“Jehovah is redeeming the life of his servants; none of those taking refuge in him will be found guilty.”—PS. 34:22.
1. Because of sin, what feelings are common among God’s faithful servants?
“MISERABLE man that I am!” (Rom. 7:24) Many of God’s faithful servants have echoed those words of the apostle Paul. We all suffer from inherited sin, and when our actions do not reflect our keen desire to please Jehovah, we may feel miserable. Some Christians who have committed a serious sin have even felt that they are beyond God’s forgiveness.
2 Nevertheless, the Scriptures assure us that those who take refuge in Jehovah do not need to feel overwhelmed by guilt. (Read Psalm 34:22.) What does taking refuge in Jehovah involve? What steps must we take in order to receive Jehovah’s mercy and forgiveness? We learn the answers to those questions by considering the arrangement of cities of refuge in ancient Israel. True, that arrangement was instituted under the Law covenant, which was replaced at Pentecost 33 C.E. Remember, though, that the Law came from Jehovah. So from the arrangement of the cities of refuge, we learn Jehovah’s view of sin, sinners, and repentance. First, let us get an overview of the purpose and function of these cities.
“SELECT FOR YOURSELVES THE CITIES OF REFUGE”
3. How did the Israelites handle cases of willful murder?
3 Jehovah took seriously all cases of bloodshed in ancient Israel. Willful murderers were put to death by the victim’s nearest male relative, known as “the avenger of blood.” (Num. 35:19) This act atoned for the innocent human blood that had been spilled. Swift execution protected the Promised Land from becoming defiled, for Jehovah commanded: “You must not pollute the land in which you live, for [the shedding of human] blood pollutes the land.”—Num. 35:33, 34.
4. How were cases of accidental bloodshed handled in Israel?
4 How, though, did the Israelites handle cases of accidental bloodshed? Although his deed was accidental, an unintentional manslayer was still guilty of shedding innocent blood. (Gen. 9:5) Mercifully, however, he was allowed to flee from the avenger of blood to one of the six cities of refuge. There, he could find protection. The unintentional manslayer had to remain in the city of refuge until the high priest’s death.—Num. 35:15, 28.
5. How can the arrangement of the cities of refuge help us to understand Jehovah better?
5 Designating these cities as cities of refuge was not a human idea. Jehovah himself commanded Joshua: “Tell the Israelites, ‘Select for yourselves the cities of refuge.’” The cities were given “a sacred status.” (Josh. 20:1, 2, 7, 8) Since Jehovah was directly involved in setting these cities apart for special use, we might ask: How does this arrangement help us to have a clearer view of Jehovah’s mercy? And what does it teach us about how we can take refuge in him today?
“HE MUST . . . PRESENT HIS CASE IN THE HEARING OF THE ELDERS”
6, 7. (a) Describe the role of the elders in judging an unintentional manslayer. (See opening picture.) (b) Why was it wise for a fugitive to approach the elders?
6 After he accidentally killed someone, a fugitive first had to “present his case in the hearing of the elders” at the gate of the city of refuge to which he had fled. He was to be received hospitably. (Josh. 20:4) Some time later, he was sent back to the elders of the city where the killing had occurred, and those elders judged the case. (Read Numbers 35:24, 25.) Only after they had declared the killing accidental would the fugitive be returned to the city of refuge.
7 Why were the elders involved? They were to keep the congregation of Israel clean and to help the unintentional manslayer to benefit from Jehovah’s mercy. One Bible scholar wrote that if the fugitive neglected to approach the elders, “it was at his peril.” He added: “His blood was on his own head, because he did not make use of the security God had provided for him.” Help was available to the unintentional manslayer, but he had to seek out and accept that help. If he did not seek refuge in one of the cities Jehovah had set aside, the closest relative of the person he had killed was free to put him to death.
8, 9. Why should a Christian guilty of serious sin approach the elders for help?
8 Today, a Christian guilty of serious sin needs to seek the help of congregation elders to recover. Why is this so important? First, the arrangement for elders to handle cases of serious sin comes from Jehovah, as outlined in his Word. (Jas. 5:14-16) Second, this arrangement fortifies repentant wrongdoers to remain in God’s care and to avoid a pattern of sin. (Gal. 6:1; Heb. 12:11) Third, elders are commissioned and trained to reassure repentant sinners, helping to ease their pain and guilt. Jehovah calls these older men “a refuge from the rainstorm.” (Isa. 32:1, 2, ftn.) Would you not agree that this arrangement is an expression of God’s mercy?
9 Many of God’s servants have discovered the relief that comes from seeking and receiving help from the elders. A brother named Daniel, for example, committed a serious sin, but for several months he hesitated to approach the elders. “After so much time had gone by,” he admits, “I thought that there wasn’t anything the elders could do for me anymore. Still, I was always looking over my shoulder, waiting for the consequences of my actions. And when I prayed to Jehovah, I felt that I had to preface everything with an apology for what I had done.” Finally, Daniel sought the help of the elders. Looking back, he says: “Sure, I was scared to approach them. But afterward, it seemed as if someone had lifted a huge weight off my shoulders. Now, I feel that I can approach Jehovah without anything being in the way.” Today, Daniel has a clean conscience, and he was recently appointed as a ministerial servant.
