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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Deuteronomy 19

 

 

Verses 1-21

Divinely-provided Refuge

Deuteronomy 19

When a blessing has been conferred a duty is to follow. This would seem to be the method of the divine kingdom. That kingdom does not consist wholly of blessing, sentiment, ease, and honour; the kingdom of God is a kingdom of duty and discipline, calling upon its possessors to be faithful and gracious, to obey certain commandments, and to hold the kingdom feudally,—not as of right, but as from the Lord, to whom an account must be rendered. Whenever the Lord gives us cities we have a work of separation to do. The cities are not given to us wholly: they are only given to us partially. The Lord still maintains his position upon earth, though he is throned in heaven; he has cities upon the earth that are peculiarly his own. Whatever city is given to us must have part of it set aside as God"s, for God"s use, and concerning which an account must be rendered to God. Had the message been all upon one side, how subtle and tremendous would have been the temptation addressed to human vanity and ambition!—the Lord will give you cities; he will cast out the heathen and the stranger before you; you shall enter into the palaces of their kings and enjoy the riches of all their generations. Had the message run in that line it would have been an evil. There is nothing really in the very soul of it good that does not involve the element of discipline. Regard it as a fact established by all history and approved by all the philosophy that is founded upon experience, that at some point man must bow the knee, and acknowledge lordship and divine right and claim; and wherever he thus bows the knee man sets up an altar. Human will must be broken. This is a doctrine which benevolent but foolish parents endeavour to evade: they bring up their children with an unbroken will, and call it graciousness and good-nature;—it is baseness, selfishness, cruelty: it is leaving that to be done by a stranger which ought to have been done by the spirit of home and the genius of love. We are called upon to acknowledge God in all our possessions, to have our will broken in the sense of rejecting the idea of sole proprietorship or absolute claim, and in the sense of saying concerning many a fair city,—This is God"s, not mine;—concerning many a wedge of gold,—This is the Lord"s, not mine. When the human spirit has been brought to that concession, and can make the surrender graciously, lovingly, and thankfully, the miracle of grace has been accomplished in the reluctant or obdurate heart. Israel could keep the cities, and include the three that ought to have been separated in the bill of ownership; but the Lord could have withheld the rain, and no city could live without the clouds: the Lord could have shifted the wind into the quarter whence cometh blight, cold, and desolation; no city can live without the southwest wind. We may claim all, but we cannot keep all. To put the three cities into our bag and lodge them with the usurer is not to outwit God: the Sovereign will take out his claim in health, or wealth, or peace: but his claim must be recognised and satisfied. Listen not to the sophism which says that all cities are God"s: there is a morality which is too grandiloquent; reject the suggestion that all days are God"s: there is a liberality that gives nothing. God has always secured three of the cities or more, part of every harvest-field, a few grapes at least out of every vineyard, one day in the week; the claim has not been great in extent in relation to the territory which has been covered, but the making of it is the assertion of sovereign right, and the satisfaction of it is an expression of human obedience.

"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" ( Deuteronomy 19:3).

There was to be public proclamation of the existence of the cities of refuge. The picture is a very striking one. There were signs put up along the road leading to the cities of refuge, and on the signs was written the word "miklot"—refuge. What a sign to come upon in the hour of despair and oppressed weakness! The man who was fleeing, having shed innocent blood, looked anxiously around that he might observe the standard bearing the magic word miklot; seeing that word, he fled along the road which was indicated by the gracious term. Fix the mind upon the picture until the picture itself glows into a beauteous gospel. A man has done wrong: he knows the consequences of his wrong-doing, even though the wrong was a misadventure: instantly he flees for refuge; he did not make the city of refuge: he may not know in what direction the city of refuge lies; but here and there and again the standard is lifted up and on it written—refuge. The man does not run the other way, or ask who wrote the miklot, or enter into discussion as to the form of the letters and the right of those letters to be where they are; nor does he ask the age of the standard, or why it is not on the other side of the road: the man is in earnest: the avenger is behind him: he has no time for questions or controversy about the refuge;—Where lies the city?—and seeing an indication of its position he "flees for refuge" to the city that is set before him. Our public roads should have no lack of standards of a higher and nobler kind: the wrong-doer should have no doubt left upon his mind as to what direction to take in the time of self-accusation and self-despair. Every Christian should be a stranger, having written upon him "miklot"—refuge; every church should be an open door, opened towards heaven, pardon, and peace. We must not be afraid to say that all our Christianity exists in the first instance for the purpose of saving the wrong-doer who wishes to be saved. That is the primary purpose of the Church; other purposes are no doubt included, but the one initial, all-commanding object of the Church is to be a city of refuge, a place where the lamp of hope burns brightly, a sanctuary where the gospel words are spoken with gospel fervour and unction. The Church of the living God should resound with the cry:—Flee for refuge, to the hope set before you in the Gospel. The enormous—the incalculable—difficulty is that men do not recognise themselves as in need of refuge. We must have destroyed within us the sophism that we are fit to be at large. So long as we walk up and down the city complacently approving ourselves and quoting instances of our own wisdom and virtue, any standard bearing the word miklot—refuge—is an offence to us. The Gospel was never meant for any man who can take care of himself: it is a city of refuge; and men only ask for refuge when they hear the pursuit of the avenger, or know themselves to be objects deserving punishment. Where do we find the refugees in the church? Men are not there as refugees: they are there as upon equal terms with the Lord of the sanctuary; they patronise that Lord: they subscribe to his reputation upon the earth: they light his lamps for him, and they expect to be rewarded for their loyalty;—whereas men ought to be in the church in a state of breathlessness, then in a state of thankfulness for security; then, sometimes, as if hearing just outside the stroke of the avenger, they should pray more mightily and sing their praises more fervently, knowing that the avenger may smite the wall and hurt himself, but can never reach those who are hidden in the place of refuge—"Jesus, Refuge of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly." We should realise this conception of the Church, and doing so we shall not be slow to put up in the city the sign-post and the index-finger; nor shall we scruple to use the word "refuge," or the word "salvation," for we shall speak the word with the emphasis and the unction of personal gratitude.

