Living Under the Rainbow: Judgment First, Then Mercy
September 1, 2002
Let’s suppose you are a reporter assigned by your editor to cover Noah’s flood. It’s the biggest story of the ancient world, and it’s your story. So you research it and you write it up. When it’s done, you turn it in, the editor reads it, and pays you the ultimate compliment, “Let’s run this on page 1.” Then he asks a question you haven’t thought about. “What’s the headline?” You pause, considering the question carefully. After all, the flood has so many angles, so many amazing parts to it. How will you sum it all up in just a few gripping words?
Hold that thought for just a moment. A few years ago Bill Moyers hosted a multi-part series on PBS called “Genesis: A Living Conversation.” He invited a panel of distinguished rabbis, pastors and scholars from various fields to help him discuss the contemporary meaning of the events recorded in Genesis. When they came to the episode about the flood, he asked his panel the same question I just asked: What headline would you write if you were covering the great flood of Noah’s day? One panelist suggested this headline: “God Destroys World in Flood.” Another panelist, a pastor, suggested something completely different: “God Gives Humans a Second Chance.”
Who was closer to the truth? From one standpoint, the first headline was biblically and historically accurate. God did destroy the world with a flood. That’s a fact. It’s also a very eye-catching headline. Probably not many of us would have thought of the second suggestion about God giving humans a second chance. It doesn’t catch the drama of the ark, the flood, and the death of a civilization. And it’s not nearly as exciting. But on a very deep level, it does bring us to the bottom line of the story. After the floodwaters receded, after the animals left the ark, and after Noah and his family stood on dry land again, God did indeed give humanity a second chance. And that’s the message we find in Genesis 9. Once the flood is over, Noah and his family have the task of starting all over again.
As we go through this passage, keep in mind that it’s all about God. He’s the only person who speaks or acts. Noah doesn’t say a thing and he doesn’t do a thing. God is the subject, the actor, the initiator. He establishes a new beginning, puts forth a new command, and gives a new promise. If we pay attention, we will discover vital principles regarding the possibility of spiritual renewal in every age and in any situation.
I. A New Beginning 1-3
“Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything’” (Genesis 9:1-3).
If the first verse sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a repeat of what God said to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:28. This is Eden all over again. God commissions Noah and his family to spread out across the earth and re-establish human civilization. Noah is to become the patriarch of a vast clan that will eventually branch out to form all the various tribes and nations on earth. Just as Adam was head of the human race in the beginning, Noah is now the head of the reconstituted human race after the flood. Everything flows from him through his three sons. And now God adds one significant permission: Humans are given permission to use animals for food. Evidently before the flood, everyone was a vegetarian. But now it is permissible to hunt animals for food and to raise animals for meat.
There is a vital spiritual truth underlying these verses. God will not be defeated by human sin, not even by sin as gross as the immorality that brought on the flood. Your sin may seem (from a human point of view) to hinder God’s plan, it may seem to delay it for days or months or years or even for generations, but in the end, God’s will will be done. What God has spoken must come to pass. No evil done by men can thwart the plans of the Almighty. Has he not spoken? Will he not do it? Who dares to stand against him? Some may dare, but none can succeed.
This truth is hugely encouraging because it gives us hope when we have messed up royally. We may wonder, and may secretly think, that God is through with us because of our sin. “I’ve sinned too much. God will never give me another chance.” Those who say that know too much about their sin and too little about their God. Isaiah 55:7 contains a wonderful invitation to those who feel their sin is too great to be forgiven: “Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.” The King James translates the last phrase—”he will abundantly pardon.” I like that because that’s precisely what I need. When I stray, when I fall, when I make a mess of my life, I need a God who will “abundantly” pardon me. With God there is always the possibility of a new beginning.
II. A New Command 4-7
“But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man. As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it” (Genesis 9:4-7).
In these verses Noah now learns the “rules of the game.” If God is going to start over again, Noah needs to know what rules to follow. These verses tell us there is basically only one rule—”Respect Life.” Everything flows from that. That rule is applied in two sub-rules. First, don’t eat living animals. That’s the meaning of verse 4, which sounds strange to our ears. In order to understand it, we should perhaps add the word “pulsating” after the word “lifeblood.” Since God now gives permission to eat animals for food, he adds the restriction that they must first be put to the death and the blood drained from them. This would seem to be good advice in any case. It’s very difficult to eat a steak while it is still attached to a living cow. And even harder to eat living pork chops. This text anticipates the later biblical instruction that the life of the flesh is in the blood (Leviticus 17:11). The blood carries the pulse of life. When EMT workers arrive at the scene of an accident, one of the first things they do is to check for a pulse. If they get a pulse, they know the person is alive. The point of first killing the animal, draining the blood, and then eating it is to show respect for God who gave life in the first place.
