By Pastor Glenn Pease
I never realized how many rainbows there are in the world, until our trip to the West Coast. We would get up early to travel before the Sun came up. When it did come up it was at out back, and it was at just the right angle when we went past the irrigation systems. The light of the Sun hit that spraying water and produced more rainbows than I have ever seen in my life. There were irrigation systems with water spraying everywhere, and we were overwhelmed by the constant series of rainbows we were seeing. When we came back the same way we did not see them. The light has to be at just the right angle or they cannot be seen. I was so impressed by these earthly rainbows that I decided to do some research on the heavenly rainbow around the throne of God.
William Wordsworth was a great lover of the outdoors and especially of the rainbow. He wrote,
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky;
So was it when my life began
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
Another great poet, Longfellow, tells us of the Indian boy Hiawatha, who used to gaze in rapt admiration upon the rainbow because Nakomis taught him-
Tis the heaven of flowers you see there
All the wild flowers of the forest,
All the lilies of the prairie,
When on earth they fade and perish
Blossom in that heaven above us!
Here is a beautiful Indian tradition that says none of nature's beauty is lost, but is preserved in the beauty of heaven, as symbolized by the rainbow. This has always been a Christian tradition too, that all the beauty that God made in time will be preserved in eternity. Flowers will, therefore, be a part of heaven. The rainbow has always been linked with flowers. In Greek, the word rainbow is iris. Iris was a Greek goddess, who rode the rainbow. The iris flower is sometimes called the rainbow flower. All over the world the rainbow is admired. In Japan it is called the Floating Bridge of Heaven. In Hawaii it is called the path to the upper world. It is the plaything of children and adults. Many can identify with the humorous poet who wrote,
"I went to set the sprinkler--the sun was shining hard.
I found a little rainbow living in by yard:
loopsy-dasey rainbow, blown and blurred and rounded,
with nether end in no place and tether end ungrounded.
I did not dig the borders round nor for its treasure till.
The pot of gold will soon be found--on my water bill."
There are rainbows everywhere, but the most amazing rainbow on record is the one the Apostle John saw in heaven. Here is the only permanent rainbow that exists. They fade so fast on earth, but this one is part of the furniture of heaven. It is part of the presence of God. It would appear to be a complete circle all the way around the throne of God. We see rainbow cut in half because we cannot see below the horizon where the other half is. But John saw the whole circle in heaven. It had to be one of the most beautiful sights human eyes have ever beheld.
Beauty does not need any other reason for being. It does not have to have a message or some symbolical meaning, for beauty is an end in itself. It feeds the mind and the inner man. Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God, and one of His loveliest words is the word rainbow. Beauty is a paradox. As we travel through the mountains and see all the wonders of the trees, and snow covered peaks, and rapid flowing streams, it is amazing that all you can do with beauty is admire it. The badlands were beautiful, but you could not use them for anything. All you could do is look and stand in awe at their beauty. They serve no other purpose than just being awesome. So much of what God has made has no practical value. It is just beauty for beauty's sake. God is saying by this that beauty is a practical value in itself.
We saw flowers in the state of Washington we had never seen before. We walked a block from our motel to get a picture of the most beautiful flowering bush we had ever seen. It was so beautiful with its hugh blue flowers, but it had no other purpose than just being beautiful. All we,or anyone else, could do with it was to admire it. Berghild Dahl in her book, I Wanted To See, tells of being blind for nearly half a century. At age 52 she had surgery at Mayo Clinic and could see 40 times more. She found it a thrill to wash dishes after that. Here is her testimony-"I begin to play with the white fluffy suds in the dishpan, I dip my hands into them and I pick up a ball of tiny soup bubbles...I hold them up to the light and in each of them I can see the brilliant colors of a mineature rainbow." She thanks God as she washes dishes for the simple pleasure of seeing rainbows while she washes. That is all a rainbow is good for-to look at and enjoy.
I discovered there are even night time rainbows. Paul Pearsall in his book, Making Miracles, tells about the lunar rainbows in the mountains of Maui. Moisture in the clouds migrating across the Pacific pauses over the mountains, and when the moon is near full it produces a rainbow. They are mainly silver with just a hint of the colors of the solar rainbows. Aristotle says he saw them centuries before Christ. The point is there are more rainbows in this world than we can imagine, and the rainbow will be a part of our environment for all eternity. John saw a rainbow around the throne of God. This was beautiful beyond description, no doubt, but it has more than beauty, it also has tremendous meaning, which we want to explore. We want to see that it is a symbol of God's mercy.
When God made a covenant with Noah, and used the rainbow as the symbol of that covenant, He made it crystal clear that it was a covenant with all living creatures. It is not just man that God cares about, but all His creatures, which are symbolized here in Rev.4 by the 4 living creatures. The rainbow is a universal symbol. It is everywhere in creation where there is water and sun. It is a symbol for all creatures great and small. Gen.9:12-16 says, "And God said, this is the sign of the covenant I am making between you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come. I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth."
Five times God said this covenant was with the whole of His creation. The rainbow goes beyond God's relationship to man to include all creatures. The rainbow is something that man has in common with the animal kingdom. It is the one symbol that links us all together under the promise of God's mercy. It is, therefore, so appropriate that in this chapter where the theme is nature leading God's people to worship, the rainbow should stand out as the primary symbol surrounding the throne of God. This is the only symbol that I am aware of that is given by God to His whole creation. The rainbow is the only symbol that I am aware of that says to every eye on this planet--I am a God of mercy.
There is a German tradition from the middle ages that says in the 40 years before the end of the world there will be no rainbow. So every time they saw a rainbow it was a comfort, and an assurance that history would last at least another generation. There saying was--
"So the rainbow appear
The world hath no fear,
Until thereafter 40 year."
