Practical Aspects of the Cities of Refuge
Dr. Joe Temple


Open your Bibles, please, to the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 19, that portion of the Word of God which we are studying together. We would like to remind you of what we have learned thus far by way of a very brief summary. You will keep in mind that we have told you that the book of Deuteronomy is composed of three discourses delivered by Moses over a forty day period while the children of Israel waited to enter into the land of Canaan.

These three discourses are followed by a farewell message, which Moses delivered, and an obituary. The discourses which Moses delivered were related to matters of which the children of Israel needed to be reminded after they had gotten into the promised land.

You will recall that the first discourse covers chapters 1-4. Moses reminded the children of Israel of God's faithfulness in the midst of their failures. We are reminded even in this day of how very faithful our God is even though we are increasingly faithless. We are reminded of the words of the Apostle Paul that though we are unbelieving, yet He abideth faithful for He cannot deny Himself.

The second discourse began with chapter 5 and goes all the way over to chapter 26, so it was a rather long message. Like all good sermons, it has three points to it. The first point was what you might refer to as the moral law . We know it as the Ten Commandments , chapters 5-11, when Moses reminded the children of Israel what God expected from them from a moral standpoint. We learned as we looked at the moral law that not one change had been made from the time it was given on Mount Sinai until the time it was repeated here.

If you looked at Exodus, chapter 20, where it was originally given and then Deuteronomy, chapter 5, you would notice some differences, but the differences were amplifications and exhortations. The basic law was not changed at all.

Then the second part of this second message was what we referred to as the ceremonial law , and that began with chapter 12 and continued through chapter 16, verse 17. The ceremonial law was the law which Moses gave relative to certain regulations, ordinances, rules, which were to be observed because the nation of Israel was God's peculiar people. We emphasized to you that the word peculiar did not refer to people who were strange, but people who were the possession of God in a very special way.

The third point in the outline was what we refer to as the civil law of God. So you see, the second discourse has to do with a repetition of the law. That is really the meaning of the word Deuteronomy , a repetition of the law, the law the second time—the moral law, the ceremonial law, and the civil law.

The civil law began with chapter 16, verse 18, and goes all the way through to chapter 26, but I asked you to turn to chapter 19. We discovered from chapter 16, verse 18, chapter 17, and chapter 18, the administrators of the law of God. They were the judges, the kings, the priests, and the prophets. We learned that the administration of the law is never any stronger than the leaders of the law. The administration of the law is never any stronger than the administrators. So God laid down very carefully the rules and regulations related to the leadership of the law.

Cities of Refuge as Related to Civil Law

As we come to chapter 19, we are going to begin to deal with those civil laws which God considered to be the most important. We are going to read from verse 1:

Deuteronomy 19:

1When the Lord thy God hath cut off the nations, whose land the Lord thy God giveth thee, and thou succeedest them, and dwellest in their cities, and in their houses;
2Thou shalt separate three cities for thee in the midst of thy land, which the Lord thy God giveth thee to possess it.
3Thou shalt prepare thee a way, and divide the coasts of thy land, which the Lord thy God giveth thee to inherit, into three parts, that every slayer may flee thither.

Then I would like for you to skip down to verse 8 where you read:

Deuteronomy 19:

8And if the Lord thy God enlarge thy coast, as he hath sworn unto thy fathers, and give thee all the land which he promised to give unto thy fathers;
9If thou shalt keep all these commandments to do them, which I command thee this day, to love the Lord thy God, and to walk ever in his ways; then shalt thou add three cities more for thee beside these three:
10That innocent blood be not shed in thy land, which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance, and so blood be upon thee.

If you have been listening as we have read this paragraph, there are two thoughts which should attract your attention. One of them is described with the phrase, “cities of refuge.” The other is described by the word blood . Those of you who have been able to study the Pentateuch with us—that is, the first five books of the Bible—are familiar with the phrase, “the cities of refuge,” because we have studied them and we have looked at their spiritual significance. We are not going to take the time to do that. We are, rather, going to look at the practical aspect of the cities of refuge as they are related to the civil law of God.

