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The Meaning of the Rainbow

When you’re out for your one permitted hour (in the UK) of daily exercise these days, you've probably noticed the pictures of rainbows children have painted and put up in their windows. The idea started in Italy apparently, and spread to many different countries as a symbol of hope in dark times. The message seems to be that although we’re in a storm at the moment, it will pass. There is light at the end of the tunnel.

Lovely sentiments, no doubt. Very positive and nice. But what if there is no light at the end of the tunnel? What if the storm doesn’t blow over? What if the situation just gets worse and worse until things fall apart completely? There are plenty of apocalyptic projections in the press about how the economic aftermath of the virus will leave us with a world that faces far bigger problems than anything we’re dealing with at the moment. Are we just ‘whistling in the dark’ with our rainbow pictures?

Actually, the symbol of rainbow is far more appropriate for these days than many people who have them in their windows may realise. Because the first person to use the rainbow as a symbol of hope was God himself! We read about it in Genesis 9.12-16, where God speaks to Noah after sending the Flood to destroy a world that had become utterly corrupt.

In Genesis 9 God makes a covenant. A covenant is a solemn promise – the most solemn promise there is. Sometimes when children want to emphasize they are in earnest about a promise they are making they will say ‘cross my heart and hope to die’. That captures something of the weight of a covenant. It’s a life and death promise. God is effectively saying, ‘May I die if I break my promise.’

He makes his covenant promise to Noah and to all his descendants – in other words, to the whole human race. Not just with religious people, not just with Jews or Christians, but with every human being. You and I (whoever you are) are part of this covenant! In fact, God makes this promise not just with human beings but with every living creature – even with the planet itself!

So what was the promise? It’s repeated several times, but the first announcement of it is in Genesis 8.21-22: never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done. "As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease."

As a reminder of this promise – a ‘sign of the covenant’ (Gen 9.12), God put a rainbow in the sky. We don’t know if this was the first time a rainbow had ever appeared in the sky or not, but it doesn’t really matter. God usually took things that already existed to be covenant signs, filling them with new significance. From this moment on the rainbow reminds us that God is faithful – he keeps his promises.

And now here we are in 2020, thousands of years later and the world is still standing. That really is miraculous, when you think of all the threats to life on earth that exist! God has kept his promise. The human race won’t be wiped out by a virus – whether by covid-19 or any other, or nuclear war, or climate change, or an asteroid. Why not? Because God has promised to preserve the world.

The rainbow is the ideal symbol for this promise, isn’t it?

  1. God made this promise to the whole earth – to every living creature. The rainbow arches over the whole earth, from horizon to horizon. All earth is under its protecting arc. It is seen by all because it’s a sign for all.
  2. When does a rainbow appear? It appears at the moment of crisis – when the dark stormclouds gather and the rain starts to fall. What a comfort this must have been to Noah and his family. Can you imagine how terrifying it must have been for them the first time a storm came after the Flood?! There they are out in the fields, when suddenly the sky darkens, the clouds gather, the thunder crashes and the rain starts to pour down. ‘Is it another Flood? We don’t have an ark this time! We’re not ready! There’s nowhere to run!’ But then they see the rainbow in the sky and they remember and they are reassured: ‘God has promised he will not destroy the world’. The light of grace shines out of the darkness of judgment.
  3. The Bible doesn’t actually use the word ‘rainbow’. God simply calls it his ‘bow’. It’s the word for a weapon – a warrior’s bow. God says he has set his bow in the clouds. But which way is the bow pointing? Away from the earth! Think about that the next time you see a rainbow – God’s great lethal bow isn’t pointing down at the earth. He has hung it up.

What a wonderful symbol of God’s grace! But it’s not the best symbol of God’s grace. That is found in the cross of Jesus Christ. For in the three hours of darkness at the cross, the light of grace shone more brilliantly than at any other time in history. God pointed his bow at his beloved Son and shot every last one of his arrows of judgment into his heart, so that his bow could be turned away from us.

It’s important to understand that although the world won’t be destroyed by a virus, a nuclear winter or an asteroid, that doesn’t mean it will last forever. God is preserving the world, but he preserved the world so that his Son could come and bring salvation to the world, establish his kingdom and cause it to advance to the ends of the earth. And he is preserving the world today so that his Son can come again to judge the living and the dead.

One day the Lord Jesus Christ will return to this world, but there will be no rainbow on that day. There will be no more grace. Now is the time to prepare to face God as Judge, and the only way to do that is by trusting Jesus Christ to save you from God’s judgment.

Warren Peel

Warren Peel

Warren has been married to Ruth since 1998 and God has blessed them with four daughters. He is Pastor of Trinity RPC in Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland. He serves as a Trustee of the Banner of Truth.

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