The next day Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood around Moses from morning till evening. 14 When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning till 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 dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make them know the statutes of God and his laws.” 17 Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. 18 You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone. 19 Now obey my voice; I will give you advice, and God be with you! You shall represent the people before God and bring their cases to God, 20 and you shall warn them about the statutes and the laws, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do. 21 Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. 22 And let them judge the people at all times. Every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. 23 If you do this, God will direct you, you will be able to endure, and all this people also will go to their place in peace.”
24 So Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he had said. 25 Moses chose able men out of all Israel and made them heads over the people, chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. 26 And they judged the people at all times. Any hard case they brought to Moses, but any small matter they decided themselves. 27 Then Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went away to his own country. (Exodus 18:13-27)
Before we get into the particulars of this passage, first let us notice the big movements going on here. Israel, just out of slavery, is getting a system of judges and governing authorities put into place. They are becoming structured, organized, and ordered as a society. And the greatness of Moses, in human terms, is seen in his humility to listen to Jethro’s wise counsel and do what he advises. This lends itself to a well-ordered society, and is a sign of the maturing process of the people. Formerly these were slave people, now they are organizing society, so that able men, who were former slaves are brought to maturity such that they are able to be judges and rulers among their own people. This is a sign of progress in redemptive history.
Herein we see the theme that when God redeems a people for Himself, He redeems them unto a well-ordered life of righteousness. God takes former rebels, disobedient sons, law-breakers, transgressors, and such. He redeems them, saving them from their sin and the wrath of God, and gives them the Holy Spirit, that they may be taught to live unto God, to live an orderly and righteous life, with self-governing restraint under God.
Those who have been redeemed by Jesus Christ love to learn God’s commands for them, and how they might obey them in order to live a pleasing life to their Savior. And you must note the order in the progression. We are slaves to sin, then we are Redeemed from the kingdom of darkness, freed from the bondage of sin and Satan, and then we are made to live lives according to God’s commands as He has instructed in His Word. We are redeemed first, and then because we are already redeemed, we seek to obey Jesus Christ. We don’t obey in order to be redeemed, we obey because we are redeemed. So this is the progression in redemptive history: slavery then redemption then maturity in living unto God.
So as the people learn how to live as free people under God with one another, it is Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, the priest of Midian, who gives wisdom to Moses on how to order their society. What we find here is indeed timeless wisdom, which we would do well to understand today. While these are not direct commands to us or exact requirements today, it is biblical wisdom which we would be foolish to ignore. What we find here is a very wise system of government which I believe is the most ideal form of government that there is in a society of sinful men. We will look more at the details of this in a moment.
But before we consider the details of the form of this government, we first see the source of this government’s laws. In verse 16 Moses describes how the people come to him with their disputes and Moses makes known to them the statutes of God and His laws. The fact that the source of these laws is God – His laws and statues – is not the part that is criticized or changed by Jethro. Jethro simply sets up a more efficient way by which judgment may be made according to the laws and statutes of God.
You see, Moses was not making up laws or deciding whatever he felt like with each case. He was making known God’s statutes to the people, teaching them God’s laws, and making judgments based upon them. Matthew Henry says of Moses here, that, “His business was, not to make laws, but to make known God’s laws…” So we see here what a civil judge is supposed to be according to the bible – in terms of what their job is. A judge is simply to make known the law, and to make judgments in cases based upon the law. Judges are not to make laws. They do not make laws, they simply make them known and make rulings based upon them. We live in a society today where increasingly our system of courts has become a place for political activists to go and acquire the robes of justices. The reason this is the case is because we have increasingly abandoned the rule of law and have embraced the practice of legislating from the bench. So for that, and many other reasons, we have a society with laws that are constantly in flux and changing based upon the next ruling and who is in power. Laws have become not about true justice, but about who is in power. This leads to an unstable society. And right now we have a bad case of the wobbles, and if a building wobbles too much eventually it falls down.
