . Piety. He asked Moses to take his advice only so far as God will command him.


1 . Readiness to listen. There is on Moses' part no proud resenting of a stranger's interference. The voice was heard as if it rose up within his own bosom.

2 . Obedience to conviction. He not only heard and assented, he went and did it.— U .

- The Pulpit Commentary

Exodus 18:13-26 (Exodus 18:13-26)

Jethro's advice.

In considering this passage it is desirable to form some distinct opinion as to the time of Jethro's visit to Moses . How comes this episode to be mentioned at all , and what is its point of attachment to the main course of the history? Evidently it would not have been inserted unless as explaining how these rulers of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens, had first been appointed. The origin of this appointment is then seen to be traceable to Jethro's prudent and sagacious suggestions. It has then to be further explained how Jethro happens to be in the camp at all. And so we have another illustration of how things which seem utterly disconnected from one another yet have a very real connection. See Zipporah on the way from Midian to Egypt rebelling against the ordinance of the Lord; and then look on all this orderly and careful provision for the administration of justice through the tribes of Israel. What connection should there be between these? Yet one leads to the other. As to the time of the visit, any exact determination is of course out of the question, but this much at least may be guessed that the visit was alter the giving of the law. What if it happened just about the time of Miriam's jealousy against Moses, and was in some measure the cause of it? ( Numbers 12:1-16 .) Such a supposition too would better harmonise with the reference in Exodus 18:16 , when Moses represents himself as explaining the statutes of God and his laws. May we not almost say that if this chapter were inserted somewhere in the earlier part of the book of Numbers, and from it we looked back on all the mass of legislation in Exodus and Leviticus, it would read with far greater force?

I. WE HAVE GOD 'S PEOPLE PRESENTED TO US AS ABOUNDING IN OCCASIONS OF DISPUTE AMONG THEMSELVES . This appears as a certain consequence of that spirit of self-seeking so manifest and strong among them. The law from Sinai of course conflicted with many old and honoured traditions. That law had been given to secure in the first place a nation devoted to the service of God; and in the second place the mutual prosperity of all the members of that nation. If only every Israelite had obeyed these laws from the heart, and entered into the spirit of them, then the prosperity of all would have been ensured. But as a matter of fact most part of the Israelites wanted to conform to the laws just so far as suited their convenience and no further. Laws were to be interpreted very strictly when such interpretations were for their advantage, ant[ very loosely when the contrary. The disputes, misunderstandings, and lawsuits of society are a great reproach, and ought to be a great humiliation. Think of all the machinery which is in daily operation through such a land as England to secure, as far as may be, the doing of right between man and man. And yet this machinery, expensive and elaborate as it is, works in a very unsatisfactory way; indeed that which is meant to work justice very often works injustice, and certainly very seldom ensures the exact attainment of right. Hence, however pleased we are to look on Jethro's suggestions here, and see them carried out with a measure of success, we feel that they must not he suffered to hide an end more desirable still. Law reformers cry out, and with ample cause, for the adoption of such means as will secure a cheap and speedy settlement of all disputes. But how much more would be gained if only there was a universal acceptance of the Gospel, with all its powers and principles! That Gospel puts into man a loving and unselfish heart and a spirit of brotherliness, which, if allowed fair play, would soon do away with litigation and all that leads to it. A world of Christians would be a simple-hearted, plain-living people, ever acting towards one another in truth, kindness, and goodwill. Cheap justice is good; but the new heavens and the new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness, are much better.

II. WE SEE MOSES DOING HIS BEST , BY INDIVIDUAL EFFORT , TO RECONCILE AND SATISFY THESE DISPUTANTS . We get the impression of a man whose hands are full with his judicial work. When his own dear kinsfolk come in such affecting and pressing circumstances, he can only spare for them a brief interval; and a large part of that interval seems to have been occupied with religious exercises. With the morning light Moses settles down to what he must have found a weary and discouraging work. Many a perjury, many an impudent claim, many a reckless slander, many a pitiful story of oppression and extortion he would have to listen to. It is the daily work of judges and magistrates to deal with the seamy side of human nature, but then this is their business; they look for it, they get used to it, above all they are paid for it. Perhaps they would say, most of them, that it is no affair of theirs to ask too curiously whence all this disputing comes and how it is to be cured. They are there to administer laws and not to make them. But Moses was more than a judge. He had not only to settle these disputes by the way, but also to guide the disputers towards Canaan. We are perfectly certain, too, that the great bulk of those against whom justice compelled him to decide would become his enemies. Yet he struggled on, accepting the responsibility, and trying to get the laws of God for Israel more and more accepted among the people. He indeed sets us, in this matter, a noble example. The pressure which was upon him will never rest upon us, for all men sought him; but we also have our limited opportunity, larger alas! than we seek to use, of advancing the things that make for peace. There is so much to promote discord, so much to excite partisan spirit; there are so many to tear every rent wider, instead of putting in the little stitch in time that saves nine, that we may well ask for grace, gentleness, fidelity, and impartiality, in order to put in our intervening word when such a word may be possible and acceptable. The more we think of all that there is in this world acting, often alas! consciously and deliberately, to spite, separate, and irritate, the more let us determine to form part of a reuniting and cementing force.

