The Promise in the Clouds: The Common Grace Covenant
It seems that every year another film is released that portrays the end of the world and a dramatic fight for the survival of the human race. Whether the disaster is a nuclear holocaust, alien invasion, or environmental abuse, the apocalyptic tones are usually the same. Each movie features some sort of Noah figure who survives to give the human race a new beginning. No matter how far-fetched the movies get, their presence and popularity seem to reflect humanity’s sense of guilt and fear that the world will one day crumble in destruction. There is a common sentiment that this world cannot continue the way it is; humanity needs a fresh start.
The Bible, however, does not leave us in doubt about these things. First of all, our Lord Jesus has promised to purge the earth of all evil at his second coming. He will usher in the new heavens and new earth, where his people will dwell with him forever in glory. Second, God has also promised that there would be no more Noah figures. The Lord of heaven and earth will not destroy the world again by water, requiring another Noah. No matter what storms may come, God’s promise stands. His rainbow still shines after the rain, because of his covenant with Noah and all the earth.
In order to understand the Noahic covenant, it is necessary to define common grace. Common grace is God’s undeserved kindness to all people, no matter what their spiritual status. We label this grace of God as “common” only in the sense of its contrast to his redemptive and saving grace. God’s redemptive grace in Christ is not common to all people. Rather, this grace is reserved only for God’s elect, bestowing on them all the blessings earned by Christ: regeneration, justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification (Rom. 8:28–30). The blessings of common grace, however, are common to both regenerate and unregenerate, both the church and the world. These common blessings include things like sunshine, rain, food, and possessions (Matt. 5:45; Acts 14:17), wisdom or skill in crafts, trades, and learning (Dan. 1:4–5; 1 Kings 5:6; Prov. 30:1; 31:1), family, and friends. No one deserves these blessings. They are common graces from God.
The Noahic covenant, therefore, can be defined as God’s covenant of common grace with the earth to sustain its order despite mankind’s depravity until the consummation, which is consistent with the pre-flood order.
What Does the Bible Teach?
Genesis 8:20–9:17. The flood account ends in Genesis 8:15–19 with God commanding Noah and all the animals to leave the ark and fill the earth. Verses 20–22 form a bridge between the flood account and God’s covenant. Noah, as God’s righteous servant, builds an altar and offers sacrifices to the Lord out of gratitude. At the smell of Noah’s sacrifice, God says, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease” (vv. 21–22).
There are two things about God’s statement we should notice. First, it makes a promise with two parts. The first part is that God vows never to destroy the earth again with a flood. In the second part, God promises to preserve the normal cycle of seasons. Animals will continue to live and God will uphold the environment and climate necessary for life on earth. He will sustain the change of seasons, the rain to make seeds grow until the harvest, and the passage of time in day and night.
Second, God makes this promise despite humanity’s depravity. The intention of humankind’s heart is still evil from his youth. Fallen man is no better after the flood than before. God grants them life under the sun even though they still deserve punishment. God’s promise is not dependent on man’s performance, whether it is righteous or wicked.
Parties of the Covenant. As we have explored in previous articles, covenants are agreements between different parties. Who are the parties of this covenant? The first party is God. It is his promise and covenant. The second party, however, is multiple in character. God makes his covenant with Noah, his descendants, and the animals (livestock, birds, and every beast), as in verse 10. But God names the second party over and over in varying ways. In verse 12, the covenant is with you and every living creature, for future generations. Noah, then, represents all future humanity. Verse 13 lists God and the earth, and the parties continue to be listed: between me and you and every living creature (v. 15); between God and every living creature of all flesh (v. 16); between me and all flesh (v. 17).
It is unmistakable that this covenant is common, not limited to God’s special people. It is God’s covenant with the earth, every living animal on the earth, and all humanity descended from Noah and his sons. God’s promise is to sustain, uphold, and govern the earth with all human and animal creatures on it. This makes this covenant non-redemptive. The promise is not to save the second party from sin and its curse, but to preserve the natural order of the world so that life can continue to exist.
Sign of the Covenant. This covenant also has a sign of commonness. Remember, God’s various covenants typically have visible and symbolic signs that help administer or maintain the covenant relationship. Covenant signs, though, are given only to those who are party to the covenant relationship. For example, the Abrahamic sign of circumcision is only for the covenant family, and the new covenant signs of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are only for members of the church. Those outside the covenant community do not receive the sign. In distinction from these redemptive covenant administrations, the Noahic sign is public and part of the natural world. The rainbow sign shines out from the clouds for every man and beast to see. Every creature included in the second party is witness to the sign of the covenant.
