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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 35

Preacher's Complete Homiletical CommentaryPreacher's Homiletical

Verses 1-34


This chapter contains directions for the appointment of

(1) cities for the Levites to dwell in; and
(2) cities of refuge for the manslayer; and laws concerning wilful murder and unintentional homicide.

Numbers 35:2. Suburbs. Keil and Del. “Pasturage or fields.”

Numbers 35:3. For their cattle, &c. “More strictly, ‘for their large cattle, for their sheep and goats, and for all their beasts whatsoever they be.’ ”—Speaker’s Comm.

Numbers 35:4-5. The directions given in these verses as to the extent of the “suburbs” have much perplexed expositors. They seem to us to mean that the suburbs should extend 1,000 cubits, or nearly one-third of a mile, from the city wall in every direction (Numbers 35:4), and that at their outward extremity they should present on every side a frontage of not less than 2,000 cubits in length (Numbers 35:5).

Numbers 35:6. And to them ye shall add. Margin: “And above them ye shall give.” Or, “and in addition to them,” &c.

Numbers 35:8. From them that have many ye shall give many. From the large inheritance of Judah and Simeon, the Levites received nine cities; from that of Naphtali three, and four from each of the other tribes. On the east of Jordan they had ten, and in Canaan proper, thirty-eight.

Numbers 35:11. At unawares. Margin: “Heb., by error.” Or, by accident.

Numbers 35:12. The avenger. Heb. Goël, redeemer, kinsman, &c. Stand before the congregation, &c. Or, “before the assembly,” which consisted of the elders of the city. Comp. Numbers 35:24-25.

Numbers 35:15. Unawares. By accident, or, unintentionally.

Numbers 35:16. Instrument of iron, i.e., a tool, e.g., hatchet, hammer, &c.

Numbers 35:17. With throwing a stone. Margin: “Heb., with a stone of the hand,” i.e., a large stone, which filled the hand.

Numbers 35:18. A hand weapon of wood. Or, “a wooden instrument of the hand,” e.g., a club. “The suspicion would rest upon anyone who had used an instrument that endangered life, and therefore was not generally used in striking, that he had intended to take life away.”—Knobel.

Numbers 35:22-23. Comp. Deuteronomy 19:4-5.

Numbers 35:25. He shall abide in it. He was safe only within the walls of the city.

Unto the death of the high priest. “The atoning death of the Saviour casts its shadow before on the statute-book of the Law and on the annals of Jewish history. The High Priest, as the head and representative of the whole chosen family of sacerdotal mediators, as exclusively entrusted with some of the chief priestly functions, as alone privileged to make yearly atonement within the Holy of Holies, and to gain, from the mysterious Urim and Thummim, special revelations of the will of God, was, pre-eminently, a type of Christ. And thus the death of each successive high priest pre-signified that death of Christ by which the captives were to be freed, and the remembrance of transgressions made to cease.”—Speaker’s Comm.

Numbers 35:30. The murderer shall be put to death. The cities of refuge were not instituted to screen the guilty from deserved punishment; but to secure a just sentence.

By the mouth of witnesses, &c. Comp. Deuteronomy 17:6; Deuteronomy 19:15.

Numbers 35:31. Satisfaction. Rather, redemption money, or ransom.


(Numbers 35:1-8)

The Divine provision for the maintenance of the priests and Levites has already engaged our attention twice (see pp. 84–86, and 339–342); and, inasmuch as most of the homiletical suggestions of this paragraph were noticed there, it is needless to point them out in this place.


(Numbers 35:6)

“Among the cities which ye shall give unto the Levites, there shall be six cities for refuge.”
Some types of Christ appeared for a brief season, and then vanished. The guiding cloud, the manna, ended on Jordan’s banks. But here is a sign which lived through Canaan’s history. It never failed until the Cross was reared.
The story of the ordinance is brief.
Sinner, this type displays your case. The slayer is your counterpart. There may be carnage of duties—talents—time—souls. No day passes in which this guilt is not incurred. As the man-slayer did not plot his deed, so sinners blindly commit these murders through ignorance and unwatched thought.
Take now the sinner awakened to a sense of this guilt. He is, as the slayer, rushing in terror from the kinsman’s wrath. He knows himself to be pursued.
One kinsman only hunted the slayer. But many adversaries threaten the guilty soul God’s justice takes the lead. It has strong claims. Its wrongs are many. Its wrath is righteous. The law is in pursuit winged with vengeance. It demands pure, unblemished love, from the cradle to the grave, in every child of man. All who transgress become its prey. And who transgresses not? This law must have its dues. It follows sternly. The truth of God, too, points an inexorable sword. It has decreed that every sinner must die. Can it be false? Satan moreover follows with huge strides. He claims the sinning soul as his. His hate is bitter.

