“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.” Exodus 18:21
Fear – What kind of men fear God? The answer depends entirely on the way that we understand yare, the Hebrew verb for “to fear.” Yare has five different senses. It can mean the emotion of fear. In that case, I would say that God scares me to death. The very thought of Him makes me shudder. Why? Probably because I know that I deserve judgment. Jethro didn’t tell Moses to find men like this. Men like this aren’t able to lead anyone. They can’t even manage their own lives.
Yare can also mean the contemplation of evil without emotions. That’s the kind of man who can think about evil deeds, probably not his own, as an interesting problem to consider. He’s not emotionally attached. This is just a theological or social or civil problem. A dispassionate judge is a man who considers evil with detachment. Why? So that he is not influenced in his verdict. But detachment is not the mark of a community leader.
Then there’s the usual spiritual meaning of reverence and awe. This probably isn’t the meaning of yare in the verse, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Proper recognition of God’s power, majesty and holiness is the kind of fear we all need. It’s possible that Jethro had this in mind, but since this is supposed to be true of all of God’s followers, this characteristic wouldn’t set these men apart. We will have to look deeper.
Yare can also mean formal religious worship. When I come into the house of God, there is a certain quality of fear that I bring with me. His house is a special place, reserved for honoring Him. It’s not the local meeting hall or the Bingo parlor. It’s a place of eternal encounter. But Jethro isn’t talking about formal worship.
There is one more meaning of yare, the meaning that fits this verse. Yare is a word for righteous behavior. That’s what Jethro has in mind. Men who fear God are men whose lives are committed to righteousness. They live by the divine code. They are guided by the Law. These are men worthy of authority. We shouldn’t be surprised by Jethro’s qualification. The Hebrew worldview places far more emphasis on right action than it does on right thinking. In the Hebrew world, I want a leader who obeys God, not a leader who has all the correct beliefs but none of the obedience. In fact, I am better off following a follower of the Lord than I am following the world’s greatest visionary who lacks godly character. God’s wise guys are His obedient servants.
Most of us are followers. That’s perfectly OK. God puts us where we are of most use to Him. Not everyone is, or can be, a leader. But each of us can evaluate the character of the ones placed in authority. We know what to look for. We want to see yare at the core of the one granted responsibility. Anything else is like playing Russian roulette with a fully loaded gun. If you’re following a man without righteous behavior, you better be prepared to be shot.
Topical Index: Leadership