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Sunday, June 23rd, 2024
the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12
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Bible Commentaries
Joshua 20

The Biblical IllustratorThe Biblical Illustrator

Verses 1-9

Joshua 20:1-9

Cities of refuge

The cities of refuge


The first thought that naturally occurs to us when we read of these cities concerns the sanctity of human life; or, if we take the material symbol, the preciousness of human blood. God wished to impress on His people that to put an end to a man’s life under any circumstances was a serious thing. Man was something higher than the beasts that perish. It is not a very pleasing feature of the Hebrew economy that this regard to the sanctity of human life was limited to members of the Hebrew nation. All outside the Hebrew circle were treated as little better than the beasts that perish. For Canaanites there was nothing but indiscriminate slaughter. Even in the We have here a point in which even the Hebrew race were still far behind times of King David we find a barbarity in the treatment of enemies that seems to shut out all the sense of brotherhood, and to smother all claim to compassion. They had not come under the influence of that blessed Teacher who taught us to love our enemies.

2. Even as apportioned to the Hebrew people, there was still an uncivilised element in the arrangements connected with these cities of refuge. This lay in the practice of making the go-el, or nearest of kin, the avenger of blood. Had the law been perfect, it would have simply handed over the killer to the magistrate, whose duty would have been calmly to investigate the case, and either punish or acquit, according as he should find that the man had committed a crime or had caused a misfortune. It was characteristic of the Hebrew legislation that it adapted itself to the condition of things which it found, and not to an ideal perfection which the people were not capable of at once realising. In the office of the go-el there was much that was of wholesome tendency. The feeling was deeply rooted in the Hebrew mind that the nearest of kin was the guardian of his brother’s life, and for this reason he was bound to avenge his death; and instead of crossing this feeling, or seeking wholly to uproot it, the object of Moses was to place it under salutary checks, which should prevent it from inflicting gross injustice where no crime had really been committed.

3. The course to be followed by the involuntary manslayer was very minutely prescribed. He was to hurry with all speed to the nearest city of refuge, and stand at the entering of the gate till the elders assembled, and then to declare his cause in their ears. If he failed to establish his innocence, he got no protection; but if he made out his case he was free from the avenger of blood, so long as he remained within the city or its precincts. If, however, he wandered out, he was at the mercy of the avenger. Further, he was to remain in the city till the death of the high priest, it being probable that by that time all keen feeling in reference to this deed would have subsided, and no one would then think that justice had been defrauded when a man with blood on his hands was allowed to go at large.

4. As it was, the involuntary manslayer had thus to undergo a considerable penalty. Having to reside in the city of refuge, he could no longer cultivate his farm or follow his ordinary avocations; he must have found the means of living in some new employment as best he could. His friendships, his whole associations in life, were changed; perhaps he was even separated from his family. To us all this appears a harder line than justice would have prescribed. But, on the one hand, it was a necessary testimony to the strong, though somewhat unreasonable, feeling respecting the awfulness, through whatever cause, of shedding innocent blood. Then, on the other hand, the fact that the involuntary destruction of life was sure, even at the best, to be followed by such consequences, was fitted to make men very careful. In turning an incident like this to account, as bearing on our modern life, we are led to think how much harm we are liable to do to others without intending harm, and how deeply we ought to be affected by this consideration when we discover what we have really done. And where is the man--parent, teacher, pastor, or friend--that does not become conscious, at some time or other, of having influenced for harm those committed to his care? We taught them, perhaps, to despise some good man whose true worth we have afterwards been led to see. We repressed their zeal when we thought it misdirected, with a force which chilled their enthusiasm and carnalised their hearts. We failed to stimulate them to decision for Christ, and allowed the golden opportunity to pass which might have settled their relation to God all the rest of their life. The great realities of the spiritual life were not brought home to them with the earnestness, the fidelity, the affection that was fitting. “Who can understand his errors?” Who among us but, as he turns some new corner in the path of life, as he reaches some new view-point, as he sees a new flash from heaven reflected on the past--who among us but feels profoundly that all his life has been marred by unsuspected flaws, and almost wishes that he had never been born? Is there no city of refuge for us to fly to, and to escape the condemnation of our hearts? It is here that the blessed Lord presents Himself to us in a most blessed light. “Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” And let us learn a lesson of charity. Let us learn to be very considerate of mischief done by others either unintentionally or in ignorance. What more inexcusable than the excitement of parents over their children or of masters over their servants when, most undesignedly and not through sheer carelessness, an article of some value is broken or damaged? Let them have their city of refuge for undesigned offences, and never again pursue them or fall on them in the excited spirit of the avenger of blood! So also with regard to opinions. Many who differ from us in religious opinion differ through ignorance. They have inherited their opinions from their parents or their other ancestors. If you are not called to provide for them a city of refuge, cover them at least with the mantle of charity. Believe that their intentions are better than their acts. (W. G. Blaikie, D. D.)

