What does it mean that God is our “refuge?”

Monastery of the Temptation, Jericho

There is nowhere God is not. His presence permeates this world in a way that none of us can grasp, even as the finer theological minds have attempted to do so: Willard says we live in a “God-bathed world;” Sonderegger says God cannot be “located…as an object,” but instead lives fully and harmoniously throughout the universe as completely present. God is emphatically here.

So if God is omnipresent, why does Scripture tell us to go to him, to run to him? Often, the authors of the Bible tell us about temples, courts, houses, and fields where God “is” and where they desire to be as well. What does it mean to go to God when God is everywhere?

A helpful term comes from the Psalmists: “refuge.” Of course this Hebrew word is all over the Old Testament, but the Psalm writers of ancient Israel love it. They employ it (depending on your translation) 47 times, which is the most in all of Scripture. In addition to this, the Psalms often use other phrases and terms that are synonymous with the idea of a refuge: being protected in sleep (Psalm 3:5–6, 4:8), eating in safety (Psalm 23:5), being protected against injustice (Psalm 10:17–18), and being given favor in war (Psalm 20:7–9).

But the term “refuge” is worth examining as it speaks to an important element of Christian belief: the relationship between God’s presence and our protection. Darrell Johnson has said, “Because you cannot take refuge from God, Scripture invites us to take refuge in God.” And both of these statements are good news: you cannot run from God, so run to God. You cannot hide from God, so hide in God. However you want to say it, the term “refuge” reminds us that God’s protective presence is always available.

What does it mean to take refuge in God?

A refuge is a place of rest

“Let me dwell in your tent forever!” cries the Psalmist, “Let me take refuge under the shelter of your wings” (Psalm 61:4). “Look to the right and see: there is none who takes notice of me,” writes another, “no refuge remains to me; no one cares for my soul. I cry to you, O Lord; I say, “You are my refuge; my portion in the land of the living” (Psalm 142:4–5). When we are tired and weary, lacking direction and hope, God himself acts as a place to rest. If we have nowhere to turn, we can turn to God himself. Again, because you cannot take refuge from God, you take refuge in God.

When your habits of rest, mindfulness, and margin run out (all trending words right now), it is time to bow your knees in prayer, fast, and cry out to the Lord for refuge in his ever-permeating presence. The beauty is that we do not need to “go” to him in the geographic sense — no running to a temple needed, no pilgrimage to a holy site or sanctuary. He himself is the sanctuary. He alone is the temple. When Christ died on the cross, the veil of the Jewish temple was ripped apart because, at that point, the dwelling place of God went wild (Matthew 27:51, Mark 15:38, Luke 23:45). Unleashed upon the human race for all those who claim Christ, the presence of God is no longer limited to a physical location (Ezekiel 36:27, 37:14). You want rest? Enter into God’s rest (Hebrews 4:1–13). We join the Psalmist as he says, “Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge” (Psalm 16:1).

A refuge is a place of protection

Most commonly in the Psalms, a “refuge,” is a place of protection: both physical and spiritual. David and other writers of the Psalms had their fair share of enemies. Foreign nations, betrayers, critics, and heretics were all coming for them. But they also understood their enemies to be spiritual, lofting attacks that would not just hurt their body but destroy their faith in Yahweh. God was their protection from all kinds of harm.

“Wondrously show your steadfast love, O Savior of those who seek refuge from their adversaries at your right hand” (Psalm 17:7). Again: “The Lord helps them and delivers them; he delivers them from the wicked and saves them, because they take refuge in him” (Psalm 37:40). The Psalmist has confidence in Yahweh “for you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy” (Psalm 61:3).

Do you feel a lack of protection? Are you in a position of vulnerability and weakness? Do you sense that you are surrounded by evil doers? You have company in the Psalms and you can have assurance that God himself will protect you. God is our protective refuge because there is no place God is not — he accompanies us through famine, war, and pestilence, through suffering and harm. Most dramatically, he even accompanies us to death.