The cities of refuge were simply six cities—possibly nine—which were to be set aside after the children of Israel entered into the land of promise. These cities of refuge were exactly what their names implied—a place where individuals could flee for refuge when their lives were in danger. Three of the cities were on this side of Jordan, and as Moses made this speech, which we are talking about, those three cities were already established. In the chapter which we have read in your hearing, Moses told the people that as soon as they crossed over Jordan, they should establish another three cities, making a total of six. All the roads to these cities were to be always well paved, figuratively speaking—smoothed out and plainly marked. At every crossroad, there were to be two signs saying the same thing: Refuge, refuge.

Moses said, “If you obey the Lord and He is pleased to enlarge your coasts, as He promised He would [Remember, the children of Israel were to occupy all the land over to the Mediterranean Sea, but they never did because they were disobedient to God, and God couldn't keep His promise to them.], then you should add three more cities, making a total of nine so that there will always be a place for people to flee whose lives are in danger.”

Sacredness of Human Life

Why? Well, that is the reason for the second word that I said should attract your attention. Remember, I said that two things should attract your attention as we read: One, the cities of refuge, and the other the word, blood . This was God's way of showing His interest in the sacredness of human life, and so as we consider the civil laws which God gave to Moses to give to the children of Israel, the first civil laws he laid down were laws which were related to the sacredness of human life, and we re-emphasize that.

Keep a marker here in Deuteronomy and go back with me to the book of Genesis, chapter 9, as I remind you that the sacredness of human life did not find its emphasis for the first time in the discourse which Moses delivered. Rather, the sacredness of human life was laid down and emphasized in what is known as the everlasting covenant , which was made with Noah and every generation which would succeed Noah's generation. Notice Genesis, chapter 9, verse 4, by way of refreshing your memory:

Genesis 9:

4But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.
5And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man's brother will I require the life of man.
6Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.

Capital Punishment

Here God is saying, “Life is sacred to Me because man is made in My image. Therefore, life must be protected. If an individual does not protect life, if he carelessly uses, then he must pay with his own life.” This we call capital punishment . You know, there have been movements to abolish capital punishment, and many good people with mistaken ideas of mercy back the movements. We would like to emphasize that such support is thoroughly unscriptural and should not be entered into by any Bible-believing Christian.

Someone would say today, “But, this is archaic. This is something that was given to Noah. It is not meant for this enlightened age.” Because we have discussed chapter 9 of the book of Genesis in detail at other times, we are not now going to do it. We would emphasize when you have time that you notice how often emphasis is placed in chapter 9 upon the fact that this covenant that God made with Noah was made with succeeding generations down to the present day in which we live and beyond. Turn in your Bibles, please, to the book of Isaiah, chapter 24. In this chapter, there is described the earth as it will be during the Tribulation, a period of time which is to come upon the earth yet future when the earth will feel the full brunt of the wrath of God for the active disobedience of the human race. Notice verse 1:

Isaiah 24:

1Behold, the Lord maketh the earth empty, and maketh it waste, and turneth it upside down, and scattereth abroad the inhabitants thereof.

That one verse refers to all of the physical judgments which are to fall upon the earth during the Tribulation period. If you want the details, you can read them in Revelation, chapters 6-19, when great cataclysmic, physical events will occur upon this earth as we know it now. So devastating will be this activity of God in relation to the earth that in verse 2, we read:

Isaiah 24:

2And it shall be, as with the people, so with the priest; as with the servant, so with his master; as with the maid, so with her mistress; as with the buyer, so with the seller; as with the lender, so with the borrower; as with the taker of usury, so with the giver of usury to him.

This simply means the human race will be leveled. All distinctions will be no more because in judgment such as we are describing, all suffer alike. So in verse 3, we read:

Isaiah 24:

3The land shall be utterly emptied, and utterly spoiled: for the Lord hath spoken this word.
4The earth mourneth and fadeth away, the world languisheth and fadeth away, the haughty people of the earth do languish.

Why? This is a normal question for us to ask. Why is this so? The answer is found in verse 5:

Isaiah 24:

5The earth also is defiled under the inhabitants thereof;[notice carefully] because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the everlasting covenant.
6Therefore hath the curse devoured the earth, and they that dwell therein are desolate: therefore the inhabitants of the earth are burned, and few men left.

