Our blessed Redeemer told the Pharisees that upon the two great commandments which enjoin love to God and love to our neighbor, all the laws and the prophets hung. Accordingly, Moses pointed out the first of these commandments in the foregoing chapters; and now, in this chapter, he proceeded to enforce the duties of the second table of the commandments.
One of the precepts given to the sons of Noah was that “whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed” – that is, by the avenger of blood (Gen. 9:6). And here we have the establishment of the law that made effectual provision for those who accidently occasioned the death of someone. The cities of refuge were to be a protection in such cases, so that a man would not die for such a crime which was not his willing and intentional act. Moses had already appointed three cities on the east side of the Jordan River to be cities of refuge. But here he gave directions that three more cities should be designated as places of refuge, when the people were to take possession of the land of Canaan on the other side of Jordan.
These cities of refuge were only intended to provide shelter for those who did not occasion their neighbor’s death maliciously or intentionally, but purely by “accident.” The example here given was of an axe-head slipping loose when a man and his friend were out cutting wood, and the flying piece of metal hit one of the men and killed him. The other man could flee to one of these cities of refuge and find safety and protection from his friend’s nearest relative, who would be out to fulfill the office of avenger of blood. It was made very clear in verses 11-13 that these cities were not to harbor any willful and intentional murderers. For such persons, the city of refuge provided no refuge; the elders had a responsibility to deliver the murderer into the hands of the avenger of blood.
In Christ – “the Lord our Righteousness” – refuge is provided for those who flee unto Him by faith! But there is no refuge in Jesus Christ for willful and presumptuous sinners, who go on still in their trespasses. Those who flee to Jesus from their sins shall find safety in Him, but not those who expect to be sheltered by Him while they are still in their sins.
In verse 14, we find a statute for the preventing of frauds; for the Divine law even takes care of men’s rights and properties, and has made a hedge about them. Implicit directions were given to the Israelites, as they began to inhabit Canaan, to set up landmarks, according to the distribution of the land to the various tribes and families. This was an express law to posterity, that they must not remove those landmarks which were thus set up; for by moving them, a person could secretly get to himself the property that was rightfully his neighbor’s. Without doubt, this is a moral precept that is still binding; it forbids the invading of any person’s rights, and taking to ourselves that which is not our own, by any fraudulent practices. It also forbids the sowing of discord among neighbors, as well as the doing of anything that occasions strife and lawsuits.
Verses 15-21 contained a law against perjury, which enacted two things. First, a single witness was never to be admitted to give evidence in a criminal case. This was enacted in favor to the prisoner, whose life and honor ought not to lie at the mercy of a particular person who may have had a grudge against him. It also gave a caution to the accuser, so that he would not say that which he could not corroborate by the testimony of another. Secondly, it was ordained that a false witness should incur the same punishment which would have been inflicted upon the person he accused. If the testimony brought against a prisoner was false, he himself was to bring this fact to the attention of the judges. Causes of this kind (having more than ordinary difficulty in them) were to be brought before the supreme court of Israel – the priests and judges who were in the place where the Lord’s sanctuary stood (chapter 17:8-13). There was to be great care in such a trial as this. Diligent inquisition was to be made into the characters of the persons involved; and all the circumstances of the case were to be compared, so that the truth might be found out. And if it came to light that a person had knowingly and maliciously testified falsely against his neighbor, he was to undergo the same penalty which his evidence would have brought his neighbor under – and no law could be more just. But because some might consider it hard to punish someone so severely for just speaking a few words, especially when no mischief came of it; the Lord added, “Thy eye shall not pity” (verse 21). And such exemplary punishments would be warnings to others, preventing them from attempting any such mischief.
Let us not only be cautious in bearing witness in public, but let us also be careful to not join in private slanders. And if our consciences are accusing us of any kind of sin or uncleanness, let us flee without delay for refuge to the hope that is set before us in Jesus!
Lord Jesus, You are indeed the only City of Refuge for all Your people! You are the only place where we may find shelter from avenging justice for our sins. You are our sure hiding-place from all the anger of our Father’s broken law, and from all the accusations of our own guilty consciences, and from all the malice of Satan. May the Holy Spirit give speed to our flight and earnestness to our desires, so that before the avenger of blood can reach us, we will have taken shelter in Your Person and righteousness. O blessed Refuge of poor sinners! In You, we feel a growing confidence of our everlasting security. Amen.
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