The Sign of the Noahic Covenant

Sign of the Noahic Covenant

Francis Roberts (1609-1675)
Mysterium & Medulla Bibliorum
The Mystery and Marrow of the Bible
Book 3, Chapter 2.

Of the Discovery and Administration of the Covenants of Promise in the Second Period of Time—From Noah till Abraham.


The Lord God having destroyed the wicked Old World by a flood of waters, not only resolved with himself, but also covenanted with Noah, with his seed, and with the creatures, never to destroy the earth any more by a flood—annexing the rainbow for a token of the Covenant. This was God’s second Covenant with Noah, his additional Covenant, super-added to the former. For clearing of it, this aphorism (as the former) shall be 1. Confirmed; 2. Opened; and 3. Applied.

I. Confirmed.

Confirmed this aphorism may be, in the principal branches of it, by evident Scripture testimonies. As:

1. That God resolved and determined with himself, after the world’s destruction by the Flood, never to destroy it again by a flood of waters. And Noah went forth of the Ark,

And Noah builded an altar unto the Lord; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And the Lord smelled a sweet savour; and the Lord said in his heart (there’s his determination with himself), I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake (though the imagination of man’s heart be evil from his youth); for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done. While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.” (Genesis 8:20-22).

2. That God covenanted this with Noah, with his seed, and with all living creatures.

And God spake to Noah, and to his sons with him, saying; And I, 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. And I will establish my Covenant with you; 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.” (Genesis 9:8-11).

3. That God also annexed the rainbow as a sign or token to this Covenant.

And 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: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud: And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth. And God said unto Noah, This is the token of the covenant, which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth.” (Genesis 9:12-17).

By this heap of words and variety of expressions touching the tokens of God’s Covenant with Noah, we may perceive, both what need Noah and his sons had to be comforted against a future flood, the deluge now newly past leaving such prints of astonishment and amazement upon their spirits; and also how solicitous the Lord was by those reiterated phrases to raise up their faith and confidence for future, above their present fears and despondencies. And in the last clause he summarily and emphatically recapitulates the whole, “This is the token of the Covenant which I have established,” etc. Yea (as Mercerus noteth) some among the Jews think that at these words, God demonstrated a rainbow in the cloud to Noah, for the strengthening of his faith.

II. Explained.

Explained and opened this aphorism may be also, by inquiring into, and unfolding of these particulars: 1. The causes and occasion of this Covenant. 2. The parties covenanting. 3. The matters covenanted. 4. The token of this Covenant, the bow in the cloud.

1. The causes and occasion of this Covenant.

The causes and occasion of this Covenant may be thus declared.

1. The efficient cause, or author of it was God. “God spake to Noah, saying; And I, behold I establish my Covenant with you…” (Gen. 9:8).

2. The inward impulsive or moving cause, can be imagined to have been none other but his own mere grace and commiserating mercies to Noah, and the small remnant with him surviving the Flood.

3. The outward impulsive or moving cause was twofold. (1) Less principal and typical, namely, Noah’s altar and burnt offerings offered thereon to God, in which God smelled a sweet savour, and whereupon he took occasion to resolve and covenant never more to destroy the world with a flood. (2) More principal and anti-typical, or typified, namely, Jesus Christ and his offering himself up a sacrifice for sin to God upon the altar of his Godhead, wherein he was an odour of a sweet smell to God. And this was the outward moving cause of God’s covenanting both his elect’s recovery and, the world’s restitution and preservation in reference thereunto. As shall after more appear.

4. The final cause, or end intended in this Covenant, was: (1) Partly to assure Noah and his posterity of his great mercy intended to the world, notwithstanding man’s sin, in that it should never more be destroyed by a Flood of waters. (2) Partly to instruct him and his seed, that as sin brought destruction upon the creature, so Christ satisfying God’s justice for sin, should bring restitution and preservation to the creature. (3) Partly to glorify the riches of God’s grace, mercy and loving kindness in both.

2. The Covenanting Parties.

The parties covenanting are:

1. God, on the one hand. God as appeased and smelling a savour of rest, upon Noah’s sacrifices in this notion God establisheth this Covenant.

2. Noah and his sons, and their seed, and all living creatures, on the other hand. Here (as Calvin notes) there are three degrees of federates with God mentioned, or (as Pareus) four, namely:

(1) Noah himself. The parent and common father of the New World. The second Adam. With whom the Lord had established his Covenant towards the period of the Old World. God honoured this righteous sincere and heavenly man with the first place.

(2) Noah’s sons, Shem, Ham, Japheth, who were saved with Noah in the Ark. The females are implied and included in the males.

(3) Their seed after them, that is, all the posterity of Noah, and of his sons, till the end of the world, for perpetual generations. In this branch we are comprehended, and all mankind. God covenants not only with his people, but with their seed, and with their seed’s seed, that keep covenant with him, even to all generations. This Covenant therefore in some sort concerns all the world. Oh the infinite bounty of the Lord in his federal administrations!

(4) All living creatures, fowls, beasts, and creeping things. Them also being created for man, God takes into covenant with man. Noah was confederate with God herein. And the other three sorts were as sub-federates under him.

