Life Under the Rainbow

As we go through life, we meet wonders and horrors. Some things are so beautiful that they grip our senses and gladden our hearts; others are so horrible that they repel our senses and break our hearts. One moment we see something too lovely to forget; the next, we meet something too shameful to look at. Dealing with life’s loveliness and ugliness can affect us deeply and have an impact on our future, for better or for worse.

We’re going to look at a true story involving a rainbow and a drunk old man. Few things are as lovely as a rainbow, with its splendid arch and shimmering colors. And few things are as ugly as a drunk old man, lying unconscious and unclothed. But the story reveals something even lovelier than a rainbow and something even uglier than a drunk, naked grandpa. Both parts of the story—the beautiful and the horrible—involved Noah and occurred after the worldwide flood.

God’s Guarantee

The Bible says that after God sent a flood to judge the world, he said in his heart, “Never again will I destroy all living creatures” (8:21). God communicated this decision in spoken words and in a visual sign.

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.” (Genesis 9:8-17)

We know that a rainbow occurs when sunlight passes through water droplets to produce a prism effect. So how can the rainbow be the sign of God’s guarantee? Isn’t a rainbow just a result of natural laws? Well, a rainbow is indeed a result of natural laws, but it’s not just a result of natural laws. Who designed nature’s laws in the first place? God did. He created sunlight, raindrops, rainbows, and eyes to see the gorgeous colors he invented.

God didn’t necessarily invent rainbows the day he made his covenant with Noah. Rainbows may have appeared through natural causes long before then, but God’s word of promise made that beautiful arch into a sign and seal of his covenant to preserve the earth from worldwide disaster. God has a wonderful way of taking something that is already part of the world he has made and giving it a special meaning. Water existed long before Jesus spoke of baptism, but Jesus, by his word, made ordinary water the sign and seal of sins being washed away by his blood and of sinners being raised with Christ to eternal life. Bread and wine existed long before Jesus gave his followers the Lord’s Supper, but Jesus, by his word, made ordinary bread and wine the sign and seal of being nourished by his body and blood for eternal life. Jesus said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). Likewise, God took a part of his good creation and gave it new meaning when he told Noah that the rainbow would from then on be the sign of his covenant with the earth.

So the fact that a rainbow appears through the working of natural laws does not at all prevent the rainbow from being the sign of God’s covenant with the earth. Indeed, it may be more fitting that God would use a sign that comes through natural laws and not through sudden, direct action on God’s part. After all, God’s rainbow promise is not a guarantee that God will do one astounding miracle after another; it’s a guarantee that natural laws and rhythms will last as long as the earth lasts. The worldwide flood came when God loosed water from its ordinary pattern and boundary so that water overwhelmed the earth. But God made up his mind that after the flood the patterns of nature would remain in place. As God himself put it, “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease” (8:22). What better sign that God will preserve earth from worldwide destruction and uphold nature’s laws and cycles than the splendid, colorful arch produced by nature’s laws when a storm gives way to sunshine?

The rainbow is a reminder that the earth’s future depends on God, not on us. When God sent the flood, he did so in response to what people were like. Today, if God dealt with the world based on what people are like, the world would perish. Even after the flood, when God made the rainbow covenant, he said that “every inclination of [the human] heart is evil from childhood” (8:21). When God looks at humans, whom he made to rule the earth, what he sees is bad enough to provoke him to destroy the earth.

But God chooses to look at his rainbow instead and to deal with earth on the basis of his own covenant promise, not on the basis of what people deserve. There will still be disasters, but they will be local, not global. There will still be judgments, but they will be limited, not all-consuming. God has made an unconditional promise to preserve his creation, no matter what humans do. God has made that promise because of his love and mercy, and he will keep that promise because of his faithfulness.

Saving the Planet?

“The Lord is faithful to all his promises and loving toward all he has made” (Psalm 145:13). God has made a covenant with the earth and all living things. The words of this promise guarantee protection from worldwide disaster and universal loss of life, and the sign of this promise is the rainbow.

Sometimes people with environmental concerns talk about “saving the planet.” Now, it’s good to reduce pollution, to protect endangered species, and to preserve scenic areas from ruin. But let’s not kid ourselves. We’re not as powerful as we think. Humans can do damage here or there, and we can prevent damage here or there, but we don’t have the power to save the planet, and we don’t have the power to wreck the planet. God holds the world in his hand, and he guarantees that whatever problems affect various places, there will not be a worldwide catastrophe for as long as the earth endures.

