The rainbow is the primary biblical symbol most people can identify. Children in Sunday school learn early on about Noah’s ark and the rainbow that accompanied God’s promise to never again destroy the whole earth by flood:
“I am making my promise to you. Never again will all life be killed by floodwaters. Never again will there be a flood that destroys the earth.”
God said, “This is the sign of the promise I am giving to you and every living being that is with you for generations to come. I will put my rainbow in the clouds to be a sign of my promise to the earth. Whenever I form clouds over the earth, a rainbow will appear in the clouds. Then I will remember my promise to you and every living animal. Never again will water become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember my everlasting promise to every living animal on earth.” So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the promise I am making to all life on earth (Gen 9:11-17) In theological terms the rainbow is the symbol that accompanies God’s covenant with humanity, his promise to be in relationship with them as he grows them to be his people in his place under his rule. The rainbow is a visible sign and reminder that God will restore the relationship between God and humanity that was damaged at the fall. Unlike the Abrahamic covenant that followed later, this covenant had no stipulations attached to it. God made the covenant, and he promised to uphold it.
MERCY TRIUMPHS OVER JUDGMENT
In that sense, rainbows are a symbol for God’s mercy in the midst of judgment. Humanity deserves judgment, but God in his grace reaches out to us. Rainbows are a fitting symbol for this reality because only God can place a rainbow in the sky, just as only he can provide salvation for his covenant-breaking people. The beautiful rainbow with its arc of blending colors after a rainstorm is a reminder of the fact that in God, justice and mercy are complementary rather than contradictory: “Mercy and truth have met. Righteousness and peace have kissed” (Ps 85:10). Though God is angry with sin and enacts judgment, his rainbow of mercy peeks out after the storm. In addition, the rainbow stretches from heaven down to earth, a visual image of God reaching down to humanity. Some scholars make much of the fact that a rainbow is shaped like a weapon. Indeed, the Hebrew word means “my bow” and is usually translated as a weapon. As the storm clouds of judgment retreat in the sky, the sun comes out God lays his bow across the sky in a promise to be gracious to his creation. In wrath he will remember mercy.
VISIONS OF GLORY
Two other places in Scripture use rainbows in visions of God’s glory. Ezekiel’s vision of God includes a rainbow: “The brightness all around him looked like a rainbow in the clouds. It was like the LORD’s glory” (Ezek 1:28). A rainbow also surrounds God’s throne in John’s vision: “There was a rianbow around the throne which looked like an emerald” (Rev 4:3). The presence of a rianbow in these settings is an allusion back to Genesis 9. Each one is a reminder of God’s mercy that triumphs over judgment. The reigning King of kings places a rainbow in his throne room as a sign and symbol to his people that he is the covenant maker and covenant keeper.