But here some doubts may arise, and are to be removed.

Doubts respecting the covenanting parties.

Doubt 1. Seeing God established his Covenant not only with Noah, but with his sons, and their seed also, God seems to admit into covenant with himself the wicked as well as the righteous. For Ham was ungodly, and cursed by his own father; and more of the posterity of these three sons of Noah were wicked than godly. Consequently, God covenants not only with Christ and his seed, but also with the seed of the serpent. And godliness alone hath not the promise of this and the life to come.

Resolution. This is a material doubt. Thus conceive:

1. God never covenants with the seed of the Serpent formally as such; nor makes promises to the ungodly in that notion as they are ungodly. For then God should approve them in their evil, and equalize them to his elect—both which it is impossible for God to do.

2. Since the Fall, the Covenant of Faith and all the promises of it, are (as hath been shewed) settled upon Christ, and in him upon them that are his, and that are godly, in one respect or another—or at least upon others, with reference to the godly, and for the benefit of Christ’s members. Thus promises were made to wicked Cyrus, with reference to his Church. God intending him to be a noble instrument of her good, etc. Now people may be said to be godly, or to be Christ’s diverse ways, viz. Actually, Virtually, Professedly.

Ways in which people may be said to be Christ’s.

(1) Actually, when they are truly implanted into Christ already by their effectual calling, and are really sanctified. Of these there is no doubt, but God’s Covenant and Promise are actually and formally theirs. As called and sanctified, they are within Covenant. Such an one was Noah, here first named in this Covenant with God. And probably such were Shem and Japheth, his sons.

(2) Virtually and potentially, when they are in a capacity or possibility of becoming Christ’s. Thus all that are elected, though many of them be as yet unborn, are Christ’s virtually according to election. And God establishing his Covenant with those that are his, and with their seed, must needs intend all such before they are in being. Thus God takes in here not only Noah and his sons, but their seed also.

(3) Professedly men may be said to be Christ’s, and godly, when they make a true profession of Christ, and of godliness. And this either in themselves, as adults grown up to years of discretion, or in their Christian parents, as infants which by reason of being so born are counted federally holy, and in covenant with their parents. And thus, God entered into covenant not only with Noah, Shem, and Japheth, but also with Ham. He at that time professing godliness with his pious father and family: and not discovering his lewdness till after this Covenant was made. Yea he entered into Covenant with their seed as well as with themselves, their seed professing godliness implicitly and fundamentally in their parents. If then the Lord admit both root and branches, parents and their seed into his Covenant jointly, how unwarrantable and dangerous are the acts of Anabaptists who forbid infants of such parents to partake of the initiating sign and token of the Covenant?

3. In God’s Covenants we must further distinguish betwixt the Outward Administration and Common benefits thereof which come short of salvation, and the Inward Efficacy and special benefits thereof, which reach unto salvation. In the former sense all the seed of Noah and of his sons were comprehended in this Covenant, and thereby secured against any other universal deluge of waters, but in the latter sense only the elect of their seed are comprised in this Covenant, as tending to secure them from eternal perdition in Christ.

Doubt 2. But how and in what sense can God be said to establish his Covenant with the brute creatures, fowls, beasts and creeping things, that can neither understand God’s promises, nor restipulate any performances?

Resolution. 1. Some say that this Covenant here made with Noah, etc. was absolute, and required no conditions on the creatures’ part, and such an absolute Covenant may be made even with brute creatures, though they neither understand it nor restipulate. But every Covenant consists in mutual agreement. Explicit or Implicit. Promises may be absolute without restipulation, but not Covenants. And in this Covenant we shall find some things restipulated. 2. Others resolve better, who say that God covenanted here with these brute creatures, not properly and directly for themselves, but improperly, indirectly and relatively, with reference and relation to mankind, that they should not any more be generally destroyed with a flood. For as at first these creatures were all made for man’s use and service, and were afterwards drowned in the Flood, not for their own sakes, but for man’s sin, so now while man should continue in this world, God covenanteth that these creatures should continue also for his service and benefit.

3. The Matters Covenanted.

The matters covenanted in this Covenant are, either on God’s part, or on the part of Noah, his sons, and their seed.

God on his part covenanted that he would never more destroy the earth and the living creatures therein with an universal deluge, as he had done, but that the natural courses and revolutions of times and seasons should successively continue till the world’s end. Herein therefore God hath given notable security and assurance that the whole earth shall no more be drowned with a General Flood. Yet this hinders not, but that: 1. Particular persons and places may be destroyed with floods of waters, and out-breaking of the unruly Sea, as hath come to pass both in England and in foreign countries. Particulars and individuals may be destroyed by waters, but not the whole universe. 2. The whole world (though it shall not be destroyed by a flood and streams of waters, yet), may be destroyed with streams of fire. For the Heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the Earth also and the works that are therein shall be burnt up.

