Promises and Rainbows
In his sermon, “The Hope of Noah,” Sinclair Ferguson explains the covenantal and redemptive nature of the bow in the sky:
As with all of God's covenants in the Bible ... He always adds physical signs to them to reassure us. Yes, His word is enough - His word is His bond - but we are doubters; and so He gives us visible signs that say to us, "I really meant what I said; look at the sign!" And here he says to Noah, "I'm going to give you a sign - the bow in the cloud."
And, of course, we know what that is, the bow - the multicolored rainbow - but actually the word used in the book of Genesis is not rainbow, it's warbow - the bow of war, the bow of battle. It is a picture of God, after hostility has ended and He has established His new creation, flinging His bow of war, His bow of judgment, into the skies as a reassurance to Noah, 'Now, that there is reconciliation, you may enjoy the peace that you have with Me; you can be sure that there will never again be this kind of judgment on the earth, until, of course, the cosmic final judgment of all at the end of time;' and so Noah, begins to enjoy the fruit and the spoils of war.
Some have even suggested, over the centuries - if you think about the rainbow as God's military bow transformed into an ornament of great beauty, that hostility has ceased and that there is no arrow in the bow - that, if He has thrown the bow into the sky that way, the only place the arrow could have gone was into His own heart.'
I wonder if Noah ever could have pondered, 'If God has thrown His bow into the sky, where is His arrow, and why does it point thus heavenward into His heart?' And, of course, the rest of the story of the Bible will pick up on that idea - it's only as God takes the judgment to Himself, into His Son Jesus Christ, that we might enjoy full and final reconciliation with Him.1
The rainbow, we know, was appointed of God as a token of his gracious covenant with mankind. God is encompassed with a rainbow, which signifies that as he sits, and reigns, and manifests himself in his church, he appears as encompassed with mercy, as of old the throne of God in the holy of holies, where God manifested himself in the church of Israel, was called the mercy seat. So here there is a rainbow, the sign of God’s gracious covenant, round about the throne that he sits on.
This rainbow was “in sight like unto an emerald,” which is a precious stone of an exceeding lovely green color, so green that this color appears in nothing else so lively and lovely. This color is a most fit emblem of divine grace; it is a very lively color, not so dull as blue or purple, and yet most easy to the sight, more easy than the more fiery colors of yellow and red.
It is the color of all the grass, herbs, and trees, and growth of the earth, and therefore fitly denotes life, flourishing, prosperity, and happiness, which are often in Scripture compared to the green and flourishing growth of the earth. As the benign influence of the sun on the face of the earth is shown by this color above all others, so is the grace, and benign influence, and communication of God fitly represented by this color. This color is the color of joy and gladness.
The fields are said to shout for joy, and also to sing, by their appearing in a cheerful green. As the color red is made use of to signify God’s revenging justice, in Zech. 1:8 and elsewhere, so is green the emblem of divine grace. As observed, this doesn’t imply that the rainbow had no other color, “but that the proportion of green was greater than ordinary.”2
So we see that God ...
... by placing the rainbow in the sky, was, in a sense, aiming His weapon of war and judgment at Himself; and, as it was with the cutting of the covenant with Abraham in which God alone passed through the animals that had been cut apart in judgment, God is saying in the Noahic covenant that there will be judgment; but, for those for whom the Father has sent the Son into the world to redeem, that judgment will fall on Himself at the cross.
Everyone who trusts in the crucified and risen Savior, who has taken the judgment that we deserve for our sin and rebellion, will forever stand in the presence of the one who is shrouded in the sign of the covenant. For all eternity there’s will be a rainbow around the throne and Jesus Christ who will forever remember that covenant mercy that He merits and purchases for us by His life, death and His resurrection.
Whatever symbolism men may wish to impose on the covenantal sign that God set in the cloud, we must return again and again to the truth of Scripture and to the God who has aimed the arrows of His wrath at Himself so that we might not receive them for all eternity. There is a day of judgment coming in which all who reject the offers of mercy and grace in Christ will be the recipients of what the Psalmist described of Christ in Psalm 45:5–where we are told that His “arrows are sharp in the heart of the King’s enemies.” May God give us eyes to see and ears to hear the meaning of the bow in the sky and turn in repentance and faith to the One who took His own arrows of wrath into His heart at the cross to bring many sons to glory.
It’s maybe a strange practice to ask people who don’t hold the same beliefs as you to conform to faith based morals because you quoted a book they don’t read. People will be curious why you were kind to them when they may have been a jerk to you. That’s attractive. People will wonder why you value the broken, poor, and marginalized and use your finances, life, and time to help them (even if they never change). That’s attractive. People will marvel that your friend group doesn’t just consist of people the same color, sexual orientation, or nationality as you, but it spans different beliefs, races, and political views. They’ll be shocked you serve, love, laugh, and mourn with them. That’s attractive.
Every time a rainbow shines in the world—it’s a witness of His promise. A promise is made stronger with a symbol (like a handshake) and/or made in the presence of many witnesses. This gives more credence to both parties that the promise will be kept. God established the rule and guide of our faith as a witness between Himself and mankind. Jesus is the faithful and true witness who fulfilled the covenant of God to redeem mankind. His promises are profound because God knows the big picture (especially when we fail to keep our promises to Him) and the Father still stands by His word through his Son.
The rainbow is truly a reflection and symbol of the beauty of love. It represents a love, a promise, a covenant with mankind. He reminded us of this great promise several times after the worlds destruction. He promised to love us, to never destroy the earth with a great flood again. He delivered to us this great rainbow that would always be a sign and covenant to us of that promise and his love. So don’t be offended whenever you see the rainbow but instead embrace its true meaning. Gods love and Gods promise.
12 And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come:
13 I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.
14 Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds,
15 I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life.
16 Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”
17 So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.”