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Bible Commentaries

Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae
Numbers 35

 

 

Verses 24-28

DISCOURSE: 184

THE CITIES OF REFUGE

Numbers 35:24-28. The congregation shall judge between the slayer and the revenger of blood, according to these judgment: and the congregation shall deliver the slayer out of the hand of the revenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to the city of his refuge, whither he was fled; and he shall abide in it unto the death of the high-priest, which was anointed with the holy oil. But if the slayer shall at any time come without the border of the city of his refuge, whither he was fled; and the revenger of blood find him without the borders of the city of his refuge, and the revenger of blood kill the slayer, he shall not be guilty of blood; because he should have remained in the city of his refuge until the death of the high-priest: but after the death of the high-priest the slayer shall return into the land of his possession.

THE impartial administration of justice is one of the richest blessings that result from civilization and good government. It counteracts the evil which might otherwise arise from inequality of rank and fortune, and, without levelling the distinctions which are necessary for the well-being of society, prevents the abuse of them. It keeps every member of the community in his proper place and station: it protects the rich from the rapacity of the envious, and the poor from the oppression of the proud: and, while it imposes on all a salutary restraint, it gives to all personal security and mutual confidence. Supposing therefore that the inspired volume had made no provision for the administration of justice, it would have been expedient to establish such an order of things as should maintain the rights of men inviolate, or inflict condign punishment on the aggressors. But God has graciously admitted this subject into the code which he has given us: he has put honour upon those who are appointed to preside in judgment: he has declared them to be his own representatives and vicegerents upon earth: he has required the utmost deference to be paid them, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake; and has on some occasions ratified their decisions by extraordinary dispensations of his providence [Note: In the destruction of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.]. The protecting of the innocent, and the punishing of the guilty, were objects of especial care in the government which he himself established upon earth. This appears, as from a variety of other ordinances, so particularly from the appointment of cities of refuge, whither persons, who had accidentally or wilfully taken away the life of a fellow-creature, might flee for safety till the matter should be examined, and the judgment of the congregation declared respecting it.

This enactment, which is to be the subject of the present Discourse, may be considered in a two-fold view; namely, as a civil ordinance, and as a typical institution.

I. First, let us consider the appointment of cities of refuge as a civil ordinance: and for the sake of perspicuity we will begin with explaining the nature and intent of the ordinance, and then make such remarks upon it as our peculiar circumstances require—

The ordinance was simply this. There were to be six cities separated at convenient distances, three on either side of Jordan, that any persons who had occasioned the death of a fellow-creature might flee to one or other of them for safety, till the circumstances of the case should be investigated, and his guilt or innocence be ascertained. The person next of kin to him that was killed, was permitted to avenge the blood of his relation in case he overtook the slayer before he reached the place of refuge; but, when the slayer had got within the gates of the city, he was safe: nevertheless the magistrates were to carry him back to the town or village where the transaction had taken place; and to institute an inquiry into his conduct. Then, if it appeared that he had struck the deceased person in wrath or malice, (whether with any kind of weapon, or without one,) he was adjudged to be a murderer, and was delivered up to justice; and the near relative of the murdered person was to be his executioner: if, on the contrary, it was found that he had been unwittingly and unintentionally accessory to the person’s death, he was restored to the city whither he had fled, and was protected there from any further apprehensions of the avenger’s wrath. Nevertheless he was, as it were, a prisoner at large in that city: he was on no account to go out of it: if the avenger should at any time find him without the borders of the city, he was at liberty to kill him. This imprisonment continued during the life of the high-priest; but at his death it ceased; and the slayer was at liberty to return to his family and friends. This part of the ordinance was probably intended to put honour upon the high-priest, whose death was to be considered as a public calamity, in the lamenting of which all private resentments were to be swallowed up.

Such was the ordinance itself:—We now come to the intention of it. The shedding of human blood has ever been regarded by God with the utmost abhorrence. . The first murderer indeed was spared in consequence of a divine mandate; but not from clemency, but rather, that he might be to the newly-created world a living monument of God’s wrath and indignation. The edict given to Noah says expressly, “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” But, as there must of course be different degrees of guilt, according to the circumstances under which any person might be killed, God appointed this method of securing protection to the innocent, and punishment to the guilty. The accomplishing of these two objects was, I say, the direct end which the Deity proposed. Provision was thus made that disinterested and experienced judges should have the cause brought before them, and determine it according to evidence: if the man were guilty, and declared to be so on the evidence of two witnesses, he must die: whatever were his rank in life, he must die: no commutation of punishment could possibly be admitted. If the man were innocent, or were not convicted by the testimony of two witnesses, (for no man was to be put to death on the testimony of one witness only,) the whole congregation were bound to secure him from the effects of animosity and vindictive wrath. Yet even in the protection thus afforded to the man-slayer, there were many circumstances which were intended to mark God’s abhorrence of murder: for though no blame attached to the man who had unwittingly slain his neighbour, yet he must leave all that was dear to him, and flee in danger of his life to the city of refuge, and continue there a prisoner, perhaps as long as he lived, and certainly to the death of the high-priest: nor could his confinement there be dispensed with: there was no more commutation of sentence allowed for him, than for the murderer himself. The injunctions of God relative to this deserve particular notice: “Ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer, which is guilty of death; but he shall be surely put to death. And ye shall take no satisfaction for him that is fled to the city of his refuge; that he should come again and dwell in the land, until the death of the priest. So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: forBlood defileth the land, and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.”

