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1. When Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses' father in law (his relation by marriage, a term of very wide application), heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel his people, and that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt (the supreme fact);
2. Then Jethro, Moses' father in law, took Zipporah, Moses' wife, after he had sent her back (after her dismissal by Moses),
3. And her two sons; of which the name of the one was Gershom; for he said, I have been an alien in a strange land:
4. And the name of the other was Eliezer; for the God of my father, said he, was mine help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh:
5. And Jethro, Moses' father in law, came with his sons and his wife unto Moses into the wilderness, where he encamped at the mount of God (used in a broad sense of the whole mountain region):
6. And he said unto Moses, I thy father in law Jethro am come unto thee, and thy wife, and her two sons with her.
7. And Moses went out to meet his father in law, and did obeisance (Oriental etiquette, not implying the superiority of Jethro), and kissed him (common form of salutation in the East); and they asked each other of their welfare (said to each other, Peace be with you); and they came into the tent 8. And Moses told his father in law all that the Lord had done unto Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel's sake, and all the travail that had come upon them by the way, and how the Lord delivered them.
9. And Jethro rejoiced for all the goodness which the Lord had done to Israel, whom he had delivered out of the hand of the Egyptians.
10. And Jethro said, Blessed be the Lord, who hath delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians, and out of the hand of Pharaoh, who hath delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians.
11. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods: for in the thing wherein they dealt proudly he was above them.
12. And Jethro, Moses' father in law, 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 (and thus acknowledged his priesthood, as Abraham had acknowledged the priesthood of Melchisedek).
13. And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses sat to judge the people (ability to judge was thought to indicate fitness for kingship): and the people stood by Moses from the morning unto the evening.
14. And when Moses' father in law saw all that he did to the people, he said, What is this thing that thou dpest to the people? why sittest thou thyself alone (this word is emphatic), and all the people stand by thee from morning unto even?
15. And Moses said unto his father in law, Because the people come unto me to inquire of God:
16. When they have a matter, they come unto me; and I judge between one and another, and I do make them know the statutes of God, and his laws.
17. And Moses' father in law said unto him. The thing that thou doest is not good.
18. Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou, and this people that is with thee: for this thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone.
19. Hearken now unto my voice, I will give thee counsel, and God shall be with thee (May God be with thee, a prayer rather than a promise): Be thou for the people to Godward, that thou mayest bring the causes unto God (do the highest work):
20. And thou shalt teach them ordinances and laws, and shalt shew them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do.
21. Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men (Jethro himself had his subordinates), such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness (a comprehensive description of "able men"); and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens (organisation on the decimal system):
22. And let them judge the people at all seasons: and it shall be, that every great matter they shall bring unto thee, but every small matter they shall judge: so shall it be easier for thyself, and they shall bear the burden with thee.
23. If thou shalt do this thing, and God command thee so, then thou shalt be able to endure, and all this people shall also go to their place in peace.
24. So Moses hearkened to the voice of his father in law, and did all that he had said.
25. And Moses chose able men out of all Israel, and made them heads over the people, rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.
26. And they judged the people at all seasons: the hard causes they brought unto Moses, but every small matter they judged themselves.
27. And Moses let his father in law depart; and he went his way into his own land.
Jethro's Counsel to Moses
The work which Moses attempted in his own strength strongly indicated the character of the man. He undertook to settle the dispute between the Egyptian and the Hebrew, and he did settle it by the destruction of the former. He interposed between the Hebrews who were striving one with another, and would have determined the contest without consultation with any man. He asked no help when he saw the shepherds ill-treating the daughters of Jethro; he took counsel with himself alone, and delivered the maidens from their oppressors. In the case before us we see precisely the same characteristics: Moses was the sovereign of Israel, and as such administered all matters, great and small. He did not foresee the results of the service in which he was so laboriously engaged. It was an older head than his own that saw the consequences of toil so uninterrupted and exhausting. For the time being Moses was borne up by the excitement of the situation, or by his love of the work; but Jethro foresaw that an increase of this kind of exacting labour would wear out the strongest and boldest man in all the hosts of Israel. The worker does not always see the bearing or the issues of the ministry in which he is engaged. Excitement suspends the judicial faculty. The warrior in the midst of the battle is not in a position to judge so completely and certainly as the spectator who observes the scene from a distance. It ought to be the part of a wise and generous friendship to point out to men when they are working too much, and wasting in exaggeration energies which might be beneficently exercised through a longer period of time. Some men live intensely, their lives are short, but the measure of their service is complete; they do not pause, they have no Sabbath days: with an unwise prodigality they expend their whole force within a brief hour. Such men are not always just to society. A rich man has no right to give so profusely as to cut off the occasion of liberality in others. The strong man ought not to be at liberty to do so much work with his own hands as to render the labour of others unnecessary.
