Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
I. In this law TWO POINTS CLAIM NOTICE.
1. That the forty-eight cities, although denominated "Levitical cities," were not denoted exclusively to members of this tribe. For example, Hebron, which was perhaps the most noted of the forty-eight, being the city of refuge for what was afterwards the whole kingdom of Judah, formed part of the inheritance of Caleb the Kenezite (Joshua 14:14). Doubtless many families of Judah would also be found among the residents; for the city belonged to Judah. What the Levites obtained was not, in any instance, exclusive possession of the city, but certain houses within the walls, and certain pasture grounds ("glebe lands") adjoining. The houses and glebes thus set apart became the inalienable inheritance of the respective Levitical families. They were as strictly entailed as the lands which constituted the patrimony of the other families in Israel. If at any time they were sold for debt, they reverted to the family at the Jubilee.
2. The Levitical cities were scattered up and down the whole country. The arrangement was a remarkable one. At first sight, indeed, it looks awkward and unnatural. For were not the Levites set apart to do the service of the sanctuary? Would it not have been more convenient to have had them located where they would have been within easy reach of the sanctuary? In the ideal arrangement sketched in Ezekiel's vision, the Levitical families are seen located in the vicinity of Jerusalem. The circumstance that the law ordained an arrangement so different was meant, I cannot doubt, to suggest to the Levites that they had other duties to discharge in Israel besides doing the service of the sanctuary. It was the will of God that they should, in their several districts, be the stated teachers of the people in the Divine law (Deuteronomy 33:10; Malachi 2:4-8). This office and calling of the Levites being so honourable, it has often been thought strange that their dispersion throughout Israel should have been predicted by Jacob as a curse upon the tribe for their father's sin (Genesis 49:7). In itself it was honourable; nevertheless the words of the patriarch were fulfilled in the end. When the ten tribes revolted from the house of David, they fell away also from the sanctuary; and the Levites dwelling within those tribes had to choose between forfeiting their cities or being cut off from the sanctuary. In either case they found how bitter it was to be divided in Jacob and scattered in Israel.
II. WHAT MAY WE LEARN FROM THIS LAW?
1. It has been usual to see in the distribution of the Levites over the whole land a type, and prelude of the arrangement which, in Christendom, assigns to every parish and every congregation its own pastor. The apostles "ordained elders in every city." Ministers of the gospel are not to be massed together in the great cities, but to be scattered everywhere, so that no family in God's Israel may be beyond reach of one "at whose mouth they may seek the law." Of the institutions which have co-operated to make society what it is in the Christian nations, it would not be easy to name one which has been more influential for good than this.
2. The arrangement may be regarded as representing the principle according to which the lot of Christ's people in this world is ordered. The faithful do not live apart from other men in towns and provinces of their own. Separation from the world, in this literal sense, has been often the dream of Christian reformers, and not seldom have societies been organized for the purpose of realizing it. But the well-meant schemes have in every case failed. They were bound to fail, for they ran counter to our Lord's great prayer and rule: "I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil" (John 17:15). Nor is the reason of the rule doubtful. Christ's people are the salt of the earth; and salt, to do its work, must be mingled with that which it is to preserve. The godly must be content to have ungodly persons, more or fewer, for neighbours so long as they abide in this world. An unmixed "congregation of the righteous" belongs to the felicities of the world to come. But if Christ's people are like the Levites in regard to dispersion, they are like them also in respect to the provision made for their brotherly communion. As the Levites dwelt in their cities with other Levites, so Christians are to be gathered into Churches for mutual comfort and for common work. "We believe in the communion of saints." - B.
God points out the golden mean between too much concentration and too much diffusion.
I. THE LEVITES WERE SO SETTLED AS TO AVOID THE GREAT EVILS CONSEQUENT ON UNDUE CONCENTRATION. They might have had the tabernacle fixed up in a certain tribal allotment of their own, and then what would have happened? Those living at a distance from the territory of Levi would have been debarred from many privileges belonging to those in immediate proximity. God is no respecter of persons. He did all that was possible to put every tribe in Israel in a position of religious equality. The proportion of land and the proportion of Levitical service was to be according to the needs of each tribe.
