A tsunami snuffs out the lives of hundreds of thousands in Asia in a matter of moments. A string of hurricanes wreaks havoc upon the southeastern states. Tornadoes twist through the Midwest, leaving hundreds homeless. Earthquakes shake the West Coast. Fire rages along the plains of the West. Torrential downpours flood many homes, with mudslides in their wake. Our world is fraught with natural disasters.
Yet our world is not spinning out of control. Things do not happen by chance nor by coincidence. The tsunami submits to the voice of God. The hurricane is directed by the sovereign hand of God. The path of the tornado was ordained by God. The extent and magnitude of the earthquake was determined according to God’s wise counsel. The fire scorches only that which God has decreed. The rain falls only where God has determined. Everything is so completely in His hand that nothing can move nor be moved apart from His sovereign will. There is a God. He is there, and He is not silent. There is a throne in the heavens, and it is not vacant. God sits upon the throne.
It is to the throne room of God that John points us in Revelation 4. “After these things I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven. And the first voice which I heard was like a trumpet speaking with me, saying, ‘Come up here, and I will show you things which must take place after this.’ Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne set in heaven, and One sat on the throne. And he who sat there was like a jasper and a sardius stone in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, in appearance like an emerald” (4:1-3).
God sits upon the throne. Surrounding His throne is a rainbow. Why a rainbow?
The Old Testament Context: God’s Promise
To answer that question we must go back to Genesis. When Adam and Eve fell into sin, God came to judge. But God did not treat Adam and Eve as their sins deserved. Final judgment was not meted out on the day Adam and Eve fell into sin; final judgment was delayed. To be sure, things were not as they were before: the world was subjected to frustration, held in bondage to corruption; even now it groans in the pains of childbearing. The world is under the curse, but the world continues. God preserved the lives of Adam and Eve, even allowing them to be fruitful and to multiply upon the earth. They bore children; their children bore children. Cities were built; culture developed. You can read all about it in Genesis 4, 5.
Along with the propagation of the human race and along with the development of culture, however, came the increase of wickedness. So great was the wickedness of man, that in Genesis 6:5, God looked down upon mankind and saw that all the thoughts of his heart were only evil all of the time. “And the Lord God was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them’” (Genesis 6:6–7).
God then gave man 120 years to repent and turn to Him. During those 120 years, Noah built the ark; and as he built, he preached. He preached to his generation, commanding them to repent of their sins and to turn to the Lord, while the Lord was yet longsuffering with them. The people scoffed at him. God had issued the warning: the world would not continue forever; it would soon be destroyed in the waters of the flood. The warning was not heeded, and the waters of judgment came.
The fountains of the great deep were broken up and the windows of heaven were opened, and the rain fell upon on the earth for forty days and forty nights. The judgment was catastrophic for the flood was nothing less than an intrusion of divine judgment. It was a picture of the final judgment to come. The world that then was, was destroyed (II Peter 3:6).
Noah and his family, however, were preserved through the waters of the flood; they were brought safely through the waters of judgment. They came out of the ark into a new creation, into the world that now is (II Peter 3:7), a world that God has promised never to destroy with the waters of a flood. He says at the end of Genesis 8, “I will never again curse the ground for man’s sake, although the imagination of his heart is evil from his youth; nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, and day and night, shall not cease” (8:21–22).
God makes this covenant with all creation. God also gives a sign of the covenant. Genesis 9:12–16, “And God said: ‘This is the sign of the covenant which I make between Me and you, and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I set My rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be for the sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. It shall be, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the rainbow shall be seen in the cloud; and I will remember My covenant which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. The rainbow shall be in the cloud, and I will look on it to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’And God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is on the earth.’” God sets the rainbow as the sign of the covenant with all creation: the sign that He will maintain the created order. Seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night, shall not cease, as long as the earth endures.
In this connection how appropriate the sign of the rainbow! After all, what is needed for a rainbow, but rain and sun? As the rain comes down and the sun peers through the clouds, the rainbow, in all of its magnificent splendor, appears. The rainbow is set in the clouds—those clouds that are portents of rain— reminding us of the judgment waters of the flood. But the sun shines through, creating a rainbow! And we are reminded that God is faithful! We are reminded that the seasons are fixed by wisdom divine! We are reminded that God has made a covenant with all creation to preserve the created order. How appropriate the sign of the rainbow!
But it goes even farther than that. The Hebrew word that is translated in Genesis 9 as “rainbow” is literally the word for a warrior’s bow. God often appears in Scripture as a warrior with his bow poised to render judgment. Deuteronomy 32:41–42, “If I whet My glittering sword, and My hand takes hold on judgment, I will render vengeance to My enemies, and repay those who hate Me. I will make My arrows drunk with blood, and My sword shall devour flesh, with the blood of the slain and the captives, from the heads of the leaders of the enemy.”
Psalm 7:12–13, “If he does not turn back, he will sharpen His sword; He bends His bow and makes it ready. He also prepares for Himself instruments of death; He makes His arrows into fiery shafts.” Psalm 18:14, “He sent out His arrows and scattered the foe, lightnings in abundance, and He vanquished them.” Psalm 64:7, “But God shall shoot at them with an arrow; suddenly they shall be wounded.” Psalm 77:17, “The clouds poured out water; the skies sent out a sound; Your arrows also flashed about.” Psalm 144:6, “Flash forth lightning and scatter them; shoot out Your arrows and destroy them.” In each of these passages, God is pictured as the divine warrior, His bow and arrow raised to fight and to destroy.