These adversaries rush on apace. Who, undismayed, can hear their nearing footsteps? Do any cry, Whither shall we flee? Is there a Refuge? Yes. The sheltering cities represent our Refuge. A Refuge is prepared, full—complete—secure. It is Christ the Lord Flee to Him. All in Him are everlastingly secure. “There is therefore now no condemnation,” &c. (Romans 8:1).

Let faith now calmly gaze on this city, and mark its towers. Christ’s person is the grand pillar of security. While Jesus lives, and lives the mighty God, this safety is complete. His finished work builds up the Refuge. The walls—the bulwarks of this city—are red with blood. There is inscribed above each gate, “Christ died.” Justice draws near. It sees this mark; and asks no more. The law’s stern curse falls harmless here. Christ receives its weight. Satan pursues up to these gates. But here he pauses. All within these walls are purified and beautified. He must confess that they are no more his. Blessed be God for this sure Refuge!

Mark, too, this Refuge is at hand. In Israel the slayer had to flee oft-times along a tedious road. Our city stands beside us. “The righteousness which is of faith speaketh on this wise,” &c. (Romans 10:6-8). The gates are close. Enter this hour.

Believer, you are within this Refuge. Set not one foot beyond the holy precincts. Abide in Christ. Would you be safe through life—in death—for ever? Then cleave to Christ, as ivy to the tree, as limpet to the rock.
And when you realize your mercies and your safe retreat, can your heart fail to love—your lips to praise—your life to serve? Can you now see such multitudes exposed to wrath, and not allure them to your loved Refuge? Strive by every means to call them in. Above all, agonize in prayer, that God’s all-conquering Spirit may fly speedily throughout earth’s bounds, opening blind eyes to see their danger, exciting anxious hearts to rush to this only Refuge.—H. Law, D.D.


(Numbers 35:9-34)

“Human life,” to use the words of Dean Milman, “in all rude and barbarous tribes, is of cheap account; blood is shed on the least provocation; open or secret assassination is a common occurrence. The Hebrew penal law enforced the highest respect for the life of man. Murder ranked with high treason (i.e., idolatry, blasphemy), striking a father, adultery, and unnatural lust, as a capital crime: the law demanded blood for blood (Exodus 21:12; Leviticus 24:17; Leviticus 24:21-22). But it transferred the exaction of the penalty from private revenge, and committed it to the judicial authority. To effect this, it had to struggle with an inveterate though barbarous usage, which still prevails among the Arabian tribes. By a point of honour, as rigorous as that of modern duelling, the nearest of kin is bound to revenge the death of his relation: he is his Goël or blood avenger. He makes no enquiry; he allows no pause; whether the deceased has been slain on provocation, by accident, or of deliberate malice, death can only be atoned by the blood of the homicide. To mitigate the evils of an usage too firmly established to be rooted out, Moses appointed certain cities of retuge, conveniently situated. If the homicide could escape to one of these, he was safe till a judicial investigation took place. If the crime was deliberate murder, he was surrendered to the Goël; if justifiable or accidental homicide, he was bound to reside within the sanctuary for a certain period; should he leave it and expose himself to the revenge of his pursuers, he did so at his own peril, and might be put to death.”

The various provisions of this law afford an impressive illustration of the Divine regard for human life.

I. In the institution of the cities of refuge as a provision that the life of an innocent person should not be taken away.

“The Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel,” &c. (Numbers 35:9-15; Numbers 35:22-25).

The adaptation of these cities for this purpose appears in—

1. Their accessibility from all places. “Ye shall give three cities on this side Jordan, and three cities shall ye give in the land of Canaan, which shall be cities of refuge.” “And they appointed Kedesh in Galilee,” &c. (Joshua 20:7-8). A reference to the map of Canaan will show that these cities were so situated that one of them could be reached in a few hours from any part of the country.

2. Their accessibility to all persons. “These six cities shall be a refuge for the children of Israel, and for the stranger, and for the sojourner among them: that every one that killeth any person unawares may flee thither.” God’s regard is not simply for the life of the Israelite, but for the life of man as man.

