Summary: The covenant of mercy and its token point to Christ and give hope to God’s people.
We’re going to pick back up on the story of Noah in Genesis chapter nine. He’s just come off the ark and made a sacrifice which God smells and is pleased. God makes a promise to never again curse the ground or to destroy the earth until the appointed time and then blesses Noah and his family. Here in verse eight we’re looking at not only a more comprehensive explanation of the promise in 8:21-22, but we see that God formally seals the deal with a covenant. Earlier, when God first commanded Noah to build the ark, He made a reference to this saying, “With thee will I establish my covenant,” and now that the waters have subsided and everyone is safely out of the ark it’s time for God to follow through with what He’s promised.
And the focus of these ten verses is primarily on this covenant and its token. In the ancient world covenants were promises verified by an oath, usually witnessed by some lasting power, and verified with a token. We’re all familiar with this from just the Old Testament. There are several promises which are followed up with something like “the Lord is witness this day” or “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you.” Sometimes they made a pile of stones which would remain long after both parties died and they called it a witness (Josh. 24:27).
And then a token was often exchanged as a sort of tangible reminder of the promises made. You’ll remember that Abraham’s servant placed his hand under Abraham’s thigh to take an oath (Gen. 24:2) and that Boaz plucking off his shoe to redeem Ruth (Ruth 4:8). Sometimes the token was the sacrifice of an animal which graphically warned the promisor of the consequences of breaking his word. It was common for tribes or clans to covenant together offering a son or daughter in marriage to ensure the mutual survival of the unified people. Later groups like the Hittites formalized the process with elaborate ceremonies and documents literally written in metal or stone. These covenants were occasionally read aloud in public so that no one would forget about their responsibilities.
Well, here in Genesis nine we’re reading about a token and its token. Noah offers a sweet smelling sacrifice to God, God blesses him and his family:
8And God spake unto Noah, and to his sons with him, saying, 9And I, behold, I establish my covenant
First, and this is important, God is the origin of this covenant. He says, “I, behold, I” and so He’s drawing attention to Himself: “Look at me; I am setting up this covenant.” This is a one-way thing. Whatever comes next it doesn’t matter how anyone responds because God is doing this Himself.
with you, and with your seed after you; 10And with every living creature that is with you, of the fowl, of the cattle, and of every beast of the earth with you; from all that go out of the ark, to every beast of the earth. 11And I will establish my covenant with you,
Now, this is the scope of this covenant. It extends not only to Noah, but also to his sons and grandsons and great-grandsons and all the animals and everything living creature from that point in time all the way down to today. So this is a far reaching covenant:
neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth.
Here’s the content of the covenant. Some have called this “common grace,” and it’s true that God could and should just destroy everyone at once, and so this is a sort of universal benefit that He doesn’t do that, but we have to remember that history and the Bible are all about the revelation of His glory. This is all building up to the Day of Judgment and to the Wedding Supper of the Lamb. So essentially what God is saying is that He’ll withhold judgment until the end and won’t again give sinners all they deserve until then. I know it’s a fine line, but to me at least it’s an important distinction. “Common grace” seems to lack the deliberate purpose and determination of a sovereign God who oversees all things and works them according to His plan and purpose.
So what we have here is a promise from God for the elect, and this promise helps us wait.
12And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: 13I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.