What do we learn from the visit of Jethro to his son-in-law Moses and the children of Israel?
We learn that there was peace. With Amalek there was war, and war forever, but with Jethro’s Midianite clan, peace. So much, so that even Saul remembered, when undertaking to destroy God’s enemies, to warn the Kenites—the Midianite clan of Jethro—to flee.
We learn that Jethro was a great guy. He received Moses originally, gave him a home, a wife, and employment (the passage reminds us of this by reciting the names and reasons behind the names of Moses’ sons). Jethro also permitted him to leave when God called him away. And when he heard of the success of Moses, he came to see it, to rejoice in it, and to show his good will by offering needed advice.
There is something of the personal and corporate going on in chapter 18: Jethro has a personal solicitude for Moses that expands to include Moses’ people. You see it first in verse 1 when Jethro hears about what God has done for Moses and the people, both are mentioned. It begins to form a pattern in verse 10 in his formal blessing: he blesses Moses and then the people as well. And you see the third instance of this pattern in verse 18 when Jethro says the situation will not only wear out Moses, but also the people. Jethro’s desire for the shalom, the well-being of Moses naturally becomes a desire for the well-being of Moses’ people. There is a moral lesson there about how we treat others, a contrast between the Amalekites and the Midianites. There is also a spiritual lesson about treating with God’s people, his church.
We also learn that God has made Moses a ruler and a prince in Israel. Reminded of why Moses met Jethro to begin with, we look back and see the words that the Israelite with whom Moses remonstrated rejected him: “Who made you a prince and a judge over us?” (Ex 2:14) What does Jethro find Moses doing in chapter 18:13? And so it was, on the next day, that Moses sat to judge the people; and the people stood before Moses from morning until evening. The answer to the question was that God had made him a prince and a judge. Moses meekly waited forty years for God to do so.
Moses’ father-in-law, a man who helped him and whom he should honor, gives him advice. And Moses’ attitude is not to reject it. Moses might have: he talks directly to God, he has been the one doing all the work while Jethro was being a (pagan?) priest. Jethro makes a confession of faith in verse 11 that expresses dubious orthodoxy. Moses might have scrupled to listen to him.
But he did not. His humility and meekness made him competent to listen to the authority of truth, and the advice of his father-in-law went into the setting in which God’s holy and revealed law was enacted.
Jethro did not remain. There is something tragic in verse 27, knowing where Moses and the people of God are heading, in seeing that Jethro still went his own way into his own land. It is not enough to be a great guy, it is not enough to make a mostly correct confession, and it is not enough to have wisdom to counsel others. The Gospel is not that people such as Jethro will be delivered, but those who follow the Lord to where he is leading them. He did not embrace the Lord Jesus Christ freely offered to him in types and shadows; he chose another way, and another destination. The point of the story is not the actual spiritual state of Jethro, but to instruct us by that picture of real events. None are saved by their own impressive qualifications. All who are saved are only saved by embracing the reproach of Christ, through his merit, by his work alone, and trusting solely in him for salvation.
I think the lesson is also about having the humility to listen to those who are not headed toward the place of the promises of God when they speak the truth. Christians in our time sometimes think it is discerning to reject anything not spoken by someone they agree with. There is a huge problem with this: not only does it miss the point that even trusted sources make egregious mistakes, but it neglects the fact that those who are not with us or even for us can still say true things. The meekness of Moses seems to me the key to listening for the authority of truth. Humility leads to repentance and salvation, and it does so because it is crucial to discerning the truth.