It sometimes happened in the land of Canaan that a Hebrew – without any evil purpose – would cause the death of a brother Hebrew. He did not intend to inflict any injury; it was only the result of an unfortunate accident. But nevertheless, to show God’s detestation of the shedding of blood, he was liable (by the Levitical law) to be killed by the avenger of blood – the closest relative of the murdered victim. If the manslayer wished to escape with his life, his only chance of safety was to flee to one of the Divinely-appointed cities of refuge. It did not matter what his age, name, or position in life was. He might be young or old; prince or noble; priest or prophet – but he was exposed every moment to death, unless he availed himself of the offered shelter. There was no time for delay. He must take instant flight. To linger might be to perish!
The Lord’s law provided that the land both east and west of the Jordan River should be divided into three parts – each with its own “city of refuge.” And the roads to these cities were always to be kept in good repair. But according to the sacred text (Num. 35:25; compare Josh. 20:4), a person would first have to plead his cause before the elders of that refuge-city, upon arriving at the gates. If his case approved itself to their minds, they would provide him with provisional protection. If, however, the “avenger of blood” afterwards claimed his extradition, the accused person would be sent back (under proper protection) to his own city, where the whole case would be thoroughly investigated. If the murder was then proved to have been unintentional, the accused person would be restored to the city of refuge; and he would enjoy its protection until the high priest’s death set him free to return to his own home.
As for the duty of “avenging blood,” its principle is deeply rooted in the Old Testament; and it is traced up to the relationship in which God stands to our world. Man is made in God’s image; and when a man’s blood is shed upon earth (which is God’s property), it “crieth” unto God (Gen. 4:10) – that is, it claims payment like an outstanding debt. Hence we have the expression “avenger of blood” – which may literally be rendered, “redeemer of blood.” On the other hand, the symbolical meaning of the cities of refuge will be easily understood. In any of those cities – the place of God’s merciful provision – the manslayer was to find a safe haven. Under the wings of the grace of God, he was sheltered, so to speak, until the complete remission of the punishment, when the high priest died. The high priest’s death symbolically pointed forward to the death of Him Whom God has anointed to be our Great High Priest, and Who – by His perfect sacrifice of Himself – has made a full, perfect, and sufficient satisfaction for our sins!
These cities of refuge form a beautiful Old Testament picture of the sinner and Gospel-salvation. The Lord often used such pictures to teach the Jewish people great Gospel-truths. Just as we know that young readers like a storybook all the better when it has pictures in it; so also, God taught the early Church, when it was in a state of “childhood,” by means of pictures and symbols – and these cities of refuge were some of them.
As sinners who have broken the Divine law, we are being pursued by an avenger – Divine Justice – following with a drawn sword, and exclaiming, “The soul that sins, it must surely die!” (Ezek. 18:4) “Be assured that the wicked will not go unpunished!” (Prov. 11:21) This is a picture which applies to everyone without exception – rich and poor; parent and child; master and servant. “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom.3:23).
But a glorious City – with salvation as its “walls and bulwarks” – opens its gates! The sinner is exhorted to “escape there,” and “linger not in all the plain!” He must “flee for his life, lest he be consumed!” (Gen. 19:17) That City is the Lord Jesus – the sinner’s Refuge and the sinner’s Friend! Once within its walls, no enemy can touch him, and no sword can terrify him! He can triumphantly exclaim, “Who shall separate me from the love of Christ!” (Rom. 8:35)
Many persons have learned to feel that they are sinners, and that they need a Savior. They have been taught by God’s own Word and Spirit that they have broken His holy law, and that they have thereby exposed themselves to eternal wrath. But they are now safe within the Gospel-Shelter! Justice has ceased to pursue them, and the “avenger” has sheathed his sword. Can you hear their voices as they march through the streets of the City, singing, “Blessed be the Lord; for he has showed me his marvelous kindness in a strong city!” (Ps. 31:21) Is your voice among them? If not, then do not delay! Flee for your life at once, and find refuge in Jesus!
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