Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
heard of all that God had done for Moses," - a hint that the news of the great events of the past few weeks had spread far and wide through the Sinaitic peninsula, - and when he learned that the Israelites were encamped at the Mount of God, within reachable distance of the Midianitish settlement (cf. Exodus 3:1), he at once resolved on paying his former friend, who had so suddenly blazed into an unexpected greatness, a personal visit. He came, accordingly, accompanied by Moses' wife and two sons.
I. JETHRO'S COMING (vers. 1-7). This visit of Jethro to Moses may be considered with reference to the following particulars. He came -
1. Cordially recognising the honour which God had put on Moses (ver. 1). Moses had stood to Jethro for years in a relation of dependence. He had kept the priest's flocks (Exodus 3:1). Yet Jethro was not offended or made envious by this sudden greatness which had fallen to the lot of his old associate. The proverb was for once falsified that "a prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house" (Matthew 13:5-7), for Jethro heartily acknowledged and rejoiced in all that the Lord had done for Moses and for Israel. It might have been otherwise. He might, like the Nazarenes in their slighting of Christ, have asked - "Was not this my shepherd? Is not his wife called Zipporah? and his sons, Gershom and Eliezer, are they not with us? Whence then hath this man all these things?" But a far different spirit possessed him. In this, Jethro showed his freedom from a very common littleness of nature.
2. As an act of personal friendship. A large part of the joy of life springs from friendship. We see friendship at its best in the case of those who are thrown much into each other's society, and who cherish for each other, under the conditions which most of all reveal and test character, a cordial respect and esteem. "Friendship," says Cicero, "is nothing else than a perfect concurrence on all subjects Divine and human, accompanied by a feeling of kindness and attachment, and I am not sure that any better boon than this, with the exception of wisdom, could be conferred on man by the immortal Gods." The bond of attachment thus created between good men makes association a pleasure, and, of necessity, causes pain at parting. While separation lasts, longings do not cease to be felt for a renewal of the prized intercourse, and when, after years of severance, an opening for such renewal of intercourse is presented, the opportunity is eagerly and joyfully embraced. Such friendship may be presumed, to have existed between Jethro and Moses. The two had lived in close intimacy for the space of forty years. According to the text, Moses was Jethro's son-in-law; according to the more probable view, his brother-in-law. Jethro, with his stores of practical wisdom, his desert courtesy, and his evidently sincere piety, was a man whom Moses would early learn to respect, and with whom he would find it pleasant and profitable to associate; and the Midi-anitish priest, in turn, would never weary of the companionship of Moses, whose learning was so ripe, whose spirit was so excellent, whose early life had been spent under such different conditions from his own, and who had consequently so much to tell, which he (Jethro) would delight to hear. This intercourse had been suddenly broken up by Moses' determination to return to Egypt (Exodus 4:18); but an opportunity now presented itself of renewing it, and of this Jethro gladly availed himself.
3. Desirous of hearing more perfectly of the wonderful works of God. This, as is apparent from the sequel (ver. 8), was another motive of Jethro's visit. He had come to be more fully and exactly instructed in the wonders which God had wrought "for Moses, and for Israel, his people" (ver. 1). Something of these "mighty acts" he had heard from current report, but what he had heard only whetted his appetite to hear more. It is the mark of the good man that he earnestly desires to grow in the knowledge of God and of his ways.
4. With the intention of restoring to Moses his wife and two sons (vers. 2-6). In taking this earliest opportunity of bringing Zipporah and her two sons to Moses, Jethro acted rightly. A wife's proper place is with her husband. Sons, again, in view of the special responsibility resting on the father in connection with their proper up-bringing, should be as much as possible under direct paternal influence. The kingdom of God, doubtless, is to be more to us than father, or mother, or wife, or child; and should its interests imperatively demand separation, this must be submitted to (Matthew 8:21, 22): but relationships are not thereby dissolved, and the active discharge of the duties connected with them should be resumed at the earliest opportunity. For the sake of Moses himself, reunion was desirable. He was not a man who spurned the joys of domestic existence, but, like Peter, led about a wife (cf. Numbers 12:1; 1 Corinthians 9:5). It would contribute to his happiness to have his family beside him. Attention is anew called to the significant names of his sons (vers. 3, 4). These noteworthy names would be perpetual reminders to Moses of the lessons of his stay in Midian. The one spoke of human weakness, the other of Divine aid. If the one embalmed the memory of his heart-loneliness in a strange land, the other told of how God had been his help even there. The one recalled trials, the other mercies. While in both was embodied a memorial of the heart-discipline, of the solitary communion with God, of the lonely days and nights of prayer, watching, and spiritual meditation, which had helped so largely during the forty years of that weary but precious exile, to make him the man he was.
II. JETHRO AND MOSES (vers. 7-13). The visit here described is a model of brotherly and religious intercourse. Christians would do well to study and imitate it. Observe -
1. The courtesy of their greeting (ver. 7). The two men stood on a very different moral and intellectual level, but, in their exchanges of civility, Jethro is treated as the superior, and is received by Moses with every outward demonstration of respect. As on Jethro's side there is no trace of mortification or jealousy at finding Moses, once the keeper of his sheep, in so exalted a position, so, on the side of Moses now Israel's deliverer and leader, there is an utter absence of pride and hauteur, and a painstaking desire to put Jethro - a plain wilderness priest - as fully as possible at his ease. Everything is real. The greetings of the friends are unaffectedly cordial - their behaviour towards each other studiously polite. Lesson - the duty of courtesy. Courtesy is an essential part of what has been defined as the outward grace of life. "By the grace of life is meant all that embellishes, softens, and brightens our present existence. It is that which is to human life what the shape and bloom and odour are to the plant. The flower is not simply useful. It is pleasing. There is grace about it... . . The grace of life has its simplest manifestation in our external behaviour - in our manners. There is a joy to observed and observer in graceful motion and pleasant phrase Politeness is the science and art of the outward grace of life. It enunciates that strange code of salutations and farewells - those buffers which soften approach, and with a last gentle touch make parting easy. Under the fiction of giving information as to the weather, one spirit expresses to its fellow respect and continued friendship. That spirit, in turn, under the form of confirming the afore said meteorological intelligence, reciprocates the kindly feeling. In such queer fashion is human kindliness flashed from heart to heart." (Rev. David Burns.)