Instead, a godly society, a stable society, an orderly society, will base its specific laws off of God’s laws and statutes, it will have judges who know these laws, and who will rule in accordance with them, teaching them to the people. A godly civil judge is supposed to be a highly honorable position in a society. It is supposed to be someone who is one of the wisest men in the community, who truly teaches people. It is a sad thing that more and more of our judges today are indeed very smart and well-versed in legalese, but are wholly ignorant of God’s laws and biblical wisdom. We desperately need godly and wise judges in our society who can restore honor to such a high office. It begins with recognizing that sinful man is not “The Law,” we are creatures who are made wise by revelation – by God revealing the truth to us. Humble judges and humble societies, submit themselves to God and His wisdom, knowing that we are not wise or just apart from God. So we see the humility of Moses in the fact that he knew that his job was simply to make known, teach, and apply the statutes of God, not to just make them up or trust in his own wisdom or experience. This is true wisdom.
Next we see Jethro’s principles of good government. The problem was that Moses was sitting and hearing the disputes of the people from sun-up to sun-down, and it was an endless task that was highly inefficient. It was wearing Moses and the people out with never ending lines and waiting, which took the people away from productive work, and strapped Moses from doing anything else. It was too much for Moses all by himself. The problem wasn’t that Moses was working hard, it was that it was presumably hindering his other responsibilities, and unnecessarily delaying conflict resolution for the people. It was a matter of time not being spent well.
So Jethro’s solution was to set up chiefs, or judges, to rule over smaller groups of people, with different levels of chiefs, in order for conflicts to be solved by other able men at more local levels. The first aspect of this system was that it employed a division of labor. This freed Moses, or anyone, from doing nothing but hearing cases all day. This was in fact the model upon which the United States was originally founded. They intended that cases first be solved with local municipalities, then at the county level, then the state level, and then lastly the federal level. This is one of the problems with where we have drifted today, where so many people want to go directly to the federal level to solve cases, and the federal government would like to absorb more of this direct power. This leads to log jams in the courts, a bloated bureaucratic system, and delayed justice. The founders also saw that a localized system of judges gave us layers to help prevent tyranny and the sinfulness of any one man.
There is so much wisdom in this structure that brings many benefits to a society. One such benefit here is the biblical principle of bearing one another’s burdens. This is a principle which the Bible teaches for Christians to do. There are so many ways to apply this, but without a local body of believers who help in bearing one another’s burdens, we too will wear out. Not only with practical matters of life, but in our spiritual lives. Are there conflicts, problems, or burdens in your life? God has given the local church, fellow believers therein, as well as the elders and deacons to help bear those burdens and give wisdom to solve these problems, whether it is sin problems, conflict resolution, or practical needs. We need one another to help us keep going, lest we wear out.
On a civil level, a system like this helps prevent delayed justice. Ecclesiastes 8:11 says, “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil.” This is the problem when everything gets log jammed at the federal level. Evil men see that justice isn’t quickly issued and their hearts incline them to do more evil, for they can get away with it for a good amount of time, and their hearts are only set upon the moment. When the courts are unnecessarily delayed and log jammed, it is a sign of an unhealthy society, and one which is not adhering to biblical wisdom.
The other principle we see in this model of government is that of the lesser magistrates, known as the doctrine of the lesser magistrates. Small cases go to these local chiefs, or lesser magistrates, but if and when harder and more difficult cases occur that cannot be handled by these lesser magistrates, these can be sent up the chain, potentially to Moses himself. This shows that there are real authoritative judgments and rulings being made by lesser magistrates that are not heard or ruled upon by higher, or greater magistrates. This doctrine is of course not fully worked out in this passage alone, and certainly this was a unique situation with Moses as God’s prophet at the top, but when the wisdom of this structure is applied to the United States, for example, the implication is that when certain magistrates violate the law, which source comes from God, then there is appeal to other magistrates, and potential for greater or lesser magistrates to protect the people from injustice by evil rulers.
Part and parcel to this system of good government is that it requires good men. In verse 21 Jethro says, “Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens.”
