Genesis 9:8-17 “Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: ‘I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you – the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you – every living creature on earth. I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ 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: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, 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. 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.’ So God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.’”
All these words are the words of God. Noah says nothing at all; certainly not his sons whose names are not even mentioned. They are merely the three witnesses to hear what the Lord is saying to their father. All the focus is on the God who speaks and is not silent; notice the refrain, “Then God said . . . And God said . . . So God said . . .” We are told something extraordinary in what is an extraordinary book, that God has made a covenant with our planet. This living earth on which we move, whose air we breathe, this wonderful biosphere, unique amongst all the worlds of the universe, is in a covenantal relationship with the Creator. He has focused his love upon our planet; he’ll never let it out of his grip; he holds it in his tender arms like a mother nursing a child. Nothing will ever pluck it from his heart.
I once met a young preacher and his family in South America. They were a strikingly beautiful couple, a natural advertisement for the Christian faith. They had gone to study in Michigan, and one day they went with their two children to a restaurant where an old Christian and his wife happened to be eating. They noticed this young family as I did, and when the four of them bowed their heads and said grace before eating the old folks were hooked. The old man was a millionaire; he had made his fortune in farming, cultivating vegetables. He went on to the couple and found out that they were in Bible School and got quite excited. He arranged to meet them and eventually he ended up sponsoring them through college, paying all their fees and expenses. It was like a fairy tale. He virtually entered into a covenant with them supporting them, meeting their needs, helping them in every way.
Now multiply by infinity; our world is in a covenant with the Creator, ourselves and the whole human race, the millions in China and India, the millions of Africans, the inhabitants of Europe and the Americas, we are all in covenant with God. Every living creature . . . the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals – they too are in covenant with God. Can you believe it? The flocks of starlings as they circle in the air around the pier; the noisy seagulls, the fish of the bay, the thousands of sheep and all the wildlife, the ants and worms and beetles, flies and bumble bees are all in a covenant with God. It is an unbreakable and unforgettable covenant; he says, “I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind.”
1. WHAT IS THE NATURE OF THIS COVENANT?
How can we describe this covenant? We could say that it is a covenant with the earth and with all who live and move upon it. It is a covenant of preservation. It is a covenant of nature. It is a covenant of common grace. It is a covenant of the divine goodness. God says in this covenant, “Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life.” Let me use some buzz words and explain these adjetives to you;
i] It is a unilateral covenant.
In other words God is the initiator of this covenant. Polly Toynbee, the famous atheist journalist, has been making the headlines recently. She said how she hated hearing that Christ had died for our sins. “Who asked him to die for our sins?” she cried. No one at all; not a holy man, no, not one person ever conceived of the self-sacrifice of God the Son to redeem a company of people as numerous as the grains of sand. The idea was all God’s; the execution was God’s grand prerogative and in the honour of that work no sinner may share; the accomplishment too is all divine. No committee, no campaign, and no chant from a million lips pressurized God to doing this. It was a unilateral action of God like this covenant; “I establish my covenant with you,” he said in verse nine and again in verse eleven. “The covenant I am making between me and you,” he says (v.12). I appreciate these words of my friend Graham Harrison;
God is the God who takes the initiative. God is the God who does not wait for men to come to him. If that were the case he would wait for eternity, and still they would not come. God is the God who approaches sinners, who takes the initiative with them; he comes to them, seeks them out, finds them and brings them to himself.
This happened right back in the Garden of Eden, after that first sin had brought down the judgment of God not only upon Adam and Eve but also upon the whole human race. You remember what happens. God comes down. God seeks out Adam. Adam, in his guilt and foolishness, is hiding away from God, thinking that he will be able to conceal himself from the gaze of God. But God seeks him out. God takes the initiative.
We see the same principle here again. Noah and his family have come down from the ark. The earth is dry once more. The animals are released from the ark and the family begins to try and pick up the threads of their new existence. What happens? God comes. God begins to speak. God enters into this great covenant with Noah. God is the God who graciously takes the initiative with sinners. Thank God for that, because if it were not for that fact, there would be no hope for any of us here! Our God is the God who takes the initiative. This is repeatedly shown to us in both Old and New Testaments.