2. Their affectionate interest in each other's welfare. "They asked each other of their welfare" (ver. 7). Burdened as he was, almost beyond endurance, with "the cumbrance, and burden, and strife" (Deuteronomy 10:12) of the congregation, Moses could unbend to show his kindly interest in what was taking place in the quiet tents at Midian. This is a point of greatness. The greatest man is not he who occupies so serene an elevation of spirit, or whose mind is so engrossed with the duties of an exalted station, that he cannot stoop to share in, and, as occasion offers, to testify his sympathy with, the joys and sorrows of humbler people. No deficiency of this kind is seen in Moses - or in Jesus. It is well to cultivate the habit of putting ourselves in the place of others, however remote in station from ourselves, and of trying to feel a kindly interest in all that concerns them. This will prevent us from becoming self-absorbed and egoistic. Their lives, we should remember, are of as much importance to thegn as ours are to us, and the interest we show in them will be proportionately valued. A minister once wrote in his note-book: "Don't pretend an interest in the members of your congregation, but try to feel it." "Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love" (Romans 12:10).
3. The theme of their converse. "Moses told his father-in-law (brother-in-law) all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh, etc. (ver. 8). As under a former head we had a model meeting, so here we have a model conversation. Jethro and Moses conversed on the affairs of God's kingdom. No greater subject could have occupied their thoughts. It is the subject of deepest and most central interest in history - the grandest in its essential nature, the widest in its relations, the most momentous in its issues. All other movements in time are side issues as compared with this one. In considering it man passes out of sight, and the only question is, What hath God wrought! (Numbers 23:23). We renew this conversation of Jethro and Moses every time we "speak of the glory of (God's) kingdom and talk of (his) power" (Psalm 145:11). Cf. the conversation of Christian with Prudence, Piety, and Charity in the House Beautiful: - "Now the table was furnished with fat things, and wine that was well refined; and all their talk at the table was about the Lord of the Hill; as, namely, about what he had done, and wherefore he did what he did," etc. (Pilgrim's Progress.) Converse in heaven will turn on the same themes. Note -
(1) It is profit able for Christians to exchange experiences as to the manner of the Lord's dealings with them. Few but can tell something of "the travail that has come upon them by the way, and how the Lord delivered them."
(2) It is a mark of grace to feel an interest in what relates to God's work, and to the progress of his kingdom at home and abroad. This will show itself in a desire to read, hear, and converse on such subjects, and in the interest discovered, and zeal shown, in the general work of the Church, in special spiritual movements, in the success of missions, in spiritual operations in our own town and neighbourhood.
(3) Some are called to more active service in God's work than others. There are those that fight the battle, and there are those who tarry at home and divide the spoil (Psalm 68:12). And those who have been personally engaged in God's work - especially those who have returned from the high places of the field (missionaries, etc.) - have always much to tell which it is of interest to hear, and which will enkindle our hearts with new ardour in the cause of the Gospel. We should seek the society of such, and take the opportunity of hearing them when they are to be heard, that we may be instructed and profited. What a thrilling history, e.g., is that of Christian missions, but what an additional interest it gives to its narrations when we hear the story from the lips of the men who have actually fought the battles!
(4) Christian workers cannot converse together on the plans, methods, difficulties, conflicts, and successes of their work without being mutually helped and edified.
4. Jethro's joy in the relation (vers. 9-11). We are reminded of Barnabas, who, "when he came" to Antioch, "and had seen the grace of God, was glad For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith" (Acts 11:23). The history which Moses gave to Jethro -
(1) Filled Jethro with joy;
(2) Strengthened his faith in God - "Now i know that the Lord is greater than all gods" (ver. 11);
(3) Incited him to praise - "And Jethro said, Blessed be the Lord," etc. (ver. 10). It will be observed how distinctly in ver. 11 Jethro seizes the point in the contest between Jehovah and Pharaoh, and draws the proper inference from it. God had chosen as a field for the display of his perfections a case in which all the pride and power of man were arrayed against him in a determined effort to resist, oppose, and make void his will, and he had demonstrated his supremacy by completely annihilating that opposition, and overwhelming the Egyptians, who embodied it, in the Red Sea. The army of Egypt was in some sense the country's pride and boast, so that (though the translation in ver. 11 is apparently incorrect) it was literally true that "in the thing wherein they dealt proudly" Jehovah was "above them." God exalts himself by discomfiting his enemies in what they deem their points of special strength. "Poor perfection which one sees an end of! yet such are all those things in this world which pass for perfections. David, in his time, had seen Goliath, the strongest, overcome; Asahel, the swiftest, overtaken; Ahithophel, the wisest, befooled; Absalom, the fairest, deformed" (M. Henry on Psalm 119:96). "It is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent" (1 Corinthians 1:19).
5. The sacrificial feast (ver. 16). We have here -
(1) Friendship cemented by an act of worship;
(2) Religious converse culminating in devotion;
(3) A feast sanctified by the enjoyment of the Divine presence - "before God;"
(4) A foreshadowing of the union of Jews and Gentiles in the fellowship of the church;
(5) An instance of catholicity in worship. Moses did not scruple to join in sacrifice or to sit down at the same festival board with the Midianitish Jethro. The lesson is thus enunciated by Peter: "Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons; but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him" (Acts 10:34, 35). - J.O.
I. CIRCUMSTANCES MAY JUSTIFY THE TEMPORARY REMISSION OF HOME RESPONSIBILITIES UPON OTHERS (ver. 2). For example - and the history of Moses will illustrate each point - we may be justified by -
1. The nature of external duty. We may be providentially called away from home; or the discharge of public responsibilities nay for the time be incompatible with our usual attention to the interests of the domestic circle, e.g., Moses going to Egypt (Exodus 4. compare with Exodus 18:2).
2. The probability of danger.
3. Defective sympathy. It is clear that Zipporah was not in sympathy with the religious object of Moses, nor yet with his specific mission, indeed, however, to be on our guard against making this a reason for withdrawal permanently from home responsibility. Want of perfect compatibility in domestic life makes marriage to be an occasion for self-discipline, and is thus converted into a means of grace. (Ephesians 5:25-27.)