In the remarks that we shall have occasion to make on this ordinance, we must of necessity be more particular than we could wish: but in all that we may say upon this most interesting subject, we beg to be understood, not as presuming to criminate any individual, but as declaring in general terms what we believe to be agreeable to the mind of God, and what we are bound in conscience to declare with all faithfulness.

That there is an ardent wish in all our legislators, and in all who superintend the execution of the laws, to maintain the strictest equity, none can doubt: a conviction of it is rooted in the mind of every Briton; and the bitterest enemies of our country are compelled to acknowledge it. But in some respects there is in our laws an awful departure from the laws of God; I should rather say, a direct opposition to them [Note: Adultery, by the law of God, was punished with death, with the death of both the offenders: but by our laws the penalties attach only, or principally, when the crime is committed by the wife, and then only on her paramour. That the penalties have on some occasions been heavy, we confess; but never once too heavy. Yet from the nature of the pecuniary mulct, it happens, that the very penalty itself may in some cases contribute to the evil which it is intended to repress; to repress I say, rather than to punish; for, if public report may be credited, the penalty recently adjudged was expressly said to be, not a punishment inflicted on the offender, but a compensation to the injured party. In this view the crime is never punished as a crime, when no less a punishment than death was by God’s law to be awarded to it.]: I allude to the murders that are committed in duels, and which have greatly, and increasingly, defiled our land. It has been said, and with too much reason, that our laws are sanguinary. They doubtless are so in many instances; but on the subject of duelling, whether from the laws themselves, or from the influence of those who administer them, or from the connivance of those who are sworn to give a verdict according to them, they are criminally lax: and on this account, as well as for the cruelties of the slavetrade, God has a controversy with us. I know that political expediency is urged in support of both these evils: but what have we to do with expediency in express opposition to the commands of God? Let me recall to your minds that declaration of God already cited, that “blood defileth the land, and that the blood that is shed therein cannot be cleansed but by the blood of him that shed it:” and let me turn your attention to another passage, which I would to God that every senator might hear, yea that it might reach the ears of majesty itself, forasmuch as it would reflect no inconsiderable light on the circumstances in which we are involved: you will find it written in 2 Kings 24:2-4. “The Lord sent against him (the king of Judah) bands of the Chaldees, and bands of the Syrians, and bands of the Moabites, and bands of the children of Ammon, and sent them against Judah to destroy it Surely at the commandment of the Lord came this upon Judah, to remove them out of his sight, for the sins of Manasseh, according to all that he did; and also for the innocent blood that he shed, (for he filled Jerusalem with innocent blood,) which the Lord would not pardon.” The Jews probably ascribed the invasion of their country to the cupidity or anger of the Babylonish monarch: and we also may trace our present dangers to the insatiable ambition of a tyrant: but in our case, as well as theirs, it is certain, that “at the commandment of the Lord all this is come upon us:” and the same reason also may be assigned, “Our land is defiled with blood,” with the blood of thousands of our fellow-creatures in Africa, and with the blood of murderous duellists in our own land; with “blood (I say) which the Lord will not pardon.” Moreover, these iniquities must be considered as sanctioned by the legislature, because they who alone have the power, adopt no measures to cleanse the land from these horrible defilements. God therefore has taken the matter into his own hands, and has stirred up once more our inveterate enemies to avenge his quarrel. [Note: This was an Assize Sermon, preached at Cambridge, July, 1803.] The time is come when he is about to “make inquisition for blood,” and when he will require at our hands both the innocent blood that we have shed, and the guilty blood which we have forborne to shed. O that we might take warning ere it be too late; and put away the evils which are likely to involve us in utter ruin!

Thus it appears that the ordinance before us is by no means uninstructive, or irrelevant to the present occasion, when God’s representatives in judgment are about to investigate causes, and to execute the laws. And we hope that in delivering our sentiments on such momentous concerns we shall not be thought to have exceeded our province, or to have transgressed the rules which modesty, combined with faithfulness, would prescribe.