1. Thus, by a judicious diffusion, the unity of the nation was promoted. Different circumstances require different means for the same end. While the Israelites were encamped in the wilderness, the tribe of Levi was all together, in the midst of the camp, and immediately around the tabernacle. But when the Israelites became distributed in Canaan, the Levites were distributed also, thus acting still as a principle of unity, although in a different way. And this distribution had been made all the more necessary since two tribes and a half had chosen to dwell on the east of Jordan. That the Israelites themselves were not supremely conscious of the need of unity had been shown only too clearly by the conduct of Reuben and Gad. Much more was wanted than to lie side by side within the same borders. A mere geographical unity was a mockery, a delusion, and a snare.
2. This judicious diffusion also helped in promoting the knowledge of all that needed to be known in Israel. The Levites were privileged to become - and the privilege was a very high one - the guides, instructors, counselors, and monitors of the people. That which God had made known to Moses needed to be brought down very patiently and carefully to individual, private, daily life. The Levites had ample opportunities to explain the commandments of God and the significance of the types, the rites and ceremonies, and the great historic commemorations. And as the history of Israel grew, there grew with it opportunities to stimulate and warn by pointing out the mingled glory and shame of the nation's career, and the lessons to be learnt front considering the men who had been conspicuous in that career (2 Chronicles 35:3). But these opportunities of instruction only came because God had sufficiently distributed the instructors throughout the land. If a house is to be fully lighted up there must be a light in every room. Those who are already instructed must be where they can firmly lay hold of the ignorant, for the ignorant in the things of God need not only to be instructed, but first of all thoroughly wakened out of sleep.
3. This diffusion also indicated the service which all Israel was to render to the world. What Levi was to Israel, that Israel was to become to all mankind. Levi was diffused through the whole nation, and only kept its individuality as a tribe in proportion as it kept its fidelity to God. Other tribes were distinguished by their territory; Levi by being specially engaged in the holy service of the tabernacle and the temple. Thus what a benefit has been produced - more real perhaps than exactly appreciated - by the dispersion of Israel among all nations to bear their own peculiar, solemn, and pathetic testimony to Israel's God, and to the historic verity of the Old Testament! Thus also does God make his own gracious and comprehensive arrangements to diffuse believers in his Son throughout the world, according to the spiritual needs of the world. In one sense they are rigorously separated from the world, even as Israel was by the hard and fast lines of the national borders; in another sense they are meant to be so diffused that wherever there is a dark place, there the light of the truth as it is in Jesus may brightly shine. The gospel is debtor to all nations and all ranks, to both sexes and to all ages. We find the true Israelite in every society where a man has any right to be at all among the highest and the lowest; in Parliaments, in courts of justice, in commerce, in literature, in science, and in art.
II. CARE WAS ALSO TAKEN IN THE SETTLEMENT OF THE LEVITES THAT THE NECESSARY DIFFUSION SHOULD NOT BE PUSHED TOO FAR. They were to be distributed through all Israel, but not according to the free choice of the individual Levite. Forty-eight cities, with sufficient accompanying land, were set apart for them. Thus, by fixing a limit of diffusion, God conferred a benefit both on them and on the whole people. Those who are engaged in a special work of such incalculable importance as the work of the Levites was, need to be where they can frequently counsel, comfort, and encourage one another. It was not good for the Levites to be alone. To be isolated was in itself a sore temptation. And though the work of God is only truly done where there is individual consecration, energy, and initiative, yet he is not a wise Christian who sets lightly by the advantage he gains from frequent recourse to those like-minded with himself. A certain measure of coherence among the Levites was needed for a healthy and profitable state of the official life. You shall have a fire blazing brightly in the grate, and if you leave it so it will go on for a long time giving out its flame, heat, and light. But take the pieces of coal and range them separately on the hearth, and very quickly the glowing fragments will become a dull red and soon die out altogether. The limits which God fixes are wise and loving limits; he ever keeps us from all the dangers of extremes. The Levites were neither to be too much separated from the people nor too much mingled with them. - Y.
