The Scriptorium

Cities of Refuge

Israel needed them. So do we. Deuteronomy 19.1-13

A Holy Nation (2): Deuteronomy 19-21 (1)

Opening Prayer: Psalm 115.1-3
Not unto us, O LORD, not unto us,
But to Your name give glory,
Because of Your mercy,
Because of Your truth.
Why should the Gentiles say,
“So where is their God?”
But our God is in heaven;
He does whatever He pleases.

Psalm 115.1-3

(Plainfield: Nothing but the Blood of Jesus)
Not to us, O God, not us, but unto Your Name give glory!
For Your love and faithfulness, ever to Your Name be glory!
Why should the nations cry, "Where is their God on high?"
You rule us, Lord, on high: Ever to Your Name be glory!

Today’s Text: Deuteronomy 19.1-13

1. What was the purpose of the cities of refuge?

2. How do you think having such cities would contribute to Israel’s sense of being a nation?

The cities of refuge were just that, places of safety to which innocent people could flee when needed, to prevent injustice being perpetrated against them. The text gives an example of how one who is the cause, accidentally, of his neighbor’s death could flee to a city of refuge to avoid the anger of his neighbor’s friends and family. Three cities of refuge were to be determined, and the people were to construct good roads to them from all parts of the land (vv. 1-7). As the nation’s territory grew, three more cities of refuge were to be created (vv. 8-10).

Those who fled to a city of refuge, and were properly received there, must remain until the death of the high priest (Num. 35.25). This would give time for justice to be deliberated and hearts and minds to calm down. But the refugee must remain in the city, and not wander from it, lest he fall victim to the “avenger of blood,” who would not be held guilty in that case (Num. 35.26-28).

Justice is not a matter of individual judgment. If it were, rage and revenge would rule the day, instead of careful deliberation and patient sifting through facts. We see in our own day what happens when everyone feels free to define the terms of “justice” and take matters into their own hands to achieve their view. The nation of Israel was set up, locally and nationally, to ensure that just procedures were followed to achieve justice as defined by God, not men.

There would always be those who would try to “game” the system (vv. 11-13). But if the judges and officials of the cities of the towns of Israel would act according to the Law of God, justice ultimately would prevail.

But for this to happen, the people had to have a heart for God. And they did not. Not yet (Deut. 5.29). The day was coming when God would give them a proper heart (Deut. 30.1-10). We who are God’s people today, who have His Spirit working in our new heart (Ezek. 36.26, 27), have much to learn about justice, righteousness, holiness, and love by being well-grounded in the Law of God.

Treasure Old and New: Matthew 13.52; Psalm 119.162
Three cities of refuge were required; when the area was enlarged, another three cities were to be added.

How many cities do you think we would need to cover our propensity for hate?

Jesus said, ““You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment” (Matt. 5.21, 22). John told us, “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer…” (1 Jn. 3.14, 15) Plainly we can see that multiple places of refuge are needed just for our own sins! Because not only is hatred construed as murder, but a lack of love is seen as the same.

But we need much more than a temporal city of refuge. For this magnitude of sin, we need a Savior. Refuge is a condition of being safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger, or trouble. In Jesus, we are spared from the wrath of God. Through Jesus, God is able to love and forgive us. “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him” (Rom. 5.8, 9).

“How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!
What more could He say than to you He has said,
to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?”


1. How does Jesus serve as a “city of refuge” for us? What’s the difference between us who need such a refuge, and those who would have fled to a city of refuge in ancient Israel?

2. What does it mean to “shelter” in Jesus? How would you help a believer who was weighed down with sin to find refuge in Jesus?

3. The foundation we need for our faith is laid down in God’s Word, with Jesus as the cornerstone (cf. Eph. 2.19-22). What does this suggest about why and how we should read and study God’s Word?

Courts of judgment were to be set up in every city. Though their judgment had not the Divine authority of an oracle, it was the judgment of wise, prudent, experienced men, and had the advantage of a Divine promise.
Moses repeats the same precepts which we have just been considering, that, in regard to murders, the people should distinguish between inadvertency and crime. With this view, he assigns six cities, wherein those who have proved their innocence before the judges should rest in peace and concealment. John Calvin (1509-1564), Commentary on Deuteronomy 19.

Lord, ground me so firmly in Your Word, that I may always know the right and just thing to do as I…

Closing Prayer: Psalm 115.4-18
Wait on the Lord in prayer, that He may show you any drift in your soul, away from Him and toward idols. Repent and return to the Lord, rejoicing in Him and His salvation.

Psalm 115.4-18
(Plainfield: Nothing but the Blood of Jesus)
Idols made by men's own hand – ever to Your Name be glory –
see nor hear nor understand – ever to Your Name be glory!
They neither feel nor walk, nor can they speak or talk;
all those who serve them fall, but unto Your Name be glory!

All who trust in Jesus yield – ever to His Name be glory! –
find in Him their help and shield – ever to Your Name be glory!
O Israel, trust the Lord!  He helps us evermore!
Fear Him obey His Word: Ever to Your Name be glory!

Blessings from our gracious Lord – ever to Your Name be glory –
will attend us evermore – ever to Your Name be glory!
Bless all who fear You, Lord, all who obey Your Word,
all who Your Name adore: Ever to Your Name be glory!

Grant us, Savior, great increase – ever to Your Name be glory!
Bless us with eternal peace – ever to Your Name be glory!
Heaven and earth are Yours; let every soul adore
and bless You evermore: Ever to Your Name be glory!

T. M. and Susie Moore

Listen to our summary of last week’s study in Deuteronomy by clicking here. You can download all the studies in the series by clicking here.

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. All quotations from Church Fathers from
Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy: Ancient Christian Commentary Series III, Joseph T. Lienhard, S. J. ed. in collaboration with Ronnie J. Rombs, General Editor Thomas C. Oden (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001). All quotations from John Calvin from John Calvin, Commentaries on The Four Last Books of Moses Arranged in the Order of A Harmony, Rev. Charles William Bingham M. A., tr. and ed. (Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1863. All psalms for singing are from The Ailbe Psalter (available by clicking here).

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT.
Books by T. M. Moore