Visible mercy

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One of the joys of rainfall – apart from the refreshment it gives to a parched land – is seeing the rainbow at its end.

It really is a delight to see this bow form in the sky after a shower of rain. It is manifestly part of the beauty of God’s creation. However, we grow so accustomed to seeing this spectacle of glory that we fail to appreciate its beauty or worse, treat it as a meteorological phenomenon of no intrinsic worth.

For those who remember their school science classes, the rainbow is caused by reflection, refraction and dispersion of light in water droplets. The result is a spectrum of light taking the form of a layered arc of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet (or ROYGBIV for those of us who remember the mnemonic). Well, that’s one way of describing a rainbow!

This was not the case for ancient Israelites. For they knew that every rainbow stood as testimony to the promise of God – his covenant promise never to flood the earth again as he did in the days of Noah (Genesis 9:12-17).  

Hebrew has no word for “rainbow” so the author of Genesis uses the normal word for “war-bow” – yet here the instrument of war has become the signature of mercy. For in the aftermath of the rain that brought the destructive flood upon the land, God set his “war-bow” in the sky to declare peace between himself and all life on earth – his covenant of preservation. 

In fact, the rainbow is one of only three covenant signs described in the Old Testament (the others being Sabbath and circumcision). Yet the sign of the rainbow is not in the first place a sign for us, but rather a sign for God: “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 upon the earth” (Genesis 9:16).

The rainbow is a reflection of God’s glory. The radiance around God’s throne is therefore described as resembling a rainbow in Ezekiel’s vision (1:28) and similarly in John’s vision of the heavenly throne (Revelation 4:3). 

Yet it is not just reflective of God’s glory but declarative of his mercy – a testimony to God’s grace, his common grace to all living creatures that he will not judge the world again by flood.

So what should you do when you see a rainbow? Remember that God is a promise-keeping God. Teach your children that here is a sign that God has given to us to remind us of his mercy to this world – for a season. Of course, God’s promise not to flood the earth is not a promise to delay judgment indefinitely. For the Day of the Lord will come and it will come with vengeance for those who do not believe in his Son. The world ignores the rainbow to its peril, if it likewise ignores the one whose word of promise is in the rainbow. 

We therefore, who know God’s redemptive grace in Jesus Christ have opportunity to remind our friends and neighbours of God’s mercy whenever we see a rainbow – God’s covenant sign for all humanity.