God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud . . . (Genesis 9:12-13 ESV)
Even those who have never opened a Bible have heard of “Noah’s Flood,” the great flood described in Genesis 7 that covered the entire earth and destroyed all creatures that drew breath except for Noah, his family, and the birds and animals that God had directed Noah to take into the ark. Noah and his family were in the ark for just over a year before they reemerged into a world that had essentially been wiped clean and remade because of God’s displeasure with mankind’s inexhaustible appetite for sin.
To underscore this idea of new beginnings, the Sovereign Lord gave Noah a command that was virtually identical to the one He had given to Adam and Eve: “Multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number upon it” (Genesis 8:17). Noah responded in gratitude and worship to the God who had preserved him throughout the flood, and he built an altar and made a burnt offering to the Lord. It was at this point that God outlined His covenant with Noah and all living things, which is partly described in today’s verse, in which God uses the rainbow (or “bow,” as rendered in several respected translations of the Old Testament) as a visible reminder of God’s promise to never again send a flood to destroy everything that lives.
My professor of Old Testament Theology at Knox Seminary, Dr. Warren Gage, pointed out that God’s bow, the sign of the covenant, is pointed toward heaven, suggesting that the arrow of God’s wrath would be fired at God—not man—if there is a violation of the covenant.
This is illustrated again in Genesis 15, where God instructed Abraham to arrange sacrificial animals in pieces divided in half. God then manifested Himself to Abraham in the form of a smoking firepot that passed between the pieces. To pass between the cut pieces of sacrificial animals was common in biblical times; the parties to a covenant would do so as a visual representation of swearing, “May it be done so to me”—in other words, May I be destroyed—“if I break the terms of this covenant.” But in this remarkable ceremony, only the Lord passed between the pieces; only God swore that He would be destroyed if the covenant were to fail.
The Scriptures record the dreary history of man’s failed promises to obey God and serve Him only. Even righteous Noah, whom God chose out of all men who lived on earth to preserve throughout the flood, drank himself senseless in front of his sons, incurring the scorn of his son Ham. Abraham twice ignored God’s promise of protection and passed his wife Sarah off as his sister, apparently believing that his lies provided better protection than God could. Moses, who had taken possession of the Law of God, inscribed by the finger of God on tablets of stone, became so puffed up with pride and anger that He was not allowed to see the Promised Land. David, another direct recipient of God’s covenant promises (2 Samuel 7:8-17), committed adultery and then ordered the murder of the woman’s husband.
And then there’s you and me . . . how many times have we failed God? How many times have we ignored His promises? How many times have we directly disobeyed the commands of Scripture, believing that we had a better plan than God? Are our actions a pleasing aroma to the Lord? Can we possibly declare ourselves to be righteous before a perfectly righteous and holy God?
When we realize how wretched we are because of our sin—when we cry out with Paul, “What a wretched man I am!” (Romans 7:24)—it is then we can recall God’s promise: “I have set my bow in the cloud.” There is nothing you and I can do to atone for our sin . . . so God did it for us. We deserve to be utterly and eternally destroyed, but instead the arrow of God’s righteous wrath against our sins was fired at His only beloved Son, just as surely as the Roman spear pierced His side, and the punishment for our sin was freely and fully paid for by Jesus Christ.
Christian, when you see the rainbow in the sky, do not think only of the promise made to Noah, as glorious as that is; think of the promise that God made to you: “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Hebrews 8:12).
This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!