The 40 years idea is purely subjective, but the promise of God to be merciful to all His creatures is guaranteed by the sign of the rainbow.
In Heb.4:16 we read, "Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." The throne where we are to find mercy is the throne surrounded with the rainbow, the symbol of mercy. God does not have to look down on earth to find a rainbow to remind Him of His mercy. He dwells in an atmosphere where this symbol is impossible to escape. In a sense, God wears this symbol of mercy like a ring or a necklace. God cannot be unmerciful, for this permanent rainbow around His throne tells us it is of the very essence of God to be merciful.
The rainbow has always been important in Judaism. In Eccleasiasticus 43:11-12, the Son of Sirach writes in the intertestamental period, "Look upon the rainbow and praise Him that made it. Very beautiful it is in the brightness thereof. It compasseth the heaven about with a glorious circle, and the hands of the Most High have bended it." But it was not just for it's beauty that the Jews loved the rainbow. It is the symbolism of the rainbow that set Jewish theology apart from the rest of the world's religions. Felix Levy in His Own Torah, gives us in nut shell the whole Jewish theology of the rainbow.
"Whereas in all the other flood stories, the Greek, Hindu,
and so on, a dead fatalism, a sense of fall from man's
original high estate, pervades their account, in the Hebrew,
the climax is hopeful: Noah sees the rainbow in the sky,
Nay, through the flood man has found the God that was lost.
Think you, this is accidental? No, it is of the very
substance of Jewish psychology. The pagans were afraid
of the arbitrary will and punishment of their gods; the Jew,
even when his God chastised, saw the rainbow beyond.
This attitude of mind is something more than optimism,
something higher than the thought that all will come out
well in the end, more than a hope; it is the profound
assurance in the human soul, that this universe which we
inhabit is well ordered. That law and order and love
pervade our whole life, that on the ruins new structures,
more glorious, may be erected!"
The apostle John's vision of the rainbow around God's throne confirms this Jewish conviction, and makes it basic also to Christian theology. The Christian is always to be an incurable optimist. The world is a mess and heading for judgement, but it can never get so bad that God will forget to be merciful. He will save all who trust Him however unworthy they are of His grace. The rainbow says God's mercy is primary, and His judgement is secondary.
This was a message the Christians needed to hear as they faced a hostile world that would persecute and destroy them. The rainbow around the throne is assurance that God will win, for He does not need to ride out the storms of life, He already lives on the victory side of the storms. He lives encircled by the rainbow, the sign of storms end, and those who trust in Him will end up on that bright side by His mercy.
Pastor Richard Wong of Honolulu has written the book, Prayers From An Island, and in it he has this prayer about the rainbow--"O God, Thou has a merry way when Thou hangest rainbows in rain. So may we learn that life's secrets are hidden....Joy embedded in pain....Wisdom gleaming through suffering....Strength growing through hardships....And fullfillments beckoning through problems. Teach us always to look through rain to find rainbows glistening. Amen." God looks and remembers His covenant, we need to look and remember as well. The rainbow is to remind us to be optimist, no matter how great the storm.
Bennan Manning writes, "Father, you must've known I was feeling like the day: dull gray dismal with a tendency to thunderstorms.
And so you flung
across the sky
in my ear,
"Look at what
just for you."
And as I looked
took my breath away
wasn't the splendor
of your creation,
but the breathtaking
that I am a pampered
Father, thank you
for the love
that made the rainbow
just for me.
And Father, make me like
of your love."
God uses nature to witness to us of His love and mercy, and thus, we see again the truth of this whole chapter, that nature leads the way for God's people in the worship of their creator. God says to Israel in Isaiah 54:10, "Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed.." God is ever the God of mercy, and that is why we need to keep our eyes on things above and say with the poet,
"I need Thee, blessed Jesus!
And hope to see Thee soon,
Encircled with the rainbow,
And seated on Thy throne:
There with Thy blood-bought children,
My joy shall ever be
To sing Thy praise, Lord Jesus,
To gaze, my Lord, on Thee!"
Louis Albert Banks tells of his little boy, one summer day in the mountains, running up to him with his eyes aglow with wonderment, and he said, "Father, see, there is the rainbow, and yet it has not rained." He looked, and sure enough, there it was spanning the slopes, and not a drop of water had fallen. It had rained somewhere, however, and they were able to share in the enjoyment, even though they had escaped the storm. It made him realize that Jesus took the storm for us on Calvary. The thunder and wrath of God fell on his head, but you and I escaped that storm of judgement. But we get to enjoy the rainbow, the symbol of God's mercy forever.
A Christian man shared this testimony of how he makes his own rainbows. "When I was a boy my mother made me go out and sprinkle the lawn just when I wanted to play ball with the other boys. But I made a game out of the experience. I pointed the nozzle of the hose up at the sun and made my own rainbows. I've never forgotten it. Now when sorrows and disappointments and crosses come, I take them, too, and point them to the Son of Righteousness. He makes rainbows of my tears. Through sorrow I find joy."
The Dyaks in Borneo call the rainbow the King's Son. Their New Testament reads, "And round about the throne there was, as it were, the King's Son in the sky." This is very appropriate that the Son of God and the rainbow be linked as one, for just as Jesus is our intercessor and mediator before God, so the rainbow is ever pleading before His throne for mercy. The rainbow, like Jesus, is a great friend of sinners. Jesus is the one who gives meaning to this beautiful symbol. If we trust in Him as our Savior we will enjoy with Him forever, around the throne of God, this remarkable rainbow.