The everlasting covenant will be violated. Mark what I tell you. Some of you will live to see when capital punishment will be abolished in the United States of America, for that is one of the things which God says in His Word He will find it necessary to judge the world for; and it will be abolished in the rest of the world as well, though you may not be aware of it at that time.

Cities of Refuge to Protect God's Own

Go back to Deuteronomy, chapter 19, as I say to you that the sacredness, the sanctity, of human life was established when God made the everlasting covenant. When He was dealing with His chosen people, Israel, He would remind them of how sacred life was to Him. I would like for you to notice in Deuteronomy, chapter 19, for whom the cities of refuge were intended. This is purely from a practical standpoint, not for a spiritual lesson. Reading from verse 4:

Deuteronomy 19:

4And this is the case of the slayer, which shall flee thither, that he may live: Whoso killeth his neighbour ignorantly, whom he hated not in time past;
5As when a man goeth into the wood with his neighbour to hew wood, and his hand fetcheth a stroke with the axe to cut down the tree, and the head slippeth from the helve, and lighteth upon his neighbour, that he die; he shall flee unto one of those cities, and live:
6Lest the avenger of the blood pursue the slayer, while his heart is hot, and overtake him, because the way is long, and slay him; whereas he was not worthy of death, inasmuch as he hated him not in time past.
7Wherefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt separate three cities for thee.

Here is a case of what we might refer to as unpremeditated murder . The two individuals concerned had no animosity toward one another. The incident which is given is a matter of a man's being killed accidently. The ax slipped off the handle and the man was killed. There was the law of that day which is called the law of the avenger . The nearest of kin had the right to take the life of the man who owned the ax, but life was sacred. God did not want this man, who owned the ax and who carelessly let the head of it slip off so that it killed the man in question, to say, “Oh, that was just an accident. That didn't mean anything.” He wanted him to realize the responsibility that was his, so He said, “You better run as fast as you can when that murder happens to the city of refuge, and you stay there until the high priest of the city dies. It might be a short time or it might be a long time, but if you come outside of that city of refuge, then anybody related to this man has the right to take your life.” You see, He didn't want this man, I repeat, with the ax head to shrug his shoulders and say, “Oh well, we all have accidents.” He wanted him to realize his responsibility.

In the jurisprudence of our day, we might refer to this as manslaughter . Some of our laws are taking into consideration the gravity of taking life through carelessness. You and I both know that one of the greatest wastes of life is related to the highways of our country. Of late, there has been more than in times past of charges of murder with a motor vehicle or manslaughter related to death through automobile accidents. This is the same thing that God is talking about here.

In our modern days, an individual who would be considered guilty of murder by this means would not be executed for it. Neither was he executed in this day, but he needed to be reminded of the gravity of his offense since life is sacred in the sight of God.

I would like to suggest, while we are on the subject, though it is not particularly inspiring but certainly needful from the standpoint of practical application, that you and I as Christians, you and I as believers, should be more conscientious than most of us are in relation to the way we use our automobiles, for an automobile in the hands of a careless person can become a lethal weapon. Think about it and recognize that God laid down this law long before our time.

The sacredness of human life is emphasized even in yet another way in relation to the cities of refuge. Did you notice what was said concerning the pursuer, the man who was after the man whose ax head flew off and killed the love one? Look at verse 6:

Deuteronomy 19:

6Lest the avenger of the blood pursue the slayer, while his heart is hot, and overtake him, because the way is long, and slay him; whereas he was not worthy of death, inasmuch as he hated him not in time past.

I never read this portion of the Word of God without being reminded again and again of how often God protects us from ourselves. You see, this avenger was mad. His brother had been killed and he was running after the fellow who killed him. If the way to the city of refuge had been too long, he would have caught him and in his anger would have slain him. There would have been two needless wastes of life. The first man who died, died needlessly. If the man who owned the ax would have seen to it that the ax handle was tight, the first man wouldn't have died. The second man would have died needlessly because he would have been killed in a fit of temper. So God provided a city of refuge so that that might not happen, and the individual who would have killed him in the heat of temper would have had a murder on his conscience. How careful, how gracious, how good God is to protect His own from themselves.

