A Refuge for the Guilty Soul

One of the most wonderful Old Testament types of Jesus and His saving work is found in the account of the cities of refuge mentioned in Numbers 35 and Joshua 20. The cities of refuge were appointed by God for the person who was guilty of manslaughter. Whenever someone accidentally killed another, he could flee for refuge to the place of God’s appointed safety. If he left the city, he would be killed by the Avenger of blood (i.e., the Goel or Kinsman Redeemer). The one who fled to the city for refuge had to remain there until the death of the High Priest. Once the High Priest died, the one who fled for refuge was set free. 

When we come to Numbers 35 and Joshua 20 a number of interpretive challenges arise. Intermixed with the other details about the cities of refuge is a clear word about the guilt and punishment of one who intentionally murdered another. The one who intentionally murdered another was to suffer the punishment of the death penalty.  This is on account of the fact that man is made in the image of God. To kill another image bearer is to raise an affront to God Himself. The distinction in this passage between one who murdered an image bearer and one who accidentally killed an image bearer raises a challenge. It might, on a cursory reading, seem as though God was teaching that those who commit unintentional sin are not deserving of avenging justice, but that those who have sinned with evil intent are the objects of avenging justice. However, close consideration of the details of these passages paint quite a different picture. Consider the following:

God gave the Levites 48 cities and the surrounding pasture, since they did not receive an inheritance with the other tribes. This was an undeserved grace of God. The Levites descended from Levi, who–together with his brother Simeon–had slaughtered the Shecham, Hamor, and the men of the city for what they had done to their sister Dina (Gen. 34:25). Instead of giving the Levites what they deserved, they received the bountiful mercy and grace of God. God set them apart to mediate between Himself and His people. This was the highest privilege for someone in the covenant community. In addition, the Levites were not to inherit any of the land, together with the other tribes, because they Lord would be their inheritance (Num. 18:25). Iain Duguid rightly notes, “Getting the opposite of what you deserve, or grace, is the central point of Numbers 35.”

 Out of those 48 Levitical cities, God set apart 6 to be cities of refuge for someone who killed someone accidentally. Three of these cities were on the east of the Jordan and three on the west of the Jordan. This would be a place to shield the person who had shed blood from the avenging justice of the Avenger of Blood. The severity of the justice that God delegated to the Avenger of blood is due to the fact that whoever sheds man’s blood deserves to have his blood shed by man (Gen. 9:6). Since man is the image of God, shedding man’s blood (whether intentionally or unintentionally) requires a just penalty, namely death. This means that the one who murdered someone and the person who accidentally killed someone deserve the same punishment. At the end of Numbers 35, the Lord tells Moses that the shed blood pollutes the land. God could not dwell in an unclean place with His people. A sentence of justice had to be executed in response to the shedding of blood. While Numbers 35 teaches a principle of justice, God, in His mercy, also establishes His mercy in His provision of refuge cities. These were cities of mercy, depicting the mercy that sinners find in Christ. 

Each of the cities of refuge were led by priests who functioned as elders. They were the ruling elders of each of these cities–representatives of the people within the city. The person who fled to a city of refuge had to remain in the city until the death of the High Priest. This was a principle of substitution that is meant to teach us about the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for sinners. Jesus is the city of refuge for sinners. All who flee to Him for safety from the guilt of their sin find rest for their souls and safety from the judgment of God. 

Regarding Christ and the cities of refuge, John Owen drew together the teaching of the Old Testament and the language of Hebrews 6:19, when he wrote,

“Thus a poor sinner, finding himself in a condition of guilt, surprised with a sense of it, seeing death and destruction ready to seize upon him, flies with all his strength to the bosom of the Lord Jesus,—the only city of refuge from the avenging justice of God and curse of the law. Now, this flying to the bosom of Christ,—the hope set before us for relief and safety,—is believing. It is here called flying by the Holy Ghost, to express the nature of it to the spiritual sense of believers. What, now; doth he declare himself to be affected with their “flying for refuge,”—that is, their believing? Why, he hath taken all means possible to show himself abundantly willing to receive them. He hath engaged his word and promise, that they may not in the least doubt or stagger, but know that he is ready to receive them, and give them “strong consolation.” And what is this consolation? Whence may it appear to arise? Whence did consolation arise to him who, having slain a man at unawares, should fly to a city of refuge? Must it not be from hence,—the gates of the city would certainly be open to him, that he should find protection there, and be safe-guarded from the revenger? Whence, then, must be our strong consolation, if we thus fly for refuge by believing? Must it not be from hence, that God is freely ready to receive us,—that he will in no wise shut us out, but that we shall be welcome to him; and with the more speed we come, the more welcome we shall be? This he convinces us of, by the engagement of his word and oath to that purpose. And what farther testimony would we have that our believing is acceptable to him?”