III. NOTICE THE TIMELY PRESENCE AND COUNSEL OF JETHRO . Truly there is appearance here of something unaccountable in the dealings of God. Such a seemingly important matter as the judicial system of Israel owes its existence to the suggestion of an outsider. And yet it might have been thought that this was exactly one of the things which Jehovah would provide for by express enactments. When it is a matter of making the tabernacle, he is very particular as to measurements and materials, but when it is a matter of judging causes, he leaves it to be determined by the advice of an apparently casual visitant to the camp. There is nothing really strange in all this, if we remember that God only instructs us where we cannot make discoveries for ourselves. Revelation does not supersede, it rather assumes and requires the exercise of common sense and natural judgment. We find a somewhat parallel case to this in the New Testament when the deacons were appointed. Common sense told the apostles they were becoming burdened with work which did not properly belong to them, and only hindered them in the doing of work for which they were specially responsible; and so here the common sense of Jethro steps in to suggest to Moses a more excellent way. Why did not Moses think of it himself? The very fact that he did not shed a great deal of light on his character. His strength lay not in personal initiation, but in complete waiting and dependence on God. If God had commanded the institution of these rulers, he would very quickly have had the command in operation; but he never thought of proposing the plan himself. But when another proposes it, he can see at once that it is a wise, practicable, and necessary one. Moses is not to be blamed as wanting in sagacity in that he failed to see this remedy before. Great discoveries are simple enough when once they are made; and then everyone wonders they were not made long before.

IV. OBSERVE THE DETAILS OF JETHRO 'S ADVICE . Not only does he suggest the obtaining of help from somewhere, but taking in the whole situation at a glance, he can suggest exactly the best thing to be done. Probably as a priest in Midian he had seen a great many disputings and helped to some extent in the settlement of them. We cannot but feel as we read. through the details of the counsel, that whatever may be lacking in Jethro's formal standing, he acquits himself as one who is really and opportunely the messenger of God. He speaks as a good and true man ought to speak both for the relief of his kinsman and for the abiding good of the whole people. He judges that in Israel itself there are resources enough to meet the emergency, if only properly searched out and arranged. Given 600,000 men, surely among them there will be a fair proportion who have the qualities required. Notice that Jethro aims at a high standard (verse 21); able men are wanted, and wherein does the ability consist? No doubt a certain acuteness and general power of mind was required, hut the chief elements of the ability lay in those qualities which Jethro went on to specify. An efficient judge between man and man must be also one who fears God. The fear of man that bringeth a snare must not be allowed to enter his mind. He must measure things by Divine standards, ever asking what God would wish his judgments to be. He must be a man of truth, sparing no effort and avoiding no danger; in order to get at it he must try to keep his mind clear from prejudices. If he has fallen into any error he will promptly confess it, feeling that the interests of truth are more important than a reputation for consistency. And he must be free from covetousness. No suspicion of a bribe will cling to his judgments, nor will he be infected with that worldliness of spirit which looks to the property of men a great deal more than to the interest and comfort of their persons. But now the half-incredulous question cannot be kept out of the mind, "where shall such judges be found?" At all events let them be sought for. We cannot find perfect men; but we know the direction in which to seek. Probably, in the course of a long life, Jethro has discovered that men are both better and worse than he thought at first; and he is perfectly certain that men can be found to do all that is indispensably requisite for the present need. Moses was wearing himself out with duties which many in Israel were quite competent to perform; but who of them all could do the work which had been rut specially into his hands?— Y .

- The Pulpit Commentary