The cities of refuge

The right to life. Alone among the nations stood Israel in the value set upon human life. Its sacred book enjoined its worth. Philosophically, such a sacred value upon life would be expected of the people of God. The value of life increases in ratio with the belief in God and immortality. Deny immortality and you have prepared the ground for suicide. They who say, “Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die,” may voluntarily end the life before to-morrow comes. Greece with all her learning was far behind. Aristotle and Plato both advised putting to death the young and sickly among children. Plutarch records having seen many youths whipped to death at the foot of the altar of Diana. Seneca advised the drowning of disabled children--a course that Cicero commended. Heathenism gives but a dark history. It is one of the last lessons learned that each human life is its own master. No one can take it away except for a transcendent reason.

The surrender of life to what is greater. It is a larger condition to be good than to live wrongly. Better surrender life than do wrong. On the other hand, better be murdered than be a murderer. Better suffer wrong than do wrong. Whether in this late century the removal of capital punishment would increase crime we cannot verify; but the old law of the avenger is not yet stricken from the statutes of civilisation. No refuge in God’s sight for the hating heart. No palliation of deliberate human deeds of wickedness. No city of refuge for a murderer.

The motive marks the character. It is not the mere deed that reveals the man. Nor is it the catastrophe that marks the deed. Every one’s motive is greater than all he does. The man who hates his brother is a murderer as truly as he who kills. Not always what one does, but what he would do, is the standard of his character. Take away every outside restraint; leave one alone with himself; and his unhindered wish and motive mark just what he is. The intentional taking away of life makes murder; the unintentional relieves from all crime. Crime, therefore, does not find its way from the hand, but from the heart. Thus does God look on the heart.

The divine forbearance with human blunderings. This is what the city of refuge expressly declares. The stain of the deed of shedding blood rests in the fact that the life was made in the Divine likeness. The greatness of the life was evident in its kinship with God. Death by accident does not take away the terrible sorrow that settles like a pall. The careless taker away of life may go insane in his despair; but the awful agony of the blunderer does not make the loss any the less heavy. It will call out pity even for the careless one; but it will not counterbalance the loss.

The conditions of refuge. Each unfortunate held the keeping of his life in his own hands. The provided city did not alone save the delinquent from the avenger. Mansions in it were provided for all who should enter by right. Handicraft was taught those who found shelter within its walls. Food and raiment were furnished by kind hands outside the gates in addition to what they themselves should gather or earn for themselves. They had much provided; but the conditions they must themselves fulfil. It was not enough to rest within sight of the city; they must enter in. They must not venture forth; only as they remained could they be safe. We have no cities of refuge now; but God is our refuge. He is the hope of the careless who turn to Him. The conditions we cannot disregard. He gives the opportunities, of which we must take advantage for ourselves. We cannot set aside His condition.

The responsibility for life in the choices we make. In a certain sense the safety of each unfortunate rested solely upon himself. It was no time for theories; it was the time for action; and on that action depended his own life. He held his temporal safety in his own care and keeping. In thousands of ways we are thus making choices that will shape our life and conduct in all future time. We have the power to save ourselves or to destroy. Peter had the opportunity to save his Lord even when he denied Him. Judas could have shielded his Master instead of betraying Him. Each one of us can choose whom to serve. The choice of evil made Peter weep, and made Judas become a suicide. We cannot choose evil and live. If we choose God for our refuge, we shall not die. He is our city. It rests with us to choose what we shall be. (David O. Mears.)

Blood-guiltiness removed from the Lord’s host; or, the cities of refuge

. A beneficent political institution. In ancient Greece and Rome there were asylums and shrines where the supposed sanctity of the place sheltered the blood-stained fugitive from righteous retribution; and it is probable that here, as in innumerable other instances, the pagan institution was but an imitation of the Divine. In our own country, too, there were, in former times, similar sanctuaries. But how different the copy from the pattern--the one institution how pernicious, the other how salutary! By the so-called sanctuaries all that was unsanctified was promoted, for here wilful murderers were received, who, after a short period, were permitted to go forth to repeat a like violence with a like impunity. Not thus was it with him who fled to the city of refuge. We have heard of Indian savages who, when one of their people is killed by a hostile tribe, will go out and kill the first member of that tribe whom they may meet. We have heard, too, of those who for years would cherish vindictiveness and deadly hate against some enemy. Quite opposite to any such spirit of retaliation is that which was to stimulate the Goel in his pursuit. The express command of God placed a sword in his hand which he dared not sheathe. As one entrusted with a prisoner of war, so was it, as it were, said to him, “Thy life for his if thou let him go.”

A type of Christ. Each person concerned, each regulation for the direction of the various parties, each circumstance of the case finds its counterpart in the gospel antitype.

1. To begin with the unfortunate homicide himself--he represents the sinner in his guilt and danger, under the wrath of God.

2. Does any one doubt the efficacy of God’s way of saving sinners? Would any one fain flee to other refuges? Ah, they are but refuges of lies.

3. Money could procure no remission; nor will riches avail “in the day of the Lord’s wrath.”

4. Mercy could not be shown unless the prescribed conditions were observed.

5. Up, then, and flee, thou yet unsaved one! Wait not vainly till others bear thee thither perforce. Complain not of thy God as an austere judge because He saith, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die”; but bless Him for His clemency in preparing thee a place of safety.