The first thing to notice here is that this design of government was to be led by men, and able men at that. The sign of a healthy society is that able men are in this position of authority and rule. It is men who are called to protect their families on the frontlines. And what are societies but groups of families that are to be protected by men? If we have no men who are willing and able to bear these burdens and fulfill these responsibilities it is a sign of societal vulnerability. In fact, in Isaiah 3, God is pronouncing judgment upon His people in Jerusalem and says in Isaiah 3:12, “My people—infants are their oppressors, and women rule over them. O my people, your guides mislead you and they have swallowed up the course of your paths.” Is this not the condition in which we increasingly find ourselves today? We have such a need for able and godly men to restore order once again. Where does one find such able men? It starts in our homes, in our personal lives. Are you disciplined in your own life, do you practice self-control in all areas? Do you rule your home well? Do you govern in your home according to God’s Word, obeying His commands, teaching them to your family, and resolving conflicts in your house? That is where it must start, and any civil magistrate who cannot rule his home well, in a godly and orderly fashion is not fit to rule a larger group of people. This is why one of the requirements to be an elder in the church is that the man rule his home well. This is what we must first look for in our leaders.
What else should we look for in our leaders? Jethro says to find such men that fear God. This is vitally important, for the fear of God is the foundation of faithfully rendering judgment. The fear of God grounds a judge in the reality that they are not the ultimate judge or authority. There is the God of heaven and earth who is the judge of all, whom they will answer to one day, not only for their personal lives, but they will give account for all their judgments. The Bible says that we will be judged according to the measure with which we judge, and it teaches that we should not be quick to become teachers, for teachers will be held to a stricter judgment by God. What is being a judge but being a type of teacher? With each judgment you are teaching the law, teaching what is right and wrong, and you had better be right, especially as the civil magistrate comes with the power of the sword. A civil magistrate who does not fear God is a fearful thing, for such a one has no fear of a final judgment where the supreme judge of all will finally mete out all justice.
We are also to look for men who are trustworthy and who hate bribes, as in receiving bribes. If God’s law is the standard, then God is the motivation for right judgment, but men who will take bribes pervert justice for their own gain. Proverbs 29:4 says, “The king gives stability to the land by justice, but a man who takes bribes overthrows it.” Or Proverbs 17:23, “A wicked man receives a bribe from the bosom to pervert the ways of justice.” Godly men are those who are self-controlled to not be swayed from the truth by sweet talking, gifts, and bribes. The foundation of law and righteousness is God and His Word, not who can wine and dine us most effectively. Sadly, we see this negative effect in our land today where our legislators are swayed to write legislation based upon donations and gifts from special interest groups. These are not good men. You may not be a government official, or have a place of authority outside of your home, but it must start in every man – have such a fear of God and commitment to His Word that any type of bribe will not sway you from the truth. We must cultivate a holy disgust and hatred for receiving bribes. You may face consequences from the world, you may miss out on worldly opportunities, but what is it to gain the whole world and so lose your soul? So many of our magistrates have lost their souls.
In a world of such lawlessness and corruption, where will we ever find such men? Jethro says, “look for able men from all the people.” Thus we see that wisdom and character to rule well does not come from being an elite race of rulers, but it comes from being humble toward the word of God to submit to it, learn it, and apply it faithfully. In other words, it is the law of God, the Word of God, that makes men wise and able to rule well. You can come from a family of presidents, but if you neglect God’s Word, you will not have the wisdom or character to rule well. It is the Word of God that makes men wise and able. William Tyndale was an English reformation era character in church history who worked to translate the Scriptures into English. A bishop of England once argued with Tyndale saying “It would be better to have the Pope’s law than God’s law.” To which Tyndale famously replied, “I defy the Pope and his laws! If God spare my life ere many years, I shall cause a boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than you do!” And the Apostle Paul writing to Timothy said, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” So, look for able men among the people, for wherever one may humbly study to know God’s Word, it is the Word that makes the man able. I think here in Exodus 18 may be where Paul gets the principle which he writes to Titus, to appoint elders in every town in Crete, and instructs him on what to look for in elders. In other words, to look for able men among the people in the churches.
On a practical level, this principle of looking for able men among the people offers a level of accountability. The man knows the people and so has an interest in them and their welfare, and the people know him, and so have an interest in his welfare. A civil magistrate would most naturally want to see the place in which he lives be well-ordered, peaceful, and just. And the people want that from the local authorities they most directly interact with.