Noah, his sons, and their seed on their part, at least implicitly restipulate with God: 1. To believe this promise of God, that the Earth and the living creatures therein shall no more be destroyed generally with the waters of a flood. 2. To believe in Christ the true sacrifice appeasing God’s wrath against the world, and restoring stability to the perishing creature, and so becoming the foundation of this and of all God’s Covenants and Promises. 3. To make use of the rainbow appearing, as a sign or token of this Covenant, for strengthening their faith therein.

4. The Token of the Covenant.

The token of the Covenant, is God’s bow in the cloud, as hath formerly been expressed from the text.

For better understanding of this token, consider: 1. What bow this is. 2. When this bow was set in the cloud. 3. What manner of sign or token it was, and is, in respect of this Covenant.

(1) What bow this is, which is added as a token of this Covenant, may be concluded from that phrase, “I will set my bow in the cloud.” That is, the Rain-Bow; which is the most beautiful of all the meteors, and most admirable both in its generation and figure. Hence the Poets call it filiam Thaumantias, that is, the daughter of [Thaumas,] that god which is most wonderful [i.e. Iris]. It is called a bow, because it resembles a bended bow in the figure of it. A bow in the cloud, because there only it appears. The Rain-Bow, because it naturally signifies rain. Iris, in Latin from ἶρις, to foretell, because it still foretells some natural, or supernatural thing. The rainbow is an image or representation of a bow or semicircle of many colours arising in a moist waterish cloud from the various reflection and refraction of the sunbeams thereupon. The chief colours of the rainbow are three: A reddish colour uppermost. A greenish colour middlemost. A waterish colour lowest. Sometimes appears a yellowish colour, from the co-mixture of the red and green. Further discourse about the natural mysteries in the rainbow, I leave to the Natural Philosopher, as not so pertinent to my present purpose.

(2) When this rainbow was set in the cloud, is variously disputed. Some think it was first set in the cloud at that very time when God made this Covenant with Noah. Mercerus saith, Rashi was of this opinion, and that presently as God spake these words to Noah, he brought a dewy cloud into the air with a rainbow in it, shewing it to Noah, saying, “This is the token of the Covenant,” etc. Others rather conclude that whether at that time God showed the bow to Noah or not, the rainbow did appear in the clouds long before that time. There being the self same natural causes to produce this natural effect of the rainbow, before, as well as since the Flood, and no impediment hindering such production. The rainbow might be before the Flood, from the beginning, as a natural effect of natural causes, but till after the Flood when God made this Covenant, it never was a sign or token of a supernatural Covenant.

(3) What manner of sign or token of the Covenant the rainbow was, we may thus conceive. Signs or tokens are things that signify and betoken some other thing to the mind, besides what they represent unto the sense. Signs are either natural, or voluntary and instituted.

I. Natural signs are they which of themselves, and in their own nature signify something present or future. 1. Present, as smoke is a sign of fire, paleness of some disease, etc. such signs are merely significative. 2. Future, as the red evening fore-signifies a fair day, the red morning a fowl day. The rainbow signifies rain shortly to come, etc.

II. Voluntary or instituted signs are such as signify, not of their own nature, but only according to the will or pleasure of the author or instituter thereof. Thus the Passover signified Christ: bread his body, wine his blood, and here the rainbow signifies security, that the world shall no more be generally drowned with a flood.

So then the rainbow which physically and naturally denotes rain, theologically, supernaturally, and by institution signifies fair weather and security from rain and a flood. It’s not a natural, but an instituted sign. When we look upon it, we are not so much to take notice of its natural, as of its supernatural and instituted signification, and of God’s great favour in resolving never to drown the world again, remembered thereby. Thus God sometimes makes use of contrary means, for our good.

The rainbow then confirming and sealing the certainty of God’s Covenant, and our assurance thereof, not by natural signification, but by supernatural institution. Those conjectures of some are more witty than solid and weighty, who thus interpret the natural colours of the rainbow, namely, the waterish colour, which is lowest, to signify the Flood past, the greenish colour, which is in the midst, to signify the mercy present, and security against another general Flood, and the fiery colour, which is highest, to signify the future destruction of the world by fire, as Peter intimates.

III. Applied.

Applied this aphorism may be in these brief ensuing corollaries. Hence:

1. Noah was singularly honoured and favoured of God. In that God established his Covenant twice with him, viz. before the Flood, to assure him that himself and family should not perish with the wicked world, after the Flood, to assure him that he would never bring such another Flood upon the world.

2. The greatness of God’s commiserating grace and mercy to mankind is to be observed and admired in this dispensation. Especially in that:

1. God’s judgment upon the Old World is closed up with mercy to the New, though as sinful as the Old.

2. This mercy is tendered in a Covenant, and that a Covenant upon divine record.

3. This covenanted mercy is assured by a sacrament—the rainbow.

4. This mercy, so far as temporal, is extended to all—to the wicked as well as to the godly. Yea to creatures irrational, neither understanding the nature nor obligation of the Covenant, as well as to rational creatures.

3. There shall never be another general Flood to drown the world. Nor shall the natural revolution and course of seed-time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night cease by any general judgment, while this earth continues.

4. When we see God’s bow in the cloud, we should heedfully remember God’s severity in drowning the world for sin, and God’s goodness assuring the New World that it shall never be drowned with a general Flood any more.


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