You find this demonstrated abundantly in the ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ. On one occasion our Lord spoke to his disciples and told them something which is really the same as the truth I am dealing with here. He said that he came to seek and to save that which was lost. He said: ‘You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you’ (John 15:16). It is always like that; the initiative is with the Lord Jesus Christ. God comes and God seeks. God finds sinners and draws them to himself. ‘No man can come to me, except the Father who has sent me draw him’ (John 6:44).
Those of us who are Christians are not Christians because one day the fancy came into our minds that we would become Christians. What happened to us was this: God sought us; God put his hand upon us; God drew us to himself.
Exactly the same thing must be true of you if you are to become a Christian. It will not be by your own efforts. It will not be by your seeking somehow to climb up to heaven that you will find acceptance with God. It will be by God coming to you, God seeking you, God inviting you, God showing what is sometimes called ‘prevenient grace’ – grace that comes before you ever sought him – God looking for you and God finding you. This is one of the great principles of the Bible.
It is not very difficult to understand why it has to be like this. It is true of us, you see, not only before we become Christians, but it is also true of us when we are Christians. Some Christians may feel that they are particularly blessed and gifted by God. I would simply like to remind you of a question that the apostle Paul asks in his first letter to the Corinthian Church: ‘For who makes you different from another? and what do you have that you did not receive?’ (1 Corinthians 4:7). It is not from you. It is from God. All is of grace. God is the God who goes before and who seeks out sinners (Graham Harrison, Beginning at the Beginning, Bryntirion Press, 1999, pp.105-107). It is a unilateral covenant.
ii] It is a universal covenant.
God cuts this covenant with Noah and all his descendants, and so this covenant is made with all of us, and it is made with all the inhabitants of our town. It is made with everyone in Wales, all our cynics and drunkards, our thieves and blasphemers – they too are in this covenant with God. Are you a human being? Then God will be good to you all your life. You will be in debt to him for every lovely thing you have. I’m referring to such things as your mind, and health, long life, marriages, homes, parents and children, your possessions, the peace of the nation, the army and police, the beauty of the creation which you’ve enjoyed on your vacations, the reliability of the laws of science and physics – all this has come to you from God. How good he has been to you. You have taken it all for granted and he has rewarded you with his goodness. How often have you sulked and complained when illness and pain and accident came into your life. “I cannot believe in a God who would do this to me,” you said defiantly, yet he still continued to be good to you. You have never worshipped him with praise and thanksgiving and yet his mercies to you have been new every morning.
Some worship idols and others worship nothing, and yet God’s covenant of goodness is made with them all. What a commitment of kindness God has made to sinners like us. Here are killers and torturers and men who have done unspeakable evil, and instead of God immediately pouring out his wrath upon them he is patient and merciful towards them. His goodness is in order that they come to repentance. Some husbands get irritated with their wives when they are five minutes late turning up at a meeting place. Yet from the days of Noah God has waited and waited for sinners to come to themselves and turn to him acknowledge their sins in repentance. He has invited them and beseeched them to turn and come to him, but they are always putting it off. They keep God standing at the door and knocking – the God they are indebted to for everything that they love. How wonderful to know that the Creator of the universe is not some distant unknowable being, but the one responsible for all the grand and great things that have ever touched them. He is the God who is speaking to them in conscience and in creation.
What wonderful news. You came to church one Sunday and the preacher told you why the world is so great, and how close is the loving heavenly Father. There was a very popular gospel song during the 1859 revival in Ulster;
Whene’er we meet, you always say,
What’s the news? What’s the news?
What’s happening in the world today?
What’s the news? What’s the news?
O, I have got good news to tell;
Our God created all things well,
And send his Son this word to tell,
That’s the news. That’s the news.
His Son was slain on Calvary –
That’s the news! That’s the news!