Sometimes when you have time, you sit down and in quite meditation review your life and see how many times God has protected you from yourself. I started to say, I used to say, and I will say it. The reason I hesitate in speaking about a temper is I don't know that any of us are ever fully rid of the tempers we have. By the fullness of the Spirit of God, we learn to control them.

Before I was a Christian, I had an ungodly temper—an ungodly, insane temper. When I lost my temper (I have always wondered why we use that expression), the only reason I didn't kill somebody was because my aim was poor. That is the only reason. It wasn't because I didn't want to. It wasn't because I wasn't mad enough to. It was just because my aim was poor, figuratively speaking.

I look back over my unsaved days and I think of the mercy of God. Oh, how merciful He was. In that unsaved state, with that ungodly temper, I could have been electrocuted for murder because it was in my heart; and my temper was thoroughly ungoverned because my parents, bless their hearts for all they did for me, never attempted to teach me to control my temper. My father never controlled his. That is the reason that with every one of our children, from the first time they began to show any indications of any uncontrolled temper, we immediately took action to curb it. I knew from experience what an ungodly temper can do.

Here is the picture of a man who was mad enough to kill and God, in His mercy, God in His grace, let the man get to the city of refuge before two needless murders could be committed. You see how important life is to God.

Cities of Refuge Not Intended for Murderers

There is a man here for whom the city of refuge was not intended, and he is described in verse 11:

Deuteronomy 19:

11But if any man hate his neighbour, and lie in wait for him, and rise up against him, and smite him mortally that he die, and fleeth into one of these cities:
12Then the elders of his city shall send and fetch him thence, and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die.
13Thine eye shall not pity him, but thou shalt put away the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, that it may go well with thee.

The city of refuge was not intended for the man who was guilty of what we would call today premeditated murder or murder with malice . Here is a man. He hates the man so he lies in wait and he kills him. As soon as he kills him, he rushes to the city of refuge and he says, “I am safe.” But the elders of the city where he has his home are instructed by God to send to the city of refuge where he is and bring him out and examine him. If it is found to be true as seems to be indicated that he is guilty of premeditated murder, he is executed on the spot because it is a life for a life. Did you notice what it said in verse 13?

Deuteronomy 19:

13Thine eye shall not pity him, but thou shalt put away the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, that it may go well with thee.

What is this saying? In any nation where there is an utter unconcern for the value of human life, it will not go well with that nation. In our own nation, in states where capital punishment has been abolished, crime is on the increase. In our own nation where there is a careless disregard for human life, other values in life are downgraded as well.

God is practical. He is not only concerned about life in relation to murder; He is concerned about things which are related to everyday living. For example, you may not be guilty ever of taking a gun and blowing somebody's brains out. No, you wouldn't think about doing a thing like that, but you might be guilty of so oppressing the individual concerned that you might as well kill him for he has no means of livelihood. This is what is suggested in verse 14, and God puts it on the same level. He said:

Deuteronomy 19:

14Thou shalt not remove thy neighbour's landmark, which they of old time have set in thine inheritance, which thou shalt inherit in the land that the Lord thy God giveth thee to possess it.

What is He talking about? When they moved into the land of promise, the land was divided among the tribes and then the land was divided among the individuals within the tribe. Landmarks, boundaries, surveyor's stakes were put out so that every man would know exactly where his land was. Now, somebody could steal a claim that had been staked. He could move the landmarks. In this day, it might not make a great deal of difference; but in that day, it could be the difference between life and death. If he did not have a field to till, he would have no food to eat. If he had no food to eat, he would have no life to live. God puts them on the same level, and He said, “Don't move the landmarks.”

I don't think I need to spend time making applications. You can make your own, and realize how in this society of ours, we have drifted far from God's original intent and purpose, because even though we may not put a gun to a person's head, in many devious ways we have robbed them of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Many of us, if we are not careful, are going to be robbed in like fashion.