But we are to consider the appointment of these cities of refuge in another view also; namely,

II. As a typical institution—

The whole of the Mosaic economy was “a shadow of good things to come;” and the typical import of it is illustrated at large in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Of course it cannot be expected that every particular part of it should be opened to us with the same precision. What was most essential to the understanding of Christianity, was explained to us fully, and the parallel drawn by an infallible hand. What was less necessary, was merely referred to, without any express delineation of its import; its signification being clearly to be gathered from the light reflected on other parts, and from the analogy of faith.

There is not much said respecting the typical import of the cities of refuge; yet there are plain and manifest allusions to it. The prophet says, “Turn to your strong hold, ye prisoners of hope;” in which words he marks the precise state of those who had fled to the cities, as “prisoners of hope.” St. Paul speaks of Christians as “fleeing for refuge to the hope set before them;” wherein he alludes not only to the cities themselves, but to the care taken to keep the roads leading to them in good repair [Note: Deuteronomy 19:3.], and by direction-posts to point it out to those, who, if retarded by obstacles, or detained by inquiries, might lose their lives. Again, alluding to the danger of those who should be found out of the borders of the city, he expresses his earnest desire to “be found in Christ.” But in explaining images of this kind there is need of much caution and sobriety, lest, while we endeavour to illustrate Scripture, we give occasion to the adversary to regard it as fanciful and absurd. We are however in no danger of exceeding the limits of sober interpretation, if we say that the cities of refuge were intended to teach us three things;—

That we are all obnoxious unto death;

That there is one only way for our escape; and,

That they who flee to the appointed refuge are safe for ever.

That we are all obnoxious unto death, is plain to every one that acknowledges the authority of Scripture. We all are sinners: as sinners, we are condemned by the holy law of God; which says, “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.” We are therefore in the situation of the man-slayer, pursued by him whose right it is to avenge himself on us for our transgressions. Whether our transgressions have been more or less heinous, his right is the same, and our danger is the same, if we be overtaken by his avenging arm. We may urge many pleas in extenuation of our guilt; but they will be of no avail. We may not have been so bad as others; but we “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God:”—“every mouth therefore must be stopped, and all the world become guilty before God.” The very calling of Christ by the name, Saviour, is a plain confession, that in ourselves we are lost; for “he came to save only that which was lost.”

Further proof of this being unnecessary, we proceed to observe next,

That there is but one way for our escape—

There were many cities in Canaan; but none afforded protection to the man-slayer, except those which had been separated for that express purpose. We too may think that there are many refuges for us; but all, except one, will be found “refuges of lies, which will be swept away with the besom of destruction.” Repentances, reformations, almsdeeds, are all good and proper in their place; but none of them, nor all together, can ward off the sword of divine vengeance, or afford security to our souls. Christ is the only refuge: his blood alone can expiate our guilt: “his name is the tower to which we are to run for safety;” “neither is there any other name given under heaven whereby we can be saved.” The man-slayer might perchance escape the vigilance of the avenger, or, if overtaken, might successfully withstand him: but who can elude the search of the Almighty, or resist his power? The hope is vain. We must flee to Christ, or perish for ever.

The urgency of the case is methinks a sufficient reason for our fleeing to Christ with all expedition. But if we need any further stimulus, let us reflect on the next hint suggested by the text; namely,

That they who flee to the appointed refuge are safe for ever—

The man-slayer might stand within the gates of the city, and defy the threats of his adversary: for the whole city were pledged for his security. And may not the sinner, who has taken refuge in Christ, behold without alarm the threatenings of the law, secured as he is by the promise and oath of Jehovah? From the city of refuge indeed they who had committed wilful murder were brought forth for execution. But was ever one cast out who came to Christ? Was ever one taken from that sanctuary in order that he might suffer the sentence of the law? It is possible that through the remissness of the magistrates the rights of those privileged cities might be violated: but who shall violate the engagements of Jehovah? Who shall break in to destroy a sinner lodged in the bosom of his Lord? God himself assures us, that “there is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.”

There is however a striking and salutary intimation given us, respecting the necessity not only of fleeing to Christ, but of abiding in him. If the man-slayer for one moment ventured beyond the bounds of the city, he lost his privilege, and became exposed to the wrath of the avenger. Thus, if after we have escaped, as we think, from the vengeance of our God, we grow insensible of our guilt and danger, and do not carefully, by renewed applications to the Saviour, abide in him, we expose ourselves to the most imminent peril: for, as “we cannot escape if we neglect so great salvation,” so neither can we, “if we sin wilfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth: there will remain nothing for us then but a fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation to consume us.” Our situation will even be worse than ever; and “our latter end be worse than the beginning: for it would have been better never to have known the way of righteousness, than, after we have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to us.”

