Jethro's advice to Moses
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Leaders, Who Are You Listening To?

We need more than sound leadership advice. We need direction from God.

Many books on Christian leadership look at Exodus 18 as an example of good leadership. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, sees that Moses is working too hard and gives him some sound advice. However, there’s more going on in this story than we see at first glance. On closer examination, we learn that good leadership principles can become bad moves when we act apart from God’s leading.

Good leadership principles can become bad moves when we act apart from God’s leading. Click To Tweet

The Voice of God

Throughout the book of Exodus, Moses is listening to God. From his very first encounter at the burning bush where God says, “I will teach you what to do,” to the defeat of Amalek where Moses intercedes for Israel and God gives the victory. Through the whole book Moses is talking with God and listening to God – but not in Exodus 18. Here Moses never talks to God and God doesn’t speak to Moses. Moses’ attention is elsewhere.

Who Is Jethro?

This chapter begins with a curious introduction: “Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law heard of all that God had done for Moses.” Jethro was a priest of Midian. The Midianites were descendants of Midian, one of Abraham’s sons by Keturah, his wife after the death of Sarah. We do not know who Jethro worshiped, but the later Midianites did not worship the God of Israel. It’s interesting that Jethro is not introduced as a priest of God Most High like Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18). He most likely did not worship the same God as Moses. In Exodus 18:11 he says, “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods” in response to how God had delivered Israel from the Egyptians. His sacrificial offering in 18:12 seems to be a conversion ceremony. Either Jethro is turning to the God of Israel or he is adding Yahweh to his collection of gods. Whatever is going on, it is clear that Jethro does not speak for God.

The Voice of Jethro

Throughout this chapter the author repeats the lengthy title “Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law.” This awkward construction interrupts the flow of the narrative four of the five times it’s used. It’s as if the author wants us to pay special attention to who’s speaking because something’s not right.

Moses is overwhelmed with the amount of work he has as judge of the people. When Jethro sees this, he delivers the famous lines in Exodus 18:17-23, the advice so often used as a leadership lesson:

“What you are doing is not good. You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone. Now obey my voice; I will give you advice, and God be with you! You shall represent the people before God and bring their cases to God, and you shall warn them about the statutes and the laws, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do. Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And let them judge the people at all times. Every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. If you do this, God will direct you, you will be able to endure, and all this people also will go to their place in peace.”

Did you notice the change in the text? Instead of seeking the Lord’s will, Moses listens to his father-in-law when Jethro says, “ Now obey my voice; I will give you advice, and God be with you!” Jethro claims to speak for God! Some have taken this as evidence that Jethro is a priest for God. I see it as a break in the pattern. Moses has stopped listening to God and has allowed Jethro to take his place. I’ll admit, it’s hard to say no to your father-in-law, but this is what creates the problem.

Jethro’s Advice

Jethro’s advice is not bad. In fact, God gives Moses similar instruction later in the book of numbers. Moses does need to delegate some of his workload. This is a basic principle of leadership – we can’t do it all alone. The problem is not with the advice. The problem is that Moses has stopped listening to God. As leaders, when we stop listening to God, the best leadership principles can become destructive to the people we lead. Let’s consider what happens after “Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he had said” (Exodus 18:24).

The Voice of the People

At first things seem to go smoothly. Moses appointed chiefs over the people and they judged the people at all times. They were trustworthy, God-fearing men. So we should expect that things would go well. They had wisdom to handle what they could, but they brought the hard cases to Moses.

Then Moses went up on the mountain to speak with God.

As Moses is receiving the law of God, what happens in the camp? Over a period of forty days, the people turn from God and begin to worship a golden calf. Where were the chiefs whom Moses had appointed? Why aren’t they judging the people and keeping them focused on God? They were listening to the voice of the people. Even Aaron, Moses’ right-hand man and the one who had walked closest to Moses, was swayed by the people. When Moses confronted him about the golden calf, Aaron responded, “You know the people, that they are set on evil.” Aaron didn’t resist their evil but went along with them in it.