Life for Life
The second sub-rule is very relevant to our day: Murderers should be put to death. This is the plain meaning of verses 5-6. If a man sheds the blood of another man, by the hand of man his own blood will be shed. Life for life. If you kill, you will be killed. If you murder, you will be put to death. If you show such disrespect for human life that you murder it, then you have forfeited your right to your own life. The reason given for this rule is crucial. Verse 6 says it is because man is made in the image of God. Think about what that means:
Every boy and every girl.
Every mother, every father.
Every uncle, every aunt.
Every grandfather, every grandmother.
Every friend, every enemy.
Every neighbor, every acquaintance.
Every co-worker, every classmate.
Everyone we know, everyone we meet, everyone in the whole world is made in the image of God. To put it stronger, God made each one of them in his own image. He stamped all of us and each of us with his divine image. We were each created with the ability to know God, to love him, and to serve him. We were made with an inner desire to know our Creator. That separates us forever from the dogs and cats and mules and robins and beetles and rabbits and whales and gophers and chimpanzees. Those creatures are creatures. Nothing more and nothing less. But humans are made in God’s image. That makes each one of us unique and valuable and worthy of respect and honor and protection. And that image of God means that human life is valuable inside the womb, from the very moment of conception.
How dare anyone murder another person made in God’s image? If you do, God takes it seriously. He will not forget it or overlook it or excuse it or pass it off as a dumb mistake. And he won’t say, “Boys will be boys” or “She deserved it” or “Let’s all be friends.” No! God says, “If you murder, you deserve to die.”
This is the biblical foundation for capital punishment. We all understand that God is the source of life. He alone has the right to give life or to take it away. But in this passage God delegates to human authority the right to take life in certain circumstances. Later on in the Old Testament God will specify certain circumstances where the death penalty is justified. The death penalty was prescribed for murder (Exodus 21:12), working on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2), cursing your father or mother (Leviticus 20:9), adultery (Leviticus 20:10), sodomy (Leviticus 20:13), rape (Deuteronomy 22:25), and kidnapping (Exodus 21:16). It should be observed that each of these crimes constitutes an assault on God’s Law, or on one of God’s institutions (such as marriage and the family), or upon a person created in God’s image.
To discuss this issue in depth would take an entire message, but suffice it to say that I am not aware of any passage in the rest of the Bible that contradicts, cancels, nullifies what is said in Genesis 9. The principle laid down thousands of years ago is still in force today. Romans 13:4 tells us that when a civil authority (judge, police officer, soldier, etc) acts to uphold righteousness and to punish evildoers, he does not bear the sword in vain. That sword of punishment—which includes capital punishment—is part of God’s judgment against those who do evil, and especially against those who take innocent human life.
III. A New Promise 8-17
If you attended Sunday School as a child, you already know the promise and the sign:
The Promise: God promised never again to flood the entire earth.
The Pledge: God placed a rainbow in the sky as the sign of his promise.
In theological terms, this is the first great covenant of the Bible, the Noahic Covenant. It is important for several reasons: First, it is an unconditional covenant. That is, there are no conditions to be met by us. God didn’t say, “If you obey me, I promise never to flood the earth again,” or “If you offer a sacrifice, I promise never to flood the earth again.” To the contrary, God asks nothing of the human race. No obedience, no sacrifice, no faith, no prayer. Nothing at all. This isn’t a two-way street where we do something and then God does something in response. This is a promise made by God in spite of the fact that the world had just been destroyed because of sin, and in full knowledge that the world was soon to plunge back into the pit of sin. (As we will see in the next sermon, it is Noah the man of faith who will lead the parade in the wrong direction.) This is a covenant of pure grace, made in spite of human sin, not because of any supposed human goodness or human faith or human obedience. In spite of our continuing sin, God promises never again to destroy the entire human race with a flood.
Grace greater than our sin.
Second, it is a covenant guaranteed with a sign. We have tended to sentimentalize this part of the story, and for good reason. Rainbows are beautiful, and it’s easy to think that this is just a sweet touch. But it’s far more than that. Rainbows occur all over the world, thus making the sign available to the same extent as the flood itself. Rainbows are a startling phenomenon. When you see a rainbow, the natural urge is to point it out to someone else. Rainbows display their colors across the full spectrum of light, covering all possible shades and hues. Here is a sign perfectly fitted for the entire human race, at all times, in every location. And it is a sign easily understood by all ages.
The text tells us that when we see a rainbow, we are to think, “God promised never again to send a flood upon the entire earth.” And when God sees a rainbow, it reminds him of the promise he freely made to us.
Thorns on the Roses
As we meditate on the rainbow promise, notice what the text does not say. Nowhere does God say, “I will never send a storm again.” Nowhere does God promise that life will be free of storms, trials, troubles and difficulties. Most rainbows appear only after the storm has come and gone. If there were no storms, there would be very few rainbows.