6. This terrible Goel--the avenger of blood--whose fatal purpose no reward, no argument, no entreaty can turn aside, is but an impersonation of the righteous anger of the Lord against the sinner.

7. That we may more fully perceive the appositeness of the illustration which the cities of refuge furnish of the person and work of the Redeemer, let us notice their position in the country--“in the midst,” not in the borders, or in the corners of the land (Deuteronomy 19:2).

8. The very names of the six cities are, to say the least, in keeping with the symbolism of the subject.

9. The cities of refuge were not open to native Israelites only, but “the stranger” and “the sojourner”--in fact, “every one” among them was accepted (Numbers 35:15). Thus none is accounted an alien who, owning himself a sinner, flies to Christ.

10. There is a beautiful lesson in the fact that not only the city itself, but the very suburbs, afforded safety.

11. The isolation, the restrictions, and the privations experienced by him who was confined within the city of refuge may be compared to the separation of the Christian from the world and the things of the world; but what, after all, are temporary trials, if the precious life be spared?

12. We have spoken of the danger of delay in seeking the refuge. Let us earnestly bear in mind the danger of the opposite kind, namely, of afterwards quitting the safe retreat.

13. At the death of the high priest the manslayer was set free.

14. Before the homicide could be received as a permanent inmate of the city of refuge, a trial was appointed. If he was acquitted, he was admitted there; but if condemned as a designing murderer, he was given up to the avenger for summary execution. This condemnation may be read in two ways.

It suggests--

1. A blessed contrast. We have been tried, and found guilty. Our sins are of crimson dye. Yet the door of mercy stands still open; nay, more, it is the full admission of our guilt, and not the profession of our innocence, that is the condition of our entrance thereat.

2. A solemn comparison. Though it be so, that for all sin there is a pardon, yet the Scripture speaks of “a sin that is unto death.” The case of a deliberate murderer, in contradistinction to an unwitting manslayer, illustrates that of one whose sins are not the sins of ignorance, but presumptuous sins, namely, who has deliberately and persistently sinned against light and knowledge. From this depth of wickedness, for which no city of refuge is provided, and for which there is no forgiveness, either in this world or the next, the Lord graciously preserve us! (G. W. Butler, M. A.)

The cities of refuge

. The appointment and use of these cities. It is very often said by thoughtless and ignorant persons that the laws of the Old Testament were barbarous and cruel. To this two answers might be made: First, that they were a great advance upon any other legislation at the period when they were given, and were full of wise sanitary provisions, and of tender care for human life and welfare; secondly, that the objection urged does not lie against Moses, but against the human race at that stage of its history. We are apt to forget that the laws of Moses were adaptations to an existing and very low order of society, and were designed to be a great training-school, leading children up into manhood. The cities of refuge were a merciful provision in times of lawless vengeance, and the entire legislation in regard to them was founded on an existing and very imperfect condition of society, while it looked towards a perfect state, towards the heavenly Jerusalem.

The reasons for the appointment of these cities.

1. All men at that early day recognised the right to kill an assassin; all exercised the right, or refrained from doing so, at their will; but Jehovah gave a positive command to Israel, without alternative. It should be blood for blood; and it certainly rests with the opposers of capital punishment to-day to show when and how this original law was abrogated. How it should be carried out was a matter of secondary consequence; that it should be observed was the first thing. When the law was given, the blood-avenger did what we to-day remand to courts of law. It was a step, surely, beyond an utterly lawless vengeance to appoint one person to carry out the Divine will that life should be forfeited for life.

2. But while this was the general rule, it was not a merciless and blind one; for the law distinguished between voluntary and unintentional homicide. It judged an act by its motives, and thus lifted tile whole question of punishment out of the sphere of personal revenge and family spite. Here at the very threshold of civilisation how clearly man is treated as a free moral agent, responsible for his acts, and yet judged by his motives! The materialism of to-day, which endeavours to sweep away this primitive morality, has human nature against it.

3. Then, in a system intended to train a nation into habits of self restraint and righteousness, it was necessary very early to bring in the lessons of mercy. God had always declared Himself the real avenger of blood. “I will require man’s blood,” He said, when He gave the law for the death of a murderer; “vengeance is Mine: I will repay.” The unintentional act was not to be treated like that of malice aforethought. The accidental homicide had certain rights; and yet the mercy offered him was conditional. It was only a chance. It was not left as a small thing for a human life to be taken, even unintentionally: hence the limitations placed about the right of asylum in the cities of refuge.

4. But this was not all: the law demanded an expiation for the wrong, even when it was done without intent. Still it was a wrong; blood had been shed, and the Divine government never grants forgiveness without atonement. God cannot be tender and forgiving without at the same time showing His holiness and just claims upon the guilty. This principle found expression in a singular way in the cities of refuge, in the provision that, whenever the high priest died, the prisoners of hope should go freely back to their homes. The priest was in some sort a sacrifice for the sins of the people, even in his natural death. Here we find what we might call a constructive expiation, Thus from age to age death was associated in the public mind with deliverance from punishment, the death of successive high priests setting forth the death of Christ on the Cross.

