JOSHUA - CHAPTER 20
Bible Study - Commentary by Jim Melough
2000 James Melough
“The Lord also spake unto Joshua saying,”
“ Speak to the children of Israel, saying, Appoint out for you cities of
refuge, whereof I spake unto you by the hand of Moses:”
reference to this communication with Moses takes us back to Ex 21:13, where God said,
“I will appoint thee a place whither he (the one who had accidentally killed
another) shall flee,” and in De 4:41, in obedience to that command, “Moses
severed three cities on this side Jordan toward the sunrising (i.e., the wilderness
side, because they hadn’t yet entered Canaan); that the slayer might flee thither,
which should kill his neighbor unawares ... and that fleeing unto one of these cities
he might live.”
in De 19:2 three more cities were to be chosen for the same purpose, on the Canaan
side of Jordan, with the further command given in v.9, “If thou 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.” Thus there were six
cities of refuge, three east of Jordan, and three west of the river, spaced
throughout the land so that no one would ever be far from such a place of refuge.
But regarding the additional three referred to in De 19:9, which would have
made a total of nine, there is no reference to the actual appointment of these final
three cities, for the obvious reason that Israel failed to possess to its fullest
extent the territory described in 1:4.
“That the slayer that killeth any person unawares and unwittingly may flee
thither: and they shall be your refuge from the avenger of blood.”
“And when he that doth flee unto one of those cities shall stand at the
entering of the gate of the city, and shall declare his cause in the ears of the
elders of that city, they shall take him into the city unto them, and give him a
place, that he may dwell among them.”
“And if the avenger of blood pursue after him, then they shall not deliver
the slayer up into his hand; because he smote his neighbor unwittingly, and hated him
not before time.”
“And he shall dwell in that city, until he stand before the congregation for
judgment, and until the death of the high priest that shall be in those days: then
shall the slayer return, and come unto his own city, and unto his own house, unto the
city from whence he fled.”
custom was that the next-of-kin of a murdered man was responsible to avenge the death
by slaying the killer. Where the killing
was accidental, the manslayer could flee into one of those cities, and upon
establishment of the fact that the killing was, in fact, accidental, he could remain
in that city, and be safe from the avenger of blood as long as he remained within the
city boundary; and upon the death of the high priest, he could then return in safety
to his own city. Where the trial
revealed the killing to have been deliberate, there was no further refuge for the
killer. He then became the victim of the
avenger of blood.
invariably commentators have taken the manslayer’s refuge in one of these cities to
be a type of the refuge the believer finds in the Lord Jesus Christ, and while such
an application may be made, there are many factors against its being the correct
very fact of there being six such cities immediately stamps them with the character
of incompleteness, for six is the biblical number of man, sin, weakness, failure,
incompleteness, imperfection. The
restricted, conditional safety found by the manslayer in the city of refuge is a
symbolic picture, not of salvation, but of the safety which man enjoys here on earth
in the course of his life - up to the moment when he hears the Gospel.
The avenger of blood is the law. It
cannot execute its sentence while the man lives here in “the city of refuge,”
i.e., lives on earth, nor can it touch him after he has availed himself of the
freedom secured by the High Priest’s death. He
becomes subject to its sentence only when he goes beyond “the boundary of the city
of refuge,” i.e., when he leaves earth, and goes out into eternity as an
to this is the fact that the refuge was conditional: the refugee must not go beyond
the city boundary. Furthermore it
introduced the man to a less than ideal state: he was away from his family, and from
his inheritance; in addition to which the restrictions upon his liberty were irksome
in the extreme. And finally there was
the possibility that he himself might die before the high priest, so that he would
never return to his family and inheritance. Clearly
this is far from being an ideal picture of the salvation which the believer finds in
demonstrated that this is not a picture of the safety enjoyed by those who have put
their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, it remains to determine what spiritual
significance does attach to this portion of Scripture, for there can be no question
that it hasn’t been recorded simply to gratify curiosity relative to the customs of
task is less difficult than might at first appear.
The primary application is to Israel. He
is the manslayer, and the victim, Christ. Note that in Acts 3:17 Peter assures the people, “I wot (know)
that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers.”
God, willing to view Israel’s murder of Christ as being accidental, done
“through ignorance,” spared them for thirty-eight years, until A.D.70, permitting
them to live as it were in the “city of refuge”, during which time He told them
repeatedly that the death of their true High Priest made possible the remission of
their sins, and their “return to their own city,” i.e., the enjoyment of
millennial Canaan, the land “flowing with the milk and honey.”
