19 Listen now to my voice. I will give you counsel, and God be with you. You represent the people before God, and bring the causes to God. 20 You shall teach them the statutes and the laws, and shall show them the way in which they must walk, and the work that they must do. 21 Moreover you shall provide out of all the people able men which fear God: men of truth, hating unjust gain; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. 22 Let them judge the people at all times. It shall be that every great matter they shall bring to you, but every small matter they shall judge themselves. So shall it be easier for you, and they shall share the load with you. 23 If you will do this thing, and God commands you so, then you will be able to endure, and all these people also will go to their place in peace.” 24 So Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law, and did all that he had said. Exodus 18:19-24WEB
This passage contains a positive instruction, directed toward Moses through Jethro, describing the structure of the Theonomic government.
The qualifications described for a judge stated here are (verse 21):
- They should be able men
- They should fear God
- They should be men of truth, hating unjust gain
The judicial offices are (verse 21):
- Over thousands
- Over hundreds
- Over fifties
- Over tens
The responsibilities of judges given here are to:
- Learn the Law of God (verse 20)
- Follow the Law of God (verse 20)
- Judge according to the Law of God (verse 20)
- Judge the people at all times (verse 22)
- Handle small matter themselves (verse 22)
- Defer great matters to higher judges (verse 22)
The blessing (from God) associated with this system is:
- The judges (Moses in particular, the highest acting human judge at the time) will be able to endure (verse 23)
- The people will go to their place in peace (verse 23)
Verse 24 says that this command was fulfilled directly and completely by Moses. This command finds its ultimate fulfillment in the final Kingdom of God, wherein the servants of Jesus will judge angels (1 Cor 6:3) and even participate in judgment on other generations (Matt 12:41-42, Luke 11:32, Rev 20:4). For lack of a passage describing its abrogation, the government structure described here is abiding and obligatory.
Notes on Interpretation/Application
Origin of Command
Jethro, being a priest of Midian, is an unlikely candidate for delivering the Law of God to Moses. We know that Jethro was faithful to the Most High God, YHWH by his own confession in verses 10-11:
10 Jethro said, “Blessed be YHWH, who has delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians, and out of the hand of Pharaoh; who has delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. 11 Now I know that YHWH is greater than all gods because of the way that they treated people arrogantly.” Exodus 18:10-11WEB
Having made that confession, Jethro clauses his description of God's government structure with the the statement in verse 23, "and if God commands you to do so" (other translations, "and God commands you to do so"). In either case, whether Jethro issued this passage to Moses with the authority of God ("and God commands you to do so"), or contingent on God's assent ("and if God commands you to do so"), we see that Moses did all that Jethro had said. If the advice was given contingent on God's assent, we see that Moses proceeded (verse 24), so we can easily infer that the assent must have been given by God (see also the notes for Exodus 17:9). If the advice was given with the authority of God, we see that God's prophet did so with the authority of God, which would have been a death penalty offense if it were done presumptuously.
Furthermore, we can see that Moses levies the very complaint which Jethro predicted (see verse 18, where Jethro says, "18 You will surely wear away, both you, and this people that is with you; for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to perform it yourself alone. Exodus 18:18WEB") in Numbers 11:10-15:
10 Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, every man at the door of his tent; and YHWH’s anger burned greatly; and Moses was displeased. 11 Moses said to YHWH, “Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why haven’t I found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? 12 Have I conceived all this people? Have I brought them out, that you should tell me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a nursing infant, to the land which you swore to their fathers?’ 13 Where could I get meat to give all these people? For they weep before me, saying, ‘Give us meat, that we may eat.’ 14 I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me. 15 If you treat me this way, please kill me right now, if I have found favor in your sight; and don’t let me see my wretchedness.” Numbers 11:10-15WEB
God's response in Numbers 11:16-17 is to distribute his spirit to seventy of the lower judges, empowering them not just as judges, but as prophets (see Numbers 11:25) -- an act quite in line with the advice of Jethro.