II. CIRCUMSTANCES SCARCELY EVER JUSTIFY THE PERMANENT REMISSION. There are a few cases, perhaps, in which this responsibility may be devolved: e.g., the case of the missionary who must, fur various reasons, send home from his station his children to be educated; and not seldom the wife with them. Other cases there are, no doubt. But generally the father may not devolve this obligation. It is one -
1. Of necessity. No one else can meet the responsibility as the natural head of the family - this is true in all cases - even in that of the missionary named above - for the children suffer.
2. Of duty: -
(1) To ourselves. We owe it to our own convictions of truth, as to thought, life, and work, to perpetuate them.
(2) To dependents. Whether wife, children, or servants. [On this point some valuable suggestions in Dr. Taylor's "Moses the Lawgiver," pp. 173-176.]
(3) To our generation; and
(4) to the Great Father in heaven.
III. IF TEMPTED TO THIS REMISSION GOD WILL BRING HOME TO US OUR DUTY. Probably by some providence, may be painful or otherwise. At such a time, on such an occasion (Moses face to face with Sinai and the giving of the law) in such a place, Jethro re-introduced to Moses wife and children. Even such duties as his could not exempt him from domestic responsibility. - R.
I. THE REUNION OF THE SEPARATED. To Moses, who had to leave behind him wife and children because God's errand would brook no delay, these are now restored.
1. There is no loss to those who suffer for the kingdom of God's sake.
2. God fills the cup of his servants with consolations. God's care had been exercised not only over him in Egypt, but also over wife and children in Midian.
II. THE THEME OF THOSE WHO FEAR GOD. God's marvellous works (vers. 8, 9). It was not the subject of public discourse or formal greeting, but of private converse within "the tent." This is a mark of the true servant of God; to him God and his goodness are the most real and wondrous of all things.
III. THE RESULT OF THE TESTIMONY.
1. Jethro's confession of Jehovah.
2. His sacrifice to him. The stranger makes a feast before Israel's God for the princes of Israel. Those whom we bring to God make a feast, in their faith and love, for our soul before the Lord. - U.
I. ON MOSES. Moses is usually seen either in the presence of God or in the presence of the people; but here we get a peep at his private and domestic life, and nothing is revealed but what adds dignity and beauty to his character. A servant of God must have the same character, in all circumstances. It is not every public man that could afford to have his private life laid open; and only too often an earnest plea for pity has to be based on the remembrance of how frail and infirm a thing human nature is. But in the instance of Moses neither veil nor plea are needed. This meeting with Jethro has to take place, and there was no reason to evade it; it had also to be mentioned, and there was no reason to conceal it. Moses had done nothing in his past residence in Midian to make him ashamed or afraid of returning to it. He had been a faithful shepherd to Jethro; a loving husband to Zipporah; an equally loving father to Gershom and Eliezer. It was Zipporah who had forsaken him, and not he Zipporah. He returned as a prophet into what, in a certain sense, was his own country, and, if not exactly honoured neither could he be dishonoured. Again we behold Moses showing, in the most practical way, his respect for the family relation and the ties of kinship generally. The importance of the family relation we have seen already brought out in the institution of the Passover and the provision of the manna. Here Moses puts emphasis on the relation by his own example. He showed himself one who regarded domestic obligations as of the first importance Zipporah has failed him once, and that in circumstances of great perplexity; but he does not make this a plea for getting rid of her. He knows his duties towards her, and by undertaking them in a manful and conscientious way, he may bring her to a full recognition of her duty towards him. A truly great nation, having a strong and beneficial society, is only possible by an aggregation of households where household claims are respected by all. And evidently he who must lead the way in acknowledging the claim is he who stands at the head. So Moses did here. Lastly, Moses makes clear by his reception of Jethro and Zipporah that he was the same kind of man as in the old shepherd days. Altered circumstances with all their temptations had not made alterations for the worse in character. How many there are who while lifted in one way are lowered in another! They become bigger men; but, alas! not better. Everything that reminds them of former and humbler scenes is as wormwood to the taste. To all such Moses, by his conduct here, teaches a most powerful lesson. His strength among the thousands of Israel was not that of a human ruler who was to be girt about with all the paraphernalia of government, in order to overawe the populace. Moses can step out of his tent, as if he were one of the humblest of Israel, not only in character, but also in position. He can go out and welcome his kindred, show to Jethro the outward signs of filial respect, talk to them all in the old familiar way, and do it without the slightest fear that his authority as leader is in any way affected. And this conduct would be all the more beautiful if, as we may easily imagine, Zipporah came back to him rather lifted up because of her husband's new position, and disposed with feminine vanity to make the most of it for her own satisfaction.
II. ON JETHRO. This chapter, full as it is of Jethro, is another forcible illustration as to how much revelation of character the Scripture record can put into a small space. Jethro, hitherto known only as the near connection of Moses, stands before us here as a noble, pious, and truly affectionate and considerate man. Much, indeed, he has had to try and perplex him. Moses, who had made his first acquaintance with him under prepossessing circumstances, who had become his brother-in-law and faithful shepherd, all at once comes to him, without any previous notice, and asks his permission to return to Egypt. Moses, we know, had been sternly shut up to this course by Jehovah, and to Jethro it must have seemed entirely inexplicable. He had to part with his near relations; and a great void must thus have been left in his heart. Then presently Zipporah returns, with her sons, in a very sore and rebellious frame of mind. All Jethro can yet see is that this departure of Moses has brought nothing but domestic discord. And yet it is impossible for him to say that Moses has not done right. He can only wait for the unfoldings of time, listening meanwhile with what patience he can muster to reproaches from neighbours and daughter and perhaps grandsons, with respect to the unaccountable vagaries of Moses. And at last relief comes, and not only relief, but abundant justification. The information is such as to make Moses stand out in the esteem of his father-in-law more highly than ever. All suspense as to Zipporah's duty is removed; she must rejoin her husband. It was Moses and not Jethro who was responsible for her; and, besides, Moses and Zipporah had a joint responsibility for their offspring. Jethro is commonly set before us, in contrast to Amalek, as the illustration of heathenism, looking favourably and amicably upon Israel. But even more let us look upon him as the great illustration of those noble souls who strive to unite what sin divides. Jesus in his teaching had occasion to lay emphasis on the dividing effect of discipleship to himself. He intimated that the acceptance of himself would only too often rupture, or at least strain, natural ties. But this of course was not presented as a thing to cause satisfaction, it was only another sad evidence of how sin turns to evil what God meant for good. And yet here we see the other side, reunion as well as separation. The liberation of Israel, glorious in its total result, and lifting Moses to high eminence in respect of personal character, has vet involved at the same time the wreck of his domestic peace. Whatever the comforts of wife and children in this world may be, he has lost them. But now these comforts are coming again, and coming in the most satisfactory of all ways, by the voluntary entrance of his old friend Jethro on the scene. Blessed are the peacemakers; and surely of all peacemaking, that is not the least fruitful of good which reunites and reconstitutes a separated family. Moses acting with a single eye to what is right has to part from his wife, and let her go back to her own family. Jethro acting in the same spirit, brings the wife to her husband again. Often we may have to become agents and helpers in division; but if we only go on, union and harmony will return. What Zipporah's future was we know not; but Jethro had done his utmost to put matters right.
