We’ve seen how the Lord delivered his people from their captivity in Egypt and he brought them safely through the Red Sea. And we’ve seen how, through these events, the Lord was revealing to us the good news of the gospel, because just as the Lord delivered the Israelites from their captivity, so the Lord Jesus Christ delivers us from our bondage to sin and Satan and death. And just as the Israelites passed safely through the Red Sea, leaving behind their old life of misery to begin a new life of freedom, so, through faith in Christ, we have passed from death to life and have left behind our old life of sin and misery to begin a new life of freedom with Christ.
But we’ve also seen how the Israelites were looking forward to entering the Promised Land of Canaan, where they could come into God’s holy dwelling place and enjoy his presence in their midst. And we too are looking forward to entering the Promised Land of Eternal Life where we will come into God’s holy dwelling place in the new heavens and the new earth and enjoy his presence in our midst for ever and for ever.
And then we’ve also seen how the Israelites were living in the in-between time, which is the time in between their deliverance from Egypt and their arrival in Canaan. And we’ve seen how the in-between time was a time of testing and trouble, because they were faced with a shortage of water and a shortage of food; and they were faced with enemies who wanted to attack them. But the Lord provided for them: he provided them with water to drink; and he provided them with manna to eat; and he protected them from their enemies and gave them a great victory over the Amalekites. And, of course, we too are living in the in-between time, because while we too have been delivered from our old life of sin and misery, we haven’t yet reached our final destination which is eternal life in the presence of the Lord. We’re not there yet. We’re only pilgrims on the way. And in this in-between time, we’re to trust and obey the Lord Jesus Christ, who provides us with all we need to sustain us on the way. And he’s able to protect us from Satan who wants to destroy us. And so, while we go on living in the in-between time, we’re to trust in the the Lord Jesus Christ who is able to help us to continue along the narrow path that leads eventually to eternal life in his presence.
So, we’ve seen how, through all of these events which happened to the Israelites, the Lord is revealing to us the good news of the gospel and his great plan for our salvation. And so, today, we come to chapter 18 and to this two-part story which involves Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law. We first met Jethro — who is also called Reuel — in chapter 2, after Moses fled from Egypt because the Pharaoh wanted to kill him. And Moses fled to the land of Midian where he helped Jethro’s daughters who had come to a well to water their flocks. Well, Moses ended up marrying Jethro’s daughter, Zipporah. And Jethro also gave him a job, as a shepherd. And that was Moses’s life until the Lord appeared to him in the burning bush and appointed him to be the one who would lead God’s people out of their captivity. So, we’ve met Jethro before. And today’s chapter is all about him. And it can be divided into two parts: verses 1 to 12 which contains an account of Jethro’s confession of faith in the Lord; and verses 13 to 27 where Jethro gave advice to Moses about how to arrange their judicial system. And we’ll look at these two parts now.
Verses 1 to 12
And the first thing to notice is what we read about Jethro in verse 1 where it tells us that he was the priest of Midian. Well, the Midianites were Gentiles, not Jews, and not members of God’s people. And they were not worshippers of the Lord; they were pagans who worshipped false gods and idols. And Jethro was their priest. And so, right away, this tells us that Jethro was not a member of the Lord’s people and he did not worship the Lord or serve him. He worshipped and served false gods. But look: he heard of everything God had done for Moses and for the Israelites and how the Lord had brought them out of Egypt. No doubt the news of what the Lord had done to the Pharaoh in Egypt had spread about, with one person telling another person of the great things the Lord had done and how he sent one plague after another and how he opened a way for his people through the Red Sea and how he destroyed the Egyptians in the same Red Sea. The Lord had done great things and had made a name for himself and no doubt everyone was talking about it.
And, of course, they were still talking about it forty years later whenever the Israelites camped across the Jordan from Jericho, for Rahab reported at that time how the people of Jericho had heard how the Lord had dried up the Red Sea for the Israelites. Everyone was talking about it; and the news had reached Jethro, this pagan priest. And so, according to verse 5, Jethro went to meet Moses. But he didn’t go alone: he took with him Zipporah, Moses’s wife, and Moses’s two sons. Verse 2 explains for us that Moses had sent his wife away; that’s why she and her sons were living with her father. Now the commentators speculate whether or not Moses and his wife had divorced, because the Hebrew word for ‘sent away’ is used later to refer to divorce. However, it’s more likely that he sent her away for her own good after the Lord appeared to him in the burning bush and before he returned to Egypt. He sent her away for her own good, because Moses knew the trouble he would face in Egypt whenever he arrived there and how it would be safer and easier for Zipporah and her children to remain with her father than to have to face the anger of Pharaoh and all the dangers of Egypt. But now that Moses and the Israelites had escaped from Egypt, it was safe for Zipporah and her children to rejoin Moses near Mount Sinai. And so, Jethro came to Moses, bringing with him Moses’s wife and children.