II. In the laws by which the trial of the manslayer was to be conducted.

The Divine guardianship of human life is manifested in these laws at least in two respects:

1. In the clear discrimination between intentional and unintentional manslaughter. “If he smite him with an instrument.” &c. (Numbers 35:16-24).

2. In the absolute necessity for the evidence of at least two witnesses before a man could be adjudged guilty of murder. “Whoso killeth any person, the murderer shall be put to death by the mouth of witnesses: but one witness shall not testify against any person to cause him to die” (Numbers 35:30; comp. Deuteronomy 17:6; Deuteronomy 19:15). One witness might be mistaken in his view of the case, or might be prejudiced against the homicide; hence the importance of the testimony of at least two witnesses in the trial of such cases.

III. In the punishment of the intentional manslayer.

“The murderer shall surely be put to death” (Numbers 35:16-18; Numbers 35:21; Numbers 35:30). As an evidence of the regard of God for human life, this punishment has additional weight from two facts:—

1. It could not be averted by any ransom. “Ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer, which is guilty of death; but he shall be surely put to death.” The crime was too heinous to be expiated by anything less than life itself.

2. It was insisted upon for the most solemn reason. “So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are; for blood it defileth the land,” &c. (Numbers 35:33-34). The argument seems to be this: that the shedding of human blood defiled the land, that such defilement could be cleansed only by the blood of the murderer; that the Lord Himself dwelt in that land, and therefore it must be kept free from defilement; if murder were committed, the murderer must be put to death. To spare the life of the murderer was to insult Jehovah by defiling the land wherein He dwelt.

IV. In the punishment of the unintentional manslayer.

“The congregation shall deliver the slayer out of the hand of the revenger of blood,” &c. (Numbers 35:25-28). When it was proved on the trial that the manslayer was perfectly free from guilty designs, that he had slain another entirely by accident, even then he had to bear no light punishment. He must leave his estate and his worldly interests, his home and his family, and dwell in the city of refuge. His dwelling there closely resembled imprisonment; for if he left the city, and its divinely appointed suburbs, the Goël, if he should come upon him, was at liberty to put him to death. He must remain there throughout his life, or until the death of the high priest should bring him release.

What striking witness does all this bear to the sacredness of human life in the sight of God! (a)


i. Respect human life—that of others, and your own also. (b)

ii. Guard against anger; for it leads to murder, and in the estimation of Heaven it is murder. “Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer” (1 John 3:15).

iii. Cultivate brotherly kindness and Christian charity. Where these are, anger cannot come.


(a) In the precepts delivered to the sons of Noah, and, therefore, through them, to all their descendants, that is, to all mankind, that against murder is thus delivered: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God made He man” (Genesis 9:6). There is in this reason a manifest reference to the dignity put upon human nature, by its being endowed with a rational and immortal spirit. The crime of murder is made to lie, therefore, not merely in the putting to death the animal part of man’s nature, for this is merged in a higher consideration, which seems to be, the indignity done to the noblest of the works of God; and particularly, the value of life to an immortal being, accountable in another state for the actions done in this, and which ought, for this very reason, to be specially guarded, since death introduces him into changeless and eternal relations, which were not to lie at the mercy of human passions. Such moralists as the writer above quoted (Dr. Whately), would restrain the essential characteristics of an act of murder to the “hurt done to a neighbour in depriving him of life,” and the “insecurity” inflicted upon society; but in this ancient and universal law, it is made eminently to consist in contempt of the image of God in man, and its interference with man’s immortal interests and relations as a deathless spirit; and, if so, then suicide bears upon it these deep and awful characteristics of murder. It is much more wisely said by Bishop Kidder, in his remarks upon this passage, that the reason given—“for in the image of God made He man”—is a further aggravation of the sin of murder. It is a great trespass upon God, as it destroys His likeness; and self-murder, upon this account, is forbidden as well as the killing of others.—Richard Watson.