The revelation brought by the Gospel, however, placed Israel in a different
position. She was then compelled to see
His death as the means of her salvation, faith in it bringing her pardon, and
enabling her to begin the journey home to her inheritance (first millennial Canaan,
and then heaven); but refusal to acknowledge her guilt, and trust Him as her Messiah
Savior, made her then guilty, not of
accidental, but of premeditated murder.
refused to believe the good news that her High Priest had died on Calvary’s cross,
thus making it possible for her to begin the journey back to her proper place,
heaven. God waited patiently for
thirty-eight years (from A.D.32 till A.D.70), during which He pleaded with her to
repent and be saved, but she refused, with the result that in A.D.70 she found
herself without a “city of refuge.” Jerusalem
was destroyed, and the Jews forced to leave its shelter, to fall by the hand of the
“avenger of blood” - Rome. In the midst of that unbelieving nation, however, there was a
small believing remnant, and they too left “the city of refuge,” but how
different was their departure! They left
to begin the journey, which in spite of much tribulation, would eventually bring them
to their “inheritance” - heaven.
is instructive to note that those thirty-eight years of probabation were foreshadowed
in Israel’s earlier history. Two years
after her deliverance from Egypt she came to the border of Canaan, and discouraged by
the evil report of ten of the twelve spies who had been sent to reconnoiter the land,
she refused to enter, with the result that during the following thirty-eight years
that unbelieving generation died out, while a new generation grew up which did enter.
The type has been fulfilled during this present age. The unbelieving generation (Israel) was dying out during the
thirty-eight years from A.D.32 till A.D.70, but a new “generation”, the nucleus
of the Church, grew up and gladly accepted the blessings forfeited by Israel’s
however, is but the mirror in which God would have each man see himself.
The inheritance and home God wants man to enjoy is heaven, and while man lives
here on earth he is separated from that inheritance and home, just as the manslayer
in the city of refuge was separated from his earthly inheritance and home.
event that removed all restrictions, and restored the man to liberty, to his
inheritance, his home and his family, was the death of the high priest.
But the “high priest” is Christ, and the Gospel is what corresponds to the
announcement of the death of the earthly high priest.
visualize the day when a messenger arrived in the city of refuge and announced that
the high priest had died. That messenger
is the OT counterpart of the evangelist, for the message of the Gospel is that the
death of Christ makes it possible for every believing sinner to start the journey
home to heaven. But not all welcome that
news today, nor perhaps did every refugee within a city of refuge.
It is possible that with the passage of time the manslayer had established a
new life in the city of refuge, and had no desire to return to his inheritance.
The news of the high priest’s death meant nothing to such a man.
Nor does the news of what is available through Christ’s death hold much
appeal for the majority of men today. They
have become so settled down in this “city of refuge,” the world, that heaven
holds no attraction for them. It is as
though the “High Priest” hadn’t died.
for them, as for Israel, the Gospel changes their status.
The Israelite, hearing of the High Priest’s death, but refusing to return to
his inheritance, then became guilty of disobeying God, for the Israelites were
forbidden to abandon their inheritance. He
who hears the Gospel is compelled to see Christ’s death as his salvation; or, in
rejecting Him as Savior, to become guilty of His wilful murder.
In Israel every killer was safe in the city of refuge until a fair trial
revealed that the murder was deliberate. Then
the guilty man had no place of refuge. He
became fair prey for the avenger of blood. So
is it with the man who hears the Gospel, and refuses to trust in Christ.
His refusal denies him any refuge, and while he may elude the avenger for a
few brief years of earthly life, he must inevitably keep that fatal appointment which
takes his body to the grave, and his soul into hell.
is worth noting that there is no record of any high priest ever having died
voluntarily so that a manslayer might return to his own city; but that is exactly
what the Lord Jesus Christ has done. He
came down here to this “city of refuge” for the sole purpose of dying, so that
sinners might begin the journey home to heaven.
general thought connected with these cities of refuge appears to be that which has to
do with our responsibility in the Gospel, for while each city provided a place of
refuge for the manslayer, it must not be forgotten that those cities belonged to
Israelites, themselves types of believers. The
lesson is clear: here on this earth, given to us, but not yet possessed, and
providing a city of refuge for sinners, we are responsible to be witnesses to them
that the spiritual truths embodied in the meanings of these names are not mere
shibboleths on our lips, but living realities governing our lives.