I. THE ORDINANCE OF THE CITY OF REFUGE CONSIDERED AS A PART OF THE MOSAIC CRIMINAL LAW. In primitive and barbarous states of society the execution of vengeance for murder was devolved by ancient custom on the next kinsman of the murdered man. The goel, the redeemer and kinsman, was also the avenger of blood. The custom is sufficiently harsh and barbarous, and gives rise to blood-feuds and untold miseries. Yet, for the states of society in which it originated, it cannot be dispensed with. There are at this day tribes without number, especially in the East, in which the sanctity of human life is guarded only by fear of the avenger of blood. Accordingly, the law of Moses does not abolish the custom; the next kinsman was still held bound to take vengeance for blood. The aim of the Mosaic jurisprudence was to conserve what was good in the ancient custom, and at the same time to impose such a check upon it as would prevent its abuse. This twofold design was accomplished in the following way: -
1. Certain cities were made sanctuary cities (Exodus 21:13). The avenger of blood might pursue the manslayer to the gate of the city of refuge; might kill him, if he could, before reaching the gate; but at the gate he had to halt and sheathe his sword.
2. Although the gate of the city of refuge was open to every manslayer, the city did not suffer the willful murderer to laugh at the sword of justice. It gave provisional protection to all, but only to save them from the blind and indiscriminating anger of the avenger of blood. The refugees were sheltered only till they had stood a regular trial (verse 12). If it should be proved to the satisfaction of the congregation that the accused person had been guilty of murder, he was to be delivered up to the avenger of blood to be killed.
3. If, on the contrary, it should be found that the manslayer meant no harm, that it was a case of accidental homicide, the city of refuge was to afford him inviolable sanctuary. The law did not (as with us) suffer him to go home free. Accidental homicide is often the result of carelessness. To teach men not to trifle with the sanctity of life, the manslayer, although no murderer, had to confine himself to the city of his refuge. But so long as he abode within its walls he was safe.
II. THE ORDINANCE OF THE CITY OF REFUGE CONSIDERED AS A TYPE. That it had a typical reference might be gathered (were there nothing else) from the direction that the manslayer was to continue in the sanctuary city "until the death of the high priest;" a meaningless provision if the statute had been only a piece of criminal law. Considered as a type, the ordinance represents -
1. Our condition as sinners. We are exposed to the vengeance of God's law, and the stroke may fall upon us at any moment. A condition in which there can be no solid peace.
2. What Christ is to those who are found in him. He is their High Priest, whose life is the security for their life; who "is able to save to the uttermost, seeing he ever liveth" (Hebrews 7:25). And he is their Refuge, insomuch that for them the one thing needful is that they be found in him (Romans 8:1, 38, 39; Philippians 3:8, 9).
3. How we may obtain the salvation which is in Christ. It is by fleeing into him for refuge and thereafter abiding in him continually. In him we are safe, out of him we are lost. This way of salvation is such as renders inexcusable those who neglect it. The cities of refuge were so distributed that no manslayer had far to run before reaching one. There were three on each side of Jordan; of the three, in each case, one lay near the north border, one near the south border, and one in the middle. Every city was the natural center of its province and accessible from every side. They were so situated that no fugitive required to cross either a river or a mountain chain before reaching his refuge. How strikingly is all this realized in Christ our refuge! - B.
I. A TOLERATION OF WHAT GOD NEITHER HAS APPOINTED NOR APPROVES. The old custom of blood-avenging by the goel, though open to grave abuses, was not altogether proscribed. The laws given by God to Moses were not always absolutely the best, though, relatively to the state of the people, the best they could endure. Other illustrations are found in the laws relating to divorce, polygamy, and slavery. These examples of a wise conservatism suggest lessons for parents, who have to "overlook" (Acts 17:30) the times of ignorance of their children, and for missionaries, who may have for a time to tolerate inevitable evils in converts whose consciences are not yet trained. As God dealt with the Jews during their childhood as a nation, so does he in mercy deal with his sinful children during their education in this life (Psalm 19:12; Psalm 130:3, 4).