But more than this. Man, the immortal, is man, the sinful, the guilty; and for this immortal, sinful, guilty creature, a Saviour has been provided; and it depends on his having, or not having, an interest in this Saviour, whether his never-ending existence is to be one of happiness or woe. And it is now, and here—in the present life and the present world, that this interest in the Saviour must be effected, this connection with Him formed. And it is here, and now, too, that a certain change of heart and character must be wrought, a change such as alone can fit for the only description of happiness that is at all to be found in the world, and the eternity beyond. How precarious, then, is life! Short, vain, passing as it is, a vapour, a shadow, a handbreadth, a dream! Yet, viewed in this, its relation to eternity, it acquires a worth which it is far beyond all the powers of human arithmetic to compute. And it becomes, in this view of it, the more solemnly important that, though brief even when most protracted, its limit, in each case, is every moment uncertain. For when the time is precarious on which any great event materially affecting our interests depends, and every moment may be that which is to determine for us the evil or the good, the preciousness of every moment is mightily, oppressively felt. With the sarcastic coolness of a scoffing scepticism, Mr. Hume asks: “Where is the crime of diverting a few ounces of blood from their channel?” The question is based on the assumption of there being no hereafter; no deathless spirit lodged in the frame through which that blood circulates; no moral accountableness; no judgment to come. It is the language of a narrow-minded, heartless materialism. It is the language of an ethereal spirit endowed with divine capacities, and prostituting its Heaven-bestowed powers to disprove its own immortality; to rob itself of the highest elements of its dignity; to disfranchise itself of the noblest of its chartered privileges: to debase itself to a level with the “beasts that perish.”—Ralph Wardlaw, D. D.

(b) On suicide, our modern moralists have added little to what is advanced by the ethical writers of Greece and Rome to prove its unlawfulness; for, though suicide was much practised in those ancient states, and sometimes commended, especially by the Stoics, it was occasionally condemned. “We men,” says Plato, “are all by the appointment of God in a certain prison or custody, which we ought not to break out of or run away.” So likewise Cicero: “God, the Supreme Governor of all things, forbids us to depart hence without His order. All pious men ought to have patience to continue in the body, as long as God shall please who sent us hither; and not force themselves out of the world before He calls for them, lest they be found deserters of the station appointed them by God.” …

Whatever weight may be due to the considerations urged by moralists against this crime—and every motive which may deter men from listening to the first temptation to so direful an act, is important—yet the guards of Christianity must be acknowledged to be of a more powerful kind. For the principles of our religion cannot be understood without our perceiving, that, of almost all other crimes, wilful suicide ought most to be dreaded. It is a sin against God’s authority. He is “the God of our life”; in “His hand our breath is”; and we usurp His authority when we presume to dispose of it As resulting from the pressure of mortifications of spirit, or the troubles of life, it becomes a sin, as arraigning His providential wisdom and goodness. It implies either an atheistic denial of God’s government, or a rebellious opposition to His permissive acts or direct appointments; it cannot be committed, therefore, when the mind is sound, but in the absence of all the Christian virtues, of humility, self-denial, patience, and the fear and love of God, and only under the influence of pride, worldliness, forgetfulness of God, and contempt of Him. It hides from the mind the realities of a future judgment, or it defies them; and it is consummated by the character of unpardonableness, because it places the criminal at once beyond the reach of mercy.—Richard Watson.


(Numbers 35:9-34)

There are certain respects in which the analogy between the cities of refuge and the salvation offered to man in the Gospel does not hold good; e.g.—

i. The cities of refuge afforded no lasting protection to the guilty. By their means a fair trial was secured for the manslayer; but if he was found guilty of murder, he was given up to the Goël to be put to death. They were an abiding refuge for those only who had accidentally slain a fellow creature. But Christianity is a refuge for the guilty. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom,” saith St. Paul, “I am chief.” “This man receiveth sinners.” “Him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out.” The guiltiest soul that flies to Jesus Christ is inviolably secure.

ii. The cities of refuge did not exempt even the unintentional manslayer from death, but simply postponed it. They rescued him from the vengeance of the Goël; but they could not screen him from that death which “is appointed unto all men.” But the spiritual death, which is the penalty of sin, Christianity abolishes for the believer by bestowing upon him a life which is immortal and blessed. In the city of refuge the unintentional manslayer obtained bodily security for a time; in Christ the guilty sinner obtains spiritual security and joy for ever.

There are other respects in which the analogy is not quite complete; but in three most conspicuous features it is both clear and striking.

I. A great peril.

Under this head there are three points of resemblance.

1. A broken law. The manslayer had broken the law which guards human life. “Thou shalt not kill.” Every man has transgressed the holy law of God in some respects. “All have sinned,” &c. (Romans 3:23). “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves,” &c. (1 John 1:8; 1 John 1:10).

2. The penalty of death. “At the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God made He man.” “The murderer shall surely be put to death.” “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” “Sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.” (a)

3. The peril of the exaction of the penalty. The Goël of the slain person allowed no time to elapse before setting forth to avenge the death on the manslayer; and if he overtook him before he gained the city of refuge, he put him to death. The manslayer was fleeing for his very life. And the dire penalties of sin follow hard upon the heels of the sinner. Conscience pursues him with its condemnations, and will not be silenced. Divine Justice follows him closely, crying, “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.” And the wrath of God, which burns with unquenchable fire against sin, speeds swiftly on the track of the guilty sinner. (b)

II. A gracious provision.

By Divine command six cities were appointed cities of refuge; to either of these the manslayer might flee, &c.