The cities of refuge are a type of christ. Their very names have a typical meaning--Kedesh, “holy”; Shechem, “shoulder”; Hebron, “fellowship”; Bezer, “refuge”; Ramoth, “high”; and Golan, “joy.” (Sermons by the Monday Club.)

Christ our city of refuge

. There is an analogy between our situation and the situation of those for whom the city of refuge was designed. It was not intended for the murderer. The law respecting him was that he should immediately be put to death, however palliating might be the circumstances connected with his crime, and however sacred the place to which he might flee for protection. Even the law respecting the manslayer bore in some points a resemblance to that which referred to the murderer. While provision was made for his safety if he chose to avail himself of it, it was also enjoined that should he be overtaken by the avenger of blood his life was to be the forfeit of his negligence. He had shed the blood of a fellow-man; and should he disregard the means of safety which were furnished to him, no guilt would be incurred, although by him whom he had injured his blood also should be shed. Now, all of us are chargeable with having transgressed the law of God. In one important respect, indeed, the comparison between us and the manslayer does not hold. He deprived his fellow of life without having meditated the deed, and therefore he did not contract moral guilt; for although the motive does not in every case sanctify the deed, it is to the motive that we must look in determining the virtuous or vicious nature of an action. We, however, have sinned against the Divine law voluntarily. We have done it in spite of knowledge, conviction, and obligation. Involved, then, as we are, in this universal charge of guilt, the justice of God is in pursuit of us, and is crying aloud for vengeance. And the condition of those whom it overtakes is utterly hopeless: death is the forfeit which they must pay. Let us guard against the callousness of those who, though they readily enough admit that they are sinners, seem to imagine that no danger is to be apprehended, and soothe themselves with the vague expectation that, since God is good, they shall somehow or other drop into heaven at last, and be taken beyond the reach of all that is painful. Oh! is it not infatuation thus to remain listless and secure, when God’s anger is provoked, and equity demands the execution of the threatening? Would it have been folly in the manslayer to have deluded himself into the notion of his safety, at the very time that his infuriated enemy was in hot pursuit? and is it wise in the sinner, when Divine justice is about to seize him, to remain insensible to the hazard of his situation? But let us not despair. Our sin, it is true, has veiled Jehovah’s face in darkness; but through that darkness a bright beam has broken forth, revealing to us peace and reconciliation.

There is an analogy between our prospects and the prospects of the manslayer under the law. By Joshua six cities of refuge were appointed, three on either side of Jordan, that the distance might not be too great which the man-slayer required to travel. Now, in Christ Jesus we have a city of refuge to which we are encouraged to repair for protection from the justice which is in pursuit of us. This refuge God Himself has provided; so that He whom we have injured has also devised and revealed to us the method by which our salvation may be effected. “Deliver,” He said, “from going down to the pit; I have found a ransom.” Nor is this divinely-provided deliverance difficult of being reached. Christ is ever near to the sinner, and no tiresome pilgrimage requires to be performed before He can be found. All obstructions have been removed out of the way which leads to His Cross, and everything has been done to facilitate our flight to its blessed shelter.

The cities of refuge

. The persons for whom the cities of refuge were provided were in circumstances of imminent danger.

1. The danger of man arises from sin and transgression against the authority of that law which God revealed for the personal rule and obedience of man, it being an essential arrangement in the Divine government that the infraction of the law should expose to the infliction of punishment.

2. The peril of man which thus arises from sin affects and involves his soul, which is pursued by justice as the avenger, and is exposed to the infliction of a future state of torment, the nature and intensity of which it is beyond the possibility of any finite mind to conceive, and the duration of which is restricted by no limits, but is coeval with eternity itself.

3. The peril of man thus arising from transgression and affecting and involving his soul applies not to a small portion, but extends to every individual of the species.

The persons for whom these cities of refuge were provided were furnished with ample directions and facilities to reach them.

1. The clearness with which the offices of the Lord Jesus Christ, in their adaptation to the condition of man, are revealed.

2. The nature of the method by which in their saving application and benefit the Saviour’s offices are to be applied.

The persons for whom cities of refuge were provided became on reaching them assured of inviolable security.

1. The grounds of this security; it arises from sources which render it unassailable and perfect. There is the faithfulness of the promise of the Father, which God has repeatedly addressed to His people; there is the efficacy of the mediation of the Son; and there is the pledge of the influences of the Holy Spirit.

2. The blessings involved in this security. And here we have not so much a comparison as a contrast. He who fled for refuge, after he had become a homicide, to the appointed asylum in the cities of Israel, became by necessity the subject of much privation. He was secure, but that was all, inasmuch, it is evident, that he was deprived of home, of kindred, of freedom, and of all those tender and endearing associations which are entwined around the heart of the exile, and the memory of which causes him to pine away, and oftentimes to die. But in obtaining, by the mediation and work of Christ, security from the perils of the wrath to come, we find that the scene of our security is the scene of privilege, of liberty, and of joy.