“And they appointed Kedesh in Galilee in mount Naphtali, and Shechem in
mount Ephraim, and Kirjath-arba, which is Hebron, in the mountain of Judah.”
always in the OT, the spiritual lesson is conveyed in the meanings of the names of
the people and places involved.
means a sanctuary; Galilee, a circuit as enclosed, or rolled around; and Naphtali, my
wrestling: my tortuosity.
noted already, the cities of refuge represent various aspects of the safety enjoyed
by the sinner here on earth. The message
of Kedesh is clear: in the selection of this city to be the first of the cities of
refuge, God would remind men that life here on earth is to them what Kedesh was to
every man guilty of having shed the blood of another.
We caused Christ’s death. Had
we not sinned, He need not have died. But
Kedesh was a sanctuary only until the manslayer heard of the death of the high
priest. Then he was responsible to begin
the journey to his own city. So is it
here on earth. Those who hear the Gospel
- the good news that the true High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ, has died for our
sins - are responsible to believe it, and by trusting Him as Savior, begin the
journey to their own city, heaven.
other lesson may be connected with Galilee, one obvious one is that this world, which
affords a sanctuary for the sinner only during his brief earthly life, is not going
to offer that safety for ever. The
ceaseless circuit of the years brings every man to the day when he must leave this
sanctuary, and go out into eternity either as a believer to enter “his own city,”
or as an unbeliever, guilty, condemned, to enter hell, and then for all eternity, the
lake of fire.
the location of Kedesh is further specified: it was in mount Naphtali, my
wrestling: my tortuosity. The
spiritual message isn’t difficult to read. This
world is also the place of man’s tortuous wrestling, certainly with the
circumstances of life, but more particularly a wrestling with himself when confronted
with the facts of the Gospel. The voice
of a convicted conscience warns him of the need to save his soul by trusting in
Christ, but the voice of Satan, through the appeal of earthly things such as money,
popularity, pleasure, ease, etc., leaves him torn between these things immediately
available, and the distant prospect of what he thinks to be heaven’s uncertain
blessings. Only eternity will reveal the
multitudes who have died in the midst of that wrestling, hesitating between two
opinions, by default not trusting Christ, thereby choosing hell and the lake of fire.
would have sinners see in us those whose
lives are the demonstration of the truth that through faith in Christ, we have
entered, not into a mere earthly sanctuary, but into one that is eternal.
He would have us demonstrate that within the circuit of the flying years our
wrestling is not for earth’s fleeting riches, but against the unseen forces of
darkness for eternal treasure.
second city of refuge was Shechem, shoulder literally early rising: diligence,
in mount Ephraim, double ash-heap: I shall be doubly fruitful.
is the first place mentioned in connection with Abraham after he entered Canaan, a
fact which makes interpretation of this type relatively easy in view of what is
recorded in Lk 15:5 concerning the recovery of the lost sheep, “And when he hath
found it, he layeth it on his shoulders.” Abraham’s entering Canaan represents the moment of conversion,
and Canaan represents the realm of faith. The
pardoned sinner finds himself spiritually in “Canaan,”
at “Shechem shoulder,” on the
shoulder of the Good Shepherd, the place of security and strength.
“I give unto them eternal life: and they shall never perish, neither shall
any man pluck them out of my hand. My
Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out
of my Father’s hand. I and my Father
are one” Jn 10:28-30.
sinner comes to that place, however, only as he exercises the “early rising” or
“diligence” of which Shechem also speaks to press into the kingdom in spite of
all Satan’s attempts to prevent his leaving the broad way that leads to
destruction, and his entering in at the “strait (narrow) gate” that leads to
mount Ephraim.” Since a mountain is
the Biblical symbol of a king and/or kingdom, this reference to the “mount”
speaks of the change that accompanies conversion.
The believer moves out of the kingdom of Satan into the higher kingdom of God.
But its being specifically the mount of Ephraim reminds us, that as believers,
we are brought into that kingdom which is far above all the petty things of earth, in
order to produce fruit for God’s glory, and our own eternal reward.
There is no contradiction between the two meanings of Ephraim, for the
ash-heap measured the size and importance of the city: the bigger the ash-heap, the
bigger and richer the city. Nor is that
fact irrelevant to the matter of spiritual fruitfulness, for the fact is that our
spiritual wealth will be in direct proportion to the extent that we are willing to
count earthly things as being fit only for the ash-heap.