1. The provision was of Divine appointment. “Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye be come over Jordan,” &c. It was this fact, that they were appointed by God’s command, that made these cities a secure refuge for the homicide;—not the strength of their gates or walls, not the authority of their governors, but the authority of Him who had instituted them for this purpose. Jesus Christ is the Refuge appointed by God for the sinner. “The redemption that is in Christ Jesus; whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation,” &c. “Him hath God exalted with His right hand, a Prince and a Saviour,” &c Hence, they who flee to Him are perfectly secure, (c)

2. The provision was adequate to the need. Six cities were appointed; and were quite sufficient for the entire country. In each there was ample room, &c. The provisions of Christianity for the salvation of the sinner are enough for all the needs of all men in all ages and all lands. “A great multitude which no man could number” have found a secure and blessed refuge in Jesus Christ; “and yet there is room.”

3. The provision was accessible from all places. Three measures were adopted to secure this:—

(1) The cities were suitably situated, “They appointed Kedesh in Galilee,” &c. (Joshua 20:7-9). Our Saviour is everywhere present. He is a Refuge always near.

(2) The roads leading to these cities were kept in good condition. Moses “took care,” says Dr. Jahn, “that roads leading to them in straight lines should be laid out in every direction, which were to be distinguished from other streets.” (Comp. Deuteronomy 19:3.) And, according to the Talmudists,

(3) where two or more roads met, posts were put up with the word מִקְלָט, REFUGE, clearly marked on them for the direction of the fugitive. All this may be viewed as illustrating the accessibility of Jesus Christ to the sinner. “Say not in thine heart, Who shall ascend into heaven?” &c. (Romans 10:6-9).

4. The provision was accessible to all persons. “These six cities shall be a refuge for the children of Israel, and for the stranger, and for the sojourner among them;” &c. They were accessible to every person in the land. Jesus Christ “is the Saviour of all men” (1 Timothy 4:10). “Whosoever believeth in Him should not perish,” &c (John 3:15-17). “Him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out” (John 6:37). “Whosoever believeth in Him shall not be ashamed. For there is no difference,” &c. (Romans 10:11-13). (d)

5. The provision was exclusive. No other city, except the six appointed ones, had authority to shelter and protect the manslayer. For the sinner there is no refuge but Jesus. “Neither is there salvation in any other,” &c. (Acts 4:12).

III. The urgent obligation.

The cities of refuge were of no advantage to the manslayer unless he gained an entrance into one of them before the Goël overtook him. It was his highest interest and imperative duty to make his way to the nearest city of refuge. It is yet more the duty and interest of the sinner to hasten to the Lord Jesus as his refuge. This obligation is—

1. Personal. No one could escape to the city of refuge for the homicide; he must go himself, or be put to death. Salvation is a personal concern and duty. Repentance, faith, self-consecration, are things which no one can do for another. “Work out your own salvation,” &c.

2. Prompt. The manslayer had to escape at once or to perish. To linger was to be lost. Salvation must be sought at once. “Behold, now is the accepted time,” &c. “Ye know not what shall be on the morrow,” &c.

3. Pressing. The manslayer may not loiter on the way, or slacken his pace until he was safe within the city. The words which were addressed to Lot were applicable to him: “Escape for thy life; look not behind thee,” &c. (Genesis 19:17). And the sinner must put forth earnest effort. Christ must be sought zealously and with all the heart. (Comp. Jeremiah 29:12-13.) Salvation must be pursued diligently. “So run, that ye may obtain,” &c. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). “Fight the good fight of faith,” &c. “Let us lay aside every weight,” &c. “Give diligence to make your calling,” &c.

4. Persevering. The homicide must press eagerly on until he entered the city. There was no safety for him if he stopped short of the end. “He that endureth to the end shall be saved.” “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.” Hasten, then, O sinner! to the Refuge, &c.


