Exodus is not a chapter in Moses’ memoirs but the unfolding story of God’s great salvation. His reticence in bringing himself forward speaks volumes to the authenticity and divine authority of the Pentateuch. It also verifies the Spirit’s assessment that he was the meekest man who ever lived (Num. 12:3). Like most who have spent any time in the wilderness or mountaintop with God, Moses was fundamentally altered – God-centered, willing to spend and be spent for God’s people, and self-effacing, He is not silent about his family connections, but Moses was led to record what was of permanent value for the church and magnified the grace of salvation. We see the way that a family through God’s grace can be fruitful and glorify him. This is something we can and must practice, for it is the main way that “one generation praises his name to the next.” In addition to this, Moses’ family gave to the world the precious legacy of civil wisdom and justice through Jethro’s advice about a system of graded courts. Had Moses not been as meek or teachable as he was, he might have been dismissive of his father-in-law, or thought he knew better, but he listened, and as a result bestowed to the world important lessons about good leadership and government.
Genuine Love, Care, and Interest Vital (vv. 1-6)
1 Moses' father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people -- that the LORD had brought Israel out of Egypt. 2 Then Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses' wife, after he had sent her back, 3 with her two sons, of whom the name of one was Gershom (for he said, "I have been a stranger in a foreign land") 4 and the name of the other was Eliezer (for he said, "The God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh"); 5 and Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, came with his sons and his wife to Moses in the wilderness, where he was encamped at the mountain of God. 6 Now he had said to Moses, "I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you with your wife and her two sons with her."
Good Tidings (vv. 1-2)
A family is naturally interested in the doings of its members, and Moses’ family was no different. Jethro was his father-in-law, and a Midianite. The Midianites were descended through Abraham’s marriage with Keturah (Gen. 25:1), and while racially akin to the Hebrews, they were enemies of God and Israel’s proverbial enemy. They were usually aligned with the Moabites and were idolaters of the first order. Thus, when Moses took Zipporah to be his wife, God introduces saving knowledge into Jethro’s family through Moses’ witness. Jethro was a priest of Midian, which unless we are to assume an unlikely Melchizedek role for him, assumes that he was an idolater. Moses had spent forty years with Jethro, and the Lord uses his witness to begin a work upon Jethro’s heart which reaches a saving conclusion in this visit. Jethro heard what God had done for Moses and for Israel. He was interested as Moses’ father-in-law, but this was more than family pride. He wanted to come and hear for himself (v. 6). Was the history of the covenant of grace that Moses had taught him – the times after Abraham that the Midianites had missed because of their idolatry – true? Could it be that Yahweh was the true and therefore the only God and that his family needed to repent of their idolatry? His heart had been plowed up by Moses’ words. He had heard second hand of God’s great deliverance of Israel and destruction of Egypt. He wanted to hear from his son’s mouth.
We know that a prophet is not usually honored by his family, so Jethro’s willingness to be taught by his one-time vagabond son-in-law is remarkable. Do we not often find it difficult to speak of Christ in our own families? Perhaps we should begin, as Jethro and Moses did, simply by celebrating what God has done for us in Christ, not our personal feelings or spiritual emotions at a given time. Then we shall always have something to discuss and to celebrate, for who can exhaust his mighty works, past and present, and also in our own lives, if we would but stop to consider his daily mercies, answers to prayer, the encouragement of his Spirit, and countless other testimonies to his presence and love in our lives. Jethro was not too high and mighty as a priest of another deity to listen to his son-in-law, and Moses paid great respect to his father-in-law. Thus, simply being a “family” is no guarantee of love and even of endurance; the eternal must be introduced into the family and made central – God and his mighty works – for the family fails to realize its true potential, which is to glorify God, perpetuate his truth upon the earth, and to contribute to our Savior’s kingdom.
