God’s Rainbow Covenant With Noah

Genesis 9:8-17
Hope has two enemies: presumption and despair. Hope would rather imagine that the good will come. Presumption destroys hope in one direction by being too confident that the good will come. Despair destroys hope in the other direction by refusing to believe that any good will come. If we have no hope, we are of all people most to be pitied. It is easy to live without hope, though. Despair is looking death right in the face, and believing that death has won. Presumption is tearing down your barns and building bigger ones, not realizing that that very night, your life will be required of you. We are called not to presumption, not to despair, but to hope. When God gave Noah the covenant, and the sign of the covenant, God was telling Noah to hope. God was telling Noah that there would be salvation from sin when His Son came to earth. Hope.

God has just given Noah the commandments about murder in the first 7 verses. God gave authority to the civil government so that the government could prevent that kind of violence that had led to the Flood in the first place. Instead of doing violence, Noah was to multiply and fill the earth.

Now, God makes a covenant with Noah. What is a covenant? It is a contract between God and man that God initiates. It is always God who initiates the covenant. There are two basic covenants that God makes with mankind: the first is the covenant of works. That was the covenant that God made with Adam: if Adam obeyed the commandment, he would earn eternal life. This is what Adam failed to do. When Adam broke the covenant of works, God initiated another covenant, this time being a covenant of grace. So instead of Adam earning salvation by works, we are given salvation by grace. We deserve only punishment, but God gave us mercy. The covenant that God made with Noah was a covenant of grace.

Now, it is important to say here that the covenant with Noah was not a covenant of saving grace, but a covenant of common grace. The difference between common grace and special grace is this: common grace is given to all mankind without distinction. Common grace is God giving rain to the just and the unjust. Common grace is sun on the crops, life and breath to all, food, raiment and shelter. Common grace is also the church being in the world and giving the world the benefits of its work. That is common grace. Special grace is saving grace. Special grace is what happens when God changes the heart of stone into the heart of flesh. Special grace is God choosing to save some people out of the vast multitude who are headed straight for hell. That is the difference between common grace and special grace. This covenant that we are looking at today is a covenant of common grace. It is THE covenant of common grace. It is vital that we know about this covenant, because without common grace, special grace could not exist. If God had decided to destroy all humanity without exception, then there would no one to save, no one on which He could exercise special grace.

Covenants always have two participants. Here we see them both in verses 8-10. God is one of the participants. The other participant is all people, and all animals. Remember that God initiates the covenant. God never had to say any of what he says here. But God wanted to allow room for salvation to take place. Therefore, He makes room here in the form of the covenant of common grace.

God says to Noah that he will never again destroy all humanity by means of a Flood. That is fairly easy to understand. What we need to realize here, though, is that Noah would have been tempted to lose all hope. He had just seen all of humanity and all of the animals die except those that were with him in the ark. He might have been tempted to think that God would “finish the job,” and kill him off along with everything else, such that there would be no hope at all. God initiates this covenant in order to give hope to Noah. Furthermore, God promises that no matter what humanity does, God will not destroy them all. Man will not be able to sin himself out of this covenant. In any destruction, there will always be a remnant. Eventually that remnant will be Jesus Christ, who fulfilled the demands of the original covenant of works that God initiated with Adam.

In verses 12 and following, we see that God gives Noah the sign of the covenant. In verses 8-11 God gives us the covenant itself. Then God gives us the sign of the covenant. It is a beautiful sign: the sign of the rainbow. In the Ancient Near East, rainbows were thought to be the battle weapon of the gods. Lightning was the arrow, as it were. God, however, rests this battle bow and makes it point away from the earth, indicating peace. Instead of point toward the earth, threatening humanity, God makes it point away from the earth, indicating peace. God rests the bow in the heavens. Just as God rested from his work at the end of creation, so also here He rests His bow at the end of this re-creation. Notice also that the rainbow stretches out over the whole sky. That means that all are covered under its protection. But there is even further significance to the rainbow. If you are in an airplane, and are high enough over the earth, and are at the right angle, you will see a complete circle, instead of just half a circle. Someone has said that the rainbow is God’s wedding band. The rainbow means that God will not forget His promise. It is certain.

Verse 16 is very important in this regard: notice that the rainbow is primarily for God’s benefit, not ours. Moses did not say, “Every time YOU see the rainbow, remember God’s promise.” Moses actually said, “Every time GOD sees the rainbow, HE will remember.” Now, this does not mean that God forgets about this promise in-between rainbows. God still remembers. What God wants to tell us here is that the promise is certain. We can build hope on top of it. God’s promises are entirely and utterly believable.

When God remembers the covenant, it is not merely that God remembers what He promised. God’s remembering means that He thereby acts according to the terms of the covenant. When God remembers, He acts. When God remembers the covenant, He fulfills the covenant. So when God remembers the covenant with Noah, He fulfills the covenant with Noah. Remembering is acting. When God remembered Hannah and her prayer, she conceived and bore a son. When God remembered His people suffering down in Egypt, He brought them out with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. When God remembered the world, he gave His one and only Son.

Ultimately, the promise that God made to Noah was the promise that the seed of the woman would in fact have a chance to crush the head of the serpent. Hope is reborn. And that is exactly what happened. Jesus Christ crushed the head of the serpent when He was raised from the dead, conquering sin and death.