(a) “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” If then you have come short of the glory of God, you must be lost; it cannot be denied, nor disputed. I tell to every man now present, that he is guilty of sinning against the Almighty—that if there be no intervention of mercy so mighty and so majestic as to satisfy the demands of justice, to quench her fire, and sheathe her sword—if there be not mercy, free, boundless, omnipotent, and eternal, every human being will stand before the judgment bar of God to receive the sentence of his condemnation. He must be banished for ever from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power; and he must go down to those abodes of torment where there are agonies unspeakable and inconceivable; where the smoke of torment ascendeth up for ever and for ever. Go, my hearers, to the brink of eternity, contemplate in imagination the scenes of that horrible pit which the word of revelation has presented to your view—contemplate the worm that dieth not—contemplate the fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels—contemplate the blackness of darkness—contemplate the smoke of torment that ascendeth up for ever and ever! What was it that gave to that worm its fang but sin? What was it that gave to that fire its intensity but sin? What was it that gave to that blackness its shadows but sin? What was it that gave to that torment its woe but sin? The voice is from the abyss uttering one wild cry, “It was sin; it was sin; IT WAS SIN!” Man would sin, and therefore man must suffer. There is a rigid equity between the one and the other. “Death has passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.”—James Parsons.

(b) No closer doth the shadow follow the body than the revenge of self-accusation follows sin. Walk eastward in the morning, the shadow starts behind thee; soon after it is upon thy left side; at noon it is under thy feet; lie down, it crouches under thee; towards even it leaps before thee. Thon canst not be rid of it while thou hast a body and the sunlight. No more can thy soul quit the conscience of evil. This is to thee instead of a hell of fiends, that shall ever be shaking firebrands at thee; ever torturing thee with affrights of more pains than thy nature can comprehend.—Hall.

(c) In Samoa, the manslayer, or the deliberate murderer, flies to the house of the chief of the village, or to the house of the chief of another village to which he is related by the father’s or the mother’s side. In nine cases out of ten, he is perfectly safe if he only remains there. In such instances, the chief delights in the opportunity of showing his importance. In Samoa, a chief’s house is literally his fortification, except in times of open rebellion and actual war.—G. Turner, LL.D.

(d) Our Lord is the Saviour of all men, for that He hath rendered all man salvabiles, capable of salvation; and salvandos, designed to salvation, for that He hath removed all obstacles peremptorily debarring men from access to salvation, and hath procured competent furtherances to their attainment of it. He hath performed whatever on His part is necessary or fit in order to salvation, antecedently to the acceptance and compliance with those reasonable conditions, which by God’s wisdom are required toward the instating men into a full and immediate right to salvation, or to a complete and actual fruition thereof. He made the way to happiness plain and passable; levelling the insuperable cliffs, and filling up the chasms, and rectifying the obliquities, and smoothing the asperities thereof, as the prophet foretold; so that all men, who would, might conveniently walk therein. He set the doors of paradise wide open, so that who pleased might enter therein; all the bonds and restraints under which men lay, He so far loosed, that any man might be free, who would concur to his own liberty and enlargement. All the protection and encouragement which were needful toward obtaining salvation, He afforded and exhibited to every one that would embrace and make use of them. In respect to which performances He might be truly called a Saviour, although all men do not in effect become saved. For the estimation and denomination of performances are to be grounded upon their own nature and design, not upon events depending upon the contingent and arbitrary behaviour of men. As he that freely offers a rich boon is no less to be accounted a benefactor, and liberal, although his gift be refused, than if it were accepted; as he that opens the prison is to be styled a deliverer, although the captive will not go forth; as he that ministers an effectual remedy, although the patient will not use it, deserves the honour and thanks due to a physician; so is our Lord in regard to what He hath performed for men, and offered to them (being sufficient to prevent their misery and promote their happiness), to be thankfully acknowledged their Saviour, although not all men, yea although not one man, should receive the designed benefit.—Isaac Barrow, D.D.


(Numbers 35:9-15)

The system of redemption as revealed in the Gospel is often exhibited to our notice as bearing decisive marks of Divine wisdom. It is styled “the wisdom of God”—“the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom … which none of the princes of this world knew.” The Apostle thus intimates to us that the Gospel would bear the closest inspection in all its parts; that it was worthy of our admiration, as well as of our love; that our redemption was not to be effected either by blind force, or by blind affection; that it should be accomplished in such a manner as that no rights were to be compromised, no perfections outraged, no interests overlooked, but, on the contrary, that a perfect harmony and balance should be maintained between the apparently rival attributes of the Divine character, and the apparently rival interests of earth and Heaven. Thus God was to be just, and yet the justifier of him that believeth; Mercy and Truth were to meet together; Christ crucified in humility and weakness was to present a most eminent illustration both of the wisdom and of the power of God; and thus the countless multitudes saved by grace should have reason to exclaim in time and eternity—Herein “He hath abounded toward us in all wisdom and prudence!”