III. ON ZIPPORAH Her name occurs but little, and her appearance hitherto has not been such as to make us think she would prove a helpful companion to Moses (Exodus 4:25, 26). Still we must not judge too hastily from silence. It is not for Zipporah's sake she happens to be mentioned here. It is sufficient to learn, by the way, that an opportunity for repentance and for devotion to him who had such a burden to bear, was now given her. - Y.
I. WHAT THE CHILDREN SAW AND HEARD. As they came they would notice, first, the mountains, then the camp in the plain, then, perhaps, people moving about and cloudy pillar suspended over all. At last, one man comes to meet them; their father is the leader of the host.
1. A new flock. In the old days Gershom must often have looked out for his coming home; then (cf. Exodus 3:1) he had sheep to care for, now his flock is of another kind (Psalm 77:20). No longer Jethro's shepherd, but the shepherd of Jehovah. Not really changed his profession - still the same kind of work - only, having served his apprenticeship with Jethro, he has been called to a higher grade of service.
2. A memorable spot. How had he come to change his service? The very place would remind them of the answer. There is the rough hill-side - there, perhaps, the very bush where the angel appeared. The whole scene a fulfilment of God's promise and a pledge of his faithfulness (cf. Exodus 3:12).
3. New-found relatives. A new uncle and aunt, never seen before - could tell them about the old life in Egypt, their father's birth and escape - the cruel slavery of their kindred - all the past would seem more real now that they were confronted by these witnesses to its reality. Comparing the past with the present, a suggestive commentary on Eliezer's name; Moses had good reason for saying, "my God is a help."
II. PARALLEL WITH OURSELVES. (Cf. Hebrews 12:22-24.) We, too, like the sons of Moses, have been brought into new relations with our Father. As we approach him, what may we see and hear?
1. We find him in a holy place. Not a camp of wanderers in the wilderness, but a holy city, one which hath foundations, the settled home of its redeemed inhabitants. Pleasant for Gershom and his brother to find their father, but they still had to look on to the day when they should find their home; for us homo is our Father's house in the holy city upon the holy mountain.
2. He introduces us to holy fellowships. As Moses' children found new relatives, so do we: "an innumerable company, the general assembly of the angels, and the Church of the first-born, and the spirits of the justified." We may picture the interest with which Gershom and Eliezer must have viewed the camp and listened to the story of deliverance; but the company to which they had come was very different to that to which we have come; the deliverance of which they heard was but a first step to freedom. They, no doubt, learnt to sing, perhaps from Miriam, the song of Moses; from those with whom we have communion we may learn the song of the Lamb. Conclusion. After all, the children, amid all the new sights, would rejoice most at meeting their father - at seeing him, and remaining with him. As Jethro led them towards the mount, their father was, doubtless, the subject of their talk; all else derived its interest only from its relation to him. Just so, too, with us. Heaven is our Father's house; it is our Father's presence that makes it home to us. As our Lord leads us thitherward, it is still of the Father whom he speaks. Those whom the Father has given into his care he will bring to their' journey's end in safety. - G.
Exodus 18:7. The visit of Jethro comes between the agony of Rephidim and the solemnities of "Sinai," like the insertion of a sweet pastoral poem between two tragedies. Something may be learnt from it as to what should characterise friendship in its highest form, that is, between two devout souls, as consecrated and elevated by religion.
I. CONSTANCY. Moses and Jethro met as in the earlier years; no assumption with Moses, no sycophancy with Jethro.
II. COURTESY. Ver. 7. The nearer our relations to each other, the more indispensable this grace.
III. MUTUAL SOLICITUDE. Ver. 7.
IV. INTERCHANGE OF EXPERIENCE. Vers. 8-11. Happy time, when the deeper experiences (religious) can be exchanged to mutual advantage.
V. COMMUNION IN WORSHIP. Ver. 12. It is clear that Jethro and Moses were one as to Monotheism, in their common possession of the great Divine traditions of the race. Jethro spiritually was in the descent of Abel, Enoch, Noah, and Melchisedek. For him but one God, the God of heaven and earth, and therefore the God of Israel. Contrast with Amalek! Hence the sacrifice and the sacrificial feast.
VI. FIDELITY IN GIVING COUNCIL. Vers. 14, 17-23. Great courage required.
VII. HUMILITY IN RECEIVING IT. This the moral attitude of Moses.
VIII. AN ULTIMATE REFERENCE IN ALL INTERCOURSE TO THE DIVINE FRIEND. Ver. 23. "And God commanded thee so."
IX. SYMPATHY AS TO GREAT OBJECT. Jethro knew the destiny of Israel, and was concerned for the realisation.
X. PEACEFUL PARTING AT LIFE'S DIVERGING PATHS. Ver. 27. Apply this to moral and intellectual cross-roads; and to that which is so difficult - agreeing to differ - and that with mutual respect and affection. All in view and hope of the Perfect and immortal amity that is beyond the sky. - R.
1. The scope left in the arrangements of Israel for the independent action of the human mind. Various examples of this occur in the history - e.g., the retention of Hobab as a guide in the wanderings (Numbers 10:31), and the suggestion of the spies (Deuteronomy 1:22).
