Jethro’s Counsel — Exodus 18

And when Moses’ father in law saw all that he did to the people, he said, What is this thing that thou doest to the people? why sittest thou thyself alone, and all the people stand by thee from morning unto even?” (Exodus 18:14)

In the Eighteenth chapter of Exodus, Moses is reunited with his wife and two sons. Strangely, however, the key figure in this pasage is not Zipporah, Gershom, or Eliezer, but Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law. Moses seems very happy to see Jethro again; it’s hard to tell if he is as enthused to to see his wife and children.

Moses proceeds to fill Jethro in on all of the details of the journey thus far. He recounts the plagues of judgment that God rained down on Egypt, Pharaoh’s demise at the Red Sea, and God’s miraculous provisions of Manna and water. Impressed by the testimony of his son-in-law, Jethro, called here “the priest of Midian” (v. 1), glorifies the Lord of Heaven and offers sacrifices in worship to Him.

The main feature of this chapter is the advice that Jethro gives to Moses, counsel that suggests Moses’ responsibilities are too great and that he should delegate some of his duties to other capable men. We have here the framework of what would  become part of the government of Israel (Deut. 1:9-16). Jethro’s suggestion does seem, at first glance, to be sound advice and a wise plan to follow. But when we look a little closer, we have to wonder if implementing Jethro’s plan was really such a good idea or not.

First of all, we have an incident where Moses is following the advice of a human being rather than directly following the instructions of God. Verse 16 tells us that Moses was sitting in the judgment seat and judging the people according to the statutes and laws of God, yet the giving of those laws would not even be recorded until the following chapter!  It seems that this incident is likely written, not in strict chronological order, but topically. Since Moses was about to tell how the Law was given, he decided to precede the account by mentioning how the structure of government under the Law originated.

That being said, we should consider that, not only is it peculiar that Moses is now taking advice from a person, but he is doing so even after spending all of that time alone with God atop Mt. Sinai. It would make sense that, had God wanted Moses to share his position of authority with others, He would have specifically told him so during those days and nights when the Lord so meticulously dictated the most minute details of how the nation should be governed. When we read in Deuteronomy 1:9-16 as Moses describes how leaders will be placed over groups of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens; there is no indication given that this was ever God’s idea at all.

Moses complained several times to the Lord about the burden of being the sole leader of so many people. In Numbers 11, God concedes to disperse the anointing of leadership over seventy elders who will help Moses shoulder the responsibility. In light of this fact, we can be certain that Moses was more than willing to accept Jethro’s advice and put it into action.

And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses, and he said, Is not Aaron the Levite thy brother? I know that he can speak well. And also, behold, he cometh forth to meet thee: and when he seeth thee, he will be glad in his heart.” (Exodus 4:14)

The problem with what Moses did by heeding Jethro’s counsel was not that it was a bad idea, it was that it was man’s idea, not God’s. We can be sure that Moses prayed about Jethro’s plan, even Jethro admonishes Moses to do so (Ex. 18:23). Nor was it that Moses was violating the will of God, but that he wasn’t walking in the perfect will of God. The Lord never intended anyone but Moses to deliver the Children of Israel or lead them into the Promised Land. Even adding Aaron into a leadership role at the beginning would eventually cause problems that God never intended Moses to face. The Lord only permitted Aaron to be Moses’ spokesman because of Moses’ protests when the Lord first called him. God’s plan was for Moses alone to serve as deliverer.

It is hard to find fault with Moses, weary and exhausted from the journey and the never-ending doubt and murmuring of the people, for welcoming any assistance in leadership. He surely respected his father-in-law and valued his wisdom. But had God not strengthened him for the task so far? Would He not continue to do so? God is not a cruel taskmaster who expects those He calls to serve past the point of fatigue. He never calls anyone to do more than He has enabled them to do. God could have raised up any number of capable leaders to help Moses lead and judge the people at any time, but that was not what God wanted.

The Lord does all things according to His own plans and purposes. At times, He permits us to interject our own will and desires into His plans as He accommodates our own self-imposed limitations. But this is never God’s best. Regardless of how little His ways might make sense at the time, or how much better the advice of someone else might seem to be, we do well to make sure that we are keeping with God’s program, not our own or that of another.

An old proverb says: “I pray not that my burden be lightened, but that I be given the strength to bear it.” May He strengthen us to bear whatever He has called us to bear.

To God goes all glory. In service to Him,

Loren

5 responses

  1. Hi Loren,
    I subscribe to your posts and have really been blessed by your refreshing insights. Your comments on Jethro’s advice were well taken but I have often found that our God uses the vocal cords of others to communicate His designed will for us. He has always placed a premium on communication and has required a dependency even, and perhaps especially, in those He has chosen for leadership.(Paul’s thorn)

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  2. Hi, John, thank you so much for reading these posts and for sharing your thoughts and insights on this one!