But while these remarks are readily admitted respecting the Christian dispensation, they might be extended with equal propriety to the Jewish dispensation also. While the Gospel claims our homage on account of the wisdom it displays, we are prepared to make a similar demand on behalf of the Law. Both are the product of the same Author; both are the offspring of the same covenant of mercy; both conduce to the same happy result; and, though the Gospel confessedly has “the glory that excelleth,” yet the same authority assures us that “that which is done away was glorious” also. There are two points of view expressly in which wisdom shines in the departed economy:—
First: As its leading institutions were particularly adapted to the state of the Jews in the infancy of the Church. Their ceremonial rites and observances were particularly suited to the climate in which they lived, to the circumstances in which they were placed, and to the evils to which they were exposed. Ignorant and uncultivated as they were during their four hundred years’ bondage, they required a religion addressed to the senses, as well as to the intellect; and hence they have a visible glory, “a worldly sanctuary,” animal sacrifices, symbolical institutions. Having recently been brought out of the midst of an idolatrous people, many of their regulations were intended to preserve them from a relapse into idolatry, and to keep constantly before them the worship of one God, and faith in a promised Messiah. And having to wander for forty years in the wilderness without fixed habitations, without regular communities, and without the arts and ornaments of life, some laws were enacted suited to their unsettled condition, and some preparatory to their establishment in the Promised Land. In many instances Moses adapted himself to the customs and usages which had prevailed among them from patriarchal times, in some, his institutions were altogether new; in all, there was a perpetual reference to their moral and religious interests—to encourage virtue, to diminish crime, to induce them to walk humbly with God.

Secondly: As it was expressly calculated to point to the coming of Christ, and introduce the Gospel dispensation. The Law was a shadow—a figure for the time then present—a schoolmaster to bring them to Christ. Unto them was the Gospel preached, as well as unto us. Their history in the wilderness and their worship in the Temple alike prefigured the times of the Messiah. Their sacrifices pointed to Him; the “Rock that followed them” was a type of Him; the scapegoat, the brazen serpent, the cities of refuge, and the manna in the wilderness, prefigured the nature of His offices, the design of His death, or the spiritual blessings of His kingdom.

These observations apply with peculiar force to our present subject—the Cities of Refuge. As civil appointments, they were calculated to prevent much mischief and misery; as religious ordinances, they serve to illustrate Gospel blessings. We shall consider them—

I. As legislative enactments adapted to the habits and customs of an Eastern people in an early age of the world.

Two things require notice—

1. The office of the avenger of blood and the evils consequent upon it. This office probably had a very early origin: it may be a relic of the earliest state of civil society, for where there was no magistrate or public tribunal, murders would have been frequently perpetrated had there been no process of this kind among surviving relatives. Cain evidently was in dread of summary vengeance for his murder of Abel. (Comp. Genesis 4:14.) Rebecca probably dreaded a similar retaliation in case Esau had murdered Jacob; for “why,” says she, “should I be deprived also of you both in one day?” It has been common among the wandering Arabs from Ishmael’s time to the present hour. It probably arose out of the original law,—“At the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man,” &c. (Genesis 9:5-6).

It is evident that such a practice must give rise to many very serious evils. Besides that it fostered a spirit of relentless hatred and revenge, it was often accompanied with flagrant injustice and wrong. The Goël is governed only by his passions; and it may be that the person he suspects is not the murderer; thus an innocent person suffers, and instead of avenging one murder he commits a second. One such deed never fails to give birth to another; and so ten murders have not unfrequently their origin in one. The families on both sides take part in the quarrel, and thus under the pious pretext of avenging innocent blood, two families may be in a state of constant warfare, and transmit feuds and enmities from father to son, even to the tenth generation. Thus the office of the avenger of blood, though proper in some states of society, was subject to many abuses, and required to be placed under strong restrictions Moses could not have abolished it altogether, at least on a sudden, he therefore adopted regulations which neutralised the evil.