II. AN EDUCATION BY MEANS OF THE CUSTOMS OF THE PAST. God tolerated the old custom, but not in its entirety. He modified it, and thus carried on the education of the nation. On the one hand, the cities of refuge were not like the asyla of the Greeks and Romans, for willful murderers were led forth from them to justice (verse 30). On the other band, the homicide by accident was safe under certain conditions (verse 12, 25-28). So too now God discriminates between willful sins (Hebrews 10:26-31, 38, 39) and sins of ignorance and imprudence, which may bring after them serious disabilities, but do not doom to destruction.
III. A PREFIGURATION OF SPIRITUAL TRUTH IN THE FUTURE. The cities of refuge, if not strictly a type, are an illustration of Christ, the sinner's refuge. The rules prescribed by Jews in regard to the road being kept in good condition, finger-posts being provided, &c., suggest various applications.
1. The cities of refuge were near every portion of the land, and Christ is within reach of every one of us.
2. The way was to be made plain; and the word of the truth of the gospel is plain, so that "he that readeth it may run" straight to the refuge.
3. Every manslayer, native or foreign, received the shelter of the refuge; and sinners of every degree of guilt and every nation have no safety except in Christ.
4. Within the city, and "in Christ," there is no condemnation.
5. To quit the refuge, and to "go away" from Christ, is to meet destruction.
6. A murderer had but the appearance of safety within the city, and the willful sinner can find no shelter from the wrath of God even when professing to believe in Christ. - P.
i.e., the strict injunction to expel the Canaanites, the allotment of the inheritance, and the Divine marking out of the boundaries of the land; but this appointment of the cities of refuge is like a great light suddenly lighted up to reveal to us the peculiar social state of Israel.
I. We are brought face to face with A TIME WHEN THERE WAS NO GENERAL AND SECURE ADMINISTRATION OF JUSTICE. God had to make provision here for a strong feeling which had evidently grown up through many centuries. This provision pointed back to those unsocial days when the only effectual avengers of murder were the kinsmen of the slain person. The punishment of the murderer had come to be regarded as a family duty, because no one else would concern himself with it. And in the course of time what had begun in necessity ended in a conventional sense of honour, and of the obligations of kinship, which there was no way of escaping. Private revenge, whatever its abuses, whatever the dark instigations to it in the heart of the avenger, was in a certain sense imperatively necessary when there was no efficient public tribunal of justice. Thus we see how much of the barbaric element still remained in Israel. It is a matter of common agreement among us that a man must not take the law into his own hands, but in ancient Israel every man seems to have done it without the slightest hesitation.
II. We have here another illustration of THE ALLOWANCE THAT WAS MADE FOR HARDNESS OF HEART ON THE PART OF ISRAEL. When the Pharisees came to our Lord, tempting him with a question concerning divorce, he replied, "Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives" (Matthew 19:8). So here we may say that Moses, because of the hardness of heart in Israel, provided these cities of refuge. It was no manner of use to tell the goel, the blood avenger, not to pursue the manslayer. If he had neglected to do so he would have rested under heavy reproach all the days of his life. Moses knew well how deeply fixed was this institution of blood revenge. Had he not himself, in his patriotic zeal, taken the law into his own hand some eighty years before, and slain the Egyptian? God might indeed have forbidden this blood revenge altogether, but the command would have been a dead letter. He did a more efficacious thing in providing these cities of refuge. The existence of them was incompatible with the continuance in undiminished vigour of the practice of blood revenge. By appointing them God recognized the necessity out of which the practice had arisen. He allowed all that might be good and conscientious in the motive of the avenger. If the person pursued were really guilty of willful murder, he could not escape; the city of refuge was no refuge for him. The line between murder and accidental homicide was very plainly drawn. Under such a system as God had established in Israel he could not but protect the unfortunate man who was fleeing from a passionate, unreasoning pursuer, and secure for him a fair inquiry. Everything was done to secure the best interests of all. God could not but honour his own solemn and exalted command, "Thou shalt not kill."