Wife and Children Returned (vv. 3-6)
Jethro’s second purpose in visiting Moses at this time was to return Zipporah and his two sons. Moses and Israel were in the neighborhood, so to speak, and Moses’ family must now be returned to him. But why were they separated? Some have said that “sent her away” suggests that they had been divorced after the affair at the inn, when Zipporah angrily circumcised Moses’ son, likely Eliezer, by her own hand. That was a tense moment between husband and wife, but there is nothing that suggests that they were divorced – and only for one year? Zipporah is also called Moses’ wife (v. 2), so we should not understand the separation in this way. Calvin said that that when Israel entered the Wilderness of Sin, which was close to Midian, that Zipporah went to visit her family and was now returning, perhaps after a visit of a few weeks. He did not like the idea that Moses would have sent her back to her family before returning to confront Pharaoh, for then she would have missed God’s great deliverance. For my part, however, I think this is exactly what Moses had done. Remember that Moses returned to Egypt with great trepidation and perhaps even dogged by unbelief – which may explain his delay in circumcising Eliezer – and the name he gave him. “The Lord will be my help.” And as the Israelites were not Zipporah’s people, Moses wished to keep her safe and not make her an object of Egyptian reprisals, should his mission fail or require his life. Thus, I think Moses and Zipporah had been separated for the better part of a year and now after Jethro heard of what God had done for his people, he rightly returned her to Moses.
The Tie that Binds (vv. 7-12)
7 So Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, bowed down, and kissed him. And they asked each other about their well-being, and they went into the tent. 8 And Moses told his father-in-law all that the LORD had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel's sake, all the hardship that had come upon them on the way, and how the LORD had delivered them. 9 Then Jethro rejoiced for all the good which the LORD had done for Israel, whom He had delivered out of the hand of the Egyptians. 10 And Jethro said, "Blessed be the LORD, who has delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians and out of the hand of Pharaoh, and who has delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. 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." 12 Then Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, took a burnt offering and other sacrifices to offer to God. And Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses' father-in-law before God.
Strongest Ties Forged by Shared Faith and Joy (vv. 7-11)
Moses’ affectionate reunion with his father-in-law certainly places our coldness or machismo in a very poor light. Moses respected and loved his father-in-law, and he did not hesitate to express his filial honor. He made “obeisance,” or bowed low before Jethro – a very strange sight to see the deliverer of Israel and servant of Christ’s house bowing before a Midianite. But serving Christ does not make us worse but better sons and daughters, not less affectionate but more so, else our religion is a sham. He who made provision for his mother from the cross will surely condemn children who refuse to follow his tender example. The honor Moses expressed for Jethro was fueled by forty years of conversation and work together, as well as Jethro’s domestic hospitality. And undoubtedly Moses regularly spoke to Jethro of his hope that the Lord would rescue his people and how his hopes to be used in that way had been dashed by his violent impetuosity. Now, however, father and son-in-law had much to celebrate. The formalities were warm, as each inquired about the other’s wellbeing. Let family members put down their technology, talk with each other, and endeavor to be seriously interested in one another, and we shall soon see a revolution in improved affection, true family usefulness, and meaningful warmth that will be a preservative against attacks from the unbelieving world.
And the deepest tie that would come to bind them was God himself. The eternal – God and his word, life in his Son and Spirit, mutual joy and dependence upon his grace – must be the center of human relationships that will be truly fulfilling and fuel praise to God. Before every other consideration, Moses told Jethro what God had done to Egypt and Pharaoh for the sake of his people. The deliverance at the Red Sea and miraculous provision of manna received prominence. Jethro then rejoiced in the goodness of the Lord. Yes, his son’s most fervent hopes had been realized. Moses’ forty years of isolation and preparation had been amply rewarded. But there was more to this than paternal pride. Jethro rejoiced in the Lord’s goodness – notice the use of God’s covenant name – and now his heart was convinced. “Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods.” The Midianite priest and idolater has been converted to the worship of the true God. And then: “for the thing wherein they dealt proudly, he was above them.” As he saw Israel’s tents and people sprawled before him and heard firsthand of the plagues that exposed Egypt’s gods, Jethro knew that this could only have occurred by the hand of the true God. Only he could have broken the power of Egypt and delivered Israel from slavery. His heart was humbled before the true God.