To set a world of sinners free –
That’s the news! That’s the news!
‘Twas there His precious blood was shed;
‘Twas there He bowed His sacred head;
But now He’s risen from the dead –
That’s the news! That’s the news!
This divine covenant is made with all mankind, but it is also made with every living thing, with the ticks that live on the backs of other animals and the tapeworms that live inside them, with the amoeba and the virus, with the whale and the giraffe, the giant condor and also the wee hummingbird – God is in covenant with every living creature. When you watch a series of nature films of David Attenborough and marvel at the wonders of life in the Antarctic, or in the tropical jungles, or in the depths of the sea,
or in the deserts then the explanation for all that beauty and parental care is in these words of God, “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you – the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you – every living creature on earth. I establish my covenant with you” (vv.9&10). It is a universal covenant.
iii] It is an unconditional covenant.
God makes a pledge which is not dependent upon anything men or animals do. The dolphins do not have to stand erect in the water every dawn for 60 seconds and greet the rising sun. The birds do not have to sing a certain theme of praise. The lion does not have to roar his thanks at the close of the day. Man himself is placed under no obligations in order to become a beneficiary of God’s covenant with the earth. Are you a human being? Are you made in the image of God? Then God will be good to you irrespective of your life. He has set his servants in power who will punish evil doers. He will send his own people forth who will speak to you of your need of a new heart and a repentant spirit. They will take the privileges you enjoy while yet ignoring the Privilege-Giver, and they will scourge you with your privileges. How can you who daily receive such loving care from God behave in this wretched way? Don’t you know you are without excuse? When you stand before him you will be unable to say, “But Lord we didn’t know.” He will say, “Didn’t I speak to you through your conscience, and through the glories of the sunsets and oceans and forests? Did I not send my servants to speak to you of your need of me?” Every mouth will be stopped. You took the talent he’d given you and you buried it, and he is angry. It is an unconditional covenant.
iv] It is an unending covenant.
It is described as “the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth” (v.16). Perpetual generations will enjoy its benefits (v.12). We have been studying the book of Jeremiah and reading of the covenant the slave owners of Jerusalem made in which they swore to release their slaves. But no sooner had they made that covenant than they broke it and brought the men and women back under the yoke again. God is not like that; when he has promised his mercy to all mankind then all mankind will enjoy those blessings until the very end of time. In other words, God had in mind our 21st century with its dirty bombs and chemical warfare and global warming and genocide when he cut this covenant with the earth.
2. WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS BROUGHT BY THIS COVENANT?
The most fundamental consequences of this covenant must be that there will never again be a flood of such significance in God’s covenant purpose as Noah’s Flood. That fact is non-negotiable, but as Noah’s Flood was in part supernatural that is not saying all that much. God is surely announcing to mankind that as long as the world lasts it will never again be destabilized the way it was at the time of the deluge. Noah and his family have just come out of the ark; they have seen the havoc wrought by a worldwide flood. Its scale passes our imagination; it was a miracle of judgment. How comforting and reassuring was the word God spoke to Noah.
Joel Beeke says that still today, living in a century acutely aware of the perils of ecological destruction in river and lake pollution and the spread of deserts, the need of real conservation, the effects of the ozone layer being thinned, and the perils of nuclear fission, dirty bombs, and the threat of terrorism, people without faith can live on a knife edge of insecurity and clutch at the weirdest theories about the future of the earth. But the Christian often returns to God’s great pledge that never again until the end of history will God allow global disruption of the seasons and the unleashing of these unprecedented forces of destruction by flooding.
Of course this is not some blanket comfort encouraging Christian or Islamic politicians to be cavalier with their threats of nuclear war (you remember the high view of these writings of Moses are also held by the Muslims). These words of God to Noah do not mean that the world will never experience localized famine, localized flood, and localized war, and localized plague. It does not preclude the possibility of nuclear war. We cannot say, “God would not allow a nuclear war.” Some of you have experienced two world wars within three decades, 1914-1918 and 1939 -1945. Where our comfort lies is in this fact, that there will be no global catastrophe commensurate with Noah’s Flood.
