Noah, the Rainbow, and Evil
Perhaps the most prevalent question I'm asked these days concerns the fact that righteousness isn't always rewarded, and evil goes unpunished. We preach that walking the paths of wisdom and faith, in obedience to God, will bring about the blessing of God. Yet, that's not what we see. We don't see the righteous always prospering and we often see the wicked flourishing. And it has always been that way according to David in Psalm 73:
Surely God is good to Israel, To those who are pure in heart! 2 But as for me, my feet came close to stumbling, My steps had almost slipped. 3 For I was envious of the arrogant [As] I saw the prosperity of the wicked. 4 For there are no pains in their death, And their body is fat. 5 They are not in trouble [as other] men, Nor are they plagued like mankind. 6 Therefore pride is their necklace; The garment of violence covers them. 7 Their eye bulges from fatness; The imaginations of [their] heart run riot. 8 They mock and wickedly speak of oppression; They speak from on high. 9 They have set their mouth against the heavens, And their tongue parades through the earth. 10 Therefore his people return to this place, And waters of abundance are drunk by them. 11 They say, “How does God know? And is there knowledge with the Most High?” 12 Behold, these are the wicked; And always at ease, they have increased [in] wealth. 13 Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure And washed my hands in innocence; 14 For I have been stricken all day long And chastened every morning.
I have to admit that I often feel like David felt. People ask me "how come God doesn't reward our righteousness or punish the wicked for their sin consistently?" The answer has everything to do with recognizing and understanding how God is working in His world today, and has since the days of Noah.
We learn so much from the biblical episode of the flood in Genesis 6-9. First, we see what sin actually deserves. Second, we see what grace looks like. In this first great example of God's wrath we see that millions got justice, and came under His wrath. We also see that eight folks in the Ark got mercy, and undeservedly so. What we don't see is anyone being treated unjustly, which grounds the truth of the statement "There is no injustice with God" (Romans 9:14).
But there is also a grand truth to be learned from the way God saw the flood. He meant it to be an indication of the what sin deserved, and it was a colossal example of God handing down judgement with immediacy. He looked and saw the comprehensive wickedness of mankind (Genesis 6:5) and brought about justice. If our desire for wickedness to be punished consistently and uniformly was actually God's desire as well we would be seeing cataclysmic judgments everyday, or at least every few months. And these judgments would be comprehensive, world-wide, reducing the population down to those protected by God's mercy. But, turns out, that has not been God's desire as noted in His post-flood speeches. To these we need to pay particular attention.
In Genesis 8:20-22 and 9: 8-17 we read this:
9:8-17: Then God spoke to Noah and to his sons with him, saying, 9 “Now behold, I Myself do establish My covenant with you, and with your descendants after you; 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you; of all that comes out of the ark, even every beast of the earth. 11 “I establish My covenant with you; and all flesh shall never again be cut off by the water of the flood, neither shall there again be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12 God said, “This is the sign of the covenant which I am making between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all successive generations; 13 I set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between Me and the earth. 14 “It shall come about, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow will be seen in the cloud, 15 and I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and never again shall the water become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 “When the bow is in the cloud, then I will look upon it, to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17 And God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
Notice what God is saying. He is promising that He is not going to hand out judgment whenever and wherever it is deserved. He declares that the intent of man's heart is evil, and if He desired to run His universe on the model of quid pro quo, chaos and catastrophe would be comprehensive and continual. If every sin got what it deserved no one would live. But that is not how God has determined to rule during the era of human history.
After the flood we find that God withholds the immediacy of his just wrath. He determines, through what we call "common grace" since it is common to all who live, that He will hold back what the wrath sin deserves. Paul seems to make mention of this in his speech to the Athenians in Acts 17:30 when he speaks of God having "passed over the sins done in ignorance." This restraint of God is also described in terms of His sending the rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:45). This is apparently what God is declaring to Noah. He is going to allow history to proceed, season after season. He is going to allow man and animals to continue living despite their wickedness. He is not going to order human life according to the principle of cause and effect. Consequently, it will look like sin goes unpunished and righteousness unrewarded.
This is not to say that God has backed away from personal interaction with His creation. He hasn't. In fact, it may be that He invades history bringing judgement from time to time just to make us aware that our brokenness deserves His wrath. But overall, God allows human history to proceed on with wickedness seemingly going unpunished.
In the history of redemption there is another time when God punished sin conclusively and comprehensively. He did so at the cross. As with the flood, some received God's mercy through the cross even as He bore God's wrath for their sin. God punished our sin in Christ even as He displayed His mercy to those who had been chosen in Him. Judgment and salvation, wrath and mercy, both operating from the hand of God in the same event. The flood was a preview of the cross.
What do we learn from all this? Two very important things. First, we learn that God is not now bringing judgment to bear on every sin. If He did, human history would be one comprehensive catastrophe after another. Rather, God's plan is to allow sinners to live on so that through the gospel some may be brought to faith and thus, glorify Him as trophies of His grace. When we see the wicked continuing to have life and breath we should understand that this is the common grace of God allowing them time to hear the gospel and repent. But it also means that we can't fault God when we don't see wickedness being punished. We must remember His ways are best.
Secondly we learn that God will not always restrain His wrath. Both the flood and the cross remind us that our sin deserves the catastrophic judgment of God. Just because He hasn't punished us doesn't mean He never will. One day He will settle all the counts for eternity. No one should take God's patience for granted. As Psalm 2:11, 12 reminds us
Worship the LORD with reverence And rejoice with trembling. Do homage to the Son, that He not become angry, and you perish in the way, For His wrath may soon be kindled. How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!
Hope this helps,