2. The truth that in God's ways of dealing with Israel, existing capabilities were utilised to the utmost. We have seen this in regard to the miracles, rod again in the conflict with Amalek; it is now to be noted in the formation of a polity. The same principle probably applies to what is said in ver. 16 of Moses making the people to "know the statutes of God and his laws." That Moses, in giving forth these statutes, acted under supernatural direction, and frequently by express instruction of God, is not to be denied; but it is equally certain that existing usages, embodying principles of right, were taken advantage of as far as they went. We cannot err in supposing that it is this same case-made law which, in its completed form, and under special Divine sanction, is embodied in the code of chs. 21-23. But neither in substance nor in form is this code, so various in its details, a direct Divine product. It grew up under Moses' hand in these decisions in the wilderness. Traditional materials were freely incorporated into it.
3. The assistance which a man of moderate gifts is often capable of rendering to another, greatly his superior. Jethro's was certainly a mind of no ordinary capacity; but we do this excellent man no injustice in speaking of his gifts as moderate in comparison with the splendid abilities of Moses. Yet his natural shrewdness and plain common-sense enabled him to detect a blunder in Moses' system of administration of which the lawgiver himself was apparently oblivious, and furnished him, moreover, with the suggestion of a remedy. The greatest minds are in this way often dependent on the humblest, and are, by the dependence, taught humility and respect for the gifts of others. There is no one who is not his neighbour's superior in some matter - none from whom his neighbour may not learn something. The college-bred man may learn from the rustic or mechanic, the merchant from his clerk, the statesman from the humblest official in his department, the doctor of divinity from the country minister, studious men generally, from those engaged in practical callings. Let no man, therefore, despise another. Jethro could teach Moses; and the plainest man, drawing on the stores with which experience has furnished him, need not despair of being of like service to those above him. It is for our own good. that God binds us together in these relations of dependence, and we should be thankful that he does so. "The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need. of thee: nor, again, the head to the feet, I have no need of thee," etc. (l Corinthians 12-14:31). Observe -
I. MOSES' ERROR (ver. 13). He took upon himself the whole burden of the congregation. He sat from morning till evening to hear their causes. We naturally wonder that the suggestion of appointing judges was left to come from Jethro - that so obvious an expedient for getting rid of the difficulty did not occur to Moses himself. It is astonishing, however, how wise a man may be in great things, and yet miss some little bit of sense which is right before his vision, and which is picked up at once by another and possibly a more ordinary mind. It is of Sir Isaac Newton the story is told, that being troubled by the visits of a cat and kitten, he fell on the expedient of making two holes in his study door to admit of their entrance and exit - a large hole for the cat, and a small hole for the kitten! Moses' error, we may be sure, did not arise from that which is a snare to so many in responsible positions - an exaggerated idea of his own importance. He would not fancy that everything must be managed by himself, because no one else was able to do it so well. But: -
1. The burden which now pressed upon him had probably grown from small beginnings. It is proverbially easier to set a system in operation, than to get rid of it again, when it presses and becomes inconvenient.
2. Moses probably accepted the position of judge and arbiter, as inseparable from the peculiar relation in which he stood to the people. They naturally looked to him, God's delegate, and in some sense their spiritual father, as the proper person to hear their causes, and settle their disputes. He felt the burden, but submitted to it as inevitable.
3. It was a further difficulty in the situation that no code of laws had as yet been formed; he was making the law as well as deciding cases. This may have seemed a bar in the way of the appointment of deputies.
4. The method by which the reform could be accomplished was not obvious. Jethro's scheme exactly met the case; but it had not as yet been suggested. Even had it occurred to Moses, he might have shrunk from entertaining it. There is always a hesitancy felt in entering on reforms which necessitate a large recasting of the frame-work of society, which involve new and untried arrangements. Difficulties might have been anticipated in finding the requisite number of men, in imparting to them the requisite amount of instruction, in making the scheme popular among the people, etc. It is useful to observe that when the scheme was actually set on foot, these difficulties did not prove to be insuperable. Nor, when Jethro made his proposal, do the difficulties seem to have been much thought of. Moses saw the wisdom of the plan, and readily adopted it. We are often thus kept back from useful undertakings by the ghosts of our own fears.
II. JETHRO'S EXPOSTULATION (vers. 14-19). If Moses did not see the mistake he was committing, Jethro did. To his clearer vision, the evils of the system in vogue were abundantly apparent, he saw: -
1. That Moses was taking upon himself a task to which his strength was quite unequal (ver. 18).
2. That, notwithstanding his exertions, the work was not being done.
3. That the time and energy which Moses was expending in these labours could be bestowed to infinitely better purpose (ver. 20).
4. Above all, that this expenditure of strength on subordinate tasks was unnecessary, seeing that there were men in the camp as capable as Moses himself of doing a large part of the work (ver. 21). On these grounds he based his expostulation. The lessons taught are of great importance.
(1) The neglect of division of labour in Christian work leads to serious evils. The work is not overtaken, the strength of those engaged in it is greatly overtaxed, while energy is bestowed on inferior tasks which might be applied to better purpose.
(2) The adoption of division of labour in Christian work secures obvious advantages. It relieves the responsible heads, expedites business and promotes order, secures that the work is better done, and utilises a great variety of talent which would otherwise remain unemployed. These are important considerations, and the application of them to hard wrought clergymen, and to others in responsible positions, is sufficiently obvious (see an essay by Dr. Caird, on "The co-operation of the laity in the government and work of the Church," in Good Words for 1863). Not a little work is heaped by congregations on ministers which could he far better done by persons among themselves, and the doing of which by laymen would leave the minister free in mind and heart for the discharge of his higher and proper duties.
III. THE PROPOSAL OF THE APPOINTMENT OF JUDGES (vers. 19-27). Jethro's scheme had every merit which a scheme of the kind could have. It relieved Moses, provided for the overtaking of the work, and secured that, while being overtaken, the work would be done with greater efficiency. It was a bold, comprehensive measure, yet withal perfectly workable. It would also have an important effect in welding the nation together. It is to be noted concerning it: -
1. That it reserved to Moses various important duties (vers. 19, 20). he was still to be the teacher of the people in the ordinances and laws of God, and had the duty of trying and of deciding upon causes of special difficulty. This would fully occupy his powers, while his relation to the people, as God's vicegerent, would be better preserved by his retaining a position apart, and keeping himself from their petty strifes.