This is the declaration of Paul, “But what things were gain to me, those I
counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless,
and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus
my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung,
that I may win Christ,” Php 3:7-8.
sinners to whom we preach the Gospel will be little impressed if they see us clinging
to the very same worthless things we are telling them they must give up in order to
enter the kingdom.
Kirjath-arba, which is Hebron, in the mountain of Judah.”
Kirjath-arba means city of four,” and as noted in previous studies,
it had an interesting and instructive history. To
recap briefly: in Canaanite hands it was the city of a king called Arba four,
who is described in Jsh 15:13 as the father of Anak, neck-chain: long-necked,
this father and son combining to present a symbolic picture of the men of earth, and
the bondage in which they are held by pride.
by Caleb a dog: whole-hearted, its name was changed to Hebron communion.
Caleb represents that humble spirit which is willing to occupy the low place
of a mere dog, but which is whole-hearted in its zeal for God.
His capture of Kirjath-arba, and its change of name to Hebron, speak of the
annihilation of pride which must take place before there can be communion with God.
appointment of Hebron as the third city of refuge points to the fact that there can
be no communion with God until all pride is abandoned.
the mountain of Judah.”
means he will be praised, and as the name of the tribe to which Hebron
belonged, the lesson being taught is that communion and praise cannot be separated.
Gospel truths will make little impression on the unconverted if they see in us, proud
men and women whose communion is more with the world than with God, and from whose
lips come expressions of doubt, fear, worry, complaint, etc., rather than the praise
that should be the response of the redeemed heart for God’s “unspeakable gift.”
“And on the other side Jordan by Jericho eastward, they assigned Bezer in
the wilderness upon the plain out of the tribe of Reuben, and Ramoth in Gilead out of
the tribe of Gad, and Golan in Bashan out of the tribe of Manasseh.”
noted in our studies of the early chapters of Joshua, the portions assigned to the
two and a half tribes on the east or wilderness side of Jordan represent all the
spiritual blessings we have as believers, but with the emphasis upon those blessings
as they affect our everyday lives - our jobs, our families, etc.
The portion that is ours in Christ enables us to walk in the enjoyment of
peace even in the midst of adversity, loss, bereavement, etc.
portions assigned on the western or Canaan side of Jordan, however, represent those
same blessings, not in relation to everyday living, but rather as something to be
enjoyed in our spirits, and altogether apart from the things that make up our daily
living. They represent, for example, the
pleasure derived just from the study of the Word; from being made sharers of God’s
counsels; from anticipation of the Rapture; anticipation of entering heaven and
seeing the Lord face to face; anticipation of reigning with Christ, etc.
These, and a host of similar intangible pleasures, are the counterpart
of the portions assigned the tribes on the Canaan side of Jordan.
cities of refuge assigned on the wilderness side of Jordan, are meant to teach us
lessons relative to the earthly and practical benefits of salvation, just as those on
the Canaan side would teach us lessons relative to the spiritual value of
represents death - our death with Christ, and also the actual death that ends our
earthly journey and transports us to heaven; and in the present context the latter is
clearly the death being emphasized. The
lessons have to do with experiences here on earth, on this side of physical death.
Jericho, meaning fragrance, we have already seen to represent the glory
and grandeur of the world as perceived by man; and significantly it is
“eastward,” the direction that speaks of sin and departure from God, an apt
description of this evil world in which man’s lot is cast, but in which a gracious
God provides him with “a city of refuge,” a period of grace in which to save
himself from hell, and fit himself for heaven, by trusting in Christ as his Savior.
meaning munition, is the first city of refuge east of Jordan, and the meaning
here is not the modern, but the archaic one, i.e., rampart or defence.
The lesson is easily read. Here
on earth the sinner is “in Bezer,” he is protected by the rampart of grace
until the moment when he rejects Christ as his Savior.
Then his defence is gone. There
is no hope for the man who rejects the Savior.
we see why it is said to be “by Jericho.” It
is here in the world represented by Jericho that God has provided a “Bezer” for
sinners. And its being further described
as “in the wilderness” adds the reminder that this world, seen by sin-blinded
eyes as a place of magnificence and splendor, is in reality a spiritual wilderness,
eventually to be destroyed by the judgment of God.
being in the territory of Reuben see ye, a son, declares a further truth, for
as Jacob’s firstborn, Reuben represents man in his natural state, unfit for heaven,
and requiring to be born again through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
All men are spiritual “Reubens” - they need to be born again; and it is
for them that God has provided “Bezer,” a period of grace in which to repent and
trust in Christ, so that those who are now the children of Satan Jn 8:44, might
become the sons of God 1 Jn 3:1-2.
in Gilead out of the tribe of Gad” is the second city of refuge east of Jordan.