Similarly, Matthew Henry set out seven ways in which the arrangements bound up in the cities of refuge pointed to the spiritual relationship believers sustain to Christ. He wrote, 

“Here is a great deal of good gospel couched under the type and figure of the cities of refuge; and to them the apostle seems to allude when he speaks of our fleeing for refuge to the hope set before is (Heb. 6:18), and being found in ChristPhil. 3:9. . .

  1. There were several cities of refuge, and they were so appointed in several parts of the country that the man-slayer, wherever he dwelt in the land of Israel, might in half a day reach one or other of them; so, though there is but one Christ appointed for our refuge, yet, wherever we are, he is a refuge at hand, a very present help, for the word is nigh usand Christ in the word.
  2. The man-slayer was safe in any of these cities; so in Christ believers that flee to him, and rest in him, are protected from the wrath of God and the curse of the law. There is no condemnation to those that are in Christ JesusRom. 8:1. Who shall condemn those that are thus sheltered?
  3. They were all Levites’ cities; it was a kindness to the poor prisoner that though he might not go up to the place where the ark was, yet he was in the midst of Levites, who would teach him the good knowledge of the Lord, and instruct him how to improve the providence he was now under. It might also be expected that the Levites would comfort and encourage him, and bid him welcome; so it is the work of gospel ministers to bid poor sinners welcome to Christ, and to assist and counsel those that through grace are in him.
  4. Even strangers and sojourners, though they were not native Israelites, might take the benefit of these cities of refuge, v. 15. So in Christ Jesus no difference in made between Greek and Jew; even the sons of the strangerthat by faith flee to Christ shall be safe in him.
  5. Even the suburbs or borders of the city were a sufficient security to the offender, v. 26, 27. So there is virtue even in the hem of Christ’s garment for the healing and saving of poor sinners. If we cannot reach to a full assurance, we may comfort ourselves in a good hope through grace.
  6. The protection which the man-slayer found in the city of refuge was not owing to the strength of its walls, or gates, or bars, but purely to the divine appointment; so it is the word of the gospel that gives souls safety in Christ, for him hath God the Father sealed.
  7. If the offender was ever caught struggling out of the borders of his city of refuge, or stealing home to his house again, he lost the benefit of his protection, and lay exposed to the avenger of blood; so those that are in Christ must abide in Christ, for it is at their peril if they forsake him and wander from him. Drawing back is to perdition.”

When we consider the greatness of our sin–including the times we have harbored murderous anger toward a brother or sister (Matt. 5:221 John 3:15)–we must flee to the Lord Jesus Christ, the refuge for the guilty souls of sinners. When we look upon Him dying on the cross, we realize that He is the great High Priest who died to set us free. He shields and protects His people from the righteous execution of the wrath of God against for their sin. Jesus is the Kinsman Redeemer; and, as such, He stands ready to render to each one according to His deeds. However, He is also the High Priest who dies in the place of His people. He sheds His own blood to remove the pollution of our hearts so that God can dwell in the hearts of His people. What a glorious truth! Jesus graciously gives His people rest for their burdened souls. As we see the fulness of God’s grace and mercy in Christ, we can confidently sing,

“Dear refuge of my weary soul,
On Thee, when sorrows rise
On Thee, when waves of trouble roll,
My fainting hope relies
To Thee I tell each rising grief
For Thou alone canst heal
Thy Word can bring a sweet relief,
For every pain I feel

But oh! When gloomy doubts prevail,
I fear to call Thee mine
The springs of comfort seem to fail,
And all my hopes decline
Yet gracious God, where shall I flee?
Thou art my only trust
And still my soul would cleave to Thee
Though prostrate in the dust 

Hast Thou not bid me seek Thy face,
And shall I seek in vain?
And can the ear of sovereign grace,
Be deaf when I complain?
No still the ear of sovereign grace
Attends the mourner’s prayer
Oh may I ever find access,
To breathe my sorrows there

Thy mercy seat is open still
Here let my soul retreat
With humble hope attend Thy will,
And wait beneath Thy feet,
Thy mercy seat is open still,
Here let my soul retreat
With humble hope attend Thy will,
And wait beneath Thy feet

John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 9 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), 33.

Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 235–236.

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