"And this is the case of the slayer, which shall flee thither, that he may live: Whoso killeth his neighbour ignorantly, whom he hated not in time past: as when a man goeth into the wood with his neighbour to hew wood, and his hand fetcheth a stroke with the axe to cut down the tree, and the head slippeth from the helve, and lighteth upon his neighbour, that he die; he shall flee unto one of those cities, and live: lest the avenger of the blood pursue the slayer, while his heart is hot, and overtake him, because the way is long, and slay him; whereas he was not worthy of death, inasmuch as he hated him not in time past" ( Deuteronomy 19:4-6).

Here is the principle that actions as between man and man are to be discriminated. Everything depends upon motive. The action is not complete in itself, and remains a mystery or an enigma until the motive has been penetrated and understood. This discrimination of actions would destroy many a sacred phantasm. The law applies in both directions. Supposedly good actions are to be examined in the light of this law as well as actions that are supposedly vicious. If everything depends upon the motive, what becomes of the fabric of a lifetime? How much easier it would be to live from the outside than to live from an interior centre! The hand can do so many things easily as an expression of skill and mechanical cleverness, whilst the heart may be away committing murder and theft, and breaking all the commandments at one tremendous stroke. The word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the dividing asunder of the joints and marrow. What temples of charity are thrown down because the action of an evil motive was in the midst of them!—the action itself was beautiful, reputable, and was accepted by society with applause; but the spirit of the Book asks for the motive which originated the charity or the action, and finding that to be of base quality the action itself goes for less than nothing, and in the great book of account is set down against the doer. If our good actions are set down against us, who can pay the sum-total of the debt? Thus, we are thrown back upon spiritual thoughts and spiritual considerations. All our mechanical and outside arrangements and institutions go for nothing: the Lord asks but one question,—What is your motive? What do you really mean? What is your purpose?—and the answer to that inquiry being in the right tone, all the rest will be accounted to us: even our dreams shall be temples, and our cup of cold water shall be as a goblet of wine.

But there was another kind of Prayer of Manasseh -slayer—what was to become of him?—

"But if any man hate his neighbour, and lie in wait for him, and rise up against him, and smite him mortally that he die, and fleeth into one of these cities: then the elders of his city shall send and fetch him thence, and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die. Thine eye shall not pity him, but thou shalt put away the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, that it may go well with thee" ( Deuteronomy 19:11-13).