This does not mean we cannot have catastrophe – a nuclear war on an imaginable scale. In my lifetime two atomic bombs have destroyed cities, but the covenant of Noah brings us into the presence of the one true and living Creator who says to us that he will see to it that never again will there be disruption of the seasons, of day and night, or of the earth’s fertility. So I think that the nuclear shadow may well be limited by these divine promises. For example, the horror of an all-out nuclear war launching hundreds of rockets from the submarines and bunkers of the nations resulting in long impenetrable darkness, polluted clouds of radio active dust and sub-zero temperatures all over the world seems irreconcilable with God’s promise in chapter eight and verse twenty-two that seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease. God has made a covenant with this biosphere, this world whose air we breathe, whose water we drink, which we share with the humbler creation. We are in covenant with God and he will not and cannot break it.
Isn’t that remarkable? One Sunday you went to church and you heard the preacher point you to words in the Bible and their implications for all mankind living on this planet and you found comfort in the bare Word of God? Three days earlier some of you, as you were having your breakfast, were listening to Professor Stephen Hawking of Cambridge University being interviewed by an unusually obsequious John Humphrys on the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. The professor-scientist-philosopher-prophet, speaking through his computerized speech synthesizer, said that in the future space-rockets could be needed (propelled by the kind of matter/antimatter annihilation technology popularized in Star Trek stories) to help Homo Sapiens escape from a nuclear devastated planet to colonise hospitable planets orbiting alien stars elsewhere in the universe. That is simply science fiction, and you must choose where your authority for the future lies. Does it lie in the exceeding great and precious promises of the word of God that will endure for ever because they all come from the living God? Or are you pinning your hopes on the academics and debaters and radio entertainers? I believe the Bible because the Lord Jesus Christ believed it. Let’s not kid ourselves. We’re not as powerful as we think. We don’t have the power to save the planet, and we don’t have the power or authority to destroy the planet. The God who spoke to Noah has the world in his covenant hands. He will always protect the world he has made.
These unproven global worries take men’s attention and money away from pressing regional problems especially of foul water. Every day over 10,000 children under the age of five in the developing world die from diseases caused by impure drinking water, yet the BBC broadcasts interviews a guru making exotic prophesies about a bleak future. Today’s real problems are much more mundane; corruption in emerging world’s governments and clean drinking water.
3. WHAT IS THE SIGN OF THIS COVENANT?
Then something happened that must have given Noah and the other seven people great fear. It began to rain again. They had endured the worst rain this world had ever seen. The world before the Flood might have known no rain; certainly it was like that in Genesis two, verses five and six. There was initially a thick vapour canopy covering the world, but all that changed with the fall of man, and the spread of agriculture and the coming of the Flood when it began to rain and continued for forty days and nights. Now for many months there had been no rain. The family had stepped out onto dry ground, but as God spoke to them their hearts missed a beat as it began to rain again, but at that time the rainbow appeared.
Christians disagree as to whether this is the first time that the rainbow ever appeared in the sky. Some say that the rainbow had appeared before, but God is now giving it a new meaning. John Calvin takes that view. He argues that the rainbow had always existed since the sun was created, and he says, “Now a new office is assigned to it.” Others, however, assert that the atmosphere on earth before the flood was so different from that which now is on the earth that the rainbow then appeared for the first time. What matters most to us, of course, is what we can learn from the rainbow as a covenant sign.
Let us look at Joel Beeke’s four brief questions and answers:
i] Who gave the Rainbow?
