This term occurs first in Ge 50:7, where it applies to the Egyptians of the house of Pharaoh and to the elders of Egypt. In Nu 22:7 we read also of the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian, so that the term was not confined to Israel. The word is saqen which implies 'aged man;' they were no doubt also men of repute, including heads of houses of each tribe, without having any official place such as was given to the seventy appointed by God to work with Moses: these were chosen from among the elders. Nu 11:16-17,24-25.
Elders would be found in every city, and could act in all matters of the common weal as the responsible members of the community. They could be called on any emergency. For instance, when a dead man was found in a field, and it was not known who had slain him, the elders of the city to which it was nearest, must assemble, and, with their hands over a heifer, beheaded for the occasion, must solemnly declare that they had no knowledge of the murder. The 'judges ' are here named as distinct from the elders. De 21:1-9. In any ratification as to the redemption of an inheritance the elders were called together to be witnesses. Ru 4:1-12. The elders being heads of houses and related by blood to the people, Israel must have been in a dire condition when the elders were not honoured. La 4:16; 5:12.
In the N.T. the elders of Israel are often referred to and their traditions spoken of. Mr 7:3,5. Such took a prominent part in the condemnation of the Lord, and are mentioned as distinct from the Sanhedrim. Mt 26:59. 'All the elders' in Mt 27:1 would include the Sanhedrim: cf. also Ac 6:12. The elders continued their opposition as long as there was any open testimony in Jerusalem. Ac 4:23; 24:1; 25:15.
ELDER IN THE CHURCH. The word is ???????????, and signifies 'aged person.' There were elders at Jerusalem, though we do not read of their appointment, Ac 11:30; 15:2-23; 21:18; but the choice of elders in the Gentile assemblies was by apostolic authority, either direct or delegated. Paul and Barnabas chose, or appointed, elders in every city. Ac 14:23: cf. Jas 5:14; 1Pe 5:1. Titus was delegated by Paul to establish elders in every city in Crete. Tit 1:5. In Tit 1:7 they are called bishops, or overseers; so in Acts 20 Paul called for the elders of Ephesus, to whom he said that the Holy Ghost had made them bishops, or overseers, showing that those appointed as elders and bishops were the same persons. Ac 20:28. See BISHOP.
It is important to note the distinction between 'gift' and 'office.' The former is direct from the Lord; the latter by human appointment. Gift needed no human authority for its exercise, and was held in immediate responsibility to the Head. Elders were such by apostolic authority, direct or delegated. Their appointment was not to preach or teach (though if they took the lead well, and had the gift of teaching, they were worthy of double honour, 1Jo 5:17), but 'to shepherd' the assembly of God, Ac 20:28, and to maintain it in order in the locality where they lived. Their authority was over the unbroken local assembly. There can be now no such elders either in the source of their authority, or in the sphere of its exercise.
ELDERS IN HEAVEN. The four and twenty elders seen by John in heaven are frequently referred to in the Revelation. They were seen round about the throne, sitting on thrones (not seats), clothed in white raiment, with crowns of gold on their heads, and they worship God. Re 4:4,10. In the O.T, when all was in order there were twenty-four courses of the priesthood, each course having an elder as head or chief, 1Ch 24:7-18; and the elders in the Revelation being twenty-four in number may be in allusion to them. The elders in heaven have harps and golden vials full of odours, "which are the prayers of saints," showing that they act as priests, Re 5:8; and in Re 5:9 they celebrate redemption in a song. They are doubtless the redeemed, including both Old and New Testament saints. Re 7:11,13; 11:16; 14:3; 19:4.
ELDERS, a name given to certain laymen in the Presbyterian discipline, who are ecclesiastical officers, and in conjunction with the ministers and deacons compose the kirk sessions in Scotland. The number of elders is proportioned to the extent and population of the parish, and is seldom less than two or three, but sometimes exceeds fifty. They are laymen in this respect, that they have no right to teach, or to dispense the sacraments; and on this account they form an office in the Presbyterian church inferior in rank and power to that of pastors. They generally discharge the office which originally belonged to the deacons, of attending to the interests of the poor. But their peculiar business is expressed by the name ruling elders; for in every jurisdiction within the parish they are the spiritual court, of which the minister is officially moderator; and in the presbytery, of which the pastors of all the parishes within its bounds are officially members, lay elders sit as the representatives of the several sessions or consistories.
ELDERS OF ISRAEL. By this name we understand the heads of tribes, or rather of the great families in Israel, who, before the settlement of the Hebrew commonwealth, had a government and authority over their own families, and the people. When Moses was sent into Egypt to deliver Israel, he assembled the elders of Israel, and told them that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, had appeared to him, Ex 3:15; 4:29, &c. Moses and Aaron treat the elders of Israel as the representatives of the nation. When God gave the law to Moses, he said, "Take Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, his sons, and the seventy elders of Israel, and worship ye afar off," Ex 24:1,9-10. They advanced only to the foot of the mountain. On all occasions afterward, we find this number of seventy elders. But it is credible, that as there were twelve tribes, there were seventy-two elders, six from each tribe, and that seventy is set down, instead of seventy-two; or rather, that Moses and Aaron should be added to the number seventy, and that, exclusive of them, there were but four elders from the tribe of Levi. After Jethro's arrival in the camp of Israel, Moses made a considerable change in the governors of the people. He established over Israel heads of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, that justice might be readily administered to applicants; only difficult eases were referred to himself, Ex 18:24-25, &c. But this constitution did not continue long; for on the murmuring of the people at the encampment called the Graves of Lust, Nu 11:24-35, Moses appointed seventy elders of Israel, to whom God communicated part of that legislator's spirit; they began to prophesy, and ceased not afterward. This, according to the generality of interpreters, was the beginning of the sanhedrim; but, to support this opinion, many things must be supposed, whereby to infer, that this court of justice was constantly in being during the Scripture history. It seems that the establishment of the seventy elders by Moses continued, not only during his life, but under Joshua likewise, and under the judges. The elders of the people and Joshua swore to the treaty with the Gibeonites, Jos 9:15. A little before his death, Joshua renewed the covenant with the Lord, in company with the elders, the princes, the heads, and officers of Israel, Jos 23; 24:1,28. After the death of Joshua, and the elders who survived him, the people were several times brought into bondage, and were delivered by their judges. We do not see distinctly what authority the elders had during this time, and still less under the kings who succeeded the judges.