The Book of Joshua

31. The Cities of Refuge.

Joshua 20.

"We might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us." — Heb. 6:18.

The land being subdued under Israel (Joshua 12), the worship of Jehovah established in its centre (Joshua 18:1), and all the tribes having their inheritance apportioned to them, the Lord ordered that provision should be made to maintain His land guiltless of innocent blood. Cities of refuge were appointed, to which he who slew a man through ignorance and without intention might flee from the avenger of blood, who, according to the habit of the East, would pursue and kill the manslayer.

These cities, which were six in number, offered a gracious provision for him who had slain his neighbour without intention. Six characterizes human imperfection, falling short of the well-known Bible sign of perfection — seven. And as they stood, three in number, (Deut. 19:2), on either side of the Jordan (Joshua 20:7-8), on both sides of the river was established full testimony by God to His mercy. Look which way we will we can but see our own utter sin and imperfection, yet where sin abounds grace much more abounds, and the mercy of God extends to all.

In the land of promise these cities stood, each on a hill, for all eyes to see, and with high roads leading to them, so laid out that there could be no difficulty in finding the way. The gates of the cities of refuge were always open, that "Every slayer may flee thither" (Deut. 19:3).

When the slayer found the shelter of the city of refuge, the judges were to hear his cause in the acknowledged place of administering justice — the gate; and if it were shown that he smote not his neighbour wittingly, nor hated him before time, then the slayer found an asylum within the walls. However, while the manslayer's life was thus secured his inheritance was forfeited so long as he dwelt within the city of refuge. He was but a refugee under protection. Upon "the death of the high priest that shall be in those days" his position was entirely changed; for, with the succession of another high priest, the slayer received full forgiveness for his deed of blood, absolute freedom, and restoration to his inheritance. He might "return, and come unto his own city, and unto his own house, unto the city from whence he fled."

Why is it that upon the whole land being distributed amongst the tribes, and the Name of the Lord in His tabernacle being the established centre for His people, mention is made of these cities of refuge, and the gracious provision for the manslayer? In the principles of righteousness that God demands at the hands of His people, and in His care that the land should not be defiled by blood, we can find an answer; but beyond this there is the typical teaching of these cities, and the death of the high priest, which cannot fail also to command our attention.

Eighteen hundred years ago the manslayer lifted up his hand, innocent blood was shed, and from that day the land of Canaan has been defiled by the blood of Jesus. The manslayer has lost his inheritance, he has fled from his own city; the Jews are banished from their land. Strangers dwell in the lots which Jehovah apportioned to the tribes; the possession is forfeited, and, to appearance, lost. But within the veil, in the heavenly sanctuary, the High Priest dwells. The Lord has passed through the heavens, and though unknown to the nation, who with wicked hands slew Him, He lives above. So long as He abides thus, Israel will remain without their inheritance. But He will come forth, the heavenly High Priest, and then Israel shall receive full forgiveness, and shall once more inherit every man his dwelling place. On that day, in millennial glory, shall the Name of the Lord and His presence be the centre, the true Shiloh, the Peace of the promised possession on earth.

The words "the Lord also spake unto Joshua, saying, Speak to the children of Israel, saying, Appoint out for you cities of refuge," occurring immediately after the statement "so they made an end of dividing the country," point to God's gracious provision for Israel. Having lost the land which Jehovah gave them, and being driven out of the possession because of their guilt, they are, nevertheless, most mercifully sustained by God, until the day shall come when they shall again enter upon their inheritance. Therefore, though Israel understood it not, their cities of refuge, each one from the eminence on which it stood, and with the highways running towards its gates, proclaimed the grace of God to them in the dark and terrible day of their crime in slaying His Son.

While to the eye of man those days when Israel dwelt in Canaan are but a bygone scene of national glory, to the eye of faith the return of the nation to the promised land depends upon the coming forth of the High Priest who is now in heaven. Had the Jews repented when the Holy Ghost, through the apostle at Pentecost, testified of Christ's death and resurrection and ascension on high, the inheritance would have fallen to Israel, for we read, "Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, that so there may come (see R.V.) seasons of refreshing from the presence of the Lord; and that He shall send Jesus Christ, which before was preached unto you: whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began" (Acts 3:19-21). They did not repent, and the promised times of restitution have not yet come; but the sure promise remains, it is "impossible for God to lie" (Heb. 6:18), and the word sworn to the fathers shall yet be made good.

In this our Christian era the priest is hidden within the veil, Jesus is in heaven, ministering there in the presence of God. A priest indeed of heavenly, not earthly, type, and occupied with the hourly needs of His people, leading them each one home to heaven; but none the less will He bring His scattered nation, Israel, into their promised possession, when the heavens, which now conceal Him, shall open, and when He shall come forth. That day draws near. "Even He shall build the temple of the Lord; and He shall bear the glory, and shall sit and rule upon His throne; and He shall be a priest upon His throne" (Zech. 6:13). In His double glory of Priest and King He shall bring Israel into their inheritance, every tribe shall have its lot, the temple and the throne shall be exalted, and old and young shall rejoice in the Lord whose words can never fail. "Thus saith the Lord of hosts; There shall yet old men and old women dwell in the streets of Jerusalem, and every man with his staff in his hand for very age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the streets thereof" (Zech. 8:4-5).

In the days ensuing upon the death of Christ, the Spirit of God, speaking through the apostle, said to Israel: "Ye killed the Prince of Life," and also, "Now, brethren, I wot that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers" (Acts 3:15 and 17); for, in His grace, God accepted that those who had been the murderers of Jesus had sinned through ignorance. Indeed, God speaks in a somewhat similar strain of Gentiles, saying of the wisdom of God, "Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory" (1 Cor. 2:8). The wilful, predetermined murder of the Lord, as the Sent One of God, would have been a sin beyond forgiveness.

The Lord Jesus is now both City of Refuge and Priest, and not for Jews only but also for Gentiles; our security and inheritance are both bound up with Him. We "have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us: which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast, and which enters into that within the veil" (Heb. 6:18-19). The solemn consideration that the guilt of man having shed the blood of Christ rests on the world should ever weigh on the Christian's mind, while the sinner, who repents of his sins, finds the City of Refuge day and night ready to receive him.

Jewish tradition declares that the highways leading to the cities of refuge were kept in constant repair; that at the cross-roads, posts having "Refuge! Refuge!" inscribed upon them, were erected, which pointed out the way and that runners, who were learned in the law of God, were stationed to guide the fugitive to security. Most suggestive to the lovers of souls are these traditions, and a most happy combination do these runners present of the evangelist, whose feet should be swift to lead and help souls to Christ, and whose lips should be filled with the truths of God's holy word.

The blood of Christ has, in mercy, magnified the claims of divine justice, and the gates of salvation are flung wide open to receive the transgressor. God declares His name of love, and by His servants, His Levites, who expound His word, invites sinners to enter in and partake of His grace. Love now cries aloud from the throne of the majesty on high — the Lord Jesus in heaven is proclaimed as assuring the life of those who are of the guilty race that slew Him. And not only is security theirs who have fled to Christ for refuge, but being saved in hope — in hope of coming glory — a glorious inheritance is theirs in anticipation.