“HE MUST FLEE TO ONE OF THESE CITIES”
10. To receive mercy, what decisive action did an unintentional manslayer have to take?
10 An unintentional manslayer had to take action to receive mercy. He had to flee to the nearest city of refuge. (Read Joshua 20:4.) We cannot imagine the fugitive being indifferent; his life depended on his reaching that city as soon as possible and remaining there! This meant sacrifice on his part. He had to leave behind his previous employment, the comforts of home, and the freedom to travel—until the death of the high priest.* (Num. 35:25) But such inconveniences were worth the effort. If he were to leave the city, the fugitive would show a callous indifference toward the lifeblood he had shed, and his own life would be in danger.
11. What actions of a repentant Christian show that he has not taken God’s mercy for granted?
11 To benefit from God’s mercy, repentant wrongdoers today must likewise take action. We must completely abandon the sinful course, fleeing not only from serious sin but also from the lesser sins that often lead to gross wrongdoing. Under inspiration, the apostle Paul described the actions of repentant Christians in Corinth. He wrote: “What a great earnestness your being saddened in a godly way produced in you, yes, clearing of yourselves, yes, indignation, yes, fear, yes, earnest desire, yes, zeal, yes, righting of the wrong!” (2 Cor. 7:10, 11) Earnest actions to abandon a sinful course show Jehovah that we are not complacent, that we have not presumed on his mercy.
12. A Christian may need to give up what in order to continue to receive divine mercy?
12 What might a Christian need to give up in order to continue to receive divine mercy? He must be prepared to give up even what is dear to him if it would put him in danger of falling into sin. (Matt. 18:8, 9) If certain friends influence you to do things that displease Jehovah, will you cut off association with them? If you struggle to be moderate in your use of alcoholic beverages, are you willing to steer clear of situations that might tempt you to overdrink? If you battle sexually immoral desires, are you avoiding any movies, websites, or activities that may trigger unclean thoughts? Remember, any sacrifice we make to keep our integrity to Jehovah is worth it. Nothing stings more than feeling abandoned by him. At the same time, nothing is more satisfying than feeling his “everlasting loyal love.”—Isa. 54:7, 8.
“THEY WILL SERVE AS A REFUGE FOR YOU”
13. Explain why a fugitive could feel safe, secure, and happy within the city of refuge.
13 Once inside a city of refuge, the fugitive was safe. Regarding those cities, Jehovah said: “They will serve as a refuge for you.” (Josh. 20:2, 3) Jehovah did not require the manslayer to be judged again for the same case; nor was the avenger of blood permitted to enter the city and take the fugitive’s life. The fugitive thus never had to fear reprisal. While in the city, he was safe and secure under Jehovah’s protection. This was not a prison of refuge. The city offered him an opportunity to work, to help others, and to serve Jehovah in peace. Yes, a happy and fulfilling life was possible!
14. What confidence can a repentant Christian have?
14 Some of God’s people who sinned grievously but who repented have felt “imprisoned” by their guilt, even feeling that Jehovah will forever view them as tainted by gross wrongdoing. If you feel that way, please be assured that when Jehovah forgives you, you can feel secure in his mercy! Daniel, quoted earlier, found this to be true. After the elders had corrected him and helped him to regain a clear conscience, he said: “I felt that I could breathe again. After the matter was handled properly, I didn’t have to feel guilty anymore. Once the sin is gone, it’s gone. As Jehovah said, he takes your burdens away and puts them far away from you. You will never have to see them again.” Once inside the city of refuge, a fugitive no longer needed to look over his shoulder for the avenger of blood. Similarly, once Jehovah has forgiven our sin, we do not need to fear that he is looking for a reason to bring up that sin again or to judge us for it.—Read Psalm 103:8-12.
15, 16. How can Jesus’ role as Ransomer and High Priest strengthen your confidence in God’s mercy?
15 In fact, we have even greater reason than the Israelites had for confidence in Jehovah’s mercy. After Paul expressed his misery for failing to obey Jehovah perfectly, he exclaimed: “Thanks to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:25) Yes, despite his struggle with sin and his past wrongdoing—for which he had repented—Paul was confident in God’s forgiveness through Jesus. As our Ransomer, Jesus cleanses our consciences and gives us inner peace. (Heb. 9:13, 14) As our High Priest, “he is able also to save completely those who are approaching God through him, because he is always alive to plead for them.” (Heb. 7:24, 25) If the role of the high priest reassured the Israelites that their sins would be forgiven, how much more so should the services of our High Priest, Jesus, reassure us that “we may receive mercy and find undeserved kindness to help us at the right time.”—Heb. 4:15, 16.
16 To take refuge in Jehovah, then, exercise faith in Jesus’ sacrifice. Do not simply acknowledge the ransom’s value in helping vast numbers of people. Rather, have faith that the ransom applies to you. (Gal. 2:20, 21) Have faith that the ransom is the basis for forgiving your sins. Have faith that the ransom offers you the hope of eternal life. Jesus’ sacrifice is Jehovah’s gift to you.
17. Why do you want to take refuge in Jehovah?
17 The cities of refuge are a reflection of Jehovah’s mercy. Through this arrangement, God not only emphasized the sacredness of life but also illustrated how the elders assist us, what true repentance involves, and why we can be completely confident of Jehovah’s forgiveness. Are you taking refuge in Jehovah? There is no safer place to be! (Ps. 91:1, 2) In the next article, we will see how the cities of refuge can help us to imitate Jehovah’s superlative example of justice and mercy.
According to Jewish reference works, the unintentional manslayer’s immediate family evidently joined him in the city of refuge.