In the 70 years between the disappearance of Enoch and the birth of Noah things went from bad to worse. With the exception of a single family, the whole of mankind had rejected God’s glorious plan to do them good and had instead opted for pain, violence, murder, hatred, selfishness, and sexual immorality. God looked down from heaven and “saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5). Worse, the one remaining family still clinging to the promise had stopped focusing on the objective reality of the Son of Man’s coming and was instead nurturing the subjective hope that He would provide an easy life for them. Lamech, grandson to Enoch, named his son Noah saying, “This same shall comfort us concerning our work and toil of our hands, because of the ground which the LORD hath cursed” (Gen 5:29). Much like Eve, Lamech prematurely declared God’s promise was fulfilled in the birth of his son, but whereas Eve believed God’s promise to Satan called her to holiness, Lamech believed he was entitled to a better farming experience. It’s commendable that he remembered what God had said long ago, but lamentable he didn’t grasp the proper significance of it.
Yet in the same way a jeweler sets a diamond against black velvet to highlight its beauty, their depravity was from the beginning part of God’s purpose to manifest His character. It’s here at the lowest point in human history that the words grace and covenant first appear. “Behold” the Lord said to Noah, “I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven, and everything that is in the earth shall die. But with thee will I establish My covenant, and thou shalt come into the ark, thou, and thy sons, and thy wife, and thy sons’ wives with thee” (Gen 6:17-18). Although God was going to wipe out all life on the earth, Noah would be spared because God had covenanted with him.
What is a covenant? Quite simply, it’s a binding promise of fidelity. It’s a pledge to someone to do them good. Occasionally background information may be mentioned to properly frame the new relationship, signs are given for remembrance, a celebratory meal is eaten, or a sacrifice is made to inaugurate the event. Today marriage is its most well-known example of it. There’s a short recounting of the couples history, promises the man and woman make to each other to be faithful, rings which symbolize the reality of the vows, and (often) a meal eaten by friends and family afterwards.
That Noah receives the first covenant in the context of being spared from judgment is tremendously significant. Had God used the word when speaking to Adam, covenants would have a neutral, technical, or instructive implication to them, owing to the fact that all God had said was “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it, for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Gen 2:17). If that constitutes a covenant then covenants are less oaths to do good and more threats, commands, or boundary markers established by fiat. Alternatively, had the word first appeared in reference to Satan, a covenant would carry with it a negative association and a predominately legal meaning, since God had promised to crush him. If a covenant is God swearing to wipe out anyone who sins then it’s hard to imagine why covenants are good for fallen men. But by holding back the appearance of the word until after the fall, God reserved for it a redemptive and gracious meaning. Covenants now give comfort and compassion. Hope. And it’s in this context that God wants men to understand the work of His Son, and for this reason that He uses covenants in the Bible to advance our understanding of Himself.
But the judgment represented by the flood does more than provide a framework for properly understanding what a covenant is, it also enables the word grace to have meaning. The watery judgment poured over men as they went about their ordinary business drives home the truth that God is an uncomfortable deity to be around. It shows in no uncertain terms that He’s holy, wrathful, pure, perfect, stern, intolerant of rebellion, and to be taken seriously. He’s “angry with the wicked every day” (Ps 7:11). The flood makes God’s hatred of sin real to us, ensuring grace remains paired with the word sovereign, rather than cheap. It was necessary for God to frame grace in this way because in order to see His glory we must first be empty of our own sense of entitlement. This is why it wasn’t until Noah that someone “found grace in the eyes of God” (Gen 6:8), and why God showed grace in rescuing Noah from a world of sin.
It’s tempting think God did this because Noah was righteous in the midst of a perverse generation, but this is exactly backwards. Grace made Noah righteous, his righteousness didn’t earn him God’s unmerited favor. Noah was selected to be in the line of Jesus not because he had a compelling virtue which forced God’s hand, but because God wanted to show His goodness to unworthy sinners. As He said to Moses, “I will have mercy on those whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on those I will have compassion” (Rom 9:15). Likewise, it was neither because of a foreseen goodness in him nor of future good works done by him, but because of God’s sovereign plan that Noah was given the next part of the promise (Gen 8:21-22).