Then is it even so? May accidental sins be provided for, but is there no provision made for those who cry out in the bitterness of their souls, each for himself,—I am a murderer: I have slain the good; I have entertained malice where I ought to have entertained nothing but gratitude; I have been unjust and cruel;—is there no refuge for me?—the miklot is a mockery to me if the city be meant only for those who are chargeable with misadventure? Now comes the great gospel speech: Christ is the city of refuge—but understand in what sense, lest the very goodness of God be profaned and prostituted. Christ is not a refuge in the sense of a criminal being able to outrun justice. The picture in Israel was the picture of a man fleeing for refuge and an avenger fleeing after him, and if the avenger were swifter of foot the Prayer of Manasseh -slayer might be killed outside the city. There is no such picture in Christianity. In Christ we do not outrun justice: justice itself, by a mystery we can neither understand nor explain, has been satisfied by Christ. This is not to be made a matter of words: the controversialist is not here to offer his impertinent opinion; the question lies entirely between men who are in agony and Christ who offers refuge. There is no place for controversy or criticism, or coming to an understanding with all the factors in the case; this is an instance of self-convicted men, conscious of having done wrong and only wrong, asking if there is no miklot in all the universe for them, when they hate the wrong and repent it with bitterness of soul. Christianity is not a clever contrivance for outwitting justice. The mystery of the Cross lies within that thought. What that mystery is we cannot say. Now and then we seem to see somewhat of its meaning. God is just, and yet the justifier of the ungodly; Christ bore our sins in his own body on the tree; he suffered the just for the unjust; he was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him. We do not know what it means; but there are times when we need just these words and no other: they are full of rest, hope, music; to analyse them is to slay the life that you may find its secret. The soul can but hear them now and then, but when they are heard, suddenly there is with the soul a multitude of the heavenly host singing,—"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will toward men." Do not ask to have that great light brought within the sphere that is visual and comprehensible: let it stand in its own place, fixed by the hand of God; and when we are weariest, saddest, and most severe with ourselves we shall see that light and call it heaven. The refuge in Christ is based upon confession, repentance, and restitution. Let us flee for refuge to the hope set before us in the Gospel. The action is one of intensity. We are not loitering upon the road, talking upon indifferent subjects as we ramble along: we are fleeing—running at our utmost speed: if we attract attention at all, it is by the swiftness of our motion and the eagerness of our action. How does a man run when the wolf is pursuing him over the snow?—how the horses plunge and urge forward then! How do men flee when fire is following them?—when the whole prairie is ablaze and the wind is a weapon of fire? How do men flee from a building that is tottering and might at any moment fall? From all such images gather some hint of the meaning of the words:—flee for refuge: make haste: heed nothing but the attainment of the sanctuary which has been built by God: its open door is a welcome: it was meant for sinners, it was built for sinners: it was not set up for righteous men, but for men unrighteous and lost. This is the Gospel which Christianity has to preach. It has no other Gospel; and it can only preach it with effect to men who are conscious of having done wrong. If any man say,—I have no sin,—the Gospel has no speech of welcome to make to him, but a speech of condemnation, saying,—He is a liar; "if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." But we cannot understand the mystery: the evil deed was done, and God in his omnipotence says to us—Leave me to expunge the evil; as for you—flee for refuge!

Prayer

Almighty God, though we dwell in tabernacles of clay, yet dost thou not withhold thy light from our window, but dost surround us with the morning glory, and call us, in the midst of all the joy of light, to the joy and sacrifice of labour. Though we are consumed before the moth, to teach us how little we are, yet are we also conscious of being immortal in God: so shall we outlive all stars and suns and worlds, and be for ever with the Lord. We thank thee for this lifting up of the heart in sacred rapture: it makes us feel thy nearness when we yield to thy power, and it gives strength to our confidence when we hear the voice of thy grace. Surely thou art nigh unto them that call upon thee, and thine hand is outstretched in almightiness to those who put their trust in thee in the time of fear and danger and great distress. It is our joy to believe in thy nearness, in the tenderness of thy love, in the long-suffering of thy patience, in the all-helpfulness of thy power. We have heard of thy Son—that this Man receiveth sinners and eateth with them. He came to seek and to save that which was lost: he did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. We confess our sin: we mourn it with bitterness; yet we cannot but rejoice that Jesus Christ came in answer to it. Our sin brought thy Son into the world that he might save us from its guilt and consequence. A wondrous mystery this in thy rule! We see the stars in the darkness, not in the light: we see all thy mercy, compassion, love, and tears in the darkness of our sin. Oh, how the stars glitter! How great their number! Blessed be God, all these are witnesses of thy care for us. Thou wilt not willingly see the sinner die: thou hast no pleasure in the death of the wicked. Turn ye, turn ye, why will ye die?—is a word which has been traced to thine own lips. We accept it now; it is addressed to ourselves; it is an inquiry of love. Lord, by thy grace we will not die: we will arise and go to our Father, and speak words of penitence and self-loathing. We know that whilst we are yet a great way off thou wilt see us, and run and have compassion and fall upon our neck and kiss us, and adopt us into the family again;—this is the exceeding love of God; this is the mystery of infinite pity. God be merciful unto us sinners! The Lord magnify his grace over our guilt that we may see how great is the compassion of God, and how infinite the resources of love. We pray that thine house may be as a door opening upon heaven. We desire that this elevation may enable us to see beyond the boundary of time and behold somewhat of the gleaming and beauty of the city that lies beyond. O fair city! beauteous home of beauteous souls! We yearn for its purity, we weary to enter its rest, we long to know the mystery of its service. We bless thee that thou hast set a city of allurement before us—a fascination in the skies, a Jerusalem above, a mother city, waiting for us and bidding us come up higher. We need such exhortation and comfort, such stimulus and solace, all our days; and this great privilege we attain and secure through Jesus Christ our Saviour, who died for us and rose again, and is able to make intercession for us at the right hand of God; he is our Surety, our Saviour, our Propitiation; we flee unto him as pursued men flee into a city of refuge. Jesus, Refuge of my soul, let me hide myself in thee. This is the cry of the heart;—to such a cry thou wilt send a great answer. Amen.

 


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Bibliography Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 19:4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jpb/deuteronomy-19.html. 1885-95.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, October 13th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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