If the persons for whom the cities of refuge were provided removed or were found away from them they were justly left to perish. There is a Saviour, but only one; an atonement, but only one; a way to heaven, but only one; and when once we have admitted the great fact with regard to the reason of the Saviour’s incarnation and sacrifice on the Cross and His ascension into heaven, we are by necessity brought to the conclusion and shut up to the confirmed belief of this truth, that “neither is there salvation in any other, for there-is none other name,” &c. (James Parsons.)

Cities of refuge

Notice a few points in which there is no correspondence between these cities provided for the manslayer and the protection which the gospel provides for the sinner

1. The cities of refuge afforded only a temporary protection for the body. The gospel, on the contrary, is a protection for the whole man, and for the whole man forever.

2. The cities afforded protection only to the unfortunate, whereas the refuge of the gospel is for the guilty.

3. The protection which the cities afforded involved the sacrificing of certain privileges; that of the gospel ensures every privilege.

4. Those who enjoyed the protection of the cities would desire to return to their former scenes; not so with those who enjoy the protection of the gospel.

Notice some of the more illustrative features of resemblance.

1. The cities of refuge were of Divine appointment; so is the protection offered in the gospel.

2. The cities of refuge were provisions against imminent danger; so is the gospel.

3. The cities of refuge were arranged so as to be available for all the manslayers in the country; so is the gospel provided for all sinners.

(1) Capacity enough to secure all.

(2) Within reach of all.

(3) Pointed out to all.

4. The cities of refuge were the exclusive asylums for such cases; so is the gospel the only way of salvation.

5. The cities of refuge were only serviceable to those who by suitable effort reached them.

(1) Individual effort.

(2) Immediate effort.

(3) Strenuous effort.

(4) Persevering effort. (Homilist.)

The cities of refuge

. Let us, then, look at the people who dwelt in them Who were they? They were not exclusively rich people, nor were they exclusively poor. Poverty or wealth was no title to a residence there. Nor were they even educated people, or illiterate people. Some other plea than these must be urged in order to get an entrance there. They were guilty people. Upon their hands must be the mark of their foul sin. They must be avowed man-slayers, or else the gates were closed against them, and admission refused. I think I hear the Pharisee reply something like this: “I am a religious man--a respectable man. This is a religious city established by God, kept by His priests--the peculiar care of Jehovah. There is a certain fitness between that city and myself. I mean to enter there, because I think it is a good thing to dwell in such a place.” But they speak to him and say, “Sir, you have made a mistake. Let us ask you one question--Have you ever done any harm?” He looks at them, amazed at the question. “Done any harm? No, sirs, mine has been a blameless life. Taken the life of another? Why, I would not hurt a fly.” “Then, sir,” they say to him, “this city cannot be your dwelling-place. It, with all its privileges, is for the man-slayer.” Ah, sinner, now I know why you are not saved. You are not guilty: you do not believe it. But let me point out to you another mark of these people who dwelt in the cities. They were something more than guilty: they were conscious of their danger. They had found out that they had slain a man. They knew the penalty of the law: they believed it. They did not dare to doubt it, and they fled for their very lives. Sinner, would to God that we could get you to flee for your life! Oh, sinner, to-night you see it not, but there behind you is the keen, two-edged sword of that law that you have broken--that law that you have defied. It is very near to you. God says, “Fly, fly for thy life to the city of refuge.” And you--what are you doing? Why, you do not even hear the voice of God. You have no consciousness of your danger. One other word about these people: they were responsible, absolutely responsible, for their own safety. I think I see that man again. We have watched him, and we have spoken to him; he left us and ran; but we say to each other now, “What is the matter? Our friend has stopped running. Look! He is sitting down by the road-side, and from that wallet behind his back, which we did not see before, he has taken out some bread. He is eating it leisurely, quietly. He must have made a mistake. Surely, the avenger of blood cannot be after him. Surely he cannot be guilty.” We go up to him and we say, “Friend, you told us just now that you were flying from the avenger of blood. How is it that you are taking your ease?” “Well,” he says, “the fact is I have been thinking over the matter, and I have changed my mind. Quite true, I have done wrong; quite true, I have taken a life; quite true, the avenger of blood is after me. But look here, sir. The logic of the matter is this: if I am to be saved I shall be saved.” “What folly! You may be saved if you flee; but, as God liveth, unless you get within its walls you never will be saved.”

Look to some remarkable points about the cities of refuge themselves. Well, the point that strikes us, and which shows forth Jesus Christ and His willingness and power to save, is this: these cities were all easy of access. God took all the difficulties out of the way.

1. They were all upon the level plain. If you read chapter 20., and take the map, as I have done, and look at the land, you will be struck with this, that not one of them was built upon a mountain. What does it mean? Why, it means that an anxious and fleeing man--fleeing for his life--must have no weary mountain to travel up. There, upon the level plain, is the city whose welcome walls invite him for refuge. You have no hill of experience or of works or deeds to climb up. And then observe another fact about them, proving the ease of access which God had arranged for them.