Behind all of this is the fact that we have a good God, a God of order who loves righteousness and justice. We have a God of peace, wherein adherence to His law is meant to bring us the most peace. As verse 23 says, “If you do this, God will direct you, you will be able to endure, and all this people also will go to their place in peace.” God redeems His people out of bondage in order to set them up in a society of order and peace under Him.
Herein we see the principle that God has given us instructions not just to order our own personal lives, or the life of the church, but all of society. God cares about the ordering of society, not only the personal lives of His people. And when a people, like we live amongst, want to separate God and His Word from society, and say that God’s Word only applies to our personal lives and the church, this will lead to a dysfunctional, chaotic, rebellious society of injustice. This does not mean that we are capital “T” Theonomists, who bind all societies by Old Covenant laws that were unique to the Old Covenant people of Israel, we do not believe that. But the whole of the Word of God must be our societal rule, as it is worked out to those in the New Covenant times. Lord willing, we will work more of those things out as we go through case laws of Exodus in due time.
Now, I hope I have not given the impression that this passage is just about principles of structuring a judicial system, for it is much more than that. It is an important movement in the progress of redemptive history, as I mentioned earlier, God redeems His people out of bondage, to live lives of holiness, self-governance, and order under God’s rule. And in this scheme of redemptive history, Moses remains for us a type of Christ the Lord. We’ve seen Moses as a type of Redeemer, leading the people out of Egypt, conquering Amalek by the sign of the cross, and now we begin to see Moses as a type of Christ the judge and law-giver. This is what Matthew Henry says, “Having been employed to redeem Israel out of the house of bondage, herein he is a further type of Christ, that he is employed as a lawgiver and a judge among them.”
Sinful men have less of a problem with Christ being a Redeemer and Savior for Christians. “That is nice for them,” they say. But it is the fact of Christ also being the judge and authority of all men, that will really draw the ire of sinful men. They could often care less that Christians have a Savior, it is when the authority of Jesus is applied to all men that really brings the conflict. But we do not have permission to divide up Christ and take Him in the offices we like, and not the others. It is Christ who commanded that all nations be discipled, and it is Christ who rules the nations with a rod of iron. It is this rod of iron that sinners would like to be out from under. It is the reality of a coming judgment day which men cannot bear to think of. But it is in all of Christ, including this, that we have great hope.
The fact that a day of judgment is coming wherein all will be made right and ultimate justice will be rendered to all enables us to endure imperfect justice now. It is men who do not have a Christ on the throne coming to judge who invent all kinds of processes of law to make sure they get all justice now, for they have no hope of it in the future. It is the cultural Marxists who scour the earth overturning everything they deem an injustice because they have no real God as a source and foundation of law, Who will make all things right. While we seek to be faithful and work for righteousness where we can, we can rest in the fact that we have a reigning Christ, a Christ who will come with judgment in His hands. A Christ who Redeems and judges, making all wrong right again, even these wrongs we face.
We have a Christ who is not a mere man like Moses, who was unable to handle all the complaints of men, and correct all the wrongs. Christ is not finite like Moses. The Lord Jesus is the God-Man who bears all the burden of judgment upon His shoulders, and ably so, perfectly so. Every matter great and small is not out of His sight, it is not too much for Him. Nothing so great and nothing so small that He will not make right. He will bring justice for every matter great and small alike. This is frightening news for the sinner who has nothing they can hide from His all seeing eye of justice. All will be laid bare before Him. Sins and injustices that can be hidden from finite men are not hidden from the God who sees all. This is also wonderfully good news to the sinner who finds redemption in this Christ. For there is no sin that is too great for Him to forgive, and there is no sin too small for Him to notice which would leave us wanting on judgment day. Our Omnipotent God of justice knows all our sins we have ever committed and ever will commit, and He knew them all before we were even born. And even still, He sent His Son, to bear them all upon His shoulders on the cross, that all His elect may be redeemed from bondage and live unto Him. Christ is able to bear, and Has borne all the sins of His people on Himself, as perfect justice from Almighty rained down upon Him on the cross, that we might be forgiven and redeemed, that God would be both the just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Him. So come unto Jesus Christ and live. Come and be free, and find peace, find order, and be taught how to live by Christ. As it has been said, it is either Christ or Chaos.
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