20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21 And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. 22 While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” 
Never Again! Never Again!
Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And 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.”
The greatest wonder of Genesis 8 is not that God remembered Noah but that Noah remembered God. It is not our nature to remember, least of all things that are spiritual. But Noah did remember. We are told that as soon as he left the ark “Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it” (Gen. 8:20). This offering was both a thank offering for the deliverance Noah and his family had received, and a sin offering by which Noah confessed need of atonement for his and his family’s transgressions. If life was to begin anew, it was to begin with a proper and thankful approach to God—at least so far as Noah had anything to do with it.
Noah’s actions on leaving the ark did not mean that he approached this new life without anxiety. In the ark he would have wondered if God had abandoned him. Now, upon exiting, he would have been struck afresh with the terrors of God’s judgment and would have wondered if a great destruction might not be poured forth again. After all, he was a sinner—and so were his children. The same tendencies to evil that had led to the wickedness of the antedeluvian world were in them all. Would it not inevitably happen that they would sin greatly and that a fresh judgment of God would be called forth? Look at the world: a world beginning to renew itself but showing every indication of the horrible judgment that had just ended—bare hills, uprooted trees, vast bodies of slowly receding water. What was to prevent that water from rising once more and thus reinundating the land? What was to prevent him and his family from justly perishing at last because of sin?
It is against this background that God’s covenant with Noah was given. God knew Noah and reassured him that in spite of the sin they both knew lay in the human heart, the creatures of the earth would not be destroyed again. God said, “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done” (v. 21).
These verses from Genesis 8 and 9, plus a verse from chapter 6, constitute one of the fullest discussions of a divine covenant in the entire Bible. It is not the only covenant. There was a previous covenant with Adam, though the word itself was not used, and there are subsequent covenants with Abraham, Moses, David, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet this is an important covenant and deserves careful attention, if for no other reason than that it is the first explicit discussion of the theme in Scripture. It was introduced in Genesis 6:18. In chapters 8 and 9 it is discussed in three parts: 1) God’s promise never again to destroy the earth by flood (Gen. 8:20–22), 2) the institution of capital punishment as a central feature of it (Gen. 9:1–7), and 3) a specific reiteration of the covenant in which the rainbow sign is given (Gen. 9:8–17).
We noticed in our earlier discussion that in this and most of the other covenants there are three features. The covenants are unilateral, which means that they are established by God and not by man. They are eternal, as God is eternal. They are always of grace, for nothing in man (not even his obedience to the terms of the covenant) merits them. These features are very visible in Genesis 8:20–22.
First, everything said is by God and according to his pleasure. We have speculated on what Noah may have said or may have been thinking during these days, but so far as Genesis is concerned he is not recorded as having said anything. All is of God. Thus we have: “The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: ‘Never again will I curse the ground because of man. … And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done’ ” (8:21); “Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying …” (9:1); “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’ ” (9:8–10); “I establish my covenant with you” (9:11); “And God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you’ ” (9:12); “I will remember my covenant between me and you” (9:15); “So God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on earth’ ” (9:17).
This feature of the narrative reflects a high view of God and immediately sets Genesis off from other ancient writings. In fact, it is a powerful evidence that this book is what it claims to be, a supernatural revelation of God to men and women and not a record of human thoughts about and aspirations after God. The idea of God establishing terms with us, which we are therefore merely to receive with gratitude, is foreign to our natural way of thinking. Indeed, it is entirely absent from other ancient religions. In the religions of the pagan world the relationship of a person to God (or one of the gods) is conceived as a bargain. The person does something for God as a result of which God is placed in his debt and is supposed to do something for the person. It may be sacrifice. In wartime great sacrifices were made to ensure the success of expeditions. It may be some other form of devotion. Whatever the case, the man and God meet on equal terms and agree to do things of mutual benefit to one another. The earliest chapters of Genesis present an entirely different concept. In them man does not bargain, for man has nothing to bargain with. God establishes the covenant according to his own good pleasure.
Second, the covenant is eternal. I do not mean that it is eternally eternal in the sense that it will endure as long as God endures, for the conditions to which it applies will themselves not endure. It is eternal in the sense that so long as the conditions endure the covenant will be unalterable. This is the essential point of the verses that end Genesis 8. “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And 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” (vv. 21–22). These verses could hardly make the point more emphatically. Three times they use the word “never”—“Never again will I curse the ground. … Never again will I destroy all living creatures. … Day and night will never cease.” The repetition of phrases regarding the days and seasons has a similar effect.
It is good to have God say “never,” because use of the word by human beings is often ludicrous. Haven’t you done something so foolish that you said, “Well, I’ve learned my lesson; I’ll never do that again”? But then you did it again. Haven’t you ever looked at someone else’s sin and said, “I’ll never do that”? But you did. That is the way with human beings. We promise beyond what we can guarantee. Like Peter we say to Jesus, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you” (Mark 14:31). But we do deny him. Only God can say “never” and stick by it without fail.
God’s promises never to do something or never to let something happen are among the most precious in his Word. In Judges 2:1, God is reported as saying to the Israelites, “I will never break my covenant with you.” Psalm 15 lists a number of items that involve an upright way of life and concludes: “He who does these things will never be shaken” (v. 5). Psalm 55:22 says, “Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall.” Proverbs 10:30 declares, “The righteous will never be uprooted.” Jesus used the word “never” on many occasions, more than any other personality in Scripture. He said, “Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst” (John 4:14); “He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35); “If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death” (John 8:51); “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27–28); “Whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:26). In Hebrews God is quoted as saying, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Heb. 13:5; cf. Deut. 31:6). These promises cover the whole spiritual life of the believer, from initial faith in Christ to eternal security and victory over death. In the case of Genesis 8:20–22 they cover a regular sequence of days and seasons as long as earth lasts.