If we ignore the rainbow covenant and are controlled by our own pride and fear instead, we can try so hard to prevent a worldwide calamity that we don’t deal with more local problems where we could make a real difference. Some folks worry about global warming or earth’s ozone layer. These are concerns which haven’t been proven to harm even one person, let alone ruin the whole planet, but these unproven global worries take attention and money away from more pressing regional problems of unsafe air, foul water, and malnutrition in poverty-stricken areas.

Some people believe that the alleged thinning of earth’s ozone layer means more ultraviolet radiation will reach the earth and cause skin cancer, even though ozone hasn’t been measured for enough years to know what the level has been throughout earth’s history or what it ought to be. However, just suppose there is real ozone depletion, and just suppose it does increase the risk of skin cancer. Even then, points out Professor Cal Beisner, “the increased risk associated with the worst-case ozone-depletion scenarios is about equivalent with the increased risk involved in moving sixty miles closer to the equator or a thousand feet higher in elevation—a risk so small as not to figure in the vast majority of decisions about where to live. And—oh, yes—ground level UV-B [ultraviolet radiation] concentrations seem to be falling, not rising, contrary to doomsayers’ predictions.”

Another highly publicized concern is global warming. In the 1970s many scientists feared global cooling, perhaps leading to an ice age. But by the 1980s the great fear was global warming. Since then international conferences have been held and multi-billion dollar programs have been proposed in order to deal with the threat of global warming that is said to result from carbon dioxide increases in the atmosphere.

How serious is global warming? Well, there are fluctuations from place to place and from year to year, but earth’s average temperature seems to have risen almost half a degree Celsius since 1880. About two-thirds of that tiny increase can be attributed to natural factors that humans have not influenced, and most of the increase occurred before 1940. Any increase in global temperature is likely to be small and to occur in the winter and at night, meaning ice caps won’t shrink. In fact, despite global warming worries, ice caps have been expanding. So even if slight warming occurs, it won’t make sea levels rise. But to hear some people talk, you’d think the world is about to end because of global warming.

In some parts of the world there are life-threatening problems involving air and water, but these have little to do with the global disasters that environmentalists in developed countries speculate about. While they worry what factories and cars might do to global carbon dioxide levels, “most of the child deaths from respiratory distress stem from living in poorly ventilated huts where fuelwood, cow dung, or agricultural wastes are used for heating and cooking,” says a United Nations official. Journalist Gregg Easterbrook, who calls himself a liberal environmentalist, writes, “3.8 million developing-world children under age five died [in one year] from diarrheal diseases causing by impure drinking water… Yet Western public consciousness continues to focus on exotic ecological threats [like global warming] while ignoring millions of annual deaths from basic environmental problems of water and air.”

Are we so busy fearing for the planet that we fail to love our neighbor? Many people in the world’s poorest cities would benefit from economic development that replaces smoky fires with electricity, provides safe drinking water through treatment plants, and makes refrigeration available to preserve food and prevent illness. But concerns about ozone or global warming have sometimes hindered such development, and more people die as a result. These deaths may not bother comfortable folks who aren’t endangered by such things and think the world has too many people anyway. But if we love our neighbor as ourselves, we will make the wellbeing of the poor a higher priority and seek economic development which helps them. By trusting the rainbow covenant and leaving the earth as a whole in God’s hands, perhaps we could focus less attention and money on trying to save the planet and invest more in the real problems of real people.

Wine is a Mocker

Speaking of the real problems of real people, the problems aren’t just with food, air and water but with breakdowns in personal conduct and family life. Genesis 9 makes that clear by describing something that happened after the rainbow covenant.

The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.) These were the three sons of Noah, and from them came the people who were scattered over the earth.

Noah, a man of the soil, proceeded to plant a vineyard. When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside.  But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father’s nakedness. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father’s nakedness. (Genesis 9:18-23)

How sad! The one man whose family God saved from the flood, a man of faith and courage, was still a sinner. As the Bible says, “There is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:12).

Many children’s books show noble Noah gazing at a beautiful rainbow, but (for obvious reasons) they don’t picture the naked old grandpa passed out on the ground. However, the Bible tells what happened because it’s part of life under the rainbow. It shows that even the best of men is sinful. It shows that if earth’s future depended on humans always living up to our responsibilities, we would be lost. How can we control the world’s climate if we can’t even control our own drinking? How can we save the planet if we can’t even handle our own family? Thank God that he controls the world and its destiny, even when his foremost worshiper loses his self-control.

Noah is an example of why the Bible later says, “Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler” (Proverbs 20:1). “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). Getting drunk is a sin against God and can do deadly damage to ourselves and those around us.

