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The traditional model of church leadership reflects some type of hierarchy with the burden of the pastoral work being carried out by the dominant senior pastor. Yes, there is a recognition that the NT teaches the importance of a plurality of elders involved in ministry. But the senior pastor tends to view himself in the role of Moses — maintaining the ultimate responsibility – even when delegating some functions to other qualified men. This is the danger of studying a passage like the one before us. Moses is NOT the model for some type of senior pastor designation [which I view as illegitimate]. [Of course the context here is more in the area of civil and judicial government – but closely tied to the interpretation of the laws of God.] But this story is valuable in the lessons it provides regarding the necessity of sharing the burden of spiritual leadership. We also learn lessons about burnout and learning how to let go and accept help from others. Certainly we can see that leadership focused solely around one key leader is defined by Jethro as “Not good!”

So this passage does not represent the fully developed model of plurality of elder NT church government. But in the wisdom of progressive revelation, God starts to introduce the importance of shared leadership. Certainly some of the pitfalls of concentrating all of the burden on a one-man form of leadership are exposed here.

Dale Crawford: We have seen several examples of Moses as a type of Christ.

1. He was God’s deliverer.

2. He was chosen as a mediator to stand before God’s people

3. He was intercessor for God’s people

4. He was prophet, priest, and king — A.W. Pink – “All of God’s early dealings with Israel were transacted through Moses. He was a prophet, priest, and king on one person, and so united all the great and important functions which later were distributed among a plurality of persons.”

5. In the passage before us tonight we find him as lawgiver and judge.

Wiersbe: Whenever ministry and structure collide, and ministry is being hindered, God’s people must adjust the structure so ministry can grow. . . The emphasis in the Bible isn’t on organization as such but on the kind of organization that involves qualified people who get the job done.

Douglas Stuart: Immediately after his conversion Jethro was able to play a helpful role in Israel by recommending the basic structure of the judicial system, a properly hierarchical arrangement that placed Moses at the top of the judicial pyramid as Israel’s “supreme court” and established inferior courts/judges under him.

John Mackay: This chapter continues to give vital advice regarding the organization of God’s work and the importance of delegating responsibility to others who are suitably qualified. If all focuses on one individual, not only is he liable to be overwhelmed by the strains, but others will wilt and become weary because of the delays inherent in one man trying to control every aspect of a complex situation. In all probability the difficulty is not in finding those to whom the duties may be assigned, but in a leader being prepared to take the risk of entrusting important tasks to others. Moses shows the right spirit in that he is willing to listen to advice regarding how he should go about his own duties and implements the recommendations made.


A. (:13) Observing of the Process of Judging – Takes Moses All Day

“And it came about the next day that Moses sat to judge the people,

and the people stood about Moses from the morning until the evening.”

Cf. my experience in business with Six Sigma types of process evaluation and continuous improvement projects (e.g. Elite Support Continuous Improvement Coordinator for Freightliner dealership)

John Mackay: The next day (18:13) probably serves to show that the pressure that had built up on Moses was so severe that even the arrival of his father-in-law did not permit any significant break in his daily routine. Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people, and they stood round him from morning till evening. We have here a typical scene for the administration of justice: the judge is sitting while the others are standing around. But this was not just for several hours in the morning. There was such a log-jam that it was taking all day to get through the business that had arisen. The procedure would be exhausting for Moses himself, as well as trying the patience of the Israelites.

John Oswalt: Lit., “to judge the people,” which has a broader sense, something like “to bring order to the people.” More seems to have been involved than merely the hearing of disputes (so 18:16).

B. (:14) Identifying the Bottleneck of the Process of Judging – Depends Completely on Moses

“Now when Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people,

he said, ‘What is this thing that you are doing for the people?

Why do you alone sit as judge and all the people stand about you from morning until evening?’”

Bruce Hurt: Now when Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people – Jethro sees the scene with eyes of wisdom. It is interesting that Jethro in the first section of Exodus 18 Jethro saw all that the LORD had done for Israel (Ex 18:1, 8, 9), and now he sees all that Moses is doing for the people. This is parallel to his observations about what the Lord had done for the people.

Scott Grant: Moses, then, is acting just like God, but not in a good way. He is putting himself in the position of God, trying to be God. Whereas Jethro was thrilled with what the Lord had done, he is not thrilled with what Moses is doing. He asks, in so many words, “What are you doing?” and “Why are you doing it?”