Permit me then to address you all as in the situation before described, (for none of us will presume to deny that we are sinners, or that, as sinners, we are obnoxious to the divine displeasure;) and let me entreat you all to flee from the wrath to come. Let these principles be universally acknowledged amongst us, and deeply rooted in our hearts—That there is no refuge but in Christ—That all self-righteous methods of obtaining mercy will prove fallacious—That every one must feel his guilt and danger, and, like the man-slayer when pursued by the avenger, flee as for his life, renouncing all things whatsoever that may impede his flight and endanger his soul. Pleasures, interests, friends, must all give way to this great concern; and all regard for them must be swallowed up in this, the one thing needful. To obtain an interest in Christ must be our great, our only care: we must “count all things but loss that we may win Christ and be found IN him.” The city of refuge was open day and night, and to a heathen sojourner as well as to the native Jew: in the same manner also is Christ accessible to us at all times, and his mercy shall be extended to all who flee unto him. The cities of refuge were so situated, that any one at the remotest corner of the land might reach one of them in less than half a day: and is not Jesus also “nigh to all that call upon him?” Yes, all, whether in this land, or in the most distant quarter of the globe, may come to him in one single hour, or, if I may so speak, in one single moment: for the soul that unfeignedly relies on him for pardon and acceptance, is enclosed by him as in an impregnable fortress, and shall be “saved by him with an everlasting salvation.” Yet it is not sufficient to flee to him once: we must be daily and hourly fleeing to him in the habit of our minds: in other words, we must “abide in him,” by the continual exercise of faith, even to the latest hour of our lives: then shall the death of our great High-Priest be available for our discharge, and we shall be restored to the complete and everlasting enjoyment of our friends, our liberty, and our inheritance.

Hitherto we have enforced the subject from topics suited to all persons in all ages of the world: but we cannot conclude without adding a few considerations, which arise out of existing circumstances, and are peculiarly worthy of our attention. That our enemies are Jehovah’s sword, and that he is come forth against us as an avenger, cannot but be confessed: but whether it be for our chastisement only, or for our utter destruction, none can tell. One thing however is sure; that the best possible method of pacifying the divine anger, and averting the impending judgments, is, to flee unto the Saviour, and to seek mercy through him. If once we were stirred up, as a nation, to take refuge in him, He who spared repenting Nineveh, would spare us, and either avert the gathering storm, or deliver us from its dreadful ravages. This is the direction uniformly given us by God himself. Thus he says by the prophet Zephaniah, “Gather yourselves together, yea, gather together, O nation not desired; before the decree bring forth, before the day pass as the chaff, before the fierce anger of the Lord come upon you, before the day of the Lord’s anger come upon you. Seek ye the Lord, all ye meek of the earth, seek righteousness, seek meekness; it maybe ye shall be hid in the day of the Lord’s anger.” Again he says by Isaiah, “Come, my people, enter thou into thy chambers, and shut thy doors about thee; hide thyself, as it were, for a little moment, until the indignation be overpast: for, behold, the Lord cometh out of his place to punish the inhabitants of the land for their iniquity.” Could we but be prevailed upon to follow this advice, we doubt not but that it would be more effectual for our preservation than all the navies that can be built, or all the armies that can be mustered: for if God were for us, none could successfully fight against us. If we were even already vanquished, yea, and led into captivity, still we “should take those captive whose captives we were, and should rule over our oppressors.” Let me not however be understood as disregarding the proper means of self-defence: for God saves by means; and to expect his interposition without using our utmost efforts in our own behalf, would be presumption.—Though therefore we would exhort all in the first place to flee for refuge to the hope set before them, we would also exhort them to stand forth manfully against the enemy; to regard neither time, nor labour, nor property, no, nor life itself, so that they may but help forward to the uttermost their country’s cause. And though the occupation of a warrior is the last perhaps that a man of piety would choose, yet on the present occasion conscience requires, rather than forbids, that all of us should unite with heart and hand to repel the foe, and to sacrifice our lives, if need be, in defence of our religion and liberties, our property and friends, our king and country. Still however we must recur to our former observation; and urge in the first place the necessity of turning to our strong-hold. Would to God that none of us might delay, or loiter, or slacken our pace, or yield to weariness, or regard any thing that we leave behind; but that all might flee, as Lot out of Sodom, to our adorable Saviour! Then, whether we live or die, we must be safe. The enemy may destroy our bodies, but our great adversary can never hurt our souls. Our immortal part will be placed beyond the reach of harm: and when empires fall, yea, and the whole earth shall be dissolved by fire, we shall dwell in mansions that are inaccessible to evil, and enjoy a bliss that shall never end.

 


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Bibliography Information
Simeon, Charles. "Commentary on Numbers 35:4". Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/shh/numbers-35.html. 1832.

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Tuesday, December 10th, 2019
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