The Symbolism of the Rainbow
Back in 2015, one of my sons asked me why there were so many rainbows on the television and internet. Most of us have have seen them on children's books and clothing from our earliest days--and in recent years placarded on the television and internet--yet many have never stopped to ask the question, "What symbolism did God invest the rainbow with from the the day in which He first set it in the sky?" There is a rich biblical-theological answer to that question, and it would serve us well to consider what we are taught from the Genesis narrative--as well as from the rest of redemptive history. In his sermon, "The Hope of Noah," Sinclair Ferguson explains the covenantal and redemptive nature of the bow in the sky:
"As with all of God's covenants in the Bible...He always adds physical signs to them to reassure us. Yes, His word is enough--His word is His bond--but we are doubters; and so He gives us visible signs that say to us, "I really meant what I said; look at the sign!" And here he says to Noah, "I'm going to give you a sign--the bow in the cloud." And, of course, we know what that is, the bow--the multicolored rainbow--but actually the word used in the book of Genesis is not rainbow, it's warbow--the bow of war, the bow of battle. It is a picture of God, after hostility has ended and He has established His new creation, flinging His bow of war, His bow of judgment, into the skies as a reassurance to Noah, 'Now, that there is reconciliation, you may enjoy the peace that you have with Me; you can be sure that there will never again be this kind of judgment on the earth, until, of course, the cosmic final judgment of all at the end of time;' and so Noah, begins to enjoy the fruit and the spoils of war. Some scholars have even suggested, over the centuries--if you think about the rainbow as God's military bow transformed into an ornament of great beauty, that hostility has ceased and that there is no arrow in the bow--that, if He has thrown the bow into the sky that way, the only place the arrow could have gone was into His own heart.' I wonder if Noah ever could have pondered, 'If God has thrown His bow into the sky, where is His arrow, and why does it point thus heavenward into His heart?' And, of course, the rest of the story of the Bible will pick up on that idea--it's only as God takes the judgment to Himself, into His Son Jesus Christ, that we might enjoy full and final reconciliation with Him."1
So we see that God, by placing the rainbow in the sky, was, in a sense, aiming His weapon of war and judgment at Himself; and, as it was with the cutting of the covenant with Abraham in which God alone passed through the animals that had been cut apart in judgment, God is saying in the Noahic covenant that there will be judgment; but, for those for whom the Father has sent the Son into the world to redeem, that judgment will fall on Himself at the cross. The Scriptures add a further layer of covenantal assurance to this idea. The Lord says, "When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant..." (Gen. 9:6). To be sure, God doesn't need to be reminded of anything, but has, in gracious condescension, determined to give us greater certainty of His promise by intimating that He will see the bow and remember His promise. The promise of redemption comes from Him and He will never fail to make good on it. He will never change and therefore we can have the utmost confidence that He will do what He has promised to do in Christ. "All the promises of God," writes the Apostle, "are 'Yes' in Him and 'Amen' to the glory of God." When we come to the book of Revelation we find what is arguably the most significant aspect of the biblical teaching on the rainbow. There, we see a bow around the throne of the Lamb who was slain (Rev. 4:3). There’s a rainbow around the throne of Christ. John is telling us that Jesus is ever mindful of His covenant mercy for His people. Everyone who trusts in the crucified and risen Savior, who has taken the judgment that we deserve for our sin and rebellion, will forever stand in the presence of the one who is shrouded in the sign of the covenant. For all eternity there’s will be a rainbow around the throne and Jesus Christ who will forever remember that covenant mercy that He merits and purchases for us by His life, death and His resurrection. Jonathan Edwards captured the significance of the rainbow around the throne of God in glory when he wrote:
The rainbow, we know, was appointed of God as a token of his gracious covenant with mankind. God is encompassed with a rainbow, which signifies that as he sits, and reigns, and manifests himself in his church, he appears as encompassed with mercy, as of old the throne of God in the holy of holies, where God manifested himself in the church of Israel, was called the mercy seat. So here there is a rainbow, the sign of God’s gracious covenant, round about the throne that he sits on. This rainbow was “in sight like unto an emerald,” which is a precious stone of an exceeding lovely green color, so green that this color appears in nothing else so lively and lovely. This color is a most fit emblem of divine grace; it is a very lively color, not so dull as blue or purple, and yet most easy to the sight, more easy than the more fiery colors of yellow and red. It is the color of all the grass, herbs, and trees, and growth of the earth, and therefore fitly denotes life, flourishing, prosperity, and happiness, which are often in Scripture compared to the green and flourishing growth of the earth. As the benign influence of the sun on the face of the earth is shown by this color above all others, so is the grace, and benign influence, and communication of God fitly represented by this color. This color is the color of joy and gladness. The fields are said to shout for joy, and also to sing, by their appearing in a cheerful green. As the color red is made use of to signify God’s revenging justice, in Zech. 1:8 and elsewhere, so is green the emblem of divine grace. As Dr. Doddridge observes, this doesn’t imply that the rainbow had no other color, “but that the proportion of green was greater than ordinary.”2
Whatever symbolism men may wish to impose on the covenantal sign that God set in the cloud, we must return again and again to the truth of Scripture and to the God who has aimed the arrows of His wrath at Himself so that we might not receive them for all eternity. There is a day of judgment coming in which all who reject the offers of mercy and grace in Christ will be the recipients of what the Psalmist described of Christ in Psalm 45:5--where we are told that His "arrows are sharp in the heart of the King’s enemies." May God give us eyes to see and ears to hear the meaning of the bow in the sky and turn in repentance and faith to the One who took His own arrows of wrath into His heart at the cross to bring many sons to glory.
1. An excerpt from Sinclair Ferguson's sermon, "The Hope of Noah" (Beginning at the 45:45 min. mark)
2. Edwards, J. (1998). Notes on Scripture. (H. S. Stout & S. J. Stein, Eds.) (Vol. 15, pp. 224–225). London; New Haven: Yale University Press.