III. An illustration also of THE UNDESERVED CALAMITIES WHICH MAY COME UPON A MAN IN A WORLD WHERE SIN REIGNS EVEN UNTO DEATH, One man slaying another unwittingly deserves our deepest pity and sympathy. We have heard of those to whom such a misfortune had come having to walk softly all the days of their life because of the unintended act. They could not get it out of their minds. Yet here, in addition to possible grief of heart, there was a serious, a long, perhaps a life-long, disadvantage. The homicide, however really innocent he might be, had to flee for his life and stay in the city of refuge till the death of the high priest. Thus we have another proof of the manifold power which death has to disturb the world. These inconveniences to the manslayer could not all at once be removed. We live in a world where we not only may in a spirit of love bear one another's burdens, but some of them we must bear as a matter of necessity. The unwitting homicide had to bear the consequences of his fellow-man being mortal. Yet at the same time we are made to see how God was surely advancing to break the power of death. The lot of the manslayer was greatly mended by the institution of these cities of refuge. We may well believe that in the course of time their character became so recognized that this particular obligation of the goel would fall into disuse; the nation would come to accept the security, the superiority, and the rightness of public justice.
IV. Consider the points in connection with the institution of cities of refuge which show THE RESPECT FOR HUMAN LIFE WHICH GOD WAS SEEKING TO TEACH THE PEOPLE. The path of Israel from Egypt to Canaan had indeed been marked by much of violent death. The overwhelming of Pharaoh's army, all the sudden visitations of Divine wrath upon Israel, the slaying in battle of the Amalekites, Amorites, and Midianites - these had made God to seem as if he were continually girt with the horrid instruments of the executioner. But for all these acts, dreadful as they were, there was a reason - a Divine, and therefore sufficient, reason. Whatever was done Was done judicially. If the circumstances and times of the Israelites are taken into account, sufficient cause will appear for the frequency with which God had recourse to violent death in the carrying out of his punitive purposes. Then, with respect to murder, it was the feeling of the time that a murderer must not be suffered to live. Putting the murderer to death was the only effectual way in those semi-savage times of teaching respect for life. Respect for life was taught to the avenger by putting the city of refuge between him and the unwitting homicide. Respect for life was taught also by the inconvenience, to say the least of it, to which the homicide was put. It was taught by the requiring of more than one witness to establish a capital charge. And we also need more respect for human life than we often, show. We should not take it so recklessly and exultingly in war; we should not take it under an insufficient plea of necessity on the gallows. There is a lamentable way of speaking of the brutal and hardened members of society, the class from which murderers so often come, as if they were little better than vermin. Many seem to think that it is a matter of no great consequence whether a man be hanged or not. True, he has to die at last; but surely there is a great difference between death when it comes in spite of the attempts of physician and attendants to ward it off, and when it comes by our deliberate infliction of it. We have all sorts of institutions and instruments to defend life by land and by sea; we have one hideous instrument, the gallows, to take it away. And as we see God advancing men, by the appointment of these cities of refuge, from the "wild justice" of private revenge to a calm reliance on public justice, so we may hope that the spirit of love and the spirit of Christ will more and more prevail amongst us, till at last the gallows will be banished, if not into utter oblivion, at all events into antiquarian obscurity.
V. CONSIDER HOW THESE CITIES OF REFUGE WERE TO BE LEVITICAL CITIES, It was fitting that the Levites should have charge of these cities, since the Levites belonged to no tribe in particular, but to the whole nation. They were removed from the temptation which would otherwise have come, if the city of refuge had belonged to the same tribe as the blood avenger. Unless the city of refuge was made really efficacious, it was no city of refuge at all. Giving Levi the charge of these cities also prevented jealousies between tribes. It conferred too on the homicide certain privileges he might not otherwise have had; he gained opportunities of Levitical instruction. God can make his own abiding compensations to those who fall into calamity by no fault of their own. None can really hurt us but ourselves in that which is inward, permanent, and of real importance.
