By J.R. Miller
There has always been need for mercy in this world. There has also been need always for law--for the protection of men from wrong and cruelty. But in the infancy of the race, there were no institutions of any kind. Life was most simple and primitive in the beginning. There is special interest in the subject of the cities of refuge, because the establishment of these refuges is one of the first suggestions of the institution of laws for the securing of full justice, in the case of a man who had killed another by accident, unintentionally. Previous to this the "avenger of blood" smote down, without reference to the circumstances, without any effort first to ascertain the manner of the slaying--the man who had caused the death of his friend. The provision for cities of refuge, was not intended to shelter crime; it was meant only to secure justice by ensuring a fair and impartial trial. This provision in the Hebrew code, is the germ of the laws now in force in all Christian lands by which a fair trial is assured to every man accused of crime.
In directing that these cities of refuge should be provided, the Lord taught the people and the world, a great lesson in justice. While God hates sin--He loves mercy. Then nothing is more abhorrent to Him--than that the innocent should be punished. Human life is very sacred in His sight. The original command, Divinely given, was that "Whoever sheds man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed." Thus God built a strong wall round every life. But the nations had perverted that Divine command until all justice was lost sight of. It might have been by the simplest accident, that a man caused the death of another, perhaps of his best friend. Yet he was struck down by the avenger as mercilessly as though he had slain the other in cold blood. This new provision was appointed to ensure security against the occurrence of such fearful wrong and injustice.
We should notice that this merciful provision originated with God Himself, and was not a mere kindly thought of Moses. It was in the heart of God, also, that a thought of a refuge for the sinners of a lost and guilty world, had its origin. It was because "God so loved the world" that "He gave His only begotten Son" to be the world's Redeemer. God loves to forgive. No words that rise to heaven from earth find such welcome, as the cries of penitence. "There is joy in the presence of the angels of God--over one sinner who repents."
Yet Divine mercy is not indiscriminate. We must notice carefully that these refuges availed only for "anyone who kills a person accidentally and unintentionally." They were not meant to shield the guilty. The heathen nations of those times had their temples, groves, altars and even cities, to which offenders might flee for protection. But in these, no distinction was made between the guilty and the innocent. Even willful murderers, might hide within the gates of these asylums, and there was no way to bring them to justice.
But there was no such indiscriminate and unregulated protection provided in these cities of refuge. They were designed to shield only the innocent manslayer. He who had killed another intentionally might flee to one of them--and the avenger could not then strike him down until he had been tried; but when it was shown to the judges that the slaying had been a murder, premeditated, deliberate and intentional, the murderer was at once given up to receive just punishment. The intention of the whole arrangement was to shield the innocent and secure a fair trial to all.
In Christ there is the same mingling of justice and mercy. The refuge in Him is open for all sinners, and there is no one who ever can justly claim to be innocent; yet only those whose guilt has been washed away in the blood of the Lamb--can find shelter even in Christ. No mercy is promised to those who continue impenitent. It is only to those who confess their sin and repent of it--that forgiveness is assured.
There is an "avenger of blood" pursuing everyone of us in this world. Conscience is every man's personal avenger--one we cannot get away from. There is no power anywhere so terrible, as that of an accusing conscience. With its condemning voice, it fills the boldest with dismay.
The law is inexorable in its demands. There is no escape from its penalties.
In a poem by Victor Hugo, Cain walks thirty days and nights after the murder of his brother, until he reaches the shores of the sea. "Let us stop here," he says--but as he sits down, his face turns pale. He has seen in the mournful sky, the searching Eye. His sons, filled with awe, try to erect barriers between him and the Eye--a tent, then a wall of iron, then a tower and a city--but all is in vain. "I see the Eye!" still cries the unhappy man. At last they dig a tomb, and the father is put into it. But,
"Though overhead they closed the awful vault,
The Eye was in the tomb--and looked on Cain."