2. That special stress is laid upon the character of the men to be selected as judges (ver. 21). Ability is not overlooked, but peculiar importance is attached to their being men that fear God, love truth, and hate covetousness. Happy the country which has such judges! Jethro's insistance on these particulars shows him to have been a man of true piety, and one who had an eye to the true interests of the people, as well as to the good of Moses.
3. The scheme, before being adopted, was to be submitted for God's approval (ver. 23). This should be done with all our schemes. Jethro, having accomplished this useful bit of work, returned to his home in peace (ver. 27). - J.O.
Exodus 18:13). Explain with accuracy the work of Moses. On such a text might be based a homily on the functions, work and bearing of a civil magistrate or judge. But it is better to give the subject a wider application, and to treat it under Christian lights.
I. THE FUNCTIONS OF A CHRISTIAN. Moses sat as a prophet, expounding the Divine will, as revealed to his exalted soul by the Spirit of God; and as a judge, deciding controversies. Indeed the two functions were blended; in giving legal decisions, he treated the suitors as intelligent and moral beings, assigning the principles on which they were based. These functions of Moses may suggest what should be those of a Christian in the public paths of life.
1. To expound the mind and will of God: i.e., his truth and his law.
2. To promote peace: i.e., in all the relations of life (Matthew 5:9).
II. THE MANNER OF THEIR DISCHARGE.
1. With patience. "From the morning unto the evening."
2. In the spirit of brotherhood. "The people stood by Moses." No airs of superiority.
3. With diligence. Moses went on with his work, though
(1) He had distinguished visitors. Jethro might have been an excuse for a vacation or a short session. No! "on the morrow" he went on with duty, and worked as long as it was light. "Necessary business must always take the place of ceremonious attention. It is too great a compliment to our friends to prefer the enjoyment of their company before our duty to God."
(3) He had received great provocation.
(4) Advancing in years. To life's last hour Moses worked for the public good. - R.
I. ZEAL MAY OUTRUN DISCRETION.
1. Moses' strength was overtaxed, his spirit needlessly burdened.
2. There was delay for the people with its vexation and loss. The most self-sacrificing love will not of itself make our methods the best and wisest.
II. WHAT IS NEEDFUL FOR THE GIVING OF ADVICE.
1. Affectionate interest and care. The people's need and Moses' burden both weigh upon Jethro's spirit.
2. Wisdom. A better way is clearly conceived, all the requirements of the case are grasped and met.
3. Honest plainness.
4. Piety. He asked Moses to take his advice only so far as God will command him.
III. WHAT IS NEEDFUL FOR PROFITING BY GOOD COUNSEL.
1. Readiness to listen. There is on Moses' part no proud resenting of a stranger's interference. The voice was heard as if it rose up within his own bosom.
2. Obedience to conviction. He not only heard and assented, he went and did it. - U.
. How comes this episode to be mentioned at all, and what is its point of attachment to the main course of the history? Evidently it would not have been inserted unless as explaining how these rulers of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens, had first been appointed. The origin of this appointment is then seen to be traceable to Jethro's prudent and sagacious suggestions. It has then to be further explained how Jethro happens to be in the camp at all. And so we have another illustration of how things which seem utterly disconnected from one another yet have a very real connection. See Zipporah on the way from Midian to Egypt rebelling against the ordinance of the Lord; and then look on all this orderly and careful provision for the administration of justice through the tribes of Israel. What connection should there be between these? Yet one leads to the other. As to the time of the visit, any exact determination is of course out of the question, but this much at least may be guessed that the visit was alter the giving of the law. What if it happened just about the time of Miriam's jealousy against Moses, and was in some measure the cause of it? (Numbers 12.) Such a supposition too would better harmonise with the reference in ver. 16, when Moses represents himself as explaining the statutes of God and his laws. May we not almost say that if this chapter were inserted somewhere in the earlier part of the book of Numbers, and from it we looked back on all the mass of legislation in Exodus and Leviticus, it would read with far greater force?
I. WE HAVE GOD'S PEOPLE PRESENTED TO US AS ABOUNDING IN OCCASIONS OF DISPUTE AMONG THEMSELVES. This appears as a certain consequence of that spirit of self-seeking so manifest and strong among them. The law from Sinai of course conflicted with many old and honoured traditions. That law had been given to secure in the first place a nation devoted to the service of God; and in the second place the mutual prosperity of all the members of that nation. If only every Israelite had obeyed these laws from the heart, and entered into the spirit of them, then the prosperity of all would have been ensured. But as a matter of fact most part of the Israelites wanted to conform to the laws just so far as suited their convenience and no further. Laws were to be interpreted very strictly when such interpretations were for their advantage, ant[ very loosely when the contrary. The disputes, misunderstandings, and lawsuits of society are a great reproach, and ought to be a great humiliation. Think of all the machinery which is in daily operation through such a land as England to secure, as far as may be, the doing of right between man and man. And yet this machinery, expensive and elaborate as it is, works in a very unsatisfactory way; indeed that which is meant to work justice very often works injustice, and certainly very seldom ensures the exact attainment of right. Hence, however pleased we are to look on Jethro's suggestions here, and see them carried out with a measure of success, we feel that they must not he suffered to hide an end more desirable still. Law reformers cry out, and with ample cause, for the adoption of such means as will secure a cheap and speedy settlement of all disputes. But how much more would be gained if only there was a universal acceptance of the Gospel, with all its powers and principles! That Gospel puts into man a loving and unselfish heart and a spirit of brotherliness, which, if allowed fair play, would soon do away with litigation and all that leads to it. A world of Christians would be a simple-hearted, plain-living people, ever acting towards one another in truth, kindness, and goodwill. Cheap justice is good; but the new heavens and the new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness, are much better.