Nobody this side of heaven is safe from sin. No matter how old you are, no matter how many years you walk with God, you must be alert to danger and resist temptation. Godly Noah was over 600 years old when he got shamefully drunk. Other biblical heroes, such as Moses and King David, committed some of their worst sins against God in their later years. The Bible says, “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Corinthians 10:12) This is especially true in relation to alcohol. Just when you’re sure you can handle it, you fall hard. Like Noah you drink too much and make a fool of yourself.

Honor Your Father

Could anything be uglier than an old man disgracing himself by getting drunk and naked? Well, at least one thing was uglier: the old man’s own son gloating instead of grieving over his father’s dishonor. Ham had survived the worldwide flood because, as part of Noah’s family, he shared in the benefits of his father’s relationship to God. But Ham ignored how much he owed his father and mocked him instead. He even tried to expose the old man to further shame by inviting his brothers to join the mockery.

But Shem and Japheth were grieved. They did their best to respect their father, despite his terrible failure, and to preserve his honor as best they could. Those actions of Noah’s sons had long-term consequences. Genesis 9:24-27 says,

When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.” He also said, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. May God extend the territory of Japheth; may Japheth live in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be his slave.”

The Lord would in a special way be the God of Shem’s offspring, which included the Israelites and Jesus himself. Japheth’s descendants would enter Shem’s tent when Gentiles were included along with Jews in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.

As for Ham, Noah’s youngest son, the curse Noah spoke was against Ham’s youngest son, Canaan. This curse was not just a case of Noah getting grumpy because of what Ham had done. Noah spoke as a prophet of God, declaring the future. No doubt he spoke with more sorrow than vengefulness. He must have felt shame and grief that he had given Ham a reason to despise him and that Ham would treat him with such contempt. When God revealed to him that his grandson Canaan would stray even further into evil and that the nations springing from Canaan would be wicked and low, Noah must have been sad. But Noah spoke the words that God gave him to say, and they came true. The Canaanites were among the worst of all people and eventually were wiped out.

Our greatest danger is not that we would destroy the planet through defective technologies but that we would bring ourselves and our offspring under God’s curse through shattered families.

We must honor parents, even when they behave dishonorably. There is a curse that goes with dishonoring parents, and that curse gains momentum from generation to generation unless repentance breaks the pattern. In the very last words of the Old Testament, the Lord speaks of turning “the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else,” God warns, “I will come and strike the land with a curse” (Malachi 4:6).

Parents aren’t perfect, but they still represent God’s authority in our lives. Children aren’t perfect, but they are still God’s great gift to us. Parents must teach children God’s ways and set a godly example, even when children don’t seem responsive. And children must honor parents for God’s sake, even when they do dishonorable things. If you look for an excuse to despise your parents, they can probably find one. But honor your parents anyway. This leads to God’s blessing instead of his curse. The Bible says, “Honor your father and mother … that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth” (Ephesians 6:3).

The Rainbow and the Throne

Life has more than its share of ugliness, but the rainbow remains in all its beauty. And even more beautiful than the rainbow is Creator of the rainbow. The rainbow is the sign of God’s covenant to preserve the earth, and it’s a visual hint of the beauty of God’s invisible nature. The beauty of creation reveals the beauty of the Creator. The splendors we glimpse on earth are hints of heavenly splendors. When the Bible envisions God, it says, “Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him” (Ezekiel 1:28). “A rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircled the throne” (Revelation 4:3). Living under the rainbow, we look to God’s throne, delight in his beauty, and depend on his mercy.

The rainbow covenant is God’s promise to preserve the earth from worldwide disaster. This benefits everybody. People around the world receive life and enjoy many good things from God, regardless of their relationship to him. As Jesus put it, “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45).

But these physical blessings are not enough. We bring much trouble on ourselves, on our families, and on future generations when we stray from God’s ways. We must seek moral and spiritual renewal through faith in Jesus Christ. The Creator who promised to preserve his world from natural disaster is also the Savior who promises to save those who trust him from eternal ruin.

So thank God for his rainbow covenant, but don’t stop there. Enter into his new covenant of eternal salvation in Christ. Believe his promises. Ask him to forgive you for the sake of Jesus’ blood. Pray for him to transform you by his Holy Spirit. If you have not already been baptized, receive the covenant sign of baptism. Feast on Christ by faith in his Word and by taking the bread and wine of the new covenant in his blood.

Like Noah you will still have times when your life shows the ugliness of sin. But don’t let sin rule over you. Ask God to forgive your guilt and cover your shame with the beauty of his love and faithfulness. And believe that he will do so. In the Bible, after God’s people sin and go through a time of painful discipline, God says, “To me this is like the days of Noah, when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth. So now I have sworn not to be angry with you, never to rebuke you again. Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will never be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you” (Isaiah 54:9-10).

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.