The third feature of the covenant is grace, which is also clear in these verses. God establishes his covenant with Noah and his descendants, “even though every inclination of [man’s] heart is evil from childhood” (v. 21). This part of God’s promise must have been particularly comforting to Noah, knowing that he was a sinner and that sin might well erupt in terrible fashion again. In spite of his sin God would save him and would never again destroy humanity.
In Martin Luther’s lengthy exposition of Genesis (8 volumes) this phrase, “every inclination of [man’s] heart is evil from childhood,” is treated at length, for he rightly recognized it as a highly important passage on original sin. In Luther’s day, as in ours, people disliked this teaching and exerted much effort to explain it away. They said that it is not that the heart is evil but only that it inclines to sin. They would not have used this term, but what they had in mind was the “blank slate” idea that became so popular in the nineteenth-century philosophy of human development. According to this view, the child is born morally neutral and sins later only because of the unhealthy moral environment to which this “innocent” inclines. That is comforting philosophy since it makes sin someone else’s fault, but it is not what this verse teaches. It teaches that the heart is evil and that this is true from the individual’s earliest days.
He who says that the sensations and thoughts of the human heart are inclined toward evil from youth on is not making an insignificant statement, particularly since Moses declared previously, in chapter six (v. 5), that every thought of the heart is bent on evil at all times, that is, that it strives after evil and in its bent, impulse and effort is under the influence of evil. For instance, when the adulterer is inflamed with desire, even though opportunity, place, person and time are lacking, he is still plagued by lustful emotions and cannot concentrate on anything else in his thoughts. …
Moses adds “from his youth” because this evil lies hidden in early age and is dormant, as it were. The period of our infancy is spent in such a manner that reason and will seem dormant, and we are borne along by animal drives only, which pass away like a dream. We have hardly passed our fifth year when we look for idleness, play, wantonness and pleasures, but shun discipline, shake off obedience and hate all virtues, but especially the higher ones of truth and justice. Reason at that time awakes as from a deep sleep and becomes aware of some pleasures, but not yet the true ones, and of some evil things, but not yet the worst, by which it is possessed.
But when reason has matured, then, after the other vices have somehow become established, there are added lust and the hideous passion of the flesh, revelry, gambling, quarreling, fighting, murder, theft and what not. Just as parents have need of the rod, so now the magistrate needs a prison and bonds to keep the evil nature under control.
Who is not aware of the vices of the more advanced years? It is then that greed, ambition, pride, treachery, envy, etc., come rushing and crowding in. Moreover, these vices are all the more harmful since this age is more adroit at covering them up and adorning them. Here the sword of the magistrate is not adequate; the fire of hell is needed to punish such great and numerous crimes. Hence it is correctly stated above, in the sixth chapter (v. 5): “The heart of man, or the imagination of his heart, is only evil every day, or at all times,” and in this passage: “It is evil from its youth.”
The only quarrel I have with this excellent exposition of Luther’s is that he has not stated the sins of youth forcefully enough. In Luther’s treatment sin almost seems passive before the age of five. It is not so. It is active even then. Donald Grey Barnhouse told how one of his children exhibited her sinful nature before she could talk. The family was living in France at the time and had a French nanny who had taught the baby motions to a little French song. The song was about marionettes. As the words were sung the child’s hands were made to go around in a circle to imitate the dancing and then they were placed behind the back to show how the dancers went backstage at the end of the act. The song went:
Ainsi, font, font, font
Les petites marionettes.
Ainsi, font, font, font—
Trois petits tours
et puis sont vont.
The child was not allowed to suck her thumb and her parents usually smacked the baby’s hands lightly to get her to stop. One day Barnhouse came into the nursery and there was no doubt as to what the baby had been doing. There was the mouth and thumb, and there was a long string of saliva between them. As soon as the daughter saw him, she immediately began to make her little hands go through the motions of the marionette song as if to say, “No, dear father, you are mistaken. It may look as if I was sucking my thumb, but actually I was doing the little marionette song that seems to please you so much.”
David was right when he said, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5).
From Fear to Favor
This passage provides a pattern for what sinful human beings must do to find God’s favor. In a sense, we can do nothing; God has done everything. But we can at least come to God in the way God himself has appointed and be assured as we come that he will receive us and will remain faithful to us within the covenant of salvation.
As sinners we appear before God as Noah did emerging from the ark. We have been recipients of his common grace. If God had not been favorable to us, we would have perished long before now. Yet we are sinners. We merit God’s judgment, just as others do. Left to ourselves the sin within will undoubtedly bring us to perdition. We will perish utterly. What are we to do? We know not what to do. But God has set a way before us: the way of sacrifice. He has shown from the earliest days of the race, going back to Eden, that although sinners merit death for their transgressions it is nevertheless possible for a substitute to take the sinner’s place. An innocent may die. God himself showed this when he killed the animals and then clothed Adam and Eve in the animals’ skins. This is the way Noah came to God after he exited from the ark. It is the way you and I must come today, though we do not actually offer sacrifices but rather look back in faith to the perfect sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ offered in our place. He is the lamb “slain from the creation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). “He is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
What happens as we come to God through faith in the perfect and finished work of Jesus? We find that God is pleased, and we hear him promise that we are now his and that we shall never perish—not for this life, not for eternity. Our relationship with him “will never cease.”
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ge 8:20–22). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
 Boice, J. M. (1998). Genesis: an expositional commentary (pp. 374–379). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.