We might well tremble because it was our sin that brought on the Flood. We know that what we deserve is complete annihilation. We know that we deserve the flames of hell eternally. We know that there is no hope for us outside of Christ. However, because Christ came, there is hope.

So how did God keep His promise never to destroy the world again by Flood? He saved His people Israel from the Egyptians by bringing them through the flood of the Red Sea on dry ground, while destroying the Egyptians. He brought back a remnant from Babylon, not allowing His people to be destroyed completely. He brought to earth a Savior for mankind, Jesus Christ. The call for us is to have hope in Jesus Christ. The Lord has also promised that the world is now being saved up for destruction by fire. That is what 2 Peter says. If we want any hope for surviving that catastrophe, we need to be found in Jesus Christ.

The tendency is always for us to place our hope in the wrong places. We want to hope in ourselves most of all. Thee poem Invictus says it all: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” But that is whistling in the dark. I am sure that all those who were destroyed in the Flood thought the same thing. They thought that their bodies were indestructible. There were some deaths, of course, but not many. Adam himself had not died so long ago before the Flood. There was every reason to believe that they could live for an eternity, since they lied such long lives already. They put their trust in themselves.

We put our trust in many other things as well. We trust in money. “Money solves all the world’s problems,” we think. The problem is that that is demonstrably false. Many of the richest people in the world were also the most miserable. John D. Rockefeller had suicidal tendencies. Many rock stars have committed suicide. Those who trust in riches are ignorant of the fact that riches can take wings and fly away. Riches are never satisfying anyway. The more one has, the more one wants. It is an addiction that leads to despair, the very enemy of hope. Let us not put our hope in riches.

What about power? Hitler put his trust in power. It lasted a little while. However, as Lord Acton of England said, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Corruption is how to spell “coming disaster.” That is what America can expect, if they continue to ignore God’s commands and standards for right and wrong. America cannot trust in its power. 9/11 ought to have taught us that. However, we are often overly confident in our military power to solve everything.

Often we hope in pleasure. We think that all the finer things of life will satisfy us and make us feel fulfilled. This can take many forms. It can be as blatant as alcoholism or pornography, but it can more subtle forms, as well. Do we make an idol out of comfort? Do think that our house has to look a certain way, or that our clothes have to be completely fashionable? That is a subtle way of putting our hope in the wrong things.

Sometimes we can put our hope in other people. Do we think that our standing in this community is the most important thing? How do we act toward other people? Do we to anything to make sure that we are in the accepted crowd? Do we flee those people who are not in the “in” crowd? That is not what Jesus did. Jesus came from heaven to earth, exchanging communion with His Father, who was the most “in” person ever, for the community of sinners like us, who on the out and out with God. If Jesus exchanged the glory of being with God for the shame of being with us, then why can we not welcome the outsider, the alien, and the stranger who might not be just like us? Let us put our hope in Jesus, who is able to break down those barriers.

We can put our hope in our work. Many of us would probably plead guilty to the charge of being a workaholic. I can often fall into that trap. I then define myself by my work. When someone asks me who I am, I often say, “I am a pastor.” When someone asks you who you are, you might say, “I am a farmer.” Does our work define who we are? We have to remember that our status as children of God saved in Christ Jesus is the most fundamental part of who we are now. If we do not have that identity, we need to get it right away. We need to believe in Jesus Christ. We need to have hope in Him. Jesus was resurrected from the dead. He conquered sin and death. What God promised to Noah, which was that humanity would not be destroyed, is ultimately fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, which means that humanity will not be destroyed, but can come to repentance and salvation. It is Jesus’ work on the cross and His resurrection that means we can have hope in this life. Trust in Him.

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7 Comments

  1. Anonymous said,

    July 4, 2006 at 11:25 pm

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    December 22, 2006 at 11:47 pm

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  3. David Smith said,

    February 22, 2007 at 12:53 pm

    I was interestesd in your commentary on this portion of Scripture. You are maybe already aware of the view which removes the concept of common grace. It is well articulated in Volume 2 of Unfolding Covenant History put out by Reformed Free Publishing. There is also an excellent sermon on the nature of the Noahic covenant (Covenant with Creation) by Rev. Ron Hanko at the CPRC website

    http://www.cprf.co.uk/pamphlets.htm

  4. greenbaggins said,

    April 2, 2007 at 12:13 pm

    Rainbows form when sunlight hits water. When that happens, the light is broken up into the various colors that you see in a rainbow. Normal light consists of all these different colors combined together. When light goes through a prism (and water is a prism), then the light is broken up into it’s component parts. So, no, you cannot “touch” a rainbow any more than you can “touch” light itself. God invented rainbows during the time of Noah. Rainbows mean that God will never again destroy the earth by means of water. See Genesis 6-9 for more information on rainbows.

  5. Reformed Sinner said,

    February 27, 2009 at 9:15 am

    Just daunt on me that Rainbow has SEVEN colors…. could be nothing…

  6. frances2day said,

    September 19, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    I was looking for a biblical meaning and this was more than what I was looking for. It basically answered my question. Straight up….God bless you!

  7. patsy said,

    February 25, 2012 at 3:53 pm

    Great post! I especially liked the part about the rainbow, and that it’s a sign of our covenant with God, and His wedding band! Now that’s a covenant!


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