But now consider the rainbow set in the clouds: the warrior’s bow is not held up in the position of warfare and judgment with arrows ready to fly, but at the side in the position of peace. The rainbow, set in the clouds, in the position of peace, reminds us of God’s covenant with creation—a covenant in which God promises to maintain the created order. “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, and day and night, shall not cease.”
With that background in mind, we come back to our original question concerning Revelation 4:3: why the rainbow around the throne?
The New Testament Context: God’s Judgment
Recall what we have said concerning the seven sections in the book of Revelation, namely, that each of these sections span the time period between Christ’s first coming and His second coming. The section with which we are now dealing, chapters 4-7, cover this time period as well. In that light, consider what we have before us in these chapters: in chapter 5, we shall read of a scroll sealed with seven seals together with the Lamb who is worthy to open the seals of that scroll; then in chapters 6-7, we shall read of the actual opening of each seal.
These seven seals, then, are opened throughout the time period between Christ’s first coming and His second coming. They bring about great devastation on the earth. But before we come to the seals, we have set before us the throne room of God in Revelation 4. God sits upon the throne, and around that throne there is a rainbow. Before the horrific scenes of judgment are set before us, we are brought back to the sign of the rainbow.
Why the rainbow? To remind us, even in the face of these eschatological woes, of God’s covenant with all creation, “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” Why the rainbow? To remind us that the bow of God’s wrath is still carried in the peaceful position. God has promised to maintain the created order—that was the message of the covenant in Genesis 9.
Revelation 4, however, pushes us beyond Genesis 9. The rainbow in Genesis 9 is intended to remind you that God preserves the earth. The rainbow in Revelation 4 is intended to remind you that God will come to judge the earth. God is dealing with the world in forbearance and with longsuffering now, but final judgment will come. The day will come when the earth will no longer remain. The day will come when seedtime and harvest will cease. The day will come when cold and heat will be no more. The day will come when winter and summer will no longer arrive. The day will come when day and night shall be no more. The day will come when these things shall cease. The day will come when the earth will no longer remain. The day of Final Judgment will come.
This covenant with creation, then, is not an eternal covenant. It is a covenant with creation that endures as long as the earth itself endures, but no longer. When the final Day of Judgment comes, this covenant with creation shall be null and void.
The rainbow, as pictured in Genesis 9, speaks to us of God’s preservation of the created order. But that same rainbow, as pictured in Revelation 4, speaks to us from a different perspective, telling us that while judgment is delayed, it is coming. You can look at the matter from both sides. To be sure, God is preserving the created order, but that preservation of the created order is ultimately a delay of final judgment.
The rainbow, then, issues forth these two statements: 1) God is preserving the created order; and 2) that that preservation is a delay of final judgment.
The rainbow comforts us as it reminds us that God is in control. But at the same time the rainbow warns us that this world, though preserved by God, is also reserved by God for judgment. Peter tells us as much in 2 Peter 3:7-9: “But the heavens and the earth which are now preserved by the same word, are reserved for fire until the Day of Judgment and perdition of ungodly men. But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”
The rainbow is a reminder that God preserves. But it is also a reminder that final judgment has only been delayed; final judgment is sure to come. To this Peter turns our attention in the next verse, “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.” In other words, the world that now is following the same pattern as the world that then was—the paradigm for the world that now is the world that then was—“as it was in the days of Noah…”
How then are we to live in the midst of such a world—a world over which the rainbow spreads its glorious arc—a world preserved by God, but reserved for final judgment? How then should we live? 2 Peter 3:11–18 tells us, we ought to conduct ourselves in holiness and godliness.
As always, John pushes you. He pushes you in your understanding of the rainbow. He pushes you to understand that this world is preserved by God, but at the same time is reserved for final judgment. John shows you the throne with the rainbow surrounding it to warn you of the judgment to come.
Ultimately, John shows you the throne with the rainbow surrounding it to bring you to the cross, in order that you might cling to the One who there cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!” What was that cry, after all, but a cry for a delay in final judgment? If ever there was a time in the history of the world where final judgment should have come, certainly it was at the cross, when man killed the Son of God. But Jesus prays “Father do not send final judgment upon the world; let that final judgment fall upon Me, that I may bear it in the place of My people!” Jesus prays for a delay in judgment. But note, and note well, it is only a delay! Judgment is sure to come!
Do not despise, then, the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering; for it is the goodness of God that leads you to repentance. The rainbow is God’s sign to you that He is longsuffering, but also that there comes an end to His longsuffering. Let the rainbow in the skies beckon you to lift your eyes to the rainbow that surrounds the throne, and as you lift up your eyes to throne, may you know that His longsuffering is salvation, and since you know this beforehand, may you beware, lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked. Let the rainbow remind you to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Rev. Brian Vos is the pastor of the Trinity United Reformed Church in Caledonia, Michigan. He also is the President of the Board of Reformed Fellowship.