“God is known by the judgments that he executes” (Ps. 9:16). “For when thy judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the land will learn righteousness” (Isa. 26:9). “And when he comes, he will reprove the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment” (John 16:8). If we look for an apologetic method or a discipleship key that convinced Jethro that God was the true and only God, we should observe two things. First, Moses bore constant and diligent witness during the forty years he lived in Jethro’s tents. He related all that he knew of God’s promises and covenant with his people. Second, when God delivered his people and judged Egypt, Jethro was convinced of the truth of God’s word. So, we might say that the witness of his son-in-law prepared his heart and continued to confront his unbelief and idolatry. Then, God shattered all resistance by his power.
In most cases, we must see or be faced in some way with God’s judgments against sin before we shall flee to Christ for refuge and forsake our idols. Salvation and regeneration are not merely mental shifts from one allegiance to another. There is conviction of sin and judgment, God’s wrath against sin and faithfulness to his people, for which we must pray and bear constant witness to the world. Then, when God judges – and no amount of technological mastery and scientific control or explanation will prevent him from judging his enemies – men will tremble against before his majesty. The church’s unwillingness to proclaim God’s judgment against sin and our inability to see his more common judgments in everyday life and to show the connection between sin and misery, sin and broken homes, sin and political tyranny, Christlessness and societal destruction, breakdown, and chaos of every kind, is one sure reason that men’s hearts are not plowed up to receive the good seed. We mute the gospel, lie about the nature of man, preach a false gospel, and foolishly endeavor to pull Christ down from the cross when we speak of “bad things happening to good people” and coddle sinners rather than teaching them that they have become enemies of God through wickedness and must repent.
Father and Son Worship with God’s People (v. 12)
Now as a worshipper of the true God, Jethro takes the lead in bringing a burnt offering to God, which may have signified either his faith and repentance, or a thanksgiving offering (meal) or both. Remember that there was as yet no regulated worship in terms of sacrifices. Moses, Aaron, and all the elders of Israel joined in eating bread together – likely manna, for this is the only bread there was. It may seem strange for Jethro to offer so soon sacrifices to the Lord, and with Moses and Aaron almost under his leadership. But the legitimacy of Jethro’s offering was not tied to any office he held but to the sincerity of his heart before the Lord through repentance and confession. And in those days before a regularized worship, the father was the priest in his home, and it is beautiful to see Moses and Jethro worshipping the Lord together, giving him praise for his mighty works, and thus one generation praising the Lord to the next. Would that all Christian fathers in our day, since the Lord by his grace has made us a kingdom of priests, make family worship the normal rhythm of life. Then, our children would not think it strange for fathers and mothers to pray with their children or for family life to be centered around an open Bible, with each seeking God’s will. When they marry, sons would assume the mantle of spiritual leadership; daughters would not seek any other spouse but one being remade into Christ’s image. Looking for a church, they would seek a body of believers in which to worship the Lord in Spirit and truth, not a place to be entertained and amused with worthless trifles or lifeless ceremonies. Fathers and mothers, worship the Lord with your children, and the future strength of your family and of our churches will take care of itself. God will take care of it, for he dwells in our praises (Ps. 22:3)!
An Older Son Receives His Father’s Wisdom (vv. 13-27)
13 And so it was, on the next day, that Moses sat to judge the people; and the people stood before Moses from morning until evening. 14 So when Moses' father-in-law saw all that he did for the people, he said, "What is this thing that you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit, and all the people stand before you from morning until evening?" 15 And Moses said to his father-in-law, "Because the people come to me to inquire of God. 16 "When they have a difficulty, they come to me, and I judge between one and another; and I make known the statutes of God and His laws." 17 So Moses' father-in-law said to him, "The thing that you do is not good. 18 "Both you and these people who are with you will surely wear yourselves out. For this thing is too much for you; you are not able to perform it by yourself. 19 "Listen now to my voice; I will give you counsel, and God will be with you: Stand before God for the people, so that you may bring the difficulties to God. 20 "And you shall teach them the statutes and the laws, and show them the way in which they must walk and the work they must do. 21 "Moreover you shall select from all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. 22 "And let them judge the people at all times. Then it will be that every great matter they shall bring to you, but every small matter they themselves shall judge. So it will be easier for you, for they will bear the burden with you. 23 "If you do this thing, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all this people will also go to their place in peace." 24 So Moses heeded 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 So they judged the people at all times; the hard cases they brought to Moses, but they judged every small case themselves. 27 Then Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went his way to his own land.
Moses’ Daily Labors Heavy (vv. 13-16)
During this visit, a momentous exchange took place between father and son-in-law. It would have extraordinary ramifications for the history of the Hebrews and for the West, whose legal traditions in their earliest and best forms have much in common with Moses and his civil organization of the Hebrews under God’s direction. Moses served as the prophet-judge of the Hebrews. Like his later Lord, he did good for his people however he could (Acts 10:38). Each day, he judged them from dawn until dusk, adjudicating disputes between them. Already they showed their litigious tendencies as a people. One would think that the bitterness of slavery and the wonders of God’s redeeming work would have driven it from them. But they complained against God when he did not give them the food and drink they wanted, so they would certainly have little compulsion complaining against each other. A reverent, quiet spirit before God makes us humble before men.
In judging them, Moses did not consult his own brain or scan the heavens for natural law. He made known God’s statutes and laws, which God was already making known to him as he carried out the office of prophetic judge and laid the foundations of the commonwealth. These would later be written down and become part of the civil laws of Israel. Notice that God’s laws had nothing to do with the later ceremonial laws, which had not yet been given. It is often argued that the uniqueness of Israel was the union of the state with the church, or the civil with the ceremonial functions, but this is a complete misreading of Israel’s history and of the nature of the laws God gave to them. Moses was here functioning as their civil leader, giving them righteous laws by which they were taught the way to love one another in the fear of God and to practice righteousness toward one another. The organization of the Old Testament church would come soon, beginning with the directions for the construction of the tabernacle, the place of worship. Here, however, Moses is teaching them how to relate to man as a man under God’s authority. And this need is the same today, and in his mercy, God gave to Israel laws social and civil as a model to guide our understanding of justice and righteousness in society (Deut. 4:6-8). When western societies recognized this, there were seasons of peace and prosperity. We now reject God’s law, and the wicked have seized the city.
Jethro’s Warning about Moses’ Leadership (vv. 17-18)
Moses’ daily labors were noble and necessary, but Jethro issued a valid warning. You are going to hurt the people and yourself (v. 14). You are going to wear yourself out (v. 17). Some men think they can do more and more, especially if they are seeking to serve God, but even our Lord took breaks for rest. While we must guard against laziness on the one hand, we must on the other hand avoid the temptation to think we can work and work without a break, even in good and necessary matters. And when we are seeking to serve our families or our Savior’s church, we should never think of our work and service as if everything depends upon us, for our Savior’s gifts and graces are distributed throughout the body. Not all have the gift of government or teaching or mercy, but each believer is given a measure of the Spirit to edify the whole body (1 Cor. 12:7). When only one or a few do everything, they will wear themselves out and send a bad message to others – that they cannot do anything worth doing or that they cannot do what they do very well. In both instances, initiative is quenched and diversity of gifts denied. Plus, the mantle of leadership in the ships of state and church are too heavy for one man alone to bear, which is the reason Jethro’s wisdom is preserved and was later codified (Deut. 1:9). One-man rule is dangerous to him and to the people, even when the best of motives are present. In the absence of those motives, the abuses are legion, for power most certainly has a corrupting tendency even in the best of men. For the safety of the whole commonwealth, it should be distributed as wisely as possible, among as many godly men as can be found to exercise it, according to their capacities and stations.
Standards for Civil Leadership (vv. 19-21)
Jethro spoke from more than fatherly concern for Moses’ welfare. The Lord gave him a degree of wisdom that was a far cry from the centralizing tendencies of the major powers of that age, and of our own. There was then as now the tendency to identify the king or ruling class with God on earth; sometimes the identification was explicit, as in Egypt and Babylon. Jethro was from the desert backwaters, well away from the centers of power, but he saw the political and practical dangers of monopolistic ruling authority. Even so, he does not command Moses but asks for a fair hearing and then lays the question before Moses for the Lord to guide him. His suggestions were simple. Teach other qualified men to handle various portions of the leadership load. The people can bring their causes for adjudication to these men; you can bring the needs of the people to the Lord. And to make sure that justice is done, you must teach the men God’s laws and statutes. Judges are not political activists but decide in terms of an already agreed upon standard of law – God’s. Notice the advice to teach these men the way to walk. A judge of other men must be an example of integrity and holiness, else the people will not respect him or his office. Teach them the way to work out their office, Jethro told Moses.
Compelling especially are Jethro’s instructions about the kind of men that must serve as judges in the civil sphere. These are not priests, and these were not religious leaders in the cultic sense. Jethro was giving Moses direction for the civil organization of God’s people. In Israel, there was to be no separation of “real life” from “religion” for the simple reason that God was the Lord of both spheres. And if he is expunged from the real life of a people’s political and civil institutions, it is a reflection of the weakening of their religion and their withholding the Lord’s rightful due, for he will have the preeminence in all affairs and all institutions, for he is Lord of all, the living Word and fountain of all wisdom and knowledge, and the Savior who rescues sinners from their comprehensive depravity. Thus, the main qualifications for civil leadership are character qualifications, and if anyone still thinks that the Bible is archaic or draconian, let him only look around at current western leadership. Were Jethro’s qualifications to be followed today and insisted upon by a Christian people, the political implications would be a further reforming of society by the transforming power of God’s word and obedience thereto – which has only been abandoned in the West in the last two centuries and might yet be recovered, given the failure of Enlightenment social ethics and institutions on the negative side, and the vast numbers of Christians on the positive side.
But we shall have to be persuaded as our forefathers in Europe came to be that the first characteristic of a fit ruler is a man who fears God. Strange that a recently converted Midianite priest could see more than most churchmen today, who often speak in terms of two kingdoms or natural law more than the plain declarations of Scripture. And it will not do to remonstrate that such a qualification is only for a narrowly religious people, for Israel was not that at all. It had God for its Savior and King, to be sure, but it was hardly religious and mostly rebellious. Men cannot rule other men well and for their good unless they are possessed by a holy reverence for God, a zeal for his law, and unwillingness to become a political pawn. Fearing God, he will be a man of truth – reliability, transparency, faithfulness, and integrity. Also fearing God and keeping the final judgment before him, he will hate covetousness and refuse to take bribes in any form – who really refuses to do so today? Only a very few are not in the pocket of some special interest or corporate lobby. When God does not rule a man’s heart, the love of money is one of the many demons that rush into the void. May the Lord raise up God-fearing men in our midst, for though like Moses they are very meek before the Lord, they are lions before men, irresistible engines of power for the glory of God in the world and the good of men. Men often want leaders that share their sins and foibles, but God says we need men of higher character, which can only come from the regenerating work of his Spirit. Let us pray for it again!
A Way to Divide the Load (vv. 22-23)
In this system of graded courts, which in the church we call a Presbyterian form of government and in society a Republican form, the judges under Moses would be arranged according to their abilities, from low to high. The smallest matters could be heart by the most local judges, with cases moving up to higher judges as they became more difficult, until finally reaching Moses. Jethro was a practical man. This arrangement would be much easier for Moses and for the people. He will not wear himself out if he has qualified help. A good leader never tries to do it all himself but seeks to multiply himself (make disciples) and train other men to take care of more basic matters so he can attend to different areas of responsibility. After laying this out, Jethro adds the condition “and if God command thee.” He knew that Moses did not have executive or even legislative authority to decide the form of Israel’s social institutions but must undertake nothing but at God’s direction. He assumed that the Lord would approve this plan and anticipated that it would bring a lighter load to Moses and peace to God’s people, as well as a greater sense of community responsibility for the nation’s moral character and civil justice.
