Several years ago, my wife and I were driving back home from a trip out of town. At some point, we missed the exit sign on the highway leading to the town in which we lived. We drove for nearly thirty minutes before realizing that we were heading to the wrong city. We had completely missed the sign. Failing to see or to understand physical signs can result in unfavorable consequences; the same is true of failing to rightly understand God’s covenantal signs. This is evident today in the way many parade their sexual rebellion against God under the banner of a rainbow.
In redemptive history, the Lord established the covenant of grace with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Christ. With each administration of the covenant of grace, God gave various divine signs. He set apart the rainbow in the sky to serve as the sign of the Noahic covenant. The Noahic covenant was God’s pledge that He would sustain the created order (Gen. 9:9–13). Because of His promise not to destroy the earth, mankind could be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth (Gen. 9:1). In this sense, the Noahic covenant was a unique administration of the covenant of grace in that it contained a principle of common grace.
However, the Noahic covenant was ultimately serving the redemptive purposes of God. God was renewing the covenant promise He made to Adam when He inaugurated the covenant of grace (Gen. 3:15). In the Noahic covenant, God was setting the stage for the unfolding of redemptive history. Christ was in the lineage of Noah (Luke 3:23–38). Noah stood as a type of Christ, the head of a new creation (Gen. 8:13–19; 9:1–7). The ark itself served as a microcosm of redemptive history. The clean animals in the ark belonged to the Old Testament sacrificial system and typified the sacrifice of Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (Gen. 8:20; Ex. 12; John 1:29; 1 Peter 1:19). Clean and unclean animals together represented the Jews and gentiles, for whose salvation Christ came into the world (Acts 10:9–48; 11:18).
God set the bow in the sky to serve as the sign of the Noahic covenant—signifying His promise of redemption (Gen. 9:8–17). In his vision of the heavenly throne room, the Apostle John saw a rainbow around the throne of God and the Lamb (Rev. 4:3). Jonathan Edwards explained the significance of this rainbow around the throne in John’s vision when he wrote:
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.1
The rainbow is a sign of God’s redeeming grace and mercy. The Hebrew word translated “rainbow” is properly translated “war bow.” By placing His bow in the sky, the Lord was symbolically aiming a weapon of judgment at Himself. As Sinclair Ferguson explains:
The word used in the book of Genesis is not rainbow, it is war bow: the bow of war, the bow of battle. It is a picture of God, after hostility has ended and He has established a new creation, flinging 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.” . . . 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, the only place the arrow could have gone was into His own heart.2
In setting the bow apart to serve as the sign of His covenantal promise, the Lord said to Noah, “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant” (Gen. 9:16). Of course, God doesn’t need to be reminded of anything. Rather, in gracious condescension He determined to give us greater certainty of His promise. In this sense, the rainbow is the sign that the Lord will preserve the present creation until the consummation of the covenant of grace when He will fully redeem His people from every tongue, tribe, and nation and bring them into the full enjoyment of a new creation. The sign of the Noahic covenant is therefore a gospel sign of the redeeming mercy of God in Christ (Isa. 54:9–10).
This article is part of the Signs of the Covenant collection.
- Jonathan Edwards, “Notes on Scripture,” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 15, ed. Harry S. Stout and Stephen J. Stein (London; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 224–225.↩
- Sinclair Ferguson, “The Hope of Noah,” Park Cities Presbyterian Church, Dallas, Texas, September 29, 2004, https://pcpc.org/resources/midweek-audio/detail/7934/the-hope-of-noah/.↩