Origins of Divine Government
In Deuteronomy 1:9-11 Moses rehearses the origins of their national government, saying,
9 And I spoke to you at that time, saying, “I am not able to bear the burden of you alone. 10 The Lord your God has multiplied you, and behold, you are this day as the stars of heaven for multitude. 11 May the Lord, the God of your fathers, increase you a thousand-fold more than you are, and bless you, just as He has promised you!”
As part of God's blessing upon Abraham, his descendants were to be like the stars of heaven and the sand of the sea for multitude (Gen. 22:17). By the time Moses formed Israel into a nation, they numbered about six million people. When Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, saw how busy Moses was in trying to judge every man's dispute, he said in Ex. 18:18-23,
18 You will surely wear out, both yourself and these people who are with you, for the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. 19 Now listen to me; I shall give you counsel, and God be with you. You be the people's representative before God, and you bring the disputes to God, 20 then teach them the statutes and the laws, and make known to them the way in which they are to walk, and the work they are to do. 21 Furthermore, you shall select out of all the people able men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain; and you shall place these over them, as leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. 22 And let them judge the people at all times; and let it be that every major dispute they will bring to you, but every minor dispute they themselves will judge. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you.
Moses discerned the voice of God in Jethro's counsel and set up 72 elders, six from each tribe of Israel as judges. They came to be known in round figures as “The Seventy.”
This was the original pattern in Judea later in the Sanhedrin, known as “The Council” (Acts 5:27). It functioned as a Judiciary system. One might also call it a Parliament of sorts, except that these MP's did not have the power to legislate, but only to interpret and apply the law as disputes arose. As long as their interpretations were led by the Holy Spirit, there was no problem. Only when they interpreted the law by the flesh did they begin to set aside the law in favor of the traditions of men (Matt. 15:9).
The population of Israel had not increased during Israel's 40 years in the wilderness, because the generation of those refusing to enter the land had to die in the wilderness. Nonetheless, they were still too numerous for one man to govern, and Moses knew that the nation would continue to increase according to the promise of God.
Representatives in Government
Moses understood that one man could not do all the work of governing an imperfect nation. A perfect nation would need little or no governance, but Israel was far from perfect.
12 How can I alone bear the load and burden of you and your strife?
Ever since the first sin, God had found it necessary to institute authority. God put Adam over Eve in Genesis 3:16 when He said to Eve, “he shall rule over you.” Prior to sin, there was no need for authority. Each person knew the will of God and was in harmony with His will. Sin itself is the reason for authority in the earth. God knew that men would disagree and would often sin against others, and so authority was set up to settle those disputes.
Ideally, of course, those in authority would seek to know God’s will in all things and would understand His laws sufficiently to settle disputes equitably. The goal is to return to that state of perfection, where all men have the law of God written on their hearts, and all men agree with the will of God. In that ideal world, authority is irrelevant and is replaced by agreement.
Disputes are common among people. When disputes cannot be settled between the disputing parties, they were to go to an authorized and respected mediator to judge the case and render a verdict. Because there were so many cases, Moses was led to appoint the 70 elders, which traditionally consisted of 72 as the actual number.
13 Choose wise and discerning and experienced men from your tribes, and I will appoint them as your heads.
It is interesting that in this first step of delegating powers of government, it was the people who voted for their own leaders, and these were ratified by Moses. Moses did not appoint them himself, but let the people choose their own judges.
This says something about Kingdom government as it applies on earth, for it is a republican form of government in principle. Yet it was not a secular republic, for the people were supposed to obtain Moses’ ratification of their elected leaders. Moses, in this case, represented God Himself, for his ratification was needed to express divine approval of their chosen representatives. When the will of the people matched the will of God, then this divine government functioned as it should.
We are not told what might happen if the people had chosen ungodly representatives, but the text implies that God—through Moses—had the right of veto. Under the New Covenant, Jesus Christ has that right, for Moses was a type of Christ (Acts 7:37). The difficulty with this arrangement is that in Christ’s personal absence, Christians find it impossible to agree upon the will of God in choosing a universal leader. Hence, every man assumes the right to stand in the place of Moses and to choose for himself.
Obviously, if the people should choose evil men, they would receive a corrupt government. If the people were not led by the Spirit, and if the people could not discern the hearts of the candidates, then the type of government they obtained was precisely what they deserved, for it would reflect the corruption in their own hearts. So it was the responsibility of the people to know God, to know His mind and will, and to implement it.