It was upon this principle that Jethro proceeded in the case of Moses. The great leader of Israel, though leading a life of laborious self-sacrifice, was actually falling below the requirements of social justice. He seemed to be acting on the conviction that he only could manage, arrange, and otherwise successfully administer all the affairs of the people. It never occurred to him that he was allowing the talent of others to lie idle. Talent requires to be evoked. It is true indeed that genius asserts itself, and clears for itself space and prominence equal to its measure of supremacy; on the other hand, it is equally true that much sound ability may become dormant, simply because the leaders of society do not call it into responsible exercise. The counsel which Moses received from Jethro inspired Israel with new life. From the moment that it was acted upon, talent rose to the occasion: energy was accounted of some value, and men who had probably been sulking in the background came to be recognised and honoured as wise statesmen and cordial allies. There is more talent in society than we suspect. It needs the sunshine of wise encouragement in order to develop it. There is a lesson in this suggestion for all who lead the lives of men. Specially, perhaps, there is a lesson to pastors of churches. It is a poor church in which there is not more talent than has yet been developed. When Saul saw any strong man and any valiant man, he took him to himself. This is the law of sure progress and massive consolidation in church life. Let us keep our eyes open for men of capacity and good-will, and the more we watch the more shall our vigilance be rewarded. We should try men by imposing responsibilities upon them. There is range enough in church organisation for the trial and strengthening of every gift. Better be a door-keeper in the house of God than a sluggard, and infinitely better sweep the church floor than lounge upon the pew-top, and find fault with the sweeping of other people. Every man in the Church ought to be doing something. If the pattern be taken from the case described in the context, there need be no fear of rivalry or tumult. The arrangement indicated by Jethro was based upon the severest discipline. The position of Moses was supreme and undisputed; every great case was to be referred to his well-tried judgment, and in all cases of contention his voice was to determine the counsels of the camp. There must be a ruling mind in the Church, and all impertinence and other self-exaggeration must be content to bow submissively to the master-will. Very possibly there may be danger in sudden development of mental activity and social influence; but it must be remembered, on the other hand, that there is infinitely deadlier peril in allowing spiritual energy and emotion to fall into disuse. In the former case we may have momentary impertinence, conceit, and coxcombry; but in the latter we shall have paralysis and distortion more revolting than death itself.
Jethro counselled Moses "to be for the people Godward, 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 organisation 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. Some persons apparently suppose that time is lost which is not spent in the excitement of social activity. Understand that silence may be better than speech, that prayer is the best preparation for service; and that the duties of magistracy may well be displaced by the higher duties of spiritual devotion. Moses was, undoubtedly, to all human appearance, a much busier man when he did all the business of Israel himself than when he called lieutenants to his assistance; but what was subtracted from his activity was added to the wealth of his heart, and though he made less noise, he exerted a wider influence. Is there not a lesson for the people in the position which Moses occupied at the suggestion of Jethro? Is it nothing to society to have intercessors? Is it nothing that the chief minds of the age should be engaged in the study of truth for the benefit of others? It ought to be the supreme joy of our social life that there are men of capacity, of earnestness, and of high spiritual penetration and sympathy, who devote their whole energy to the stimulus and culture of our best powers. The ministry of any country should be the fountain of its power. Ministers are to study the character of God, to acquaint themselves with all the secrets of truth, and to comprehend as far as possible the necessity and desire of the human heart, and the result of their endeavours will express itself in a luminous and tender ministry. This is work enough for any man. He who is faithful to this vocation will find that he has no energy to spare for the trifles of a moment, or even for the subordinate questions of serious public life. The time which a minister spends in secrecy may enable him most successfully to teach the deep things of God. It is not enough that he be prepared with matter, he must have time and opportunity to enter into the spirit of his work. His knowledge may be wide and correct, but whatever is wanting in the reality and sensitiveness of his sympathy will be so much subtracted from his spiritual wisdom and strength,
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Exodus 18". Parker's The People's Bible. https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26