Moses’ Meekness (vv. 24-27)
We can easily imagine a man of Moses’ ability and experience brushing aside his father-in-law’s advice. Thanks, dad, but I have this well in hand! Many believing, adult children have made very bad choices because they dismissed their parents’ counsel. Moses assumed no such stance but agreed to bring Jethro’s counsel before the Lord. Anticipating here what he would more formally implement after Sinai (Deut. 1:9), he records that he took Jethro’s advice. He listened to him in all that he said. What! Are Israel’s future government structures to be decided by a Midianite? Who can know the mind of the Lord? His ways are wonderful, past finding out, and often intended to humble our pride and sense of self-sufficiency. There was nothing in Moses that made him try to make himself indispensable, but he welcomed the modification rather than accusing Jethro of meddling. When this system was implemented, Moses did not leave the choice of the under-judges to the people, at least not at this point, for he knew their true character. Is this not a civil rebuke that breathing is too low a bar to permit a man to participate in the political process? He must have some godliness, some understanding, and some demonstrable integrity and vested interest in societal order and righteousness before being allowed to make such a monumental decision as local and national leadership. Moses chose men to be over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. They were always at work judging the people, and they brought the hard cases to Moses. After receiving Jethro’s timely counsel, he returned to his home, leaving Moses to lead God’s people and enjoy his family.
Modern men will scoff at Jethro’s counsel, especially his qualifications for civil leadership. It is odd and extremely convicting that a recently converted man would have more wisdom than those with centuries of church and civil history to teach them humility before the word of God. But this is where we are in the West – enjoying prosperity due to God’s covenant blessings upon the faithfulness of our ancestors, but slapping the Lord away and spitting in his face. Yes, following Jethro’s counsel would mean that idolaters were excluded from public life, but we reject satanic secularism and embrace Hebraic religion, the true religion of the HOLY ONE OF ISRAEL. We reject any two kingdom scheme that leaves men supposedly free and capable to function well without divine revelation in the sphere of history, science, and government. Men must fear God and love his truth everywhere, or their technology, economic programs, and bureaucratic schemes will become a curse, slave masters worse than any Pharaoh. And why? God has set his Son as mediatorial King upon his holy hill in Zion. All the nations must come to learn his law; all the kings must bring their gifts; all must confess that he alone is Lord. The alternative is bleak, and we are beginning to feel more acutely the consequences of national rebellion against Jesus Christ, the King of kings. God will not be mocked. He did not give universal dominion to his Son for a puny people as ours to resist his gospel, claim to be as gods, and then continue to enjoy prosperity. We must read and tremble, believe and proclaim, pray and repent, for the Lord will begin judgment with us and then lift his head from the brook to strike the rebels against his reign in our land. He will protect his church, but his enemies will perish.
“The Lord at your right hand shall strike through kings in the day of his wrath.
He shall judge among the heathen, he shall fill the places with the dead bodies; he shall wound the heads over many countries” (Ps. 110:5-6).
“And out of his mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And he has on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS”
“Ask of me, and I shall give you the heathen for your inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for your possession. You will break them with a rod of iron; you will dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel. Be wise now therefore, O you kings: be instructed, you judges of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in him” (Ps. 2:8-12).
Profiting from the Word and Searching Our Hearts
1. What is a good first step toward speaking of Christ more regularly in our families?
2. What do we learn about family sowing-reaping from Moses’ relationship with Jethro?
3. What is the witness/apologetic value of God’s judgments? See Psalm 9:16, Isaiah 26:9, John 16:8-11.
4. How does failing to preach/teach the connection between sin and judgment mute a gospel witness?
5. What was the standard by which Moses judged the people? What could this not be because church and state were blended in Israel?
6. Why is godly character a necessary qualification of good civil leadership?
7. How was Moses’ meekness revealed in his response to Jethro?
8. What is the political alternative to refusing to submit to Christ’s kingship and law?