2. The appointment of the cities of refuge, in order to secure the ends, both of mercy and of justice. Six cities of refuge were appointed—three on the one side of Jordan, three on the other—to which the manslayer might immediately repair, and in which the individual might be safe, &c.… Thus provision was made both for justice and mercy—for justice if the fugitive were guilty, for mercy if he were innocent. And in order to give the innocent person every reasonable hope of escaping, the cities were placed at easy distances, to which persons might have access from any part of the land, the roads were straight and plain, &c.…

But even in the mercy that was shown an accidental manslayer, we see how sacred life was in God’s esteem; for the fugitive must be a prisoner and an exile, apart from all his friends, till the death of the High Priest, perhaps for many years. This was intended to punish that imprudence which had cost another man his life, and could not fail to make the people cautious against the recurrence of such accidents; for as no compensation could be taken for the life of a murderer, so no sum could rescue an innocent manslayer from the city (Numbers 35:31-32).

II. As a religious ordinance designedly employed by the apostle to illustrate the wisdom and goodness of God in the methods of our salvation.

Here we see clearly depicted the character and office of our great Redeemer. This Redeemer is our near Kinsman; for “He is not ashamed to call us brethren.” To this the apostle alludes: “God sent forth His Son made of a woman,” &c. (Galatians 4:4-5). This illustrates the sublime passage in the book of Job: “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” &c. He is here compared to the Goël, &c. (Comp. Hosea 13:14; Zechariah 9:12.) The apostle says: “That I may win Christ, and be found in Him,” for which, like the manslayer, he would count all things loss. And he describes Christians as having “fled for refuge.” “There is therefore now no condemnation,” &c.

1. A state of exposure is implied. Every man who reflects upon his past life, upon the holiness of God’s law, upon the inflexibility of His government, and upon the sentence He has pronounced against sin, must be aware that he is in a state of jeopardy. The sentence has been promulgated from age to age with awful solemnity, “Cursed is every one,” &c. If we carry the thought to its extent, it is Jehovah Himself who is the Avenger. His law we have broken, &c.

2. A method of rescue has been provided. Christ has undertaken our desperate cause. We are to flee for refuge. It is the only one. It is open to the Gentile as well as the Jew.

Samuel Thodey.


(Numbers 35:24-28)

That the Mosaic law had a spiritual meaning, is placed beyond all doubt from the clear allusions of Scripture (Zechariah 9:12; Hebrews 6:18). Observe—

I. Our natural state is one of imminent danger.

We are all criminals, having, ignorantly and in unbelief, rebelled against the Almighty Sovereign. As criminals, we are justly exposed to the infliction of the threatened penalty of death (Ezekiel 18:4; Romans 6:23; Revelation 21:8). Truly, then, we may observe in the situation of the manslayer a great resemblance to that of our own, as pursued by the inexorable Justice of One whose wrath we have so much provoked (Romans 1:18; John 3:36).

II. Nothing can deliver us from this danger but a zealous and timely flight.

We may sit at ease, bless ourselves in our heart, and feel secure; but if death overtakes us loitering in our sins, we must perish in them; and it will be vain to trust to anything as our covenant and hope, so long as we remain under that indifference to our spiritual interests, which demonstrates us to be still unchanged (James 2:10).

III. There is a place of safety to which we can flee.

Christ is our refuge:—

1. A Refuge Divinely appointed. God so pitied, so deeply and intensely compassionated our state, as to plan and provide a way of deliverance for us by His only begotten Son (John 3:16).

2. A Refuge free and open to all. None are shut out from it, but those who, by their impenitence and obstinacy, shut out themselves. No stage, no state of guilt, can make any difference; but sinners of every rank and description, without limitation or reserve, have a place prepared in which they may find security (1 Corinthians 6:11).

3. A Refuge everywhere near to resort to. Christ is set before us in the Gospel, and to find Him we need neither climb up into heaven, nor descend into the bottom of the sea (Romans 10:8).

4. A Refuge easily accessible. Every obstacle is effectually removed, God being reconciled, His justice satisfied, and His law magnified; so that nothing need hinder our trusting in Christ, the great God, and our Saviour.

5. A Refuge containing an ample supply for our wants and necessities. For here are to be found wisdom, grace, life, liberty, peace, and joy.

IV. Having once entered this place we must abide there.

It was not enough that the man-slayer fled to the city of refuge. Having gained this place, he must remain in it till the death of the high priest. Nor is it sufficient to have once believed in Christ. We must abide in Him, renouncing for ever all thoughts of going into any forbidden region (Isaiah 30:15). And woe be unto us, if we dare to be found without (2 Peter 2:20-21).

Let us hence seek after a sight of our danger, abandon all means of relief not warranted in the Scripture, and resign ourselves up to Christ.—William Sleigh.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Numbers 35". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/phc/numbers-35.html. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.
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