This public sign has further significance in that it is symbolic. Signs are symbolic of a particular idea or meaning. So what does the rainbow symbolize? First, the Hebrew word for “rainbow” can mean either “rainbow” or “bow,” as in bow and arrow. God calls it “my bow” in verse 13. In ancient iconography, victorious kings and gods were often portrayed as coming back from war with their bows in a horizontal position (like a rainbow). Going into battle, the king or god has the bow vertical in hand, ready to shoot; but after battle it is horizontal, symbolizing the peace after war. The rainbow, then, may well be symbolic of God’s war bow that hangs in the sky, symbolic of peace. God will not destroy the world again; he is no longer hostile.
Second, the ancients understood the sky or firmament as a dome-shaped barrier that held back the waters above, as in Genesis 1:6–7. Hence, when God judged the world in the flood, he opened the windows of heaven, releasing the waters above (7:11). In fact, the Hebrew word for “flood” refers specifically to these celestial waters. Thus, God’s promise is that he will never wipe out all flesh by the waters of the flood. The rainbow then visually represents the dome-shape firmament as shut. The rainbow appears when it rains to show that the celestial waters will not be released.
The symbolic value of the rainbow could be either of these, or perhaps both. Either way, the effect of the symbol is clear. The rainbow reminds us that the floods will never come again. The beautiful arch points to God’s promise that he will never judge the world by the waters of the flood. The firmament is shut; there is peace after the storm.
Terms of the Covenant. What are the terms of this covenant for its continuing validity? First, the sign identifies that it is a sign for God: “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (v. 16). God sees the sign and remembers his promise not to destroy but to sustain. The only term of the covenant is God keeping his promise. There are no terms for humanity or creation to meet for the covenant to continue. The covenant is a unilateral promise of God. It is by definition unbreakable. There are no conditional terms whereby the covenant can be broken.
This invincible nature of the covenant is reflected in Jeremiah 33:20–21a, “If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night will not come at their appointed time, then also my covenant with David my servant may be broken.” The point of the Lord’s comparison between his covenant with day and night and the Davidic is that they both are impossible to break; man can do nothing to invalidate them. Hence, God calls the Noahic covenant eternal. It is everlasting; it will last as long as the earth endures.
This aspect should strike us as outstanding. When we see the rainbow, we can know God is also gazing at it and remembering his everlasting covenant to uphold seedtime and harvest, day and night. With all the terror and grievous evil that humans have inflicted on each other, we may wonder why the globe keeps spinning. From our point of view, it is not an easy thing to keep this promise. But God is greater than we are, and his thoughts are higher than ours. He is the God who keeps his promises.
Regulations of the Covenant. The everlasting and unilateral nature of the Noahic covenant does not negate the fact that there are some obligations for mankind within this covenant. Indeed there are, but the continuance of the covenant does not depend on these obligations. The imposed regulations define how God governs his creation and how mankind should act in it. Yet the existence of the covenant is not dependent on man’s fidelity to the regulations.
The regulations of the Noahic covenant are found in Genesis 9:1–7. First, God calls Noah and his sons to be fruitful and multiply (v. 1). This imperative reiterates what God told the animals in 8:17, and it parallels God’s command in Genesis 1:28. Mankind and animals are to procreate. God sustains and orders this world through the increase of mankind and animals. Assumed in this command to be fruitful is marriage. Therefore, marriage and procreation are a good and normal part of human society.
Second, God gives Noah all things for food (v. 3). The distinction between clean and unclean animals in the ark is no longer in force. Noah can eat from all types of animals and plants. God has given mankind a lordship over the animals. The good effect of this regulation is often overlooked. In fact, Paul has this regulation in mind when he says, “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:4–5). Likewise, Paul states that it is “God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17). God gave us these things to be enjoyed, for his glory. Our everyday meals then are about more than just nourishment but about gratitude to God.
A corollary of this regulation is work. To eat of both animals and vegetation implies being a tiller of the soil and shepherd of herds. Cultivation and labor are the necessary means for taking all things for food. God’s food regulation displays his will that work is a good and necessary part of human life.
Third, God declares that whoever sheds the blood of man, by man his blood shall be shed (v. 6). This regulation not only reveals that murder is wrong but also that man has the right, even the duty, to punish murders with capital punishment. Indeed, the mention of man being made in the image of God is the basis for man being able to judge criminals. The mention of image is not to establish the value of man’s life but to establish man’s right and duty to judge wrongdoing. The apostle Paul reflects on this in Romans 13 when he states that governing authorities bear the sword, even calling the governor “the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (v. 4).