The Voice of God

Leadership isn’t just about delegating authority to others; we have to choose the right people. In Numbers 11, God recognizes that Moses needs help. So he makes a plan to set elders over the people. His plan is almost the same as Jethro’s, but there is a significant difference. See if you can pick up on the key difference in Numbers 11:16-17:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them, and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. And I will come down and talk with you there. And I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you may not bear it yourself alone.

Did you catch it? God said, “I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them.” The key differences between these two texts is that now Moses listens to God and God empowers the elders with his Spirit. In this case, it’s not enough to delegate. Moses needed the men to be filled with the Spirit.

Leadership isn’t just about delegating authority to others; we have to choose the right people. Click To Tweet

God’s Choice Is Best

We see a similar event in the New Testament. In Acts 1, the Apostles decide they need to fill the void left by Judas. So they cast lots between Justus and Matthias. God didn’t tell them to do this. Both men had been with Jesus from the beginning, but Jesus didn’t choose them to be apostles. The church thought they were doing the right thing – they even had texts of scripture to prove it. So they cast lots and Matthias was chosen, and he is never mentioned again in the book of Acts.

Later in the book of Acts, Jesus chooses Saul to become his apostle to the Gentiles. Saul becomes Paul, and the second half of Acts chronicles the powerful ways that God uses him to spread the gospel. Were the Apostles acting foolishly to choose Matthias? No, they were using the best resources at their disposal and doing the best they knew to do. They just didn’t wait for God to reveal his choice.

Who Are We Listening To?

As leaders, we have to make decisions every day. We seek the best wisdom. We consult the Scriptures. We pray. When we have done all we can do, we make the best decision we can. Sometimes it works. I wonder if we make these decisions too soon sometimes. What if we were to stop long enough to search deeply and truly ask, “Who are we listening to?” I wonder what we would find.

I know sometimes I find I’m just listening to myself, or my board, or some leadership guru. I know that I sometimes have to confess I went ahead without confirming God’s clear direction. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Do you ever find yourself asking, “What went wrong?” You were confident you made the wise decision. It was in line with the Word. You even prayed over it and found a sense of peace. What is missing? The direction didn’t come from God.

Here are some thoughts on how we can be sure we are following God’s, lead not our own:

  1. Gather – Collect a group of godly people who are full of the Holy Spirit and who show the ability to discern God’s will in their personal lives.
  2. Pause – As a group, take time to be silent before God. Quiet your heart and surrender your will to him. Don’t move forward until you are willing to give up your plan in favor of God’s will.
  3. Pray – Ask God to show his will to the group. Continue in prayerful surrender, speaking only when you feel God has given you something to share. Confirm it by his Word.
  4. Share – Ask everyone to share how they believe God is leading. Is there agreement in the Holy Spirit? Does anyone feel troubled in spirit about this decision? Listen well to one another.
  5. Check – Make a decision when there is sufficient unity and clear testimony from the scriptures. Be sure to double check your decision against the Word of God. Give the decision a trial run for a few days before moving on it if you are unsure. After the trial, start the process again with prayerful surrender.
  6. Move – When you are confident that this is God’s leading, move forward with the decision. However, recognize that it is possible you got it wrong. Keep your eyes open; God may yet show a better way.

What are some other ways we can be sure we are listening to God and not Jethro?

Learn about David as a broken leader

(M.Div. Grand Rapids Theological Seminary) is the director of The Pastor’s Soul, and pastor at First Baptist Church in Tustin, Michigan since 2001. A third-generation pastor, he grew up listening to pastors and their families talk about the realities of ministry. Now he wants to use this knowledge to bless the church. Sean is married to Amy, a poet, and freelance book editor. Together, they have one son.

2 comments on “Leaders, Who Are You Listening To?

  1. Sean, I enjoyed reading your thoughtful remarks about leadership and making proper decisions with God’s blessings and input.

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