The answer of course is that God gave it. Verse 13 says, “I have set my rainbow in the skies . . .” The Hebrew is stronger than that; it is literally, “I, behold I,” with great stress on the I – I myself, and no other—have set “my bow.” The activity of God is emphasized. Human beings are not consulted. Man did not help to produce the rainbow. It was a sovereign mighty act of God alone. It appears in the heaven; it is clearly of divine origin. When we see the rainbow we are seeing something that is not man-made. It is a work of God’s hands. God gives it. And that means that it is a divinely authorized sign. It is a sign from the Maker of the world, the Ruler of the world. It is a sign that we can depend on. It is a sign that can be believed. We can rely on it, and we can trust it. It is not what we would like to happen that matters very much, but it is what God promises will happen. The sign is from God. This is a further evidence of God’s kindness. He didn’t need to give a sign; He was under no compulsion. It flowed from his own free goodness and mercy. Who gives the rainbow, the sign of the covenant? God gives it. It is authoritative and it is kind.
ii] In what circumstances was the sign given?
It was given at a moment of crisis when people are afraid because of rain coming again. The rainbow is caused by the raindrops reflecting and refracting the rays of the sun, so that the white light is broken up into its component colours. The red colour is bent the least; the violet is bent most acutely. In order for there to be a rainbow you need millions of raindrops to exist—many millions to reflect and bend the light.
In the mind of Noah and his family rain meant judgment. The skies had opened was when the flood was coming. One day they are out in the fields and the sky grows dark and it starts to rain. What are they going to do? They will remember the last time it started to rain, and what happened then? The whole world was drowned. They are going to say, “Is this God’s judgment again? Is he coming to us in anger with rain?” At the moment the rain begins to fall the sign is given. The sign doesn’t come until the rain comes. You don’t see a rainbow on a bright, clear, sunny day. It is a rainbow, and it is given at the moment of crisis and at the moment of danger and apprehension, of fear, and of need. The sign comes to meet the need.
iii] Why was the sign given?
It was given to reassure these men and their families, to comfort them. It was given to tell them that this rain is not another flood. The rainbow was saying to them, as the rain begins to fall, “don’t worry, don’t fear; I am not coming in judgment. This rain is to bring the crops to fruition, to provide you with water. This rain is a blessing.” The sign was given to drive away their fears, and to assure them that God’s promise still stands, as a covenant for all generations to come (v. 12); and the everlasting covenant (v. 16). And the sign is ideally suited for the purpose. In verse 14 we read, “Whenever I bring clouds over the earth, and the rainbow appears in the clouds.” It is caused by the sun and the rain together. The sun is shining through the rain. It is caused by God’s love overcoming God’s judgment. They are both together; it is raining there but the sun triumphs over the rain in its glorious beauty. And in a few moments their apprehension and fears are replaced by wonder and praise. The rain begins to fall and they tremble; then suddenly they see the rainbow shining through the rain and God is saying, “I love you and I care for you; I will not destroy you.”
iv] What did the sign do?
The amazing answer is that it reminded God of his promise. You would think that it was given to remind us of God’s covenant, but we read in verse 15: “I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures.” It is a memorandum to God. If you don’t believe that then look again at the next verse, sixteen, “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.” It is a godward sign. He will look upon it and remember the everlasting covenant between himself and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth. Does God need reminding? Is He absent-minded? Of course not! But it is telling us something valuable about what really matters. The most important thing is not whether we remember the covenant or not. We cannot stop the rain from falling. What matters most is, will God ever forget his covenant? And the rainbow reassures us that God does remember. The rainbow would have limited value if it was just to remind us of the covenant. So when we see a rainbow we think, “My heavenly Father is looking at it and keeping his word for me and all mine.”
Remember in the book of Revelation, the apostle John sees a figure sitting on the heavenly throne. In Revelation 4:3 we read that, “the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian. A rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircled the throne” (Rev 4:3). This heavenly figure is linked in Revelation (and in Ezekiel too) with the rainbow. So in the rainbow arch is a prefiguring of the Lord Jesus Christ who is the sign of the covenant, and the enfleshment of the covenant. He the great Warrior, the Lord Sabaoth’s Son, has hung up his bow in heaven. It is not pointing down at us in anger. It has been hung above his throne in heaven from where he protects us and prays for us and saves us to the uttermost.
3rd December 2006 GEOFF THOMAS