In one of the more famous Psalms, the writer concludes, “I can never escape from your Spirit! I can never get away from your presence! If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I go down to the grave, you are there” (Psalm 139:7–8). God will offer you protection and refuge even as your body fails you. He accompanies us to death. How can we be sure? Once again, the cross shows us proof that God is well acquainted with death. Through Christ, we see God going to death itself — even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6–8). He didn’t just look at death, he doesn’t just know about death — he has died. More, he is risen! So he relieves death’s grip. If he’s been there before and conquered it, we can trust he’ll be with us through anything. God’s protection does not end or run out when our body fails. He goes before us in death, shows himself victorious, and raises us with him in Christ (Romans 6:4, Ephesians 2:6, Colossians 3:1). God protects us—even in death.

A refuge is a place of salvation

Finally and fully, a refuge is a place where your life is saved. You are spared. Danger is not only avoided, it is abandoned in the safety of the structure under which you hide. If you had not gone to the refuge, you would have died. This is our life in Christ: had we not come to him, our refuge, we would have died. And if we do not continually come to him, we will surely perish. This is what salvation is — nothing more and nothing less. Christian salvation includes (but is not limited to) complete spiritual safety. “In this world you will have trouble,” Jesus says, “but take heart. I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Always remember that salvation is not a nice thing that happens to you when you die, salvation spares you from spiritual danger and eternal death. To be “saved” is to be rescued from peril. It’s a life-or-death move of God that brings us to eternal living.

“Be to me a rock of refuge,” begins Psalm 71, “to which I may continually come; you have given the command to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress” (Psalm 71:3). The saving nature of the refuge is constantly available to us. You do not hide in God once, you live “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). The Psalmist (once again) says, “Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place — the Most High, who is my refuge — no evil shall be allowed to befall you” (Psalm 91:9). Each day, we take refuge in God, confident whatever danger comes our way, we shall not be overcome. We are hidden in the refuge.

Cities of Refuge

A perfect analogy to close with is actually found in Scripture’s first mention of the term “refuge,” in the book of Numbers. The fourth book in your Bible, this book involves cautionary tales, ancient laws, and beautiful songs.

In the second to last chapter of this book, Moses tells his people that God has fixed various physical and national boundaries for Israel. Yahweh himself outlines the places the City of God will extend and where it will end. But in this, God makes a seemingly strange concession:

“When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan,” God says, “then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you (Numbers 35:11).” There’s our word — its first mention. God says that within his land there will be cities set apart for “refuge.” Why? He continues, saying these cities will be where “the manslayer” will go, that anyone “who kills any person without intent may flee there” (Numbers 35:11).

God goes on to say that those who kill with any intention of any kind need to only go to the city of refuge until a fair trial is given. Once the fair trial is given, if they’re found guilty, the murderer is to be put to death.

But, if someone kills someone without intent — an accident of some sort occurs wherein someone dies tragically — the people are to “restore him to his city of refuge to which he had fled, and he shall live in it until the death of the high priest” (Numbers 35:25). There, the survivor of the accident will be safe from any retribution, free from danger, and away from a community that reminds them of the shame that comes with a horrific incident.

I have long loved this passage. I have used it when counseling those involved in unthinkable accidents. And I take comfort that this is the character and nature of the God who the Psalmists sung about — he is the God of refuge. He is the one who grants safety and protection to those who need it. This God is so gracious that, when he was developing the boundaries of his city, he thought of those who would need a very specific kind of protection and decides to provide it through his own divine command. Make room, he says, for the one who needs to hide in a shelter of grace, away from the crowd. Make room to hide in Me.

As Christians, we do not need such a city; Jesus Christ is our City of Refuge, the safe protection we run to when we need salvation from shame, dishonor, and terror. God, in Christ, has set up for us not a physical boundary of protection, but a spiritual one offered to all people who claim Jesus Christ. To know God in Christ is to have refuge. Don’t believe me? The writer of Hebrews says it much better. Now, we no longer need to flee for refuge, for it is already right before us in Christ. To “go” to God or “run” to him looks less like moving and more like surrendering and receiving his sheltering care. He alone is our refuge:

“17 So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, 18 so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. 19 We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever…”

-Hebrews 6:17–20

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Chris Nye

Living in Portland, Oregon with my wife and son. Doctoral candidate at Duke University. Author of a few books: chrisnye.co/books