C. (:15-16) Justifying the Process of Judging Based on the Essential Role of Moses

1. (:15) Essential in Inquiring of God

“And Moses said to his father-in-law,

‘Because the people come to me to inquire of God.’”

John Mackay: As the covenant mediator, the people accepted that he was the one to whom they should go if they needed to know more about how they should live their lives. ‘To seek God’s will’ or ‘to make inquiry of God’ need not imply that there was a dispute, merely that there had arisen a situation in which they were uncertain of the right course of action. In later times, it was a duty of the priests to inform the people of what the Lord required of them. “You must teach the Israelites all the decrees the Lord has given them through Moses” (Lev. 10:11). “For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, and from his mouth men should seek instruction” (Mal. 2:7). But Moses was trying to do all this single-handed.

2. (:16a) Essential in Rendering a Decision

“When they have a dispute, it comes to me,

and I judge between a man and his neighbor,”

3. (:16b) Essential in Communicating God’s Laws

“and make known the statutes of God and His laws.”

Timothy Greene: A statute is something “prescribed” (CHALOT); something which is “established” and “definite” (GHCLOT). So the statutes of God are things not to be disregarded. They are unchangeable and uncompromising. They are not to be read in light of the circumstances; rather, the circumstances are always to be read and responded to in light of God’s statutes.

God’s “laws,” on the other hand, are not simply a bare list of rules. “Law,” or torah, has the idea of instruction and direction, or even teaching. So God’s laws are his absolutely authoritative rules that instruct us and guide us in all our daily living.

Douglas Stuart: Through him the people asked God for answers to their disputes, and thus Moses asserted that he did not really judge on his own but “decides between the parties and informs them of God’s decrees and laws.” In other words, the legal process involved the revelatory process in this case. That was almost certainly the reason Moses had felt obligated to do all the judging himself: the answers involved God’s own decisions, and Moses understood himself to be the sole conduit for those to the people.


A. (:17-18) Counsel Regarding the Negative Impact of the Current Process

1. (:17) Judged as “Not Good”

“And Moses’ father-in-law said to him,

‘The thing that you are doing is not good.’”

Philip Ryken: There was no question about the sincerity of Moses’ motives. The prophet was simply trying to be faithful to his calling. The people had spiritual needs, and he was graciously trying to meet them. Yet for all his willingness to serve, it was clear that Moses had taken on a burden that was too great for him to bear alone. Jethro had the wisdom to see that there was no way Moses could sustain this kind of pace. The workload was so overwhelming that soon Moses would be exhausted. He was headed for burnout. So Jethro was emphatic: What Moses was doing was “not good.” In Hebrew these words express strong disapproval. Moses was taking on more work than he could handle, and it was a big mistake.

2. (:18) Judged as Burdensome — Leading to Burn-out

a. Not Sustainable

“You will surely wear out,

both yourself and these people who are with you,”

Gispen: “wear out” – same word is also used for the wilting of leaves and flowers, e.g. Ps. 37:2

Bruce Hurt: As Christians, we too are subject to burnout because helping oth¬ers is part of our calling. We may feel overwhelmed by the complexity, intensity, and sheer volume of human need. We discover that we can’t keep burying ourselves in all the pain without paying the price. We too have to quit, stop caring, or readjust. If we stop trying to help others, we break our fellowship with Christ. If we become unfeeling, we fall far short of His example. But we can readjust by making changes that will ease our burden. Like Moses who heeded the good counsel of his father-in-law Jethro and began delegating responsibility, we must recognize our human limitations and learn to act wisely.

Timothy Greene: Not only is Moses wearing himself out, but Jethro sees that the people, too, will wear out as they wait in such long lines to “inquire of God.” Jethro is concerned for Moses’ sanity, and for the sanity of the people, but I think more importantly, Jethro’s concern is that this work that Moses is doing must not be compromised in any way. It’s essential that every single person have access to an understanding of the statutes and laws of God and their application to every single area of his or her life. That’s what’s at stake here. And so for Jethro, it’s precisely because this work is so desperately important that something absolutely must change.

