And Noah builded an altar unto the Lord; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar.- Gen_8:20.
And God spake unto Noah, and to his sons with him, saying, And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you.- Gen_9:8-9.
The Flood was over. On the first day of the first month, New Year's day, Noah removed the covering of the ark, which seems to have stranded on the Armenian tableland, and looked out upon the new world. He cannot but have felt his responsibility, as a kind of second Adam. And many questionings must have arisen in his mind regarding the relation of the new to the old. Was there to be any connexion with the old world at all, or was all to begin afresh? Were the promises, the traditions, the events, the genealogies of the old world of any significance now? The Flood distinctly marked the going out of one order of things and the establishment of another. Man's career and development, or what we call history, had not before the Flood attained its goal. If this development was not to be broken short off, and if God's purpose in creation was to be fulfilled, then the world must still go on. Some worlds may perhaps die young, as individuals die young. Others endure through hairbreadth escapes and constant dangers, find their way like our planet through showers of fire, and pass without collision the orbits of huge bodies, carrying with them always, as our world does, the materials of their destruction within themselves. Catastrophes, however, do not cut short but evolve God's purposes. The Flood came that God's purpose might be fulfilled. The course of nature was interrupted, the arrangements of social and domestic life were overturned, all the works of men were swept away that this purpose might be fulfilled. It was expedient that one generation should die for all generations; and this generation having been taken out of the way, fresh provision is made for the co-operation of man with God. On man's part there is an emphatic acknowledgment of God by sacrifice; on God's part there is a renewed grant to man of the world and its fulness, a renewed assurance of His favour.
The fourth picture by Watts of the Flood represents the forty-first day of the great cataclysm. The waters are abating, though the mighty Deluge still asserts its destructive force. But there is hope and promise. The Ark is barely visible on the heights of Ararat, surrounded by clouds which become more luminous as they mount to the zenith. The whole sky is taken possession of by the Bow in the clouds, formed by the power of light and heat, dissipating the darkness and dissolving the multitude of waters into vapour, and consisting of a succession of circular rainbows, one beyond the other, with rays of light passing through and uniting them, lighting up all the dark remains of the storm. Attention is thus directed to the one thing only, the sign of the great world-covenant, that seedtime and harvest, summer and winter, cold and heat, day and night should never cease, opening its blossom of light out of the very bosom of the gloomy tempest. It is a very striking representation; but it may be questioned if it represents fairly what Noah actually saw. Is it not more likely that the first rainbow was what every rainbow we have seen ever since has been, half a circle, with its feet resting at opposite points of the earth? It is only half a rainbow that we can see in a world so full of trouble and storm as this is, emblematical of the partial and temporary cure of the world's sorrow. Only in heaven can we see, when this fleeting dispensation is ended, and all things are finished and perfected, a rainbow round about the Throne in sight like unto an emerald, emblem of the completeness of the peace of heaven.1 [Note: H. Macmillan, Life-Work of George Frederic Watts, 153.]
1. The second age of the world begins with the new shape taken by revelation, in presenting itself as God's covenant with man, and, in the first instance, as a world-covenant, in which God gives to creation a pledge of its preservation; for the order of salvation is to rise on the ground of the order of nature. God's faithfulness in this is security for His faithfulness in that. The sacrifice precedes the institution of the covenant, and has its motive mainly in thanks for the deliverance experienced, while in it, at the same time, man approaches God, seeking grace in the future.
A beautiful sight was the altar which Noah built upon the re-appearing earth. Beautiful to think that there was a church before there was a house! If you look at that first building in the new world you will see it expand until it becomes a sanctuary wide as the earth, and all men are gathered in loving piety within its ample walls. Sweet was the savour that rose from earth to heaven! And as the smoke curled upward to the approving sky the primeval blessing was repronounced; the seasons were confirmed in their revolutions; and all things seemed to begin again in unclouded hope.1 [Note: J. Parker.]
2. The covenant with Noah was on the plane of nature. It is man's natural life in the world that is the subject of it. The sacredness of life is its great lesson. Men might well wonder whether God did not hold life cheap. In the old world violence had prevailed. But while Lamech's sword may have slain its thousands, God had in the Flood slain tens of thousands. The covenant, therefore, directs that human life must be reverenced. The primal blessing is renewed; men are to multiply and replenish the earth; the slaughter of a man was to be reckoned a capital crime; and the maintenance of life was guaranteed by a special clause, securing the regularity of the seasons. If, then, you ask, Was this just a beginning again where Adam began? Did God just wipe out man as a boy wipes his slate clean, when he finds his calculation is turning out wrong? Had all these generations learned nothing; had the world not grown at all since its birth?-The answer is, it had grown, and in two most important respects-it had come to the knowledge of the uniformity of nature, and the necessity of human law. This great departure from the uniformity of nature brought into strong relief its normal uniformity, and gave men their first lesson in the recognition of a God who governs by fixed laws. And they learned also from the Flood that wickedness must not be allowed to grow unchecked and attain dimensions which nothing short of a flood can cope with.
It is often said that God never gives a command without providing the grace needed to obey, and we have a striking illustration of this great principle in the passage before us. Following naturally and appropriately after the Divine counsels given in the preceding section we have the assurance of needed grace in connection with the Divine covenant.
