No, it’s not what you think.
It’s a pity that every time I see the image of a rainbow I am forced to consider all the things it does not represent. To speculate about its presence on a billboard or a website or a piece of paper. To examine the order of the colours, just to make sure–red on the outside, purple on the inside.
Tonight on the way home from a wonderful family gathering–my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary, attended by all their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren from places as disparate as Luxembourg, the USA, Canada and Bali–my wife and I were treated to a late afternoon spectacle.
The sunset was astonishing. It reminded me of a vast canvas on which the Painter was experimenting with both palette and technique–great blobs of pewter grey clouds with orange underbellies highlighted in silver; fluffy cotton balls of pure white strung together like beads; smooth, broad brushstrokes of mauve and light grey with tapered tips that pointed like arrows to the red sun slipping into the Ottawa Valley–all against the vast blue of space and punctuated by treetops silhouetted against the riotous sky. The occasional flights of geese looked to me like ragged tears in Joseph’s coat, crudely repaired by someone unskilled in the use of needle and thread.
But just before sunset we were awed by one of the most dramatic and perfect rainbows I’ve ever seen. I photographed it hurriedly, so the image is not very crisp. But even a seasoned nature photographer would not have been able to do justice to this one. At first we only saw one end of it, but its colours were unusually vivid and distinct–almost like those on the rainbows we painted in kindergarten, but rendered with infinitely greater skill. Suddenly, a second arch appeared to the left of the first one–again, incomplete and less clear. Then, as we rounded a curve in the highway, this second arch disappeared and we saw the first rainbow stretching in a graceful semi-circle from one spot on the horizon to another. Finally, the top of the arch disappeared and a huge cloud bank fell like drapes between the slanting pillars of colour, vertical strokes in muted grey.
“Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 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.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” (Gen 9.9-17, ESV)
Four things are striking about a rainbow.
First, it is not an arch at all. Because we view it from the earth’s surface, the most we can see is half of it. Seen from space, it appears in its entirety as a circle.
Second, there is always a rainbow somewhere. These are not isolated phenomena that leave us breathless as much for their rarity as for their beauty. The earth’s climatic conditions are such that rainbows appear all over the planet on any given day.
In the third place, the rainbow is still here–making it clear from the text in Genesis that we are under the Noahic Covenant. Oddly, then, the rainbow not only reminds us of God’s faithfulness in keeping His promises, but also represents the terms of that covenant and speaks to issues as diverse as capital punishment blood sausage.
Finally, the text tells us that God sees the rainbow. To me, this is the most astounding thing about it. When I see that glorious archway of colour bursting out of the earth, I realize that even as I watch, God watches.
As I gasp, He smiles.
As I admire, He remembers.