Douglas Stuart: That the judicial workload must have been too much for one man is shown by the incontrovertible fact that both Moses and the people who waited for justice could not conclude business in a reasonable time span. In effect, Jethro’s argument is an early version of the now popular legal saying “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

How had such a heavy workload come about? The answer, it would seem, involves three facts.

– First, newly freed from having few legal rights under Egyptian oppression, the Israelites had a pent-up list of issues and complaints to settle properly as well as an eagerness to take advantage of their sudden freedom to function as free people function, including access by right to legal services.

– Second, the sheer size of the large group, including non-Israelites, under one visible leader surely meant that matters previously adjudicated by clan heads, village leaders, and the like were now considered by the people themselves to require adjudication by the nation’s only divinely approved leader, Moses.

– Third, Moses’ own eagerness both to help and please his people as well as to learn God’s standards for the nation must have motivated him to spend much time and careful thought on every decision, including the time involved in waiting for an answer from God to his questions raised on behalf of the people. He presumably treated no case lightly but threw himself into the work wholeheartedly and became entrapped by the caseload brought before him. Thus in spite of everyone’s best intentions, the judging of disputes had bogged down, as was immediately obvious to someone new to the faith and the situation of Israel, such as Jethro was.

b. Requires Additional Resources

“for the task is too heavy for you;

you cannot do it alone.”

Kevin McAteer: Now “heavy” is a word that has been a key word in Exodus. It is used of Pharaoh’s heart. Pharaoh’s heart was hard or heavy. In other words, Pharaoh put too much weight on his own position and importance. He thought himself to be too high.

Wiersbe: Jethro knew that Moses’ leadership was crucial for the future success of Israel and that any activity that drained his energy or wasted his time was bound to hurt the nation. . . No one man could minister personally to 2 million people and last very long. Even after the new arrangement had been established, Moses had to confess that the work was too much for him (Num. 11:14), so what must the burden have been like under the old system?

Thomas Constable: Evidently the people were becoming unruly because Moses was not dispensing justice quickly (Exodus 18:23). Jethro’s counsel was wise and practical, and he presented it subject to the will of God (Exodus 18:23). Moses may not have realized the seriousness of the problem he faced. He seems to have been a gifted administrator who would not have consciously let Israel’s social welfare deteriorate. However, his efficiency expert father-in-law pointed out how he could manage his time better.

B. (:19-23) Counsel Regarding the Corrective Action to Fix the Process

1. (:19a) Listen to Counsel and Trust the Lord

“Now listen to me: I shall give you counsel,

and God be with you.”

2. (:19b-20) Concentrate Your Efforts on Essential Functions

a. Representing the People before God

“You be the people’s representative before God,

and you bring the disputes to God,”

b. Teaching Them God’s Laws on a Systematic Basis

“then teach them the statutes and the laws,”

Walter Kaiser Jr.: Jethro’s solution to this lengthy process, which was wearing out both people and leader (v. 18), was to give Moses that portion of the work that involved a twofold office:

(1) an advocate on behalf of the people

(2) an interpreter on behalf of God to teach the people

c. Training Them How to Live on a Systematic Basis

“and make known to them the way in which they are to walk,

and the work they are to do.”

John Mackay: ‘Teach’ is an unusual word, which is rendered ‘warn’ in 2 Chronicles 19:10. It would seem to indicate that Moses has to remind them of the need to respect the existence of the divine rules for their living. As the covenant people they could no longer expect to live just as they chose, but they would have to realise that the decrees and laws of their King were to structure their lives. Moses would also have to show them the way to live and the duties they are to perform. ‘Show’ is literally ‘make them to know’, and refers to the detailed instruction that was to take place in the law of God. Their ‘way’ or ‘path’ pointed to the conduct of their life in all its aspects. This reflects the Hebrew idiom whereby life was viewed as a journey whose eventual destination depended upon the route one took and the conduct one displayed. The blessings of the covenant depended on keeping to the route laid down by the covenant overlord and living in conformity with the duties (literally, ‘work’, ‘task’) that he imposed on each of them (Ps. 32:8; 143:8; Isa. 48:17; Jer. 42:3). Presumably Moses implemented this advice by beginning to draw up the material we now have in the Pentateuch.

3. (:21-22) Delegate Judging Responsibility to Qualified Leaders

a. (:21) Selection and Installation of Qualified Judges

“Furthermore, you shall select out of all the people able men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain; and you shall place these over them, as leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens.”