II. WE SEE MOSES DOING HIS BEST, BY INDIVIDUAL EFFORT, TO RECONCILE AND SATISFY THESE DISPUTANTS. We get the impression of a man whose hands are full with his judicial work. When his own dear kinsfolk come in such affecting and pressing circumstances, he can only spare for them a brief interval; and a large part of that interval seems to have been occupied with religious exercises. With the morning light Moses settles down to what he must have found a weary and discouraging work. Many a perjury, many an impudent claim, many a reckless slander, many a pitiful story of oppression and extortion he would have to listen to. It is the daily work of judges and magistrates to deal with the seamy side of human nature, but then this is their business; they look for it, they get used to it, above all they are paid for it. Perhaps they would say, most of them, that it is no affair of theirs to ask too curiously whence all this disputing comes and how it is to be cured. They are there to administer laws and not to make them. But Moses was more than a judge. He had not only to settle these disputes by the way, but also to guide the disputers towards Canaan. We are perfectly certain, too, that the great bulk of those against whom justice compelled him to decide would become his enemies. Yet he struggled on, accepting the responsibility, and trying to get the laws of God for Israel more and more accepted among the people. He indeed sets us, in this matter, a noble example. The pressure which was upon him will never rest upon us, for all men sought him; but we also have our limited opportunity, larger alas! than we seek to use, of advancing the things that make for peace. There is so much to promote discord, so much to excite partisan spirit; there are so many to tear every rent wider, instead of putting in the little stitch in time that saves nine, that we may well ask for grace, gentleness, fidelity, and impartiality, in order to put in our intervening word when such a word may be possible and acceptable. The more we think of all that there is in this world acting, often alas! consciously and deliberately, to spite, separate, and irritate, the more let us determine to form part of a reuniting and cementing force.
III. NOTICE THE TIMELY PRESENCE AND COUNSEL OF JETHRO. Truly there is appearance here of something unaccountable in the dealings of God. Such a seemingly important matter as the judicial system of Israel owes its existence to the suggestion of an outsider. And yet it might have been thought that this was exactly one of the things which Jehovah would provide for by express enactments. When it is a matter of making the tabernacle, he is very particular as to measurements and materials, but when it is a matter of judging causes, he leaves it to be determined by the advice of an apparently casual visitant to the camp. There is nothing really strange in all this, if we remember that God only instructs us where we cannot make discoveries for ourselves. Revelation does not supersede, it rather assumes and requires the exercise of common sense and natural judgment. We find a somewhat parallel case to this in the New Testament when the deacons were appointed. Common sense told the apostles they were becoming burdened with work which did not properly belong to them, and only hindered them in the doing of work for which they were specially responsible; and so here the common sense of Jethro steps in to suggest to Moses a more excellent way. Why did not Moses think of it himself? The very fact that he did not shed a great deal of light on his character. His strength lay not in personal initiation, but in complete waiting and dependence on God. If God had commanded the institution of these rulers, he would very quickly have had the command in operation; but he never thought of proposing the plan himself. But when another proposes it, he can see at once that it is a wise, practicable, and necessary one. Moses is not to be blamed as wanting in sagacity in that he failed to see this remedy before. Great discoveries are simple enough when once they are made; and then everyone wonders they were not made long before.
IV. OBSERVE THE DETAILS OF JETHRO'S ADVICE. Not only does he suggest the obtaining of help from somewhere, but taking in the whole situation at a glance, he can suggest exactly the best thing to be done. Probably as a priest in Midian he had seen a great many disputings and helped to some extent in the settlement of them. We cannot but feel as we read. through the details of the counsel, that whatever may be lacking in Jethro's formal standing, he acquits himself as one who is really and opportunely the messenger of God. He speaks as a good and true man ought to speak both for the relief of his kinsman and for the abiding good of the whole people. He judges that in Israel itself there are resources enough to meet the emergency, if only properly searched out and arranged. Given 600,000 men, surely among them there will be a fair proportion who have the qualities required. Notice that Jethro aims at a high standard (ver. 21); able men are wanted, and wherein does the ability consist? No doubt a certain acuteness and general power of mind was required, but the chief elements of the ability lay in those qualities which Jethro went on to specify. An efficient judge between man and man must be also one who fears God. The fear of man that bringeth a snare must not be allowed to enter his mind. He must measure things by Divine standards, ever asking what God would wish his judgments to be. He must be a man of truth, sparing no effort and avoiding no danger; in order to get at it he must try to keep his mind clear from prejudices. If he has fallen into any error he will promptly confess it, feeling that the interests of truth are more important than a reputation for consistency. And he must be free from covetousness. No suspicion of a bribe will cling to his judgments, nor will he be infected with that worldliness of spirit which looks to the property of men a great deal more than to the interest and comfort of their persons. But now the half-incredulous question cannot be kept out of the mind, "where shall such judges be found?" At all events let them be sought for. We cannot find perfect men; but we know the direction in which to seek. Probably, in the course of a long life, Jethro has discovered that men are both better and worse than he thought at first; and he is perfectly certain that men can be found to do all that is indispensably requisite for the present need. Moses was wearing himself out with duties which many in Israel were quite competent to perform; but who of them all could do the work which had been rut specially into his hands? - Y.
Exodus 18:17, 18. In the error of Moses, and the amendment suggested by Jethro, are to be discovered most valuable lessons. This day in the life of Moses was a microcosm of all his days. His whole life was service. So with all true life. But in such a life mistakes are possible. We inquire then what are the Divine conditions of a life of true ministry?
I. CHARACTER. The elements were laid down by Jethro as qualifications of the new judges. Certain that Moses possessed them. So must all who aim at usefulness (ver. 21).
1. Ability. Strange that ability comes first; but so it must be. Piety without ability can adorn only obscurity. Service and responsibility demand the man of power. Ability may be natural; but is also to be acquired. Hence duty of hard work, especially in morning of life.
2. Piety. Ability is the engine of the soul, the fear of God the helm. Richard Cobden was wont to say: - "You have no security for a man who has no religious principle." Said his colonel to Hedley Vicars, offering him in 1852 the adjutancy of his regiment: - "Vicars, you are the man I can best trust with responsibility."
II. ECONOMY, i.e., of force and of resource (vers. 17, 18). Remark: -
1. That the most earnest are likely to neglect it. It is not the hack but the thoroughbred that needs to be held in. The energy of Moses led him into error. So earnestness kills itself with excess of work.
