As I said, the heart of this chapter concerns the need for help in judging. The day after Jethro’s arrival, Moses went out to judge the people. They began to come to him early in the morning, and Moses made these judgments from morning until late at night. That’s not at all surprising, given that there are two million people. You can easily imagine that they got in one another’s way from time to time. Somebody’s sheep wandered over into the other man’s pen, and the first man wanted it back and the other one thought that it was his sheep all along. And there were probably things far worse than that. Moses was absolutely worn out from this task.
Jethro’s looking on, and he takes it upon himself to give Moses some advice. He is concerned for the people also, but he is first of all concerned for Moses. He advises Moses to restrict himself to that which he alone can do well. Jethro says that, first of all, Moses should pray. He is the one who was chiefly in communication with God, and to whom God spoke directly. He was to represent the people’s concerns before God. Secondly, he was to teach the people the ways of God.
Does that sound familiar? The task of praying and teaching is exactly what’s given to ministers in the church today. That is the task that the apostles took upon themselves in the early days of the church. Acts 6 describes a dispute going on about whether the deacons’ fund was being administered properly. Some of the people thought their widows weren’t getting a fair share, and so they complained to the apostles. The apostles refused to enter into the dispute and said that others should be appointed to take care of this. Their reason was that the apostles needed to devote themselves to the Word of God and prayer. This is what Jethro told Moses to do: “Give yourself to prayer and the teaching of the people.”
We all have the responsibility of witnessing to Christ wherever we are. Parents have to teach their children. Some may have opportunities in Christian schools. But it’s the primary responsibility of ministers in the church to teach the Bible and to pray. Certainly, there are many things that have to get done in the church that a pastor would rather not do, especially at the beginning of his pastorate, or if the church has a small staff. I’ve done some of those things myself. I remember climbing on the scaffolding and painting the church walls, which was a lot of fun. But as a pastor moves forward, those things quickly become too much for him, and the minister above all has to do the teaching. If the other things don’t get done it’s alright, but if the teaching doesn’t get done it’s not alright. There are all sorts of other things that are worthwhile. But make sure that you teach the Bible and that you pray.
Moses was given a second bit of advice from Jethro, and this concerned the people. He was to appoint these judges to handle everything but the most difficult judicial cases. He told Moses to choose capable men from among the people—men who feared the Lord, and who were trustworthy and honest. These were to be appointed as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens.
This, too, is very similar to what happened in Acts. When deacons were chosen, there were to be specific qualifications. Jethro is doing the same. He is not saying to just appoint anybody; he is saying to look for people who have these qualifications, and he lists four of them there.
First of all, they are to be capable men, that is, they are to have ability. They had to be able to judge well. They needed to be able to think clearly to weigh evidence, and to be fair. Why is that first? Does that mean that it’s more important to be capable than to be spiritual? No, and he is going to mention piety next. But he mentions this first because they are being chosen to be judges. You might have a very pious and godly person that doesn’t have any gifts along this line, so you don’t do anybody any favors by appointing that person to a role for which he is not qualified.
One of the problems in the church is that we don’t always do that. We have elections and we pick people because they are nice. It’s nice to have nice people, but that’s not the first thing we are to look for in leadership. First Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:5-9 tell us to take this seriously when we’re electing or appointing people to church office.