Recalling an eternal promise, a covenant sign
Arched over the earth, God’s valentine.
Ineffable light made visible in refraction,
Noah knew that it meant ‘God in action’.
Being ever alongside us, the Ancient of Days
Occupies our hearts, inhabits our praise –
Wavelengths of God illuming our ways.
The rainbow symbol has been widely used in different contexts, but it has a particular meaning in the Bible as the sign of the covenant God established with all life on the earth (Genesis 9:17) after the Great Flood.
The Lord is light, in which there is no darkness. Light cannot bear the dark, and vice versa. The Lord regretted making humans, and the animal kingdom that had been caught up in ‘The Fall’, and sought to wipe their sin from the face of the earth with a great flood.
However, amidst the darkness, there was a glimmer of light, a remnant of hope. Noah found favour in the eyes of the Lord.
Whilst Adam and Eve had rebelled, ‘Noah did everything just as God commanded him’, no matter how ridiculous it must have sounded. Darkness had not extinguished the light.
Because of Noah’s obedience (not to mention the trusting and long-suffering nature of his family), The Lord established a covenant – “never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood”. The sign of this covenant was the rainbow.
There are many things that could be said about this symbol of covenant love, but I want to reflect on just two of them.
First, God said that whenever the rainbow appeared in the clouds, He would see it and remember His everlasting covenant with all living creatures. Somewhere on earth there is always a rainbow. I live in a part of the world which enjoys some spectacular rainbows – on the west coast of Scotland where the highly changeable weather means we have the classic ‘four seasons in a day’ climate. Perfect for the necessary combination of water droplets and sunshine. But if there isn’t a rainbow here, there will be plenty elsewhere. So, if there are always rainbows somewhere, God must be continually remembering his everlasting covenant with us. God’s ‘rest’ is an active rest, constantly seeking after us.
Second, God is unimaginable light. We cannot, in our temporal bodies, bear to look at that light. Like Moses on Sinai, we would have to avert our gaze. But we have other ways we can look at God. We can see God in Jesus, in other people, in the natural world, in the work of the Holy Spirit, in answers to prayer… And in the rainbow we have another way of seeing God. Although gazing directly at brilliant white light would damage our eyes, God breaks it down into a coloured spectrum. Some of the spectrum remains invisible to us (ultra-violet and infra-red), but we can see enough to grasp its nature and wonder. We will never, in this life, fully comprehend the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God. But we can see in part – we can see enough of God’s ‘visible spectrum’ to reassure us of His presence and covenant.
(The Rainbow acrostic appears on my Old Testament: History, Law and Poetry page).