The Cities of Refuge
Sermons by the Monday Club
Joshua 20:1-9
The LORD also spoke to Joshua, saying,…

I. THE APPOINTMENT AND USE OF THESE CITIES. It is very often said by thoughtless and ignorant persons that the laws of the Old Testament were barbarous and cruel. To this two answers might be made: First, that they were a great advance upon any other legislation at the period when they were given, and were full of wise sanitary provisions, and of tender care for human life and welfare; secondly, that the objection urged does not lie against Moses, but against the human race at that stage of its history. We are apt to forget that the laws of Moses were adaptations to an existing and very low order of society, and were designed to be a great training-school, leading children up into manhood. The cities of refuge were a merciful provision in times of lawless vengeance, and the entire legislation in regard to them was founded on an existing and very imperfect condition of society, while it looked towards a perfect state, towards the heavenly Jerusalem.


1. All men at that early day recognised the right to kill an assassin; all exercised the right, or refrained from doing so, at their will; but Jehovah gave a positive command to Israel, without alternative. It should be blood for blood; and it certainly rests with the opposers of capital punishment to-day to show when and how this original law was abrogated. How it should be carried out was a matter of secondary consequence; that it should be observed was the first thing. When the law was given, the blood-avenger did what we to-day remand to courts of law. It was a step, surely, beyond an utterly lawless vengeance to appoint one person to carry out the Divine will that life should be forfeited for life.

2. But while this was the general rule, it was not a merciless and blind one; for the law distinguished between voluntary and unintentional homicide. It judged an act by its motives, and thus lifted the whole question of punishment out of the sphere of personal revenge and family spite. Here at the very threshold of civilisation how clearly man is treated as a free moral agent, responsible for his acts, and yet judged by his motives! The materialism of to-day, which endeavours to sweep away this primitive morality, has human nature against it.

3. Then, in a system intended to train a nation into habits of self restraint and righteousness, it was necessary very early to bring in the lessons of mercy. God had always declared Himself the real avenger of blood. "I will require man's blood," He said, when He gave the law for the death of a murderer; "vengeance is Mine: I will repay." The unintentional act was not to be treated like that of malice aforethought. The accidental homicide had certain rights; and yet the mercy offered him was conditional. It was only a chance. It was not left as a small thing for a human life to be taken, even unintentionally: hence the limitations placed about the right of asylum in the cities of refuge.

4. But this was not all: the law demanded an expiation for the wrong, even when it was done without intent. Still it was a wrong; blood had been shed, and the Divine government never grants forgiveness without atonement. God cannot be tender and forgiving without at the same time showing His holiness and just claims upon the guilty. This principle found expression in a singular way in the cities of refuge, in the provision that, whenever the high priest died, the prisoners of hope should go freely back to their homes. The priest was in some sort a sacrifice for the sins of the people, even in his natural death. Here we find what we might call a constructive expiation, Thus from age to age death was associated in the public mind with deliverance from punishment, the death of successive high priests setting forth the death of Christ on the Cross.

III. THE CITIES OF REFUGE ARE A TYPE OF CHRIST. Their very names have a typical meaning — Kedesh, "holy"; Shechem, "shoulder"; Hebron, "fellowship"; Bezer, "refuge"; Ramoth, "high"; and Golan, "joy."

(Sermons by the Monday Club.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: The LORD also spake unto Joshua, saying,

WEB: Yahweh spoke to Joshua, saying,

The Cities of Refuge
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