John Oswalt: honest. Lit., “men of truth.” The sense here is that these are men who will be true to their word, to their people, to their calling, and above all, to God. These are people who are reliable and trustworthy.

b. (:22) Differentiate Between Major and Minor Disputes

“And let them judge the people at all times; and let it be that every major dispute they will bring to you, but every minor dispute they themselves will judge. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you.”

Scott Grant: Letting go of something that we think is important is difficult, but Jethro offers Moses, and us, three incentives:

1) Simply, it will be “easier” for Moses. We make life so much more difficult than it needs to be by obsessing over every detail. Letting go of things, allowing them not to be perfect and allowing other people to help us, is a much easier way to live.

2) The other judges will “bear the burden with you.” This is shared leadership, which is so much more exciting than individual leadership. It’s so much more fun to do an important task with people than by yourself. People who share something important get to know each other in a deeper way.

3) The people will be able to go home “in peace” instead of waiting around all day for a chance to see Moses. Moses is clinging to responsibility because he doesn’t want to disappoint the people, but if he lets go of responsibility it will actually be a blessing to people. His thinking has been all wrong, just as ours often is.

Wiersbe: The Hebrew word translated “easier” in Exodus 18:22 means “to take cargo from a ship.”

Douglas Stuart: While the judges would deal with the cases where there was no doubt as to how the law applied, Moses would continue to decide matters where there were no precedents or affairs were very complex. There would be a division of labor, which would be beneficial to Moses in that it would free his time for other matters.

Philip Ryken: Jethro’s proposal was based on three vital principles for spiritual leadership.

– First, spiritual leaders must be mature.

– The second main principle is that spiritual leadership must be representative.

– The third principle for spiritual leadership is that it must be shared.

4. (:23) Expect Positive Results

“If you do this thing and God so commands you,

then you will be able to endure,

and all these people also will go to their place in peace.”

Douglas Stuart: Jethro’s goal in this advice, which he assumed God would endorse, was that both Moses and the people would have relief: Moses from his huge workload (“you will be able to stand the strain”) and the people’s morale (“and all these people will go home satisfied”).


A. (:24) Embracing the Counsel

“So Moses listened to his father-in-law, and did all that he had said.”

Walter Kaiser Jr.: It is not a little remarkable that the very first rudiments of the Jewish polity were thus suggested by a stranger and a Midianite.

John Oswalt: It is to Moses’s credit that he did not hesitate to take the recommended action. To be sure, he may have seen it as a welcome relief. At the same time, normal human nature does not give up its prerogatives easily, and the fact that he did so at once says that he experienced a remarkable freedom from ego-centeredness, as is confirmed throughout the succeeding books.

B. (:25-26) Implementing the Changes

1. (:25) Selecting and Installing Qualified Judges

“And Moses chose able men out of all Israel,

and made them heads over the people,

leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens.”

2. (:26) Differentiating Between Difficult and Minor Disputes

“And they judged the people at all times;

the difficult dispute they would bring to Moses,

but every minor dispute they themselves would judge.”

John Oswalt: Jethro did not suggest that Moses should simply quit doing all that he had been doing previously. Rather, he proposed a division of labor. Moses should continue to deal with the revelation and the promulgation of the divine principles (18:20). He should “teach them” (in the sense of warning and admonishing them; the laws and instructions of God. But except for major cases (18:22), he should leave the day-to-day administration of these to the chosen officials, who were again prevented from arrogating too much to themselves by the division into thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. This division of Moses’s roles prevented either principles or practice from becoming absolute. Too often the exigencies of practice can subtly change the principles, and we fall into the bottomless pit of “what works.” Conversely, principles can become so sacrosanct that they become more important than people. This is what had happened in Jesus’ day, and he had to remind people that the reason the Sabbath laws had been stated so prescriptively was for people’s sake and not the other way around (Mark 2:27). When preservation of the principle (interpreted in certain ways) becomes the most important thing, we have missed the point of the principle. Moses was prevented from becoming immersed in practice, but still a way was preserved so that principles and practices were connected.

C. (:27) Parting with Jethro

“Then Moses bade his father-in-law farewell,

and he went his way into his own land.”