2. If you were to look at the land of Palestine you would observe that it is divided nearly longitudinally--that is, from north to south--by a river at times broad and wide and deep, and with a mighty current--the river Jordan, Now, we will suppose that God had put the cities of refuge, we will say, on the other side. Here comes a poor man-slayer; he is flying for his life, and he reaches Jordan. There is no bridge; he has no boat; he cannot swim; and yet there within sight of him is the welcome city. “Oh,” he says in his bitter despair, “God’s promise has brought me so far only to mock me.” But no, God arranges otherwise. God said, “Let there be six cities, three on each side of the river; one north, one in the middle, one in the south, on one side; one in the south, one in the middle, one on the north on the other side.” What does it mean? Why, it means this, that wherever there could be a poor, guilty man-slayer there was a city of refuge. Oh, “The Word is nigh thee,” &c.

3. May I add, too, that the gates were always open. Eighteen hundred years have the gates been open. Man’s infidelity and opposition have never closed the gates.

4. Observe, too, about these cities, that they were all well known. That was of the very greatest importance. God ordained that there should be six. Their names were given. I think the mothers of Israel must have taught their little children those six names by heart. It would never do that by and by their child should be in danger, and know not where to escape. We are told by Josephus that where cross-roads met there were always finger-posts established, having these words, “To the city of refuge.” And I often think that persons like myself, or even the most distinguished ministers of Christ, cannot save a soul, but they may be fingerposts pointing clearly to Jesus, and saying in life and ministry and deed, “To the city of refuge.” Let me point out to you another fact of great importance about these cities--the most important fact of all, without which all other facts would be useless. Within these walls was perfect safety. God had said it: Jehovah’s word was staked to it. Perfect safety. God’s honour was at stake. Every man who fled inside that city should be saved. (J. T. Barnardo.)


Life is full of alleviations, shelters, ways of deliverance. So that however gloomy things look at times, the worst never comes to the worst. At the moment when all seems lost the gate of the city of refuge opens before us, and friendly hands are held out to draw us within its sanctuary.

I want to give some illustrations of this, and, first of all, from what we may call the ordinary arrangements of the providence of God--the means of refuge which this God-made world provides within itself against the commoner ills. The daily round seems so trivial, our cares are so petty, the things that we are working for so utterly unworthy of beings laying any claim to greatness, that we should be tempted to forego our claim and settle down in mechanical acceptance of the humdrum and the commonplace if we did not avail ourselves of means of escape into a higher realm of thought and feeling. To some of us the culture of music affords a city of refuge from the drearier side of life. The transformation of Scott’s “wandering harper, scorned and poor,” under the potent spell of his own music is repeated a thousand times a day.

“In varying cadence, soft or strong,

He swept the sounding chords along
The present scene, the future lot,
His toils, his wants were all forgot.
Cold diffidence and age’s frost,

In the full tide of song were lost.”

Others find their city in the contemplation of great pictures. A man, crusted over with the sordidness of his daily task, will get away into a picture gallery. He will sit down tired and uninterested before some great masterpiece, and after a while it will begin to take hold of him. As he sits there, passively yielding to its influence, just letting it lay itself against his spirit, there will gradually steal over him a great restfulness and calm. Presently a deeper life will wake up. He will pass from the passive to the active state. Imagination will become alive; thought will stir; a new world will grow into realness around him--a larger, higher, finer world, not less real, but more real; not foreign to him, but more truly native to him than the world whose dust he has just shaken from his feet. And a greater number, perhaps, find their way of escape by the door of good books than by either music or pictures, or both together. And it is more than a merely temporary refuge. If books are really great, if the art is really elevating, we get something more than a short respite from an unfriendly world. When we go back to it the world is changed. The avenger of blood is no longer there. But there are tenser forms of evil to be saved from than the dull pain of a prosaic and uninspiring existence. There are sharp strokes of misfortune, the sudden loss of health, an overwhelming catastrophe in business, or bereavement. It is marvellous how at such a time people find themselves ringed round with friends. The story of Naomi is the story of the destitute in every age. What could have been more hopeless than the outlook for her? Yet she got through. She found friends among the foreigners; and when after the long years of exile she returned to Bethlehem, she found herself taken to people’s hearts. And Ruth the Moabitess was befriended also. There are many who could say with old John Brown of Haddington, “There might be put upon my coffin, ‘Here lies one of the cares of Providence, who early wanted both father and mother, and yet never missed them!’” So true is this that of late years we have begun to hear in tones of complaint and foreboding of “the survival of the unfit.” The world, it seems, is too kind. There is too much providence. That complaint need not distress us. But it is a confirmation of the Christian view of the world under God’s fatherly administration from a somewhat unexpected quarter; and it is none the less valuable for the source from which it comes. God is love, and He will be yet more fully known in the world’s palaces of science as a refuge. But we cannot think long on the subject without being sorrowfully conscious that there are other foes of the soul against which the ordinary providence of God offers no defence; and our sorrow is only turned into joy when we recognise that in these cases a still better refuge is provided. “God Himself is our refuge, a very present help in time of trouble.”

