After the flood, God gave humans power over the lives of other humans. Because they had not respected his governance, he authorized human government. Does that mean he’s abdicating?
To head off any possible speculation, the sovereign commits himself to a treaty affirming that he will always continue as the source of our blessing and provision. He will never give up ruling us. He pledges himself with a covenant—a legal commitment to humanity that he will always be our ruler.
Covenants between a king and his subjects were quite common in the world of the ancient near east. The treaty identified the parties and spelled out their obligations, usually with sanctions if the subjects resisted their ruler. The Scriptures contain a number of these covenants. The Sinai covenant is the one people know best. It was the document that established Israel as a nation under YHWH’s rule, the nation called to represent his reign to the other nations (Exodus 19:5-6).
But the covenant in Genesis 9 is far more foundational. This is a covenant with Noah and his sons and future generations—the whole of humanity in the framework of this narrative (9:8-9). The covenant includes the animals (9:10), all living things (9:15), and the earth itself (9:17). Our sovereign commits himself to us and to his creatures: he will never give up ruling us!
His covenant commitment is unilateral: regardless of how evil humans become, regardless of what happens in the future, he binds himself to persist with us. He will never again deal with human evil by wiping us out. The animals live in fear and dread of their flawed human overlords, but creation should not live in terror of its divine sovereign. He doesn’t want us panicked when we see the rain clouds gathering: he wants us to look for the beautiful refraction of light that is a rainbow and remember his promise to persist with us.
This covenant is not only global; it is enduring—“for all future generations” (9:12), “the everlasting covenant” (9:16). Sure, he makes other commitments to people in the Biblical narrative as well—covenants with Abraham and Moses and David, and so on. But none of those supersede this Noahic covenant. Whatever else happens along the way, the goal of the biblical story is the restoration of all the peoples of the earth under the reign of the heavenly sovereign. That is the kingdom of God: people from every tribe and nation and language submitting to God’s rule and honouring his throne forever.
The rainbow is a visual reminder that, no matter how ominous the gathering dark clouds look, our sovereign has bound himself to never give up on us. He will persist with us until every knee bows and every tongue acknowledges his sovereignty.
That’s our sovereign’s enduring commitment to us. He has given his word. He has started with us all over again, replanting his kingdom in Noah. His kingdom will endure until the whole earth is under his governance.
What others are saying
Abraham Kuyper, Common Grace: God’s Gifts for a Fallen World, vol. 1, (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press; Acton Institute, 2015), 22–23 (emphasis original):
This is exactly what Calvin says: “A covenant of grace to all people and nations in common.” … Indeed, as if to express still more concretely and clearly that this covenant applies essentially to our human life on this earth, we read in verse 13 of “the covenant between me and the earth,” and in verses 15, 16, and 17, it is repeated three more times: “my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh.”
As often as six times in this brief span of verses it is explicitly stated that we are not dealing here with a covenant of particular grace, but a covenant of common grace.
Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 327:
The language with which God addresses Noah at the end of the flood clearly echoes Genesis 1. In a sense this is a fresh start for all creation. So Noah and his family are blessed and instructed to fill the earth and (though not with the same phrase) to have dominion over it. The creation mandate is renewed. The human task remains the same—to exercise authority over the rest of the creation, but to do so with care and respect for life, symbolized in the prohibition on eating animal blood (Gen 9:4). So there is a human mission built into our origins in God’s creation and God’s purpose for creation. To care for creation is in fact the first purposive statement that is made about the human species; it is our primary mission on the planet. The covenant with Noah effectively renews this mission, within the context of God’s own commitment to creation.
Read Genesis 9:7-17.