And we read in verse 7 how Moses greeted his father-in-law and treated him with honour and respect, bowing before him and kissing him, before taking him into his tent and showing him hospitality. And look at verse 8: Moses told his father-in-law everything the Lord had done to Pharaoh and the Egyptians for Israel’s sake. Jethro had already heard some of these things; but now here’s his chance to hear these things in greater detail from someone who was at the centre of all the action and knew exactly what the Lord had done. And we can imagine — can’t we? — Jethro’s heart’s burning within him as he heard what the Lord had done for his people and as he began to realise how great the Lord is, so much greater than the gods of the Midianites. And Moses was very honest — wasn’t he? — because he also went on to describe the hardships they had met along the way.
So, he probably told him about the time when they came to Marah and were afraid because the water there was bitter and undrinkable. And then there was that occasion when their food ran out and they were worried about starving to death in the wilderness. And there was that second occasion when their water ran out and the people wondered how they would survive. And there was the time when the Amalekites marched against them and it looked like they would be killed in the desert. Moses was honest about the hardships they faced. But at the same time, he was able to testify to the greatness of the Lord and to his mercy, because he saved them from all their troubles. What a marvellous conversation this must have been, as Moses described what the Lord had done for them. And in verse 9 we read how Jethro was delighted to hear these things and to hear about all the good things the Lord had done. And having heard all these things, his heart was stirred with praise, and he said in verse 10:
Praise be to the Lord.
Praise be to the Lord, who has rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and of Pharaoh, and who rescued the people from the hand of the Egyptians. And so, he praised the Lord. And then he went on to say:
Now I know that the Lord is greater than all other gods, for he did this to those who had treated Israel arrogantly.
‘Now I know’. He had heard what the Lord had done for Israel and now he knew and had become convinced that the Lord is great, greater than every other god which people believe in, and greater than the gods of Midian whom he served. Here we have Jethro’s confession of faith in the Lord, because this man, this pagan priest, had come to believe in the God of Israel. And so, we read in verse 12 how he brought a burnt offering and other sacrifices and he offered them, not to the gods of the Midianites, as he would have done in the past, but to the one, true and living God, the Lord God of Israel. And Aaron and all the elders of Israel came and they ate bread with Jethro and with Moses in the presence of the Lord. In other words, they ate a fellowship meal together, because though Jethro was a foreigner, who had come from the land of Midian, he was now united with them in their devotion to the Lord.
Back in Genesis 9 the Lord promised that the descendants of Japheth would live in the tents of Shem. The descendants of Shem were the Jews; and the descendants of Japheth were the Gentiles; and by that promise, the Lord was foretelling how the Jews and the Gentiles would live together in peace, enjoying fellowship together. And it was a hint, a hint that the good news of the gospel would be, not only for the Jews but also for the Gentiles; and that the Lord would give salvation to Jews and Gentiles, to whoever believes in him. And in Genesis 12, the Lord promised that all peoples on earth would be blessed through Abraham. Again, it was a hint that the Lord was going to give salvation to the Gentiles as well as to the Jews.
In Genesis 22, the Lord again promised Abraham that through his offspring — and the Lord was referring to the Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world — that through Abraham’s offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because men and women and boys and girls would receive the gift of salvation through faith Jesus Christ, Abraham’s offspring. And in the Psalms, the Psalmist foretells how the nations will come and join the Jews to praise the Lord. And throughout the rest of the Old Testament there are all these predictions of how the nations will come to Jerusalem to worship him. And, of course, in due course, after the Lord’s resurrection, he commissioned the Apostles to go and make disciples of all nations. You see, it was always the Lord’s intention to give salvation to men and women and boys and girls in every nation of the world so that the new heavens and the new earth will be filled with people from every nation.