Men hide for a time or may evade punishment for a season--but they cannot escape from the avenger. It is when we understand the terrible meaning of this truth, that we are prepared to appreciate the glad word that announces a refuge from sin and from guilt. Christ is our refuge from the avenger!
The person who had killed another by accident, had something to do to secure safety. "He shall flee unto one of these cities." It would not do for him to stay just where he was, depending upon his innocence to protect him. He must flee, and flee with all his might, for he would find no protection until he had passed through the gate. If the avenger outran him and overtook him on the way--he could strike him down. The city afforded him no refuge, while he remained far away from it, or even close to it--yet outside the gates. He must flee into it. He must not loiter on the way--but must make all possible haste to get within the gate, lest the pursuer come upon him. Christ is a refuge, with the door ever open to the sinner--but He is not a refuge to those who do not flee to Him.
Everything was done to facilitate the safe and swift flight of the innocent manslayer to the refuge. Much is said in the old Jewish books about the roads which led to these cities. They were to be broad and good, and were always to be kept in the best order. There must be nothing in them to impede or obstruct the flight of him who would reach the gate of the refuge. Then they were to be plainly marked with guide-signs, showing at every turning, and wherever there was any possibility of the fleeing man making a mistake which was the right way.
All this illustrates the great pains at which the Bible is to show the way to God, and to make it plain, so plain that no one, not even the smallest child or the simplest-minded and most ignorant person--can possibly err in seeking the right path. Jesus says: "I am the way." He does not say merely that He will make a way, or point out a way--but that He Himself is the way. He is the way to God, the road on which men may walk to God. "No one comes unto the Father--but by Me." This way has been prepared at great cost, and is so easy and so perfect, that the feeblest foot need not stumble in it. Every obstacle has been taken out of it, every rough place has been made smooth, every hill has been leveled down, every valley has been bridged over. Then at every turn, there is a signpost telling which way to take to the refuge. No one ever can say truthfully that he could not find the road to Christ.
There are a thousand paths in this world, leading in all directions, inviting us to walk in them. Some of them are flower-strewn, some of them lead among thorns. There are paths to pleasure, paths to honor, paths also to sin. But there is only one path that leads to blessedness. "Thus says the Lord, Stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way; and walk therein, and you shall find rest for your souls!"
When the fleeing manslayer had stepped across the threshold of the gate, he was safe. The authorities dared not now give him up for punishment, until he had been fairly tried. The avenger could not pass beyond the gates of the refuge to touch a hair of the head of him who had passed inside.
Neither can the law lay a hand upon him who has fled to Christ for refuge! "The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous runs into it, and is safe!"
Another of the provisions for safety was that the man, even though innocent, who had found refuge in one of these cities--must remain therein. He must not leave it on any pretext. If he wandered outside in the green fields, and the avenger found him anywhere beyond the walls, he was at liberty to strike him down. He had forfeited his right to protection.
Here again the analogy is suggestive. Christ is our refuge--but only while we abide in Him. It is not enough for us to run into this refuge once, and register our names and then go out again, at liberty to run wherever we please. We must stay under the shelter--if we would be secure. This means that a life of faith and obedience, must follow the first coming to Christ. We must continue in Christ.
The distribution of these cities of refuge throughout the country was such that at no point in the whole land would a man be at a great or impracticable distance from one of them. If there had been but one such refuge--for example, in Jerusalem--it would have been so remote from some portions of the country, that no one could hope to reach it in case of danger. But wherever one might be so unfortunate as to kill another by accident--he could by an easy flight reach safety in some one of the cities.
This represents the nearness and the accessibility of Jesus Christ to sinners. He is never far off--but always near. In the Book of the Revelation we are told that heaven is foursquare, with walls, and that on each of the four sides there are three gates. From all quarters, north, south, east, west, heaven is easily accessible to him who desires to enter into it . No one has far to go--to find a gate into the place of eternal love and safety!