According to Jacob’s curse that had been pronounced upon Levi, that tribe was destined to be “divided in Jacob” (Gen. 49:7). But in the goodness of God, this was now converted into a blessing – both to Levi and to all Israel. The Levites were to be scattered among all the other tribes, to keep alive among the people the knowledge and service of the Lord. On the other hand, they were not to be entirely isolated; for they were to be gathered together into cities, so that they might support and strengthen one another by their fellowship. For this purpose, 48 cities throughout the land of Israel were now assigned to the Levites – not exclusively, of course, of any other inhabitants; but the Levites were allowed to have as many houses in them as were needed for their accommodation. Along with these houses, certain “suburbs” or “common grounds” for the Levites’ herds and flocks were to be assigned to them. These covered a space of about 1,500 feet on all sides around these cities (verse 4). In addition to these grounds, another circle of about 3,000 feet was to be drawn around the city. These areas were to be the fields and vineyards of the Levites (verse 5).
The Gospel ordains that those who are taught in the Word should communicate to him who teaches, in all good things (Gal. 6:6). We ought to endeavor to free God’s ministers from distracting cares, and to leave them at leisure for the duties of their position, so that they may be entirely employed therein; and so that they may avail themselves of every opportunity, by acts of kindness, to gain the good-will and attention of the people.
In order to plainly show the Lord’s abhorrence of murder, and to provide more effectually for the punishment of murderers; the nearest relative of the victim, under the title of the “avenger of blood,” was permitted to pursue the guilty person and execute vengeance upon him. But the Lord did make a distinction between intentionally striking a man with any weapon that was likely to cause death, and an unintentional blow which resulted in death. In the former case of willful and intentional murder, the Lord allowed no mercy to be shown. But in the latter case – and in this case alone – the Lord provided protection for such a person, in the form of the cities of refuge. These were six of the Levites’ 48 cities, which were specially designated as safe-havens where a person who had accidentally and unintentionally caused the death of another could flee for protection from the avenger of blood.
The Lord appointed that three of these six cities of refuge were to lie in the territory on the east side of Jordan River; and the other three were to be in the land of Canaan proper, on the west side of the river. These cities were strategically located so that one or another of them might be reached in half a day’s journey from anywhere within the borders of Israel. To these cities, accidental manslayers could flee for refuge and be safe until they had a fair trial. If it was discovered that the manslayer had killed his neighbor maliciously and intentionally, then even the city of refuge itself would not provide safety for him. But if he was acquitted from the charges brought against him, he would be protected from the avenger of blood – as long as he remained within the bounds of the city until the death of the high priest. Herein we are reminded that the death of the Great High Priest is the only means whereby our sins are pardoned, so that we sinners are set at liberty.
These cities of refuge are plainly alluded to in both the Old and New Testaments, and we cannot doubt that they were appointed to be pictures of the Gospel-refuge in Jesus. “Turn ye to the strong hold, ye prisoners of hope, saith the voice of mercy” (Zech. 9:12) – alluding to the city of refuge. In Hebrews 6:18 – a passage that is always applied to the gracious appointment of the cities of refuge – the Apostle Paul describes the strong consolation of fleeing for refuge to the hope that is set before us.
The rich mercies of salvation through Christ – which were pre-figured by these cities – demand our regard! First, did not the ancient city of refuge rear its towers of safety on high? See Christ raised upon the cross! And is He not exalted at the right hand of his Father, to be a Prince and a Savior, and to give repentance and remission of sins? Second, does not the highway of salvation resemble the smooth and plain path to the city of refuge? Let us survey the path that leads to the Redeemer! Is there any stumbling-block to be found therein, except that which an evil heart of unbelief supplies for its own fall? Third, waymarks or signposts were set up, pointing to the city of refuge. And have not ministers of the Gospel been given a charge to direct sinners to Jesus? Fourth, the gate of the city of refuge stood open day and night. Has not Christ declared, “Him that com-eth unto me, I will in nowise cast out”? Fifth, the city of refuge provided support to everyone who entered its walls. Those who have reached the true refuge may live by faith upon Him Whose flesh and blood are food and drink for the soul. And finally, the city of refuge was a refuge for all! And in the Gospel, there is no respect of persons. Any and every soul which hopes, in simple faith, for salvation and life eternal through the Son of God – that soul may freely have it!
O Lord, enable us to look beyond the Levitical cities of refuge; may we behold in them the evident emblems of Christ and His complete security, for He shelters all who flee to Him from the avenger of poor and guilty sinners! Amen.
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