The message to us is obvious. God never promises a life free from pain and suffering. As the song says, he never promised us a rose garden. Or if he did, the roses have thorns. That’s life in a fallen world. There are floods and fires and tornadoes. And there are wars and famines and there is the West Nile Virus. As we approach September 11, we’re all aware that this isn’t a safe world, that we all live on the front lines, and that evil is all around us. No one is immune from disease. And bad news is only a phone call away.
The rainbows come after the rain, not before. Weeping endures for a night, joy comes in the morning. We know that all things work together for good, and we know that the “all things” must include tears and suffering, unanswered questions, and moments of anger, terror and sadness. And even when we quote those famous words of Joseph in Genesis 50:20, when he tells his brothers, “You meant it for evil but God meant it for good,” we must realize that you can’t get to the last phrase without going through the first phrase.
I take from this a familiar truth. God never gives us more than we can bear. The human race can’t bear another worldwide flood so God won’t send one. And the rainbow proves his promise. But there will still be many storms along the way, tears aplenty, and much sadness. And if we look up, we will see God’s rainbows, the signs and tokens of his love, here and there along the way, reminding us that the storms of life do not mean that things are out of control. The rainbow teaches us that everything is under God’s control.
In Wrath Remember Mercy
As I stand back and look at this passage from a distance, the last phrase of Habakkuk 3:2 comes to mind. It’s a prayer by the prophet as he considers the suffering of his own people. Although they have sinned greatly and their judgment is deserved, he prays that it will come to an end. He frames his thoughts in a few simple words: “In wrath remember mercy.”
In wrath remember mercy.
Perhaps that is a good summary of this passage. In wrath God remembered mercy. In wrath God always remembers mercy. When he judges, it is to purify and to discipline, not to destroy. And sooner or later, his mercy will be seen. And it is after the wrath is over that his mercy is most clearly displayed.
And that brings me back to the “headline question.” The more I think about it, the more I like the one that says, “God Gives Humans a Second Chance.” I like it because that’s what Genesis 9 is all about. And I like it because that’s what we need. Come to think of it, I like it because that’s what I need. And I need that second chance every day.
Judgment. Yes. And wrath. Yes. And times of hardship and difficulty. Yes, for all of us.
But mercy. Yes! A second chance. Yes! And the rainbow after the rain. Yes!
In wrath God always remembers mercy.
Hope for Backsliders
Two other thoughts fill the mind as we bring this message to a close. First, the judgment and the mercy both come from God. It’s not as if the devil sent the flood but God sent the rainbow. Oh no. God himself sent the terrible judgment of the flood. He is the one who sent the rain and opened up the fountains of the deep. He is the one who ordained that the world of that day should perish. And he is the one who after the flood showed his mercy in giving the human race a second chance and in making the promise and guaranteeing it with a rainbow.
Second, without the judgment the mercy would not appear as merciful. The rainbow is beautiful always, but the promise is more glorious because of the flood that preceded it. Three times God says, “Never again!” He really meant it. Never again will there be a worldwide flood. Mercy is still mercy but mercy shines ever brighter, like a diamond set against black velvet, when seen against the backdrop of God’s righteous judgment.
The application moves in many directions, all of them encouraging to us. First, there is a word here to backsliders. That’s an old word, isn’t it? A backslider is a Christian who has drifted away from the Lord. You love the Lord but the cares of this world and the temptations of life have put you in a bad place, far from the conscious presence of God. Today you are under the cloud of judgment, guilt, and deep inner unhappiness. Things are not right and you know it. Perhaps you feel so frustrated that you wonder if things can ever be different. Here is good news. If you will return to the Lord, the clouds will part, the sun will shine, and overhead you will find the rainbow of God’s mercy. Why live in the “far country” of sin when you as a child of God can feast at the Father’s table?
Good News For Sinners
Second, there is good news for sinners. Your sin, no matter what it is, has already been judged. The Day of Judgment happened 2,000 years ago when Jesus died on the cross for you. His blood is so powerful that it paid in full the price for all your sins.
Your sins were judged at the cross. Today is the day of mercy.
Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity, love and power.
Come to the cross. Or better yet, run to the cross!
Mercy there was great and grace was free,
Pardon there was multiplied to me,
There my burdened soul found liberty,
It is no coincidence that when John saw the vision of heaven in Revelation 4, he saw a rainbow encircling the throne of God (v. 3). That symbolizes the completeness of God’s mercy. The blood of Jesus has transformed the throne of God from a throne of judgment into a throne of mercy.
If you come to Jesus, you will not be turned away. His blood will save you. The rainbow promise guarantees that God’s mercy is for you. And for all of us who labor under heavy burdens and deep personal sorrows, this promise is for us, too. Look up and you will see the rainbow, the sign that God has not forgotten you. Amen.