Old Testament Elders

Old Testament Elders

Topic: Old Testament Elders
By Pastor David Cox

Taken from a white paper by David Cox written August 11, 1994

The New Testament does not lay down a whole lot of foundational teaching on elders (some, but not a lot). This is because the concept of “elders” is already defined in the Old Testament. The idea of elders comes from the tribes of Israel, where there is in this culture a profound respect for “older people”. This respect extends to giving them a place on administration and group decisions as well as weighing in on many matters.

Let me say that there is a difference between an older person and an elder. The difference is that an elder is a person who is respected because of HOW he lived his life. Basically hard work, good decisions, and faithfulness to the basic tasks of work, home, family, nation, and church is what defines a person as an elder. In the Old Testament there were not churches of course, but “the congregation” or the people of Israel in their religious capacity. Before this structure came to be though, the elders of a group of people saw to the religious affairs of that group. Job is an example that is without date, but very old. Yet without the tabernacle nor the temple, Job was worried about the religious state of his children. The is a good man being an elder. We see Cain and Able offering sacrifices for their family, and Abraham as well. This leadership in life is what makes the difference between an old man and an elder.

In time, God brought chosen leaders onto the scene, and while in a sense they replaced the elders as leaders, they really only became more focused leaders given over to the ministry of administration and leadership. They both received support the elders, and they ministered to the elders.

Origin, Purpose, and Selection

Exo 18:13-26; Exo 24:1-2, 9, 12-14

The clear purpose of elders in the beginings of the Old Testament is to draw from the wisdom and experinces of people having more years “under their belt” than young leaders. The dynamic here is very simple. The older the person is, the more experiences he has, and in most cases, the wiser the person is. But at the same time, these older people are in a phase in their life where they simply don’t have the energy and physical health to continue on in leadership. So the younger leaders come into play, to use their energy and intensity to lead well. But their lack of experience and wisdom comes to bear hard on them. So the dynamic is to use the best of the elders (wisdom, experience, insight, discernment, etc), and to apply these things to the youthful leaders. Satan wants a disconnect from one generation to another by ostricizing the elder leaders once they have left active leadership. But how does this work, the elder gives help to the younger? There has to a relationship where issues are brought to the elders for their consideration. At the same time, while they are commenting, the younger leader must have the authority and responsability to make decisions as he sees fit. No young leader in his right mind would refuse the wisdom and insight of a more experienced leader. Likewise, the elders must be very careful in not causing the young leader to feel like he has to get permission for every decision from the elders. This is how it worked in ancient Israel.

The selection of elders is complicated. Some would say a pure vote, but Scripture does not seem to indicate that really. They “became” elders because they were elders already, and the issue is simply their recognition as an elder before the group. In other words, an elder has a certain wisdom and blessedness by God on his discernment and activities over the years, and the rest see that, and eventually they go to the elder because he conducts his life better than most. In a governmental level, other people recognize this ability or quality in him in a formal way to “make him an elder”. Nobody but God can make a man an elder. People who are elder capable got that way because they are good Christians who have followed God faithfully obeying his Word for a good long period of time. So there are requirements here, but these are less stressed or laid out for us than what we would like to see.

There is another dynamic at play here also. The elder comes forward and acts in conjunction with the younger leaders because of the good of the group. When a group has an internal relationship, and all involved are highly interested in the good of the group (oftentimes even the very survival of the group), then individuals sacrifice themselves for the good of the group. This sacrificial spirit is essential in the effective leadership of a group. Both the youthful leaders as well as the elders must be devoted and committed to the welfare of the group. When leaders start making decisions based on what is best for them economically and otherwise rather than for the group, then things go wrong.

God’s gift of Old Testament Elders

Num 11:10 Then Moses heard the people weep throughout their families, every man in the door of his tent: and the anger of the LORD was kindled greatly; Moses also was displeased. 11 And Moses said unto the LORD, Wherefore hast thou afflicted thy servant? and wherefore have I not found favour in thy sight, that thou layest the burden of all this people upon me? 12 Have I conceived all this people? have I begotten them, that thou shouldest say unto me, Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing father beareth the sucking child, unto the land which thou swarest unto their fathers? 13 Whence should I have flesh to give unto all this people? for they weep unto me, saying, Give us flesh, that we may eat. 14 I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me. 15 And if thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray thee, out of hand, if I have found favour in thy sight; and let me not see my wretchedness. 16 And the LORD said unto Moses, Gather unto me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom thou knowest to be the elders of the people, and officers over them; and bring them unto the tabernacle of the congregation, that they may stand there with thee. 17 And I will come down and talk with thee there: and I will take of the spirit which is upon thee, and will put it upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with thee, that thou bear it not thyself alone. 

Num 11:24 And Moses went out, and told the people the words of the LORD, and gathered the seventy men of the elders of the people, and set them round about the tabernacle. Num 11:25 And the LORD came down in a cloud, and spake unto him, and took of the spirit that was upon him, and gave it unto the seventy elders: and it came to pass, that, when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied, and did not cease. 

What we find here is that God set up (approved if you will) the use of a body of elders as a resource and adjunct to Moses’ ministry and leadership. What is important here is to see that although God has no problem with setting a single man as leader over the nation of Israel (Moses, Joshua, Saul, David, Solomon, etc.), God also sets a body of “helpers” that are older, more experienced, supposedly wiser, to help that leader, and extend his ministry so that more is accomplished that what one man alone could do. Again Moses was to choose out of the people (no popular vote) men who had already demonstrated themselves as elder by means of their life and activities among the children of Israel. Conjointly they are known as the leaders of the people. While saying that, there was a kind of representation (each tribe had some proportional number of elders from them). But they were confirmed by Moses.

Specific Qualifications for Elders

Exod 18:21 Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens: Exod 18:25 And Moses chose able men out of all Israel, and made them heads over the people, rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. 

  1. They were “able men” Exo 18:21; 18:25 – This seems to refer to their ability to lead and make good decisions in their own personal affairs, and this kind of person is sought out to do the same for the larger group.
  2. They were men that “feared God” Exo 18:21 – What makes an elder in Bible terms different from secular groups elders is that an elder for God is a person who has lived his life for many years reverencing God. His decisions are made always in light of what pleases or displeases god.
  3. They were “men of truth” Exo 18:21 – They were men that lived by the expressed principles of God, the TRUTH, and these principles were slowly over time woven into the very fabric of their own lives. They told the truth, but more importantly, they lived the truth. They responded energetically to that truth which God reveals in his word.
  4. They were “men that hated covetousness” Exo 18:21 – This is an extremely important quality. The very fabric of their life is this, they work hard to accumulate “something”, but that desire for acquisition does not overtake their life view. They are both hard workers and sacrificial, looking to the benefit and gain of the group first rather than personally.