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The Cities Of Refuge

The Cities Of Refuge poster

It is very evident that God has hidden some special lessons for us in the types of the City of Refuge, of which we now read in chapter 20, as otherwise we would find ourselves wondering why they are mentioned so frequently. In four previous passages the Spirit of God drew the attention of Israel to the importance of these cities and the expression of His grace toward the unwitting or unintentional manslayer in Israel. First, we have the very brief intimation in Exodus 21:13, telling Israel that when they reached the land, God would provide such a refuge: “And if a man lie not in wait, but God deliver him into his hand; then I will appoint thee a place whither he shall flee.” Then we have much fuller information in Numbers 35:6 and verses 9 to 28:

“And among the cities which ye shall give unto the Levites there shall be six cities for refuge, which ye shall appoint for the manslayer, that he may flee thither: and to them ye shall add forty and two cities…And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye be come over Jordan into the land of Canaan; then ye shall appoint you cities to be cities of refuge for you; that the slayer may flee thither, which killeth any person at unawares. And they shall be unto you cities for refuge from the avenger; that the manslayer die not, until he stand before the congregation in judgment. And of these cities which ye shall give six cities shall ye have for refuge. Ye shall give three cities on this side Jordan, and three cities shall ye give in the land of Canaan, which shall be cities of refuge. These six cities shall be a refuge, both for the children of Israel, and for the stranger, and for the sojourner among them: that every one that killeth any person unawares may flee thither. And if he smite him with an instrument of iron, so that he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death. And if he smite him with throwing a stone, wherewith he may die, and he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death. Or if he smite him with an hand weapon of wood, wherewith he may die, and he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death. The revenger of blood himself shall slay the murderer: when he meeteth him, he shall slay him. But if he thrust him of hatred, or hurl at him by laying of wait, that he die; or in enmity smite him with his hand, that he die: he that smote him shall surely be put to death; for he is a murderer: the revenger of blood shall slay the murderer, when he meeteth him. But if he thrust him suddenly without enmity, or have cast upon him any thing without laying of wait, or with any stone, wherewith a man may die, seeing him not, and cast it upon him, that he die, and was not his enemy, neither sought his harm: then the congregation shall judge between the slayer and the revenger of blood according to these judgments: 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.”

It is perhaps hardly necessary for our purpose to quote the remaining passages, both of which are found in the book of Deuteronomy, namely, Chapter 4:41–43; and 19:1–10. With these Scriptures our present chapter is in perfect harmony. It gives us the complete fulfillment of God’s command concerning these cities of refuge, of which there were six in all: three on the east of Jordan and three on the west. Clear, open roads were to be kept leading from all parts of the land to one or other of these cities, with definite signs indicating the nearest one, so that the man who had slain another in Israel without hating him in his heart or intending to kill him, might flee at once to the city of refuge and so be protected from the avenger of blood.

It is important to observe that there was no refuge offered to the one who was guilty of deliberate and willful murder. God had declared, “Ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer:” but for the manslayer there was ever the open gate in order that he might be secure from the vengeance of the relatives of the one he had killed. When we come over to the New Testament we read in Hebrews 6:19 of those “who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before them.” The reference is to those who though conscious of their own sinfulness have availed themselves of the salvation procured for them by our Lord Jesus Christ upon the cross. All who find a refuge in Him are safe forever from the judgment of a Holy God. But if He be rejected after the Gospel has been clearly proclaimed, and men deliberately crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, putting Him to an open shame, there is for them no hope of deliverance. Christ rejected means eternal judgment.

The whole world, Jew and Gentile, stands guilty before God as having participated in that which brought about the death of His Son, but inasmuch as Christ came to give Himself a ransom for all, His sacrifice on the cross has opened up, as it were, a City of Refuge for all who put their trust in Him.

Of old, the manslayer was to remain in the City of Refuge until the death of the high priest. Christ is not only the Man slain and the city of refuge Himself, but He too is the High Priest, and as such He will never die again. His is an everlasting Priesthood; so those who find refuge in Him are eternally saved.

“Once in Christ, in Christ forever,
Thus the eternal Covenant stands.”

He settled the sin question on the cross and He put all mankind on the ground of manslaughter instead of murder when He prayed for those who had been so active in rejecting Him, and even in nailing Him to the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In other words, the Father might consider them as guilty of the sin of ignorance or unintentional manslaughter rather than the willful murder of the Son of God.

The apostle Peter in addressing the Jews shortly after Pentecost, said: “And now, brethren, I wot that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers. But those things which God before had showed by the mouth of all his prophets, that Christ should suffer, he hath so fulfilled.” And in view of this he called upon them to repent, saying “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord; And He shall send Jesus which before was preached unto you: Whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began.”

The apostle Paul emphasizes the same thing when in 1 Corinthians 2:6–8, he says: “Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought: But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory: Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” According to these passages God looks upon the whole world as guilty of the sin of manslaughter in connection with the death of Christ, but has opened up a new and living way into the place of refuge for all who go to Him, confessing their sins and thus availing themselves of His grace. What folly, then, for men to turn a deaf ear to the call of God and to persist in the rejection of the salvation He offers them.

We have an outstanding example in the Old Testament of a man who was slain just outside the wall of a City of Refuge, who would have been safe inside. I refer to Abner, of whom David lamented crying, “Died Abner as a fool died.” With no malice aforethought on his part, Abner had slain Asahel, the brother of Joab. Abiding in the city of refuge, he would have been secure from the avenger of blood, but Joab found him outside the city and put him to death in retaliation for the killing of Asahel. What fools men are who now deliberately refuse the security that God offers in Christ Himself, and so by spurning Him become guilty before God of the murder of His Son.

It would seem as though the names of the six cities of refuge have suggestive meaning: at least, they may well bring to our minds some of the privileges that are ours in Christ. The three cities on the western side of the Jordan were: Kedesh in Galilee, Shechem in Mt. Ephraim and Hebron in the mountains of Judah. On the other side of Jordan the three selected were Bezer in the tribe of Reuben; Ramoth in Gilead; and Golan in Bashan. Without intending to speak with authority, the names of these cities seem at least suggestive of some of the privileges which are ours in Christ.

Kedesh is the sanctuary and it is in Christ Himself that the troubled soul finds sanctuary in the midst of a world of strife and sin. Shechem means a shoulder, when our blessed Lord is said to carry the government of the world on His shoulder (Isaiah 9) and the Good Shepherd places the sheep that was lost, upon His shoulders. And so all believers are sustained by Him, who is our strength and who undertakes to carry us safely through all the trials of life. Hebron means communion and suggests that precious fellowship with Christ into which believers are brought through Christ.

The names of the cities on the east of Jordan would seem to be so definitely significant, and the meaning of some of them is a little uncertain; but the following at least may be suggestive. Bezer is said to come from a root meaning munitions or fortress, and may speak to us of Christ Himself, who is for all who believe a strong tower and fort of security. Ramoth is generally understood as meaning the Heights, and may be an intimation of the precious truth that God has raised us up together and seated us together in the heavenlies in Christ. Golan is perhaps the most uncertain of all, but one meaning given to it is their rejoicing and may remind us that “the joy of the Lord is our strength.”

In obedience to the word of God, given so long before, Joshua set aside these cities of refuge, each one of them a Levitical city and each one with an open door to receive the poor, distressed soul who is fleeing from the avenger of blood. Looked at individually or corporately, they all tell us of Him who is our refuge and strength, our Saviour from judgment.

“In the refuge God provided,
Though the world’s destruction lowers,
We are safe to Christ confided;
Everlasting life is ours.”