1. For example, there is sin. It is possible for men to go through life without any distinct perception of sin as an enemy of their happiness, But whenever the conscience is truly awakened, from that moment sin stands forth as the saddest fact in life. It is the one foe that peace cannot dwell with. Other evils we may escape, leaving them still in possession of the outer suburbs, while we retreat into the inner citadel of the soul. But not with sin. For the awfulness of that is that its very seat is in our inmost soul, so that the more deeply we live the more vivid is the fatal consciousness of its presence. And whether you count the burning shame of it, the self-contempt it breeds, the vague but awful terrors which of necessity dwell with it, or the feeling of helplessness which grows upon us as we realise how impossible it is to escape unaided from its power, as soon as its burden presses upon a man it is felt as the heaviest burden of life, different, not only in degree but in kind, from every other, intolerable, and yet never to be shaken off by any human strength. Here is an avenger for which earth provides no city of refuge. Great books, great pictures give no relief now; they aggravate. Mother Nature with her healing ministries has no balm for this wound. Thank God there is deliverance. The troubled conscience comes to peace in Jesus Christ.

2. Another case in which God alone in His own person can be a refuge for us, is when we are oppressed by the sense of finiteness that comes to us some time or other in our experience of all things earthly. There are times when we seem to see round everything. We have reached the limit of our friends’ capacity to satisfy us; music is nothing more to us than a combination, more or less faulty, of sounds that jar upon the nerves. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” And all human goodness is as the morning cloud. “All men are liars,” you say in your haste. And if not that, then at least, “I have seen an end of all perfection.” Blessed is the man who in that hour knows the way to God. The secret of the Lord is with him, and the water that he drinks of shall be in him a well of water springing up unto everlasting life.

3. Death and deliverance. And then there is death. There are those who through fear of death are all their life-time subject to bondage. Well, God delivers us from that spectre. When we walk through the valley of that shadow, we fear no evil for He is with us. We who have fled for refuge to the hope set before us find ourselves holding by an anchor that enters into that within the veil.

Now, it will be a great help to us if we recognise in every lightening of the burdens of life the sign that god has been going before us preparing deliverance. Do not let us shut God out of the alleviations that spring up out of the earth as we pass along. There were six cities of refuge appointed for the Hebrews, and now one and now another of these cities would offer a practicable way of escape from the avenger. And God fulfils Himself in many ways. The doors of hope that seem entirely earth-fashioned and of human provision are equally of God’s appointment with that heavenly door by which alone we can find deliverance from the deeper sorrows. Your God-given way of escape is not always along the path of extreme religious fervour. A week of rest at the seaside will do you more spiritual good sometimes than a week of revival services. A hearty shake of the hand from a genial unbeliever will give you a mightier lift than a lecture from a saint. And you are to use the means of escape that lies nearest you, and is most suitable--and see God’s gracious provision in it whatever it is that gives you effectual relief. I don’t mean that all ministries are of the same order, or intrinsically of equal worth. But then all troubles are not of the same order either. Paul is equally the minister of God when to the gaoler crying, “What must I do to be saved?” he says, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved”; and to the sailors worn out with long battling with the storm, he recommends, not prayer, but to take food.

Let me direct your minds to a duty which god laid upon the Israelites in relation to their cities of refuge. “Thou shalt prepare thee a way and divide the coasts of thy land, which the Lord thy God giveth thee to inherit, into three parts, that every slayer may flee thither.” That is, there shall not only be a city of refuge, but there shall be a road to it. And these roads were to be kept in order. And it came afterwards to be a law that finger-posts should be placed wherever other roads crossed the road to the city of refuge, so that a man in search of it might the more easily find his way. Now the meaning of this in the larger bearing which we are giving it all, is that we should make ourselves familiar beforehand with the means of access to the doors of deliverance which God has provided. We are bidden to have resources. We must know the use of pictures and of great books; we must know the way to Nature’s treasure-house, or be able, like Boethius, to solace ourselves amid the disorders of the world by contemplating the Divine order of the stars. In the day of comparative prosperity we are to prepare for adversity. And this is a counsel of tremendous significance when we think of the supreme needs of the soul, those needs which nothing short of God can meet. “Thou shalt prepare thee a way.” One of the most pathetic stories in the Old Testament is that which relates how King Saul, who had gone his own timeserving, politician-like way all his life, came at last in his extremity to feel his need of God, and did not know how to come to Him. “Acquaint thyself with Him.” “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth”--in the springtime of life, when all is bright and hope-inspiring. Now is the time to make a path for yourself to Him. (C. S. Pedley, M. A.)

The Christian’s cities of refuge

. Our first city of refuge is prayer. Whatever trouble comes to us, we can run to prayer for help, as the man of old ran to the city of refuge.

Our second city of refuge is the bible. When Jesus was tempted three times by the devil in the wilderness to do wrong, every time His heart ran to the Bible as a city of refuge and quoted some precious promise.

A third city of refuge is sacred song. If our hearts and voices are full of sweet and pure songs about God, and heaven, and doing good, they will keep away a great many wicked thoughts and evil words.

The fourth city of refuge is trust in God as our father. A child was asked the question, “What is faith?” She answered,” God has spoken, and I believe it.” That is a part of what it means to trust in God.