2. That there is necessity for economy. As with money, one must not spend 25s. a week, if one has only 20s.; so there is a limitation as to strength (of every kind), time, and opportunity.
3. That the economy is easy. The Christian worker should not attempt that which is above, beside, or beneath his power or vocation. Nor all that is on the level of his ability.
4. That the consequences will be abundant and rich. The result of division of labour in a factory; so with spiritual enterprise, the effects will be the enrichment of the Church, and the largest service for the world.
III. CONCENTRATION. The more we withdraw effort from that which is not within our own province, the more must we accumulate and concentrate energy upon that which is. - R.
I. THE DIVINE POWER. "God shall be with thee," said Jethro. The history shows how God had been with him already, how he was with him all through his life. Especially we may notice -
1. His relation to Pharaoh. The shepherd facing the king. Whence his boldness? He had shrunk beforehand at the mere prospect; when the hour came Pharaoh quailed before him. It was not Moses, it was the power which manifested itself through Moses, that humbled Pharaoh. Moses was but the visible rod in the outstretched hand of the invisible Jehovah.
2. His relation to the people. Harder to face a fickle multitude than to face an obstinate and Powerful monarch. Here too the Divine Power was manifested; the glory of Jehovah was, as it were, reflected from the face of his servant. It was the radiancy of the reflected glory which again and again cowed the rebels to submission. As with Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:4-8), Zerubbabel (Zed. 4:6), St. Paul (2 Corinthians 12:9, 10), so also with Moses; human weakness the more evidently testified to Divine power.
II. THE HUMAN COUNSEL. Notice: -
1. The need of it. Men are so weak that they are soon unhinged by a great trust reposed in them. Their attention is so fixed upon the one thing, that other things are seen out of perspective. Moses was so filled with the consciousness of a Divine power working through him, that he failed at first to realise the fact that he was unequal to the friction necessitated by such a power. He realised the effect of the power in prospect more accurately than he could do after it possessed him (cf. ch. 4.). As the mediator between God and Israel, had it not been for Jethro's counsel, he must soon have been worn out through forgetting the necessities of his own nature. Lives are still wasted and shortened through a like oversight. The man who feels that he is the channel of Divine power is, for the time, so God-intoxicated, that it does not occur to him to share his responsibilities. He must be both head and hands in everything, and the head in consequence soon grows heavy, and the hands hang down. Under the force of inspiration, common-sense is in abeyance; all the more need for wise counsel from those who occupy a neutral stand-point.
2. The wisdom of it. Jethro saw that the great thing was not that Moses should do all the work, but that all the work should be done. The power to do it, was no doubt lodged with Moses (cf. water-power lodged with keeper of sluice gates). The work, however, might be best done by a distribution of the power through selected agents. Moses need not to be head and hands; he might choose other hands, making them responsible to himself as head. Moses showed his wisdom by accepting the wise counsels of Jethro; many men would have shown their folly by setting them aside as the suggestions of ignorance. Concluding considerations. Inspiration is a grand thing; but it may be best utilised by common-sense. God's power enables for action; but that power is best applied when the counsels of Jethro are attended to. All men have not the same gifts; and those who have what seem to be the higher gifts, are apt to set too small a value upon advice given by those less gifted. Even the gift of faith, however, needs the gift of wisdom to direct it. Moses was able to do more than he otherwise could have done because he was wise enough to hearken to the voice of Jethro, his father-in-law. ? G.
I. JETHRO DEPARTS AFTER A MOST SATISFACTORY VISIT. That visit was made not perhaps without some anxiety and doubt as to the results, but still under the clear dictation of duty. Therefore, it would have been satisfactory even if less successful. Moses might, conceivably, have looked on Zipporah coldly and. received her reluctantly; but there would have remained to Jethro the priceless satisfaction that he had done the right thing. But Jethro, we have seen, had more even than the satisfaction of a good conscience; he had been successful, and successful beyond all that he could have anticipated when he set out. To a man of Jethro's disposition, that would indeed be a joyous visit, which had proved so useful to Moses, to Zipporah, to their children, to Israel, and may we not add, towards the glorifying of Jethro himself? Keep ever in the path that is clearly right, and you have Jethro's experience to encourage you in the expectation that it may also be the path of noble and joyous opportunities.
II. JETHRO DEPARTS, AND MOSES IS MADE TO FEEL, MORE THAN EVER, THAT JEHOVAH REMAINS. Very helpful are human counsel and sympathy, and especially when they come from old friends. There are no friends like old friends, and Jethro was a very old friend t o Moses. But Jethro's abilities and opportunities as adviser extended only a little way. Like Moses we may all have our Jethros whom we may love, cherish and venerate; for God distributes such men everywhere about the world to be, as it were, fellow-workers with trim in giving stability and illumination to the perplexed. But we cannot keep them; we may lose them at any moment; and while it is great wisdom to listen to them, it would be great folly to put them in the place of God. Though Jethro was very decided in the counsels he gave, he knew equally when to stop. We may look at him as coming in here to teach us that what we can expect from the most competent and loving of human friends is but a trifle compared with the great total of our needs. We are allowed to have but small expectations from the brother sinner, the brother mortal, the brother who is liable to ignorance and error, just as much as we are ourselves. When Jethro went away, Moses would feel himself all the more shut up to Jehovah. When the earthly is dumb, misleading, estranged, or dead, then the heavenly will speak in clear and loving accents to all who have ears to hear.
III. Jethro departs into his own land, for HE HAD DOUBTLESS PRESSING CLAIMS UPON HIM THERE. He was just the kind of man to make his presence, as long as he lived, a kind of necessity to his neighbours, he had come on a matter of urgency, not for his own pleasure or ease; and we may imagine he went back as soon as he conveniently could to finish such affairs at home as had been left unfinished. Note, however, that in going back to his own land, and away from Moses, he did not therefore retire from the service of God and the reach of God's blessings. Jethro and Moses seemed to be going different ways; but they only differed in external circumstances. Moses does not seem even to have asked Jethro to stay with him; whereas we know that he pressed and urged Hobab. Perhaps he felt that he had no sufficient reason for asking Jethro, or that it would be of no use. - Y.