“And the LORD smelled a sweet savor; and the LORD said in His heart, ‘I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I again smite any more everything living as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.”
Just as the words in the garden were spiritual, so too should these words be understood in a spiritual (as opposed to an earthly) sense. God doesn’t have a nose like we do to be pleased by the aroma of steak, nor a stomach to digest food put in front of Him. “Will I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?” asks the Lord (Ps 50:13). To which the answer is “No, clearly not.” The reason God delighted in the sacrifice was because Noah had brought to mind the lessons about Jesus taught to Adam and Eve a thousand years earlier. As it says in Hosea, “I [God the Father] desire mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God [The Son] more than burnt offerings” (6:6). So when Noah considered the necessity of a substitutionary sacrifice and the goodness of God in rescuing him from the flood he pleased God and put himself in a proper state of mind to receive further revelation. In this humble, God focused position, Noah was told the earth will abide in spite of man’s rebellion.
This is really much better news than it first appears. That God will not destroy the Earth isn’t because He has decided to simply stop judging evil, for God doesn’t change (Jam 1:17). Nor does it mean He’ll do something that makes everyone sinless. On the contrary, verse 21 explicitly affirms that men will remain disobedient even after the flood. So if the requirement for perfection isn’t relaxed and men will remain sinners from birth, how can God promise a different outcome the next time they multiply? The answer is the next time judgment comes it will fall not on creation but on man, specifically, a man. More specifically the Son of Man will bear the curse of the thorns upon Himself in order to avert God’s wrath.
How does this fit with the previous promise to Satan that God would bring his rebellion to an end? These words reveal the mechanism of the devil’s humiliation. It’s not that Christ will first crush Satan and then go on to appease God, but that He’ll destroy the work of the devil by appeasing God. The taking away of the divine roadblock to forgiveness for sinful men in a real, universal, objective sense is the means of Satan’s undoing. Therefore regardless of whatever else happens to mankind—whether they all die with a hatred of Him in their hearts or not—the unlimited, just, and total hatred that He has for them as a class will not endure. If they come to Him now He must reject them, but a day is coming when the only barrier separating them from His love will be their own stiff necks and impenitent wills, not His deadly righteousness. In New Testament language, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2), therefore the angels will announce His coming with the words, “peace on earth, goodwill toward men!” (Luke 2:14).
The idea that this covenant unveils a universal, Godward satisfaction of wrath is also evidenced by Genesis 9:9-11, “Behold I establish My covenant with you, and with your seed after you and 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. I will establish My covenant with you. Neither shall all flesh be cut off anymore by the waters of a flood nor shall there anymore be a flood to destroy the earth.” The intercession of the Savior is cosmic, which is why the Apostle Paul said, “the creation itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty” (Rom 8:21). Not only men, but the animals and the ground will be rescued from ruin, for this allows the world to see who God really is. He’s abundant in mercy. He intercedes for the helpless. He’s cares deeply even about the least and lowly. It’s no surprise that the Savior was born in a manger among animals, because God’s work was not only deliver mankind but the whole Earth, the animals that live on it, and the birds that fly over it.
To assure everyone of this good news, God’s promise is explicitly demonstrated in the form of a sign in the heavens. “And God said, ‘This is the token of the covenant which I make between Me and you and every living creature with you: for perpetual generations I do set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between Me and the earth.’” (Gen 9:13). That God would hang His battle bow on a peg in the sky shows how serious He is about not shooting further arrows of destruction at the earth. Never again will it be used against the sinful world. Henceforth God will be good to creation based on the future sacrifice of His Son, and when He looks at it He will remember His promise. The sign of the covenant is therefore for all, being symbolic of the objective, outward, saving work of the Son of Man. Objective work, objective sign.
Just as before however the objective truth leads to a subjective hope. Seeing the rainbow in the sky and knowing the judgment was (or in their case, will be) averted enables men to better know and trust the God who created them. Although full reconciliation between God and man is not possible yet, nevertheless the whisper of mercy first heard in the garden is spoken loudly and clearly. God is sending a savior. The coming Chosen One will not merely be a prophet with the message of destruction for the devil, He’ll also be a priest who makes an offering that changes the relational dynamics between God and the fallen creation. The Son of Man will be a prophet, a priest, and as the next two covenants will show, a king.