(1) The Source of the covenant naturally comes first (Gen_9:9). Its author was God. Human covenants were entered into mutually between two parties, but here the entire initiation was taken by God. “I, behold, I” (Gen_9:9); “I will” (Gen_9:11); “I make” (Gen_9:12); “I have established” (Gen_9:17). The significance of this is due to the fact that it was of God's free grace alone that the covenant was made. His blessings were to be bestowed even though nothing had been done by man to deserve them. Everything is of grace from first to last.
(2) The Scope of the covenant is also noteworthy (Gen_9:9-10). It comprehended Noah and his seed, and not only these, but “every living creature.” Thus the blessings of God were to be extended as widely over the earth as they could possibly be This is not the only place in Scripture where the destiny of the lower creation is intimately connected with that of man (Isa_11:6-8; Rom_8:19-22).
(3) The Purpose of the covenant should be carefully noted (Gen_9:11). It was associated with the assurance that human life should not be cut off or the world destroyed any more by a flood. The appropriateness of this revelation is apparent, for at that time it must have been a real perplexity to know whether there would be any repetition in the future of what had been experienced in the Flood. Everything connected with man's relations to God had been altered by that catastrophe, and now God does not leave him ignorant, but, on the contrary, pledges Himself not to bring another similar judgment upon the earth.
(4) The Sign of the covenant is specially emphasized (Gen_9:12-13). The rainbow is now given a specific spiritual meaning, and Nature for the first time becomes a symbol of spiritual truth. We know from subsequent passages what a great principle is brought before us in this way. It is what is known as the “sacramental principle.” In one of the Homilies of the Church of England, Sacraments are defined as “visible signs to which are annexed promises,” and the rainbow was the first of such visible signs illustrative of spiritual truths. We think of the Passover Lamb, the Brazen Serpent, Gideon's Fleece, and especially of Baptism and the Lord's Supper as illustrations of this Divine method of revealing and assuring us of spiritual truth. As Lange beautifully says, “God's eye of grace and our eye of faith meet in the Sacraments.” Our faith lays hold of the promise annexed to the sign, and the sign strengthens and confirms our faith that God will fulfil His word. At the same time it must never be forgotten that if there is no faith in the promise there can be no assurance in the sign. The word and the sign necessarily go together, and can never be separated. This revelation of the spiritual meaning of the rainbow was God's response to Noah's altar. Divine faithfulness thus answered to human faith, and it is of real interest that in the symbol of the prophet Ezekiel (Eze_1:28), and of the Apocalypse (Rev_4:3; Rev_10:1), the rainbow is again brought before us.1 [Note: W. H. G. Thomas.]
A myth, you say, that once a deluge fell
Upon the earth in days of long ago,
Till higher than the highest mountain snow
At length there rose the waters' ruthless swell?
And that in His good time God thought it well
To stay the flood, and for a sign to throw
Across the heavens a many-coloured bow?
A myth, you say? Ah, well, I cannot tell!
This only do I know, that God unsealed
A flood of sorrow in my soul and hid
Awhile of hope my loftiest pyramid;
Till, while I wept, He sent the sun again,
Made of my tears a rainbow, and revealed
Therein the boundless promise born of pain.2 [Note: Gilbert Thomas, The Wayside Altar (1913), 20.]
3. God honoured the altar by the promisee which He gave beside it: “While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.” The light of Noah's altar falls on our harvest-fields to-day, recalling the harvesters of earth to the word and the goodness of a “faithful Creator.” If “the lord of seamen” teaches all who sail the waters to put their ark in God's charge, the lord of harvesters teaches all who reap to furnish God's altar with true offerings.
From his ark
The ancient sire descends, with all his train;
Then, with uplifted hands and eyes devout,
Grateful to Heaven, over his head beholds
A dewy cloud, and in the cloud a bow
Conspicuous with three listed colours gay,
Betokening peace from God, and covenant new.
The cloud which had been the banner of doom a few months before becomes now the sign of promise and of hope. And have we not the assurance that so shall all clouds, to those who trust in God, become tabernacles of the rainbow of peace? Yesterday's cloud returns, without yesterday's fearful doom, but radiant with to-morrow's mercy. “I will look upon it,” is the gracious and very human promise, as though the Heavenly Father would assure His child of earth that their eyes meet in the rainbow's radiant arch. When we are looking, He is looking too.
The Hebrews had the unalterable conviction that God had entered into a covenant with their race, and that they had solemnly bound themselves to be His people and to serve Him. The covenant ideal was at once the consecration and the inspiration of the people. There was the spirit of duty and service and self-surrender in it; there was the spirit of power and freedom and invincibility in it. It is well known that the ideal of a nation in covenant with God has had an extraordinary fascination for the people of Scotland. Of its value and power one of the greatest of living Scotsmen has spoken thus: “A thought has played a large part in Scottish story.… Side by side with the intense type of personal piety there was, in Reformation and later days, an equally clear perception of the duty, not of a Church, but of a nation to its God.… When our typical form of individual piety is taken, as it ought always to be taken, along with the old desire to make the collective life of a community subserve the ends of righteousness, to make the nation an instrument of doing God's will on earth, our hereditary ideal of religion-I at least will not hesitate to avow it-is the grandest, the most catholic, the broadest which any Church or land has ever endeavoured, to embody throughout the nineteen Christian centuries. The thought of a covenanted nation was both great and true-a thought most difficult in virtue of its greatness to apply in adequate detail, but better fitted to raise men's daily practice out of selfishness and sin, and to make them fellow-workers with the risen Christ, than any separate thought in the history of the universal Church.”1 [Note: J. Strachan, Hebrew Ideals, i. 103.]