Look at verse 15. You may say, “Well I thought we were talking about the sanctity of human life.” We are because many people have been unjustly accused. I believe in capital punishment. I would not hesitate if I were firmly convinced in my own mind that a man was guilty of murder to assess the death penalty as the member of a jury. I don't often get an opportunity to serve. As I mentioned to you before, preachers are not very welcome members of juries. As a rule, the prosecution is afraid that the preacher will be too merciful and the defense is afraid he will be too righteous, so he just rules him out. But if I served on a jury which assessed a death penalty, I would want to be sure beyond all reasonable doubt and I mean reasonable doubt in my own mind that the person was worthy of death because I believe eternity will reveal, I believe the judgment bar of God will reveal, that many innocent men have died. It would not be so if we followed the plain teaching of God's Word.

You remember I said to you when we got into these civil laws we might not find anything particularly inspirational, but we would find the roots of our modern jurisprudence which we are very lightly and carelessly surrendering in order to have a more enlightened society. These rules came from God. They did not come from the dark ages of ignorance. They came from an enlightened, holy God. Look at verse 15:

Deuteronomy 19:

15One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established.

What is it? Moses said, “If some crime is committed, do not accept the witness of one man—never. Always there must be two, and in most instances three, witnesses. If such sufficient evidence can not be provided, then the crime cannot be considered to be such.” Then in verse 16, he deals with what we call perjury . A witness in a court of law under oath can perjure himself. If under oath he tells a falsehood, he can be dealt with under the law. God laid that law down. Look at verse 16:

Deuteronomy 19:

16If a false witness rise up against any man to testify against him that which is wrong;
17Then both the men, between whom the controversy is, shall stand before the Lord, before the priests and the judges, which shall be in those days;

That is, if somebody gives testimony and there is reason to believe that the man is not telling the truth, he doesn't take a lie detector test; he goes to the city of Jerusalem where the high priest and the judges are and there the controversy is decided. For in verse 18:

Deuteronomy 19:

18And the judges shall make diligent inquisition: [This means these men made diligent inquiry. They examined all the evidence.] and, behold, if the witness be a false witness, and hath testified falsely against his brother; [if it is proven that the man has perjured himself]
19Then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother…

Pretty strict, isn't it? Moses is saying, “You fellows had better think now when you give a testimony because if you lie, the trouble you hoped to get this man into that you lied about is going to come on your own head.” Every disobedience receives a just recompense or reward.

Why be so careful about this? The answer is in verse 19:

Deuteronomy 19:

19…so shalt thou put the evil away from among you.
20And those which remain shall hear, and fear, and shall henceforth commit no more any such evil among you.
21And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

Someone may say “Joe Temple, don't you know that the Lord Jesus Christ changed all that when He came on the earth?” No, He didn't change all that. He fulfilled it. He amplified it. He said, “Moses was talking about the mere physical act. I am talking about the thought of the heart.” That makes it even worse.

God's Word Calls for Strict Enforcement

This is what I want you to learn from the closing verses of this chapter. The disorder and lawlessness which we suffer, which we endure, in this country is because there is not only no fear of God before the eyes of man; there is no fear of the law because the law has not been enforced. This passage of Scripture says that if the law is strictly enforced according to the suggestions here, then evil shall be put away from you. Men will learn to fear and they will not commit any more such evil among them.

Sometimes you hear debate on this question of capital punishment, and individuals will say, “There is no proof that capital punishment has deterred crime.” Frankly there is proof. There is statistical proof. But even if there were none, we would still say there is because God's Word plainly declares that strict enforcement of the law deters lawlessness. Though you and I may make the wrong evaluation about some things, God never does.

I had hoped that we would be able to get into chapter 20 and on into chapter 21, but there isn't time to do justice to these two chapters, so we will look at them next week. I would like for you to read them very carefully because they are still talking about the same subject—the sanctity of human life. In chapter 20, it is the sanctity of human life in relation to war. No, God does not outlaw war, but God describes how war should be carried on with the minimum loss of life in relation to that war.

I would like for you to look for a spiritual lesson in chapter 20. There is one there, for in this chapter is given not only the practical aspect of warfare in relation to the sanctity of human life, but a marvelous illustration of the encouragement, the warning against entanglements, and the net result of the spiritual warfare in which we are all engaged.

Then in chapter 21, read down to verse 9, because we will try to get to it next week. You will find what happens when a man is found dead and the murderer cannot be located. If you ask God to give you some spiritual insight, you will discover a wonderful illustration in those verses of God's redeeming grace as it is manifested in the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ.

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