And so, the Apostles went to all nations, preaching the gospel to all; and Jews and Gentiles were enabled to believe and they were added to the church. And then, in the last book of the Bible, we see into heaven, and around the Lord’s throne, worshipping him, is a multitude which no one can count, comprising people from every nation. This has always been God’s plan for the nations. And here in Exodus 18, we have another hint of it, when this pagan priest was converted to the true faith and began to worship the one, true and living God.
This is God’s plan. And though in the Old Testament, the Jews were God’s chosen people, nevertheless all the way through the Old Testament, we have these hints that salvation is not just for the Jews, but it’s for all who will believe; and we have these hints that it has always God’s intention to surround his throne in heaven with people from every nation. And since that is the Lord’s intention, we ought to pray to him to send preachers into all the world to declare the unsearchable riches of Christ, so that in every nation men and women and boys and girls might hear all about the good things the Lord has done and might come to know for themselves that he is greater than all other gods and deserves to be loved, trusted and worshipped above all others. We ought to pray for the preaching of the gospel throughout the world so that others will be convinced, as Jethro was, and will worship him.
Verses 13 to 27
If the first part of this two-part story was about Jethro’s confession of faith in the Lord; verses 13 to 27 are about the advice Jethro gave to Moses about how to arrange their judicial system. So, in verse 13 we read how Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people. And the people stood around him from morning until evening. So, all day long, the people waited to get the chance to present their case before him and to ask for his judgment. And we can imagine that he had to deal with all kinds of arguments and disputes which would have broken out among the people. Well, his father-in-law saw what Moses was doing, and he said:
What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand round you from morning till evening?
If you’ve ever been in a long queue, you’ll know how frustrating it is to have to wait to be seen. And if you’re at the supermarket, or the bank, it’s frustrating when there are lots of tills, but there’s only one person on duty, and everyone has to wait. And you wonder:
Why can’t someone else come on duty so that we can all get out of here?
And then, if the person at the front of the queue is taking too long, you get angrier and angrier. Well, that’s what was happening here. There was only one judge: Moses. And there were lots and lots and lots of people in the queue, waiting to be heard. And so, Jethro asked:
What are you doing?
And so, Moses explained in verse 15 that the people come to him to seek God’s will about their dispute and what should be done. In other words, the people would come to him with their problem; and Moses would enquire from the Lord what should be done; and the Lord somehow — and we don’t know how — but the Lord somehow revealed to Moses what should be done. And so Moses stood as the intermediary, the go-between, between the Lord and the people; and God revealed his will and his decrees through Moses. That’s why the came to him; and since he was the only intermediary, they had to wait their turn.
Look at Jethro’s reply in verse 17. He’s quite blunt, isn’t he? He said:
What you’re doing isn’t good.
And then he goes on to explain why it’s not good, because they’ll only wear themselves out: Moses will wear out because of the demands on his time and energy; the people will wear out because they have to wait so long. And so, Jethro concludes: the work is too heavy for you; you can’t handle it on your own. And from verse 19 he offers a solution which is really quite simple: delegate. Yes, you need to teach the people the will of the Lord, but choose capable men — men who fear the Lord and who are trustworthy and who hate dishonest gain; in other words, men who can’t be bribed — and appointed them as officials and judges to be over the people. Let them decide the minor disputes, so that only the most serious disputes are brought to Moses. This will make the load on Moses lighter, because they will share the share the workload. And so, verse 23, Moses will now be able to stand the strain, because he doesn’t have to do so much; and just as important, the people will go home satisfied. They’ll go home satisfied and happy, because they didn’t have to wait all day for an answer.
In verse 24 we read that Moses listened to his father-in-law and did everything he suggested. He choose suitable men and they served as judges for the people. They decided the simple cases themselves, but brought the more difficult cases to Moses.
And finally, in verse 27, we read that Moses sent his father-in-law on his way; and Jethro returned to his own country. This doesn’t mean Moses wanted to get rid of his father-in-law. It simply means that, when it was time for Jethro to leave, Moses sent him on his way. Think of the way we send visitors on their way, by giving them farewell gifts and by hugging and kissing them and waving good-bye to them.