VI. CONSIDER HOW THE DEATH OF THE HIGH PRIEST AFFECTED THE POSITION OF THE UNWITTING MANSLAYER. He was then free from any further disability and need of confinement. The death of the high priest had a great expiatory effect. According to the value of the types, he was holier than all the unblemished beasts, and his death counted for very much indeed in its cleansing efficacy. Thus we see, by this reference to the death of the high priest, how God regarded his own honour as a holy God. Blood defiled the land, even when spilt unwittingly, and nothing less than the death of the high priest could cleanse away the stain. Nothing less could do it, but this did it quite sufficiently. - Y.
I. Observe THE OCCASION of the statute here delivered. It is an appendix to the law regarding the cities of refuge. That law was designed to shield the involuntary homicide from the avenger of blood. The intention was good; but good intentions do not always prevent dangerous mistakes. It often happens that good men in labouring to cast out one evil open the door to a greater evil. A follower of John Howard may so press the duty of humanity towards prisoners as to deprive the prison of its deterrent power. So in Israel there was a danger that the care taken to restrain the avenger of blood from touching the involuntary manslayer might have the effect of deadening the public sense of the enormity of murder, and weakening men's resentment against the murderer. The design of the statute before us is to prevent so mischievous a result.
II. What then are THE PROVISIONS OF THE STATUTE?
1. The ancient law which condemned the murderer to death is solemnly reaffirmed (verse 30; compare with verses 16-21 and Genesis 9:6). To be sure, the extreme penalty ought not to be executed without extreme circumspection. The unsupported testimony of one witness is not to be held sufficient to sustain a charge of murder. Nevertheless, if there is sufficient evidence, the sword must strike, the murderer must not be suffered to go free.
2. The death penalty may not be commuted into a fine (verse 31). In regard to this point the Mosaic law dithers from many, perhaps from most other primitive codes; for they suffered the murderer to compound with the kinsmen of his victim by paying a fine in cattle or in money. The law of Moses suffered no such composition. The murderer must be put to death. Even the restraint to which the law subjected the involuntary manslayer was not suffered to be relaxed by a money payment. In all cases affecting the sanctity of life pecuniary compositions are utterly forbidden.
III. THE REASON OF THIS STATUTE is carefully explained (verses 33, 34). The reason lies in these three principles: -
1. "Blood defileth the land" (cf. Psalm 106:38). That sin defiles the sinner, that murder especially defiles the conscience of the murderer - these are facts patent to all. It is not so often observed that crime perpetrated in a city defiles the whole city. The whole community has a share in the guilt. Hence the remarkable law laid down in Deuteronomy 21:1-9 for the expiation of an uncertain murder.
2. The proper expiation of murder is by the death of the murderer. "The land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein but by the blood of him that shed it." Justice is satisfied, the honour of the law vindicated, when the murderer is put to death, and not otherwise. To accept a pecuniary satisfaction for blood is simply to pollute the land.
3. In this whole matter the paramount consideration ought to be the honour of God. Murder is criminal beyond all other offences, because it is the defacement of the image of God in man. Murder must not go unavenged, because it defiles the laud before God. Let these principles be carefully weighed. They set in a clear light the true and adequate reason for inflicting punishment on evil-doers. The true reason is neither the reformation of the criminal (for the sword must strike although there should be no hope of reformation) nor the protection of society. These are important objects, and not to be overlooked; but the proper reason of punishment is the vindication of righteousness, the executing of vengeance on the man who doeth evil (Romans 13:4).
IV. In conclusion, DOES NOT ALL THIS SHED WELCOME' LIGHT ON THE ATONEMENT OF OUR BLESSED LORD? The death of Christ for our sins accomplished many great and precious purposes. It was an affecting proof of his sympathy with us. it was a revelation of the Father's love. But these purposes do not contain the proper and adequate reason of our Lord's sufferings. He died for our sins. It was necessary that our sins should be cleansed, that expiation or atonement should be made for them. (N.B. It is the same Hebrew word, commonly translated atonement elsewhere in the Old Testament, which in this passage is translated cleansing in the text and expiation in the margin.) They might have been expiated in our blood. But, blessed be God, his mercy has found out another way. By a blessed exchange Christ has become sin for us; he has borne our sins and made atonement for them. This was the end of his sufferings - to satisfy the justice of the Father for our sins, so that his righteousness might not be dishonoured although we should go free. - B.