Ramoth means heights: coral; Gilead, heap of witness: rolling for
ever; and Gad, an invader: a troop: fortune.
two meanings of Ramoth heights and coral, are not as disparate as might
at first appear, for coral was high in value, see Strong’s Concordance.
As representative of an aspect of the grace extended to man in which to repent
and trust the Savior, Ramoth would appear to speak of the high value God sets upon a
human soul, “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose
his own soul?” Mk 8:36. God in His
grace would have man learn the value of his soul, and in learning that value, learn
also the imperative of trusting Christ as the only way to save that precious soul
from eternal ruin.
heap of witness: rolling for ever speaks of Calvary, for Calvary is the
witness, not only to God’s love, but also to man’s ruin; and the value of the
work so perfectly completed there will “roll for ever,” not only before God, but
also before redeemed and lost alike, evoking the eternal worship of the one, and the
eternal remorse of the other. It is here
on earth, in the “Gilead” of God’s grace, that He would have men learn the
value of Christ’s death, and the imperative of trusting Him as Savior.
being in the territory of Gad, an invader: a troop: fortune, is also easily
deciphered. Here on earth, where God so
graciously provides a period of grace in which men may save themselves, is also the
sphere of the malignant activity of the invader, Satan, and his troops of evil
spirits, bent upon the destruction of men’s souls.
In the present context, therefore, fortune is to be understood in the
sense of destiny: fate: providence. That
period of grace provided by a God Who is unwilling that any should perish, is a
veritable time of destiny. In it man
responds to the appeal of the Gospel, or the allurement of Satan, and his response
determines the eternal destiny of his soul.
third city is “Golan in Bashan out of the tribe of Manasseh.” Golan means their captivity: rejoicing; Bashan, the
shame of them: the fertile: the one in sleep; and Manasseh, causing to forget.
of these meanings are easily interpreted. Here
on earth, where God has graciously provided a “city of refuge,” a time of grace
given men in which to choose whether they will accept Christ as Savior, is also the
place of their captivity to sin and Satan; but to those who trust Christ, it becomes
the place of their rejoicing.
adds further details relative to men in their natural state: their sinful deeds make
their state one of shame; while the condition of humanity in its rebellion against
God declares all too loudly how fertile man has been in producing evil.
But in the midst of all his evil activity man is as “one in sleep.”
In his spiritually dead state, he is oblivious both of his condition, and of
the awful future that awaits him, unless he trusts in Christ.
significance of its being in the territory of Manasseh is also easily read: the
period of grace given sinners here on earth is a time in which Satan would cause them
to forget the warnings of Scripture, e.g., “It is appointed unto men once to die,
but after this the judgment,” Heb 9:27. Faith
in Christ, however, introduces the believer into that happy state in which he can
emulate Paul who wrote, “This one thing I do, forgetting those things which are
behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press towards the
mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus,” Php 3:13-14.
“These were the cities appointed for all the children of Israel, and for the
stranger that sojourneth among them, that whosoever killeth any person at unawares
might flee thither, and not die by the hand of the avenger of blood, until he stood
before the congregation.”
as the cities furnished a refuge for Israel, and for the strangers among them, God
would remind us that Jew and Gentile alike need a Savior, and He has demonstrated His
love for both in that He has given His Son to die for both.
noted already, Christ is the One Whom men, in their blindness, have killed; but the
measureless grace of God is such that for Jew and Gentile alike, He is willing to
count that slaying an act committed “unawares,” see Ac 3:17.
But the manslayer’s flight to a city of refuge was followed by a trial to
determine whether the murder had been accidental.
Where it was found to have been deliberate, the guilty killer was handed over
to die by the hand of the avenger of blood. This
is the symbolic foreshadowing of the truth that once a man has been presented with
the Gospel, and then refuses to accept Christ as Savior, he becomes
guilty, not of accidental, but of deliberate murder.
He then becomes the one to whom Heb 10:26-27 applies, “For if we sin
wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no
more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery
indignation, which shall devour the adversaries.”
is not men’s sins that consign them to hell and the lake of fire: it is refusal to
accept God’s pardon, a pardon He is able to offer on a righteous basis, only
because of Christ’s death.