    To be honest with you, the preparation for writing this post was one of the most difficult I have had in quite a while. I was actually really conflicted on which way to go with it. Almost all of the commentaries I reviewed seemed to say the same thing: that Jethro’s advice was a wonderful, God-inspired suggestion that brought much needed relief to Moses by splitting up some of his immense responsibilities. Looking around at most churches today, I believe that God-led delegation of duties is a much neglected aspect of leadership. It seems that a lot of pastors are more than willing to let parishioners take care of some of the more menial tasks (moving furniture, cleaning bathrooms, cooking meals for potluck dinners, etc.) but are very reluctant to entrust even their closest staff members with any real leadership opportunities. I used to attend a large church whose pastor once remarked about how busy he was having to preach 5 to 7 times a week. Funny thing was that he had not one but two associate pastors who desperately needed preaching experience yet had hardly ever entered a pulpit!

    I think your observations are right on the mark and I agree that God often uses the voices of others to speak to us. In fact, I believe this is one of the more common ways He speaks to us. Even so, I think that there are some exceptions to this in Scripture, and Moses would definitely be among them. Whenever God was handing down new revelation in the Bible, He almost invariably did so directly. He spoke directly to His prophets in the Old Testament and to the apostles in the New. Paul writes to the Galatians concerning his conversion and commission and tells them:

    “But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood: Neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus.” (Galatians 1:15-17)

    The Apostle Paul’s revelation of God’s plan of Salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ was shown to him, not by the teachings of men, but directly by the Spirit of God. God’s revelation of His Law was given to Moses in the same manner. For the rest of us, who have a much more limited line of direct communication with the Lord, the godly counsel of others can be a very effective method for the Lord to relate His will to us. We have the benefit of the special revelation of Scripture against which to weigh any advice we receive, to determine if it is in line with God’s Word or not. Men like Moses and Paul did not really have this advantage. Consequently, it seems that the risk of His Message being diluted by the thoughts of man would have been a factor that would have precluded the Lord from using others to speak on His behalf to Moses or Paul, thus the need for Him to give direct revelation.

    Having said that, I feel wholly unqualified to really make the determination of whether or not Jethro’s words were God-inspired or not. On the one hand, Jethro was a priest of Midian and, since his knowledge of the True and Living God seems to be limited or non-existent before this meeting with Moses, it is likely that he served and worshipped heathen gods and idols. This fact would certainly make his counsel unreliable. On the other hand, he seems very receptive when he does learn of God’s intervention on behalf of the Israelites and immediately worships the Lord. It is after he does this that he makes his suggestion to Moses. Was his counsel, then, God-inspired?

    We don’t really know what was said when Moses brought Jethro’s plan before the Lord to determine if it was acceptable to God. I certainly do not wish to be too quick to suggest that Moses was in error. But, from what we are told in the text, we can conclude that either Moses was wrong to take all of the responsibility on himself or he was wrong to delegate his authority to others. By looking at his life as a whole and at the details we are given about this event, I am inclined to believe that implementing Jethro’s plan may not have been in accordance with God’s original plan. This is, of course, my own opinion and I certainly do not wish to be dogmatic about it; I could be mistaken. Either way, this is a wonderful passage of Scripture, often quickly passed over, yet rich with Biblical truth and applicable lessons for the Christian today.

    Thanks so much again, John, I am really glad that you brought this point up. Thanks for reading these posts and please feel free to share your insights any time :)

    May our Lord richly bless you,

    Loren

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  3. I never thought about it that way, Loren, that perhaps Moses was not suppose to heed Jethro’s advice. Thank you for getting me to think! And for taking the time to not only do the post, but to answer John’s comment in such a thoughtful way.
    Loren . . .Larry Who ( Larry Nevenhoven) told me about how there are Christian blogs available on Kindle. It costs someone 99 cents to subscribe to read it there. Although they could get your blog for free to read on their computer, some people prefer to read it on their kindles. I don’t know how to get your blog on the list for Kindle . . I think Larry said it was free for us to do so, but I just thought of you. :) You would get 33 cents every time someone subscribed on Kindle, from what I understand. Just thinking!
    God bless you as you serve Him today!

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  4. [...] Jethro’s Counsel – Exodus 18 (answersfromthebook.org) Rate this: Share this:LinkedInFacebookTwitterMoreEmailPrintStumbleUponDiggRedditLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post.  04/02/2012  PASTOR DAVIS/MASTER TEACHER Categories: Easter Tags: Christianity, Easter, Egypt, Egyptians, God, Moses, Pharaoh, Religion & Spirituality, Slavery [...]

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