One of the lessons we learn from this passage is that it shows us how the Israelites needed God’s law. It’s not an accident that this chapter comes before chapter 19 where we read how the people came to Mount Sinai and chapter 20 where we read how the Lord gave the people the Ten Commandments; and then, in the rest of the book of Exodus, we have more of God’s laws. In chapter 18, the problem which the people faced was that they were having all these disputes and didn’t know how to decide them. And they needed guidance from the Lord: they needed laws to show them how to live as God’s people; and they needed laws to show them what was the right way to live as God’s people; they needed laws to show them the will of the Lord. Chapter 18 shows us that they needed God’s law.
And so, when they received the law at Mount Sinai, they will have received it with joy and gladness, because this is just what they needed. They had tried living without God’s law to guide them; and it wasn’t good, because they had to wait all day long for Moses to answer them. And so, what a relief to have God’s law, written down, so that they would know his will and what was right in his sight.
So, chapter 18 shows us that they needed God’s law. And so, it prepared the way for the giving of the law in chapter 19 and beyond. But here’s the thing: the Lord had something even better in store for them. Having the law written on stones tablets was better than having no law at all. But the Lord had something even better in store for his people in the future. Listen to what the Lord promised his people through the prophet Jeremiah:
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
We find those words in Jeremiah 31. And let me quote also from Ezekiel 36 where the Lord promised:
And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
So, first of all, the Lord promised that he would make a new covenant with his people. Now, a new covenant implies an old covenant. So what was the old covenant? Well, the old covenant was the covenant the Lord made with his people at Mount Sinai in which he gave them his laws on stone tablets and the people promised to keep them. But as the years went by, it became clear that God’s people were unable to keep that old covenant and they kept breaking his laws and they kept disobeying his commandments. Though they had God’s laws, written down on stone tablets, they disregarded his laws and they often went astray. And so, while having the law on stone tablets was better than having no law at all, nevertheless it wasn’t enough. And so, in Jeremiah 31, the Lord promised to make with his people a new and better covenant.
And this new covenant was better because it was written, not on stone tablets, but it was written on their hearts. And what’s more, this new covenant was better because the Lord not only promised to write the law on their hearts, but he promised to give them a new heart so that they will love him and will want to obey him. And there’s more, because this new covenant was better because the Lord not only promised to write the law on their hearts, and to give them a new heart to obey him, but he also promised to give them the Holy Spirit to help them. And this new covenant was better because as well as writing the law on their hearts, and as well as giving them a new heart to obey him, and as well as giving them the Holy Spirit to help them, the Lord also promised to forgive them when they disobeyed his law. He promised:
I will remember their sin no more.
In every way, the new covenant was to be so much better than the old covenant.
But when would this new covenant take effect? When would it begin? Well, do you remember the Passover Feast which the Lord ate with the disciples before he was arrested and crucified? Do you remember when he took the cup, what did he say? He said:
This cup is the new covenant in my blood….
Do you see what he was saying? He was saying that the new covenant which God promised in the days of Jeremiah had come; it had arrived. And so, from now on, the Lord writes his law, not on stone tablets, but on the hearts of his people so that they will know his will. And from now on, the Lord gives his people a new heart so that they love him and want to obey him. And from now on, the Lord gives his people the Holy Spirit to help us to do his will. And from now on, the Lord gives his people forgiveness, because he promises to remember our sins no more, for the sake of Christ who has paid for all our sins by his blood, shed on the cross.
Exodus 18 shows us how the people needed God’s law; they needed his law to teach them the will of the Lord and to show them how to live. But even when they received the law at Mount Sinai, it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough. But the Lord had something even better in store for his people, because in due course he made this new and better covenant by which he promised to write his law on our hearts; and he promised to give us a new heart to obey him; and he promised to give us the Holy Spirit to help us to obey his laws and to do his will. And even when we go astray, and even when we sin, he re-assures us that — for the sake of Christ — he will remember our sins no more.
Like the Israelites, we’re living in the in-between time, because we’re pilgrims on the way to the Promised Land of Eternal Life. And life in the in-between time is a time of testing and trouble. But the Lord provides us with all we need to sustain us on the way. And the Lord provides us with protection to keep us safe on the way. And the Lord not only sustains us and protects us, but he puts his law in hearts that have been renewed by his Spirit to enable us to walk in his ways and to do his will while we wait for our Saviour to come again. And so, as we live in the in-between time, we should look to the Lord to sustain us and to protect us; and we should seek to do his will, which he was inscribed in our hearts, trusting in his Spirit to help us to live in a way which brings glory and honour to his name.