Sometimes light reflects, refracts, and disperses in water droplets causing its brilliant white radiance to split into the visible spectrum and hang suspended in the air.
We call it a rainbow, as the sun breaks through rainclouds and colours bend the sky.
It has a similar effect on most of us as snow does, we call those nearby to come and see and we stand transfixed briefly at this meteorological phenomenon that we so rarely catch. We like the symbolism of them: Jews and Christians have used them for thousands of years, but they’ve recently been co-opted by the LGBT+ movement, and then again as a symbol of support for the NHS.
Some LGBT+ activists got very cross about the NHS having co-opted their symbol, which was a little rich. Intriguingly the LGBT+ rainbow is 6 coloured stripes. Actual rainbows—and the NHS one—are 7 stripes of visible colour. Christian conspiracy theories abound about the shedding of “God’s perfect number” (which is slight misunderstanding of the Biblical imagery around the number 7, it stands for completeness), but they weren’t deliberate on their part. It’s fascinating to read the story of those who developed the LGBT+ flag who appear to have thought they were creating something new. There’s something about the symbolism that speaks of hope and a promise, which we all desire for our stories.
This shouldn’t really surprise us, its been a symbol of hope and promise since God gave one to Noah as a sign. He established a covenant with Noah and with every living creature that he would not again destroy the earth by water (Genesis 9.8-11). God gave Noah a sign of this covenant for him and for future generations by ‘setting his bow in the clouds’ (9.12-14). Interestingly, we often speak as though the rainbow is a sign for us that God will not again snuff out life on account of our sin. This is implied well enough but that isn’t what God says, it is instead a sign for him (Genesis 9.15-17). When God sees the rainbow, he will remember his promise.
That’s an intriguing thought, but why pick a rainbow? The passage says his “bow” is placed in the sky. We forget this because we don’t regularly use bows and arrows, but it’s called a rainbow because it’s a bow made of rain. If you wanted to attack the earth you would use a bow made of rain, I suppose. God has hung the implement of the flooding of the world—the implement of the pouring out of wrath—on the wall where we can see it.
Even more intriguingly its hung upside down. That’s the way round you hand a bow on a wall, I hear you cry, and you’re right but there’s something evocative about that. God hasn’t actually hung it on the wall, its in the sky. The sky in scriptures is the symbolic space between the heavens and the earth, so the bow is hung between us and God. Pointing up. At him.
God has hung the implement of his wrath in the sky pointing at himself as a sign to us and to him that some time after this he would pour out wrath again like a deluge. This time aimed at himself on our behalf. It is a sign to him and a promise to us. Every time we see a rainbow, we can see God promising redemption and grace from the foundation of the world.
Even more intriguingly rainbows turn up a few more times in scripture. When God’s strange portable throne is shown to Ezekiel in his vision which he barely manages to capture in words (Ezekiel 1) the presence of God upon his throne and attended by angels is surrounded by a brightness (1.4) that looks like a rainbow (1.28). When John the Revelator sees the throne he sees it the same way, surrounded by a rainbow (Revelation 4). God’s throne is surrounded by a rainbow.
Whenever he sees the rainbow, we are told that God will be reminded of his promise to never flood the earth; and with it the implied promise to aim wrath upwards instead of downwards. Whenever God sees a rainbow, he is reminded that he will grace us with favour instead of blotting us out for our sin. Where does he place the rainbow? Around his throne. God has chosen to place a reminder to gift us with grace and instead to take our sin upon himself in such a place that he can’t look without seeing it. It is ever before his eyes.
When John sees the exalted Christ as the angel of Revelation 10, there’s a rainbow whirling around his head. He cannot look for seeing it. The promise is ever before his eyes.
So the rainbow is not just a sign of freedom from wrath. Not just a sign of wrath taken upon Jesus. Not just a sign of gifted unearned favour. But also a sign of a God who chooses to look at that promise at all times.
See a rainbow, call everyone to come and see. Because God in Christ is for you.