Our fifth city of refuge is the holy spirit as our guide.

The sixth city of refuge, the last one and the most precious, is Jesus as our saviour. (Christian Age.)

The number of the cities of refuge

These were doubtless sufficient to answer the exigencies that might arise; but why six were appointed, and not seven, the perfect number, we may conceive was the reference they all had to one other, the only perfection of types, the Lord Jesus, and in whom alone security can be found. The perfection of the covenant and of every covenant blessing is found in Him. In whatever trouble, whether in first convictions or after-trials, the Christian, as the prophet, with thoughts raised to Christ, may exclaim, “O Lord, my strength and my fortress, and my refuge in the day of affliction.” (W. Seaton.)

The situation of the cities of refuge

In the division of land east and west of Jordan which was nearly equal the Lord made equal provision for both, that it might be no disadvantage on which side soever any dwelt who were within the extent of the inheritance. Christ is for general benefit, wherever men live, within the sound of His gospel; so that it matters not where that is, in what part or quarter of the world. How great a mercy to be stationed near this refuge! and how great a sin to neglect or despise its security! (W. Seaton.)

The cities of refuge illustrative of Christ’s redeeming work

How illustrative of the way of life, the facilities grace has given to sensible and alarmed sinners to flee from the wrath to come!

In the gospel of Christ is found nothing to impede or discourage an immediate application for salvation, but the way is set before men under directions so plain and obvious that hardly any one can err, except through wilful ignorance and determined rebellion. Faithful ministers are designed to answer the end of directing-posts; they are to stand in byways and corners, to distinguish the right way from the wrong, and thereby, if possible, to prevent any from proceeding to their own destruction. Mercy has placed them on the road to life purposely to remind sinners of their danger, to direct the perplexed, and to admonish the careless. How important is simplicity in a matter that involves in it the concerns of life and death! What if the line of inscription, “To the City of Refuge,” had been in any other language than the one generally understood? and what if gospel ministers express themselves in a way that few only can reap the benefit of their instructions? They ruin more than they save, and cannot avoid a fearful charge in the day when every work will be brought into judgment.

Next, consider the requirements made of the man who had occasion to avail himself of the provision appointed; and as if having witnessed the act of slaughter, follow him to the gates of the city. His first and obvious duty, and that to which necessity compelled, was to leave the dead and run for his life, to rise from his bleeding neighbour and betake himself, with all possible haste, to the nearest refuge. This was to be voluntary, for no one could compel him. Another requirement was that he who had set out should make all possible haste till he had got within the walls of the city; for security was not in the way, but at the end; not while escaping, but when refuged. And what shall be said of them who, professing to flee for refuge to lay hold on the hope set before them in Christ, think neither of danger nor security, but are taken up, as their chief concern, with the pleasure and pursuits of the world?

The internal constitution of these cities, like the way to them, and the requisitions made of those for whose benefit they were instituted, instructs us in the knowledge of many evangelical truths. Let us enter for examination, or rather consider ourselves as needing the security they give. Refuge was not allowed till after judicial investigation. They were no asylum for murderers, but for those guilty of manslaughter only. In this the legal refuge came short of that the gospel sets before us: it was wisely and necessarily so; for no typical institutions could be ordained contrary to public justice and security, or that would have perpetually endangered the life and peace of society. Herein the pre-eminence of the gospel appears, and the infinite merit of Christ’s blood, which has efficacy to atone for the worst of crimes. The government under which these cities were placed must not be forgotten; they were given to the Levites, and though distinct from those they were to inhabit, yet they were numbered among them. This denoted an appointment of mercy, namely, that all the privileges peculiar to them, the security, residence, and provision there afforded, were all the fruit of priestly merits, and under the regulation of sacerdotal dominion. The streams of mercy from Christ flow to sinners through the prevalence of His atoning sacrifice and the exercise of His availing intercession. Again, safety was nowhere but within the city--not only was the manslayer required to flee to it, but to remain there the life of the high priest. Expressive appointment! Who out of Christ can be safe? One cannot but remark the deficiency of the type, as to the liberty as well as security which every believer obtains through Christ. As long as the high priest lived the slayer of blood was deprived of liberty beyond the bounds of the city. With all the mercy there provided, it must have been no little inconvenience to have been compelled so suddenly to give up connections, occupations, inheritance, and family for so uncertain a period, Nevertheless we are left to admire the wisdom of the Divine procedure, in that regard to the ends of public justice and social right, ever observed in even those institutions which were principally designed to set forth the unbounded grace of Christ. While the life of the high priest typified the security of Christ, the death of the high priest was to express the redemption of the forfeited possession. “After the death of the high priest, the slayer shall return to the land of his possession.” His life was a blessing that protected the slayer from the avenger, but his death unmistakably greater, for that secured liberty with life. The death of Christ has not only availed to deliver us from all the penalties of a broken covenant, burro interest us in all the positive blessings of the new; not only to save from all the sorrows of guilt, but to restore to us all the joys of innocence. (W. Seaton.)


Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Joshua 20". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tbi/joshua-20.html. 1905-1909. New York.
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