The regulation of Genesis 9:6 is the covenantal foundation for God’s instituting the state, that is, governments that regulate human society, particularly by protecting their lives. The state, imperfect as it is, is God’s instituted means whereby he punishes wrongdoers, thereby restraining human depravity. This is why Peter and Paul can say what they do about the Roman government (Rom. 13; 1 Pet. 2).
This regulation further exhibits that God has preserved in humans a sense of law. Even though the inclination of man is evil from youth, God reveals his natural law on the conscience of humans. Thus, Paul can say, “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness” (Rom. 2:14–15). The Noahic covenant is the covenantal foundation for God ordering the world by natural law and preserving in fallen man an awareness of this law, so that man does not act as badly as he might.
These three regulations demonstrate that God ordered all of human life in the Noahic covenant. Fruitfulness covers the realm of marriage and family; food encapsulates the realm of vocation and enjoyment of good things; murder includes the arena of state and society; and natural law is evident in them all. Both Christians and non-Christians participate in all of these fields, and all of these arenas are necessary for preserving human society. They are founded on the Noahic covenant and are an important part of our lives as Christians in this world.
Continuity with Creation. The common grace covenant upholds and governs all of human history and the world. Nevertheless, to identify accurately the Noahic covenant as the covenantal foundation for all these regulations, we have to recognize the Noahic covenant’s continuity with creation. The command to be fruitful and multiply repeats Genesis 1:28. The image of God mentioned in 9:6 ties with Genesis 1:26. The regulation that protects the life of man is similar to God’s sign to Cain that protected his life from murder (Gen. 4:15). Jeremiah’s mention of a covenant with day and night that recalls 8:22 is also reminiscent of God’s call for the sun to rule the day (1:16–18). Humankind having to work for food links with God’s curse in Genesis 3:17–19. Moreover, God’s statement in 8:21, “I will not continue to curse the ground any further” (my translation), demonstrates that God is not changing his previous curse in 3:17.
Other connections could be listed, but the above illustrate that God is reinstating the natural order previous to the flood. There is an essential continuity in the created order before and after the flood. This is not to minimize the differences that Peter mentions in 2 Peter 3:5–7. Nonetheless, humanity is still in the image of God and imprisoned to the curse of sin and death. Seasons come and go as before. The theology of Genesis 1–4 still informs and guides our faith and life.
For the Seed to Come.Finally, the common grace covenant provides the arena for Christ to come. God promised Adam and Eve salvation through a Champion. Had God destroyed the world completely, this promise would not have been fulfilled. The Lord’s promise entails an ongoing conflict between the offspring of the Serpent and that of the woman, which needs a stage on which to unfold. It is the common grace realm secured in God’s promise that provides this stage for the drama of redemptive history.
God’s common grace sustains and upholds the natural order and human society so that Christ could be born of a woman, and under the law, in the fullness of time. After Christ’s ascension, the Lord did not bring the final judgment. Instead, according to his great mercy, the Father ordained the second coming of Christ to be in the distant future, so that many more generations might be born, hear the gospel proclaimed to them, and receive the free salvation found in Christ. One day, the heavens will be torn in two like a newspaper. The sun will turn black as coal and the moon blood-red. The mountains, tall and solid, seemingly indestructible, will be picked up like rag dolls and thrown away. The islands that are locked down to the sea floor will be sent skipping across the sea like a smooth stone. With the same ease with which God spoke the world into existence, he will send in his demolition team to tear it down. Common grace will come to an end when that seventh trumpet is blown and Christ rides forth on his glorious chariot cloud.
But until that day, common grace serves the purpose of God’s saving grace. As long as the sun shines, the gospel will be proclaimed, and those who were once lost will be found in Christ. Christ will continue to build his church, protecting her from the onslaughts of the Evil One, until he brings this world to a close.
In the meantime, the rainbow gives us assurance in the unshakable promise of God. Whatever disasters lie in the future, the rainbow reminds us that God will preserve winter and spring, marriage and childbirth, and human society until Christ comes in glory. The Noahic covenant comforts us with the assurance that nothing can thwart God’s plan, and nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Rev. Michael G. Brown is pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, CA. He is the editor and contributing author of Called to Serve: Essays for Elders and Deacons. and co-author of Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored.