8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth. 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12 And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ge 9:8–17). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
Sign of the Covenant
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.”
A preacher can talk about God as the Ancient of Days and many other things—this seems entirely appropriate. But a sign-maker? I almost did not do it, until I began to remember that the Lord Jesus was a carpenter and began to think about the signs God makes.
There are two different kinds of signs in the Bible. Some are miraculous, what the Bible speaks of as “signs and wonders.” There are whole clusters of these signs. Moses gave a series of such signs to Pharaoh. The miracles of Exodus, the plagues, were proof that God is truly God. In the New Testament we find the same thing during the earthly ministry of Jesus. The miracles were to show that Jesus was, as Nicodemus confessed, “a teacher who has come from God” (John 3:2). The other kind of biblical sign is not miraculous, at least not necessarily so. It is a symbol of spiritual truth. (Of course, these sometimes overlap. When the Lord Jesus Christ did certain miracles, such as the multiplying of the loaves and fish in Galilee and then spoke of himself as the bread of life, he was doing what was miraculous but at the same time was a symbol of the truth that he satisfies the needs of the human soul.) Genesis 9:8–17 introduces us to the second kind of sign, the sign that is a symbol.
Healing for the Scarred
The rainbow was given to Noah following the flood, and the essential nature of this sign is that it is a thing of beauty. This is a case of the grace of God ministering to Noah after what must have been a most traumatic experience.
We speak of people being wounded by things that have come into their lives. Noah and those who were with him must have been wounded by the flood. They had not endured personal physical loss, but the civilization they had known was wiped out. The flood was a holocaust of major and unique proportions. It is difficult to see how they could have come through an experience like that without the wounds of the past on them. These wounds are the probable reason for the noticeable repetition as God gives the covenant. In the early chapters of Genesis the events more or less fly by. If we have any complaints about the early chapters of Genesis, humanly speaking, it is that God did not take time to tell us more. We have all kinds of questions. By contrast, in the story of the flood we have great repetition. This one incident is expanded into several chapters, and when God gives the covenant he reiterates it again and again. In chapter 6 God says, “I’m going to establish a covenant.” In chapter 8 we get the covenant in detail. Then, at the beginning of chapter 9 God expands on it even more fully, saying, “I am never again going to destroy the earth by flood.” In the verses we are looking at now, God enacts the covenant and gives the sign of the rainbow.
Why this reiteration? It is not for the sake of God, who does not need to repeat things, but for the sake of Noah who needed to hear them. He needed to be reassured. He was wounded in soul. So God said again and again, “I am never again going to destroy the world by flood. You have seen the ugliness of sin and its effects, the horror of my judgment. I want to reassure you that I will not send a flood again, and in order to do that I am making a beautiful rainbow in the sky as the pledge of my promise.” As Noah looked at the rainbow he must have said, “Yes, that ministers to me. Because the God who is giving me this beautiful sign is not going to put us through such a judgment again.”
I do not know where you fall in that picture. But I know there are many people who carry the scars of the past within them. There is a book by William Styron entitled Sophie’s Choice. It tells the story of a young Jewish woman who survived one of the German death camps. She was confronted with a choice as she entered the camp. This choice is not talked about in the early pages of the book. It comes out only in the end. But when you get to it you know that it alone explains the agony of the earlier pages. As Sophie entered the death camp she had two children with her. One of the guards, apparently on a whim, told her she could keep one child but would have to let the other go off to the furnaces to die. This marred the mother irredeemably, and in the end she committed suicide because she was not able to cope with the past. There are people who have wounds like that—people who have suffered loss and tragedy.
To you I say, God is the God of beauty. God makes signs of beauty to say, “I know that life is filled with tragedy. Sin is ugly. But I am the God of beauty. I am the God who is able to overcome these things, and I call you away from them to myself.” At the end of the Bible, in Revelation, we have a picture of God sitting on his throne around which is a rainbow. Look forward to that and let God’s beautiful sign minister to your soul.
A Sign for the Lonely
Farther on in Genesis we come to Abraham. Abraham was a pioneer, and the problem Abraham labored with was loneliness. He had left his family, nation, and culture, going from Ur of the Chaldees on the far side of the Arabian desert along the fertile crescent into Palestine. God had directed him in this, and he had gone obediently and trustingly. Yet all that he had known was behind. The picture we have of Abraham in these early days is of a lonely man, accompanied only by his immediate family, in a land that was not his own.
What does God do for Abraham? God takes him outside his tent on one of those crystal clear desert nights and directs him to look upward. Then, as Abraham looks up into the great expanse of the night sky, God points out the myriad of stars and promises him that this is what his posterity will be like. Abraham might feel alone, but he is to know that those who descend from him, not merely his physical children—though that is involved too—but his spiritual children, are going to be as numerous as those stars of heaven.
Are you lonely? Many people in our culture are lonely. Families have broken up. Relatives have died. Some are living by themselves in our great impersonal cities. I speak to many who feel alone. God says, “I want you to see things as I see them. I want you to see the great host of those who are my children, among whom you have your place. You are a part of that company.” Again we turn to Revelation, the last book of the Bible, and we see God’s description of those who are gathered around the throne of God, worshiping. What are we told? We are told that there are thousands upon thousands of God’s people. You may feel lonely now, but one day you will experience the fullness of that great fellowship.
A Bridge for the Fugitive
Abraham had a grandson whose name was Jacob. We have interesting stories about Jacob, and one of these contains a sign God made for him. Jacob was not a likable character. He was what we would call a “momma’s boy.” Besides that, he was not averse to cheating people to get what he wanted. The tragedy of a life like this is that the person inevitably alienates his friends and family. This is what Jacob did. He treated his brother Esau so badly that eventually Esau said he was going to kill him. Jacob had to get away from the danger. So we have the story of Jacob fleeing, all by himself, perhaps as a relatively young man, out into the world, with no friends, having left behind his father, mother, brother, and whatever other immediate family he had.
The first night out he is sleeping in the mountains, his head on a rock for a pillow. He is feeling alienated. For if Abraham was alone, Jacob was not only alone but also isolated. It is here that God steps in. God makes a sign for Jacob. The sign is a great stairway from heaven to earth, with angels ascending and descending on that stairway. It is a bridge. That is the essence of the sign. God is saying to Jacob, “Even though you have alienated yourself from your family and friends, nevertheless, I choose not to be alienated from you. I establish this bridge. I want you to know that communication is there. I come to you. You can come to me. I am with you wherever you go.”
Jacob, the outcast, replies, “Surely the Lord is here. The others may be gone. I may have separated myself from them, but the Lord is in this place and I didn’t know it.” Jacob called the place Bethel, the “house of God,” and he carried the memory of that sign with him during the years of his exile (Gen. 28:10–22).
There are many alienated people in our day. They are alienated because of their own acts. They do not like to face that, but if they will face it, then the barriers they have set up can be torn down. In the meantime God says, “I want you to know the starting place is this: although you have alienated yourself from others I choose not to be alienated from you. I am the God who builds stairways.” The greatest of these is the stairway on which the Lord Jesus Christ descended when he came to earth to be your Savior. God points you to that stairway and says, “If sin has produced alienation in your life, I want you to look to this stairway and come to me.”
Courage for the Defeated
I think of another sign God made, a sign for Moses. At this period in his life Moses had been forced to flee from Egypt. Some of the experiences that had been lived before by Abraham and Jacob were his as well but, in addition to the loneliness and alienation, Moses must also have had a sense of defeat. He had understood early in his life that he was to be the deliverer of God’s people. He had been educated in the courts of Pharaoh and was taught, as Stephen said, “in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” (Acts 7:22). But being raised as an Egyptian did not turn his head. He still recognized that he was a member of this outcast group of people who were being treated as slaves, and he identified with them (Heb. 11:25). He determined to lead them out of Egypt.
At last the day came. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, and he turned on the Egyptian and killed him. He thought, “Now the revolution will begin. I’ve taken the first step. God has chosen me. They’re going to rally around.” But this was not God’s way. Instead of a revolution, word spread that Moses had killed an Egyptian and Moses had to flee. He ran to the far side of the desert where he would be safe, and he lived there for forty years. He was forty when he killed the Egyptian. He lived forty more years in the desert. Now he was eighty, and he was defeated for good.
Some people feel defeated at thirty or forty or at sixty-five when they retire. This man was eighty. What is God doing? All the gifts, training, and opportunities he had! He has been wasting these for eighty years. His life is over, and if ever there is a story of defeat it is the story of Moses.
But God gave Moses a sign. It was a burning bush. As Moses described it, it was a bush that was remarkable for the fact that it did not burn up! It was burning, but it did not burn up. Why? Because it was a symbol of the presence of the eternal and everlasting God. Thus it was that Moses, who felt defeated, who felt that life was running out and his opportunities were gone, was brought face-to-face with the nature of the God he served. His life might be running out, but God’s was not running out. He might be defeated, but God was not defeated. God would do what God would do—in the life of Moses or anyone else! God called him and said, “Moses, now is the time when I am going to send you to Egypt. And this is the message: Tell Pharaoh, ‘Let my people go.’ ”
Do you feel defeated? Have you had opportunities and then wasted them? Do you feel that you will never get them back again? God is the eternal God. God can take you right where you are and can bring victory out of defeat. He can do that which is spiritually lasting, not only for this life (for you die, and the things you do live on only for a few years anyway) but for all eternity. That is the great thing about things spiritual. Everything material will pass away. The Lord himself said, “Heaven and earth will pass away” (Matt. 24:35). But that which is spiritual abides forever. What is done for Jesus Christ now—the stand that is taken, the word that is given, the moral victory that is won—no matter how insignificant it may appear in the world’s eyes, is something that is going to last into the farthest reaches of eternity. Even the angels are going to inquire into it and say, “Look at the grace and power of our God who is able to do that in the life of a sinner.” That is our privilege. God makes this sign to encourage us to go on.
Rest for the Weary
In Exodus 31 God gives another sign: the sabbath. God says to Israel, “You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come” (Exod. 31:13). What is the essence of the Sabbath? The essence of the rainbow is its beauty; the essence of the stars is their number; the essence of the stairway is its bridging a gap; the essence of the burning bush is God’s presence. The essence of the Sabbath is that it is a time of rest for weary people. Moses had led the people out of Egypt, and they had wandered in the desert for many years. At last they had come to their land, and God gave them the Sabbath as a symbol of the rest they were to find in him.
The application is to those who are weary in the Lord’s work. Are you weary in the Lord’s work? I am sure you are, because the apostle Paul said to people in his day, “Let us not become weary in doing good” (Gal. 6:9). He would not have said that if we did not become weary. This is one of my favorite Bible verses because it goes on to say, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” Are you weary? If so, God holds the symbol of his rest before you. There is a rest that “remains … for the people of God” (Heb. 4:9). If you have to look ahead to a future of unvarying continuation of the things you are doing, with all the trials, toils, and problems, it can be most defeating. How can you keep going day after day, year after year, knowing that as you grow older your strength is weakening and time is running out? How can you do it? You can if you know that there is a rest from your labors.
I started some long-distance running recently, and I found that it is a great help if the course is marked off in segments. After three, four, or five miles I’m tired and ready to stop. But then I come to a little marker, and the marker says “three and a half miles” or “four and a half miles.” I say, “Well, it’s only another half mile [or mile]; I can hang on that long.” And I do! It is the same spiritually. Work is tiring. There is weariness in work, especially Christian work. It is worse than any other work. I do not know of any work that is harder than Christian work. It requires more effort and more perseverance over a longer period of time. Like the title of a recent book, it is A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. But knowing that there is a rest at the end (and even some along the way) we keep going.
Salvation for Those Left Out
One evening out in the fields surrounding the town of Bethlehem a group of shepherds were taking care of their sheep. No one had a good opinion of shepherds. They were not even allowed to testify in a court of law, because everyone assumed that people like that would lie. So they were a left-out people, and there they were on this particular night. Suddenly an angel appeared in the sky and an announcement was given that the Messiah had been born in Bethlehem. The angel said to the shepherds: “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12).
The essence of this is the glorious condescension of our God. What had God done? He had come down, not merely as far as the peaks of Olympus, but beyond; not merely as far as the palaces of the Roman Caesars, but beyond; not merely as far as the courts of Herod or the great hall of the Sanhedrin, but beyond. He had come down, down, down to a manger, being born of a poor family who did not even have a place to lay their heads. He had come to the stable of Bethlehem.
If you feel left out—there are many who do—learn that God is here to take you in. He does not say, “Well, here’s my house. Come on over. I’ll open up a room for you somewhere.” He reaches out to you. He has become like you. In fact, he has become even more lowly than you in order that there might be no barrier. All he asks is that you recognize that he has done it.
I think the Lord is grieved that so few receive his signs. On one occasion people came to Jesus and said, “What miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you?” This must have made a real impression, because the Gospel writers repeat these words many times over in their Gospels (Matt. 12:38; 16:1; Mark 8:11; Luke 11:16; John 2:18; 6:30). Whenever the people asked that, the Lord must have thought over all the signs he had given. These were ample to lead people to faith. But what he said to these unbelievers most often was: “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:39–40 etc.). That is the sign above all others signs. Jesus “died for our sins according to the Scriptures, … was buried, … was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3–4) that you and I might know that we can have forgiveness of sins and everlasting life.
All these signs could be meaningful to you. But even if the others are not, at least allow this one to touch your heart: Jesus Christ was crucified in your place. He is risen. He is coming again. Allow him to draw you to himself for salvation.
9:8–17 / In this second speech God solemnly bound himself by a covenant never again to wipe out the inhabitants of the earth by a deluge. This covenant was unilateral; that is, no conditions were laid on humans for keeping it in force. This was an everlasting covenant (v. 16) for all generations to come (v. 12).
The repetition of several pivotal terms communicates God’s goal. In the Hebrew the key term “covenant” (berit) occurs seven times (three times with establish, heqim, vv. 9, 11, 17, two times with remember, zakar, vv. 15, 16, one time with making, natan, v. 12, and one time in the phrase “the sign of the covenant,” v. 13; niv, however, reads “covenant” eight times by inserting this word in its second occurrence in v. 12). The repetition of every living creature (kol nepesh khayyah, four times) and all life (kol basar, five times) stresses that God’s covenant is with all humans. This covenant also concerns God’s relationship to the earth (’erets), which he mentions seven times (in the mt; the niv has this only six times). As a sign and guarantee of this covenant God placed a rainbow (qeshet, three times) in the clouds (be’anan, three times). The interweaving of these pivotal terms evokes the image of a beautiful tapestry of God’s desire that all humans have confidence in divine mercy as they populate the earth. Moreover, in this way God fulfills the promise made to Noah before the deluge (6:18).
Whenever he sees the rainbow, God will remember (keep in force) this covenant. It is implied also that the rainbow reminds humans of God’s promise. Throughout the ot various signs and symbols characterize the relationship between God and humans. These symbols inspire humans to worship God wholeheartedly and gratefully.
9:8–17. That this covenant (vv. 9, 11–13, 15–17) is cosmic and universal (every living creature, vv. 10 [twice], 12; all living creatures, vv. 15–16; all life, vv. 11, 15, 17) is seen from the rainbow God gave as a sign (vv. 12–13, 17). When it arches over the horizon after a rainfall it is an all-embracing sign of God’s faithfulness to His work of grace. Signs remind participants in a covenant to keep the stipulations. In the rainbow God, who is omniscient, perpetually reminds Himself (repeated in vv. 15–16) never to flood the whole world again (vv. 11, 15). Since no rain had fallen before the Flood (2:5), no rainbow was needed. Now when clouds clear, light refraction shows this marvelous display. The rainbow arcs like a battle bow hung against the clouds. (The Heb. word for rainbow, qešeṯ, is also the word for a battle bow.) Elsewhere in the Old Testament God referred to judgment storms by using terms for bows and arrows.
The bow is now “put away,” hung in place by the clouds, suggesting that the “battle,” the storm, is over. Thus the rainbow speaks of peace. In the ancient Near East, covenant treaties were made after wars as a step toward embarking on peace. Similarly God, after judging sin, made a covenant of peace. Israel certainly would be strengthened to see in the skies again and again God’s pledge that He keeps His promise of grace. But certainly it also reminded the faithful in Israel that God’s judgment was completed for that age. Judgment will come once again in the end times (Zech. 14:1–3; Rev. 19:15) before there can be complete millennial peace and rest (Rev. 20:6). So Genesis 9:8–17 anticipates that in the end Israel will beat her swords into plowshares (Isa. 2:4; Micah 4:3). In the meantime life goes on in a new order; the divine will of forbearance, “common grace,” is at work until that end.