Moses then tells the people,
14 And you answered me and said, “The thing which you have said to do is good.”
The people agreed to this republican form of government. This implies that even the form of Israel's government was not imposed upon them. It was agreed upon after discussion.
There is a very important principle at work in this. The ideal government of the Kingdom was for the rulers and people to be in agreement, rather than for the governmental leaders to subject an unwilling people to established authority. This is not possible apart from the ability to hear God’s voice and to agree ahead of time that both the rulers and the people are subject to the laws of God.
15 So I took the heads of your tribes, wise and experienced men, and appointed them heads over you, leaders of thousands, and of hundreds, of fifties and of tens, and officers for your tribes.
The principle behind this is to set forth a system of representative government. The use of the plural, such as “fifties” and “tens,” shows a nonspecific number. How many “fifties” are there? How many “tens”? We do not know, but it establishes the idea of local government, districts, regions, as well as the national government. It correlates today with our City, County, State, and National governments.
The Responsibility of Rulers (Judges)
Paul tells us in Romans 13:1, “there is no authority except from God.” Therefore, all authority is set up to enforce the will of God, rather than the will of man. God did not set up men with independent sovereignty over other men. They are not authorized to make their own laws or to treat others unequally. All rulers are subject to God’s law and are responsible to rule accordingly.
16 Then I charged your judges at that time, saying, “Hear the cases between a man and his fellow countryman, or the alien who is with him. 17 You shall not show partiality in judgment; you shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not fear man, for the judgment is God's. And the case that is too hard for you, you shall bring it to me, and I will hear it.”
There are three great principles seen in this passage. The first principle of government is set forth as that of impartial judgment. This is the basis of all righteous judgment. The judges must be able to set aside personal preferences or friendships and judge the case not based on wealth, class, tribe, or race.
Secondly, they were to judge according to the laws of God, not the laws of men. “The judgment is God's,” Moses told them. These judges not only represented the people, but also God Himself when they sat as judges of His law. When the laws of men are the basis of the judicial system, then one could say that the judgment is man's. Likewise, when men claim to judge according to the law of God, but are not led by the Spirit to know the spirit of the law, they are likely to judge by the traditions of men.
Thirdly, Moses served as an earthly Supreme Court. Judges could refer hard cases to Moses, particularly in situations where the law gave no clear statement. The law, as given to Moses, set forth all of the basic principles of the mind of God that were necessary to determine His will. However, it could not possibly cover every specific case, because every case has different circumstances. It is for this reason that a judge must know the Author of the law and be anointed by the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Revelation-Truth (John 16:13).
Beyond Moses, there is also a heavenly Supreme Court, which is the highest court of all. If men who sit in Moses' seat (Matt. 23:2) are corrupt or devoid of the Holy Spirit, we yet have a final Appeals Court where we may present our case. As believers, we all have the right to approach the throne of God with boldness (Heb. 4:16) to lay our case at His feet for righteous judgment. Yet in such a case, we must be willing to leave it with Him for judgment and not attempt to adjudicate the case ourselves.
The Statutes and Judgments
Jethro's counsel to Moses in regard to delegation of authority came prior to Israel's arrival at Mount Sinai (Horeb). The 70 elders were elected and appointed in Exodus 18, and then Israel arrived at the Mount in the following chapter.
18 And I commanded you at that time all the things that you should do.
After the Ten Commandments were given in Exodus 20 as a summary of the law, then Moses went up the Mount by himself to receive the rest of the law—the statutes and judgments by which we might know the practical application of the Commandments.
The statutes were specific laws legislated according to the spirit of the Commandments. For instance, the Sixth Commandment says, “Thou shalt not steal.” A statute explaining this in more detail is found in Deut. 22:1-3, where we see that if one finds property that someone else has lost, he cannot claim it as his own. If he does so, it is stealing. This statute is necessary, because many have different definitions of theft.
The judgments are the penalties for violating the law. The Commandments themselves do not include any judgments, but only the basic principle. So to learn the penalties for stealing, one must go to Exodus 22:1-4, where we find that double restitution is the judgment of the law for ordinary theft. If the stolen item cannot be returned intact or alive, then the penalty is fourfold—or fivefold, if it involves the tools of a man's trade.
After Moses received these Commandments, statutes and judgments, the Israelites marched to Kadesh-barnea as their staging area to prepare to enter Canaan.