Welcome to my ROLLED SCROLL study, where I follow cultural and literary images found in the Bible in an attempt to unearth God’s meaning in His pattern of usage.
Somewhere over the rainbow
Way up high,
There’s a land that I heard of
Once in a lullaby.
Somewhere over the rainbow
Skies are blue,
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true.
— E.Y. Young, Over the Rainbow
This song, written for the 1939 Wizard of Oz film, expresses an ancient longing for the divine, a yearning to fly off into the heavens of everlasting bliss glimpsed by every heart since Adam and Eve first lost the Garden. In biblical literature, the rainbow is a strong but seldom-used image, appearing in only four settings—twice in the Old Testament and twice in the New.
Of course every Sunday school student knows the iconic OT story of the Great Flood, when God drew the rainbow in the sky as an everlasting sign of His covenant to Noah—a reminder to all mankind and even to Himself that He would never again send such a deluge to drown out the earth (Gen. 9:13-16; read the full story in Gen. 6:1-9:17). We encounter the English word next in a description of the glory of God that surrounds Him like the radiance of “a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day” (Ezek. 1:28 NIV). But in both cases, the Hebrew word translated into English as rainbow—qesheth—more clearly refers to a military bow, and this concept of bow and arrow is used throughout the OT in connection with God’s judgment (e.g., Ps. 7:11-12; Ps. 77:17; Ezek. 5:15-16; Zech. 9:14; 2 Sam. 22:14-15). In other words, God set the prismatic arch in the clouds above Noah’s grounded Ark as though He were hanging up His bow at the end of a battle, putting away his weapon after His fury with evil had been for the time appeased, to be faced again in the end times before eternal peace (Zech. 14:1-3; Rev. 19:15; Rev. 20:6).
In the NT apocalyptic book of Revelation, the Greek word for both references to the rainbow is iris (bringing to the minds of John’s contemporaries, perhaps, the mythological goddess named Iris, said to be the personification of the rainbow and the messenger of Zeus to mortals—a bridge between divinity and humanity). John was taken into heaven; he envisioned a mighty angel robed in a cloud with a rainbow above his head, and the Lord Himself sitting on His throne encircled by a rainbow (Rev. 10:1; Rev. 4:3). The spectrum of hues mentioned here harks back to the OT descriptions of the vest worn by the Jewish high priest and also alludes to the foundation of the New Jerusalem—both garment and groundwork encrusted with twelve precious jewels (such as emerald, jasper, amethyst, topaz) signifying God’s matchless magnificence (Exod. 28:17-21; Isa. 54:11-12; Rev. 21:19-21).
All this talk of rainbows and gemstones brings up the subject of colors in the Bible, some of them taking on special meaning as they’re applied within the context of the narrative. For example, green is often associated with God’s provision through nature—of vegetation for food and pastures to lie in (Gen. 1:30; Ps. 23:2; Mark 6:39). God promised that those who trust in His steadfast love would flourish like green olive trees, but it was “under every green tree” that His faithless people worshipped idols (Ps. 52:8; Jer. 3:6). God, patient and merciful, yet warns of ecological devastation He’ll someday visit upon the earth in judgment (Rev. 8:7).
Another colour was mentioned by the Apostle Paul when he wrote of Lydia, whose business was dealing in purple cloth; as purple dye was a luxurious commodity prepared from rare molluscs found on the Mediterranean coast, and affordable only to the wealthy, it became indicative of royalty and strength (Acts 16:14; Dan. 5:29; Esther 1:6-7; Rev. 17:4). In mockery, the Roman soldiers dressed Jesus in a royal purple robe for His trial (John19:2-5).
Black illustrates God’s righteous anger, as in His chastising desolation of Jerusalem whose citizens’ fine white complexions were blackened like soot as their bodies shrivelled with starvation (Lam. 4:6-8). At times God comes in darkness like a black storm, or sends a rider on a black horse carrying scales of justice (Ps. 18:9-14; Isa. 50:3; Joel 2:1-2; Rev. 6:5). The day of the Lord’s victory over his enemies was “already but not yet” fulfilled at Jesus’ crucifixion, when a preternatural gloom fell over the whole land (Zeph. 1:15; Matt. 27:45).
In contrast to the black darkness of God’s wrath upon the guilty, His sustenance and forgiveness bring inner cleansing represented by the colour white. For example, the sweet manna He sent to nourish the Israelites on their journey was white, and the psalmist asked for God to wash him whiter than snow (Exod. 16:31; Ps. 51:7). Although a false whiteness is mentioned in the Bible (as when Jesus called the Pharisees of His day “whitewashed tombs” hiding putrification), yet the colour usually symbolizes purity (Matt. 23:27). At the Transfiguration Jesus shone “white as light” and—similar to His Father, the Ancient of Days—the Son is pictured in white as the Lord of glory (Luke 9:29; Dan. 7:9; Rev. 1:13-15). Angels appear in white as well (John 20:12; Acts 1:10). The victorious redeemed ride white horses, and heaven’s residents in pristine linen receive new names written on white stones (Rev. 19:14; Rev. 3:4-5; Rev. 6:11; Rev. 2:17). Believers are “refined, purified, and made white,” and robes are washed in the blood of the Lamb to remove all stains (Dan. 11:35; Rev. 7:14).
The starkness of red or scarlet often stands for the blood necessary in expiation, foreshadowing the final blood sacrifice of the Lamb of God taking away the sins of the world (Lev. 14:4-6; John 1:29; Heb. 9:11-14ff).
Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool. (Isa. 1:18)
On the other hand, the harlot Babylon is described as sitting on a scarlet beast symbolic of the false religious system that will be in place when Jesus returns, and the scarlet of her clothing speaks of political power and riches further identifying Babylon with sin (Rev. 17:3; Rev. 18:15-20).
Bluelinen,the colour of the sky synonymous with the boundary line separating sacred from profane, was worn by Jewish priests performing mediatory rites and (along with other colours) draped the portable Tabernacle furniture to shield the holy items from contamination (Exod. 39:1; Num. 4:4-7). Likewise, the curtains of the Tabernacle and subsequent Temple in Jerusalem were made of blue, scarlet, and purple twisted linen with cherubim worked in threads of golden embroidery, with the “veil” separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place—the very presence of God (Exod. 26:31-34). This multi-coloured veil might well have reminded the Israelites of the covenant rainbow, or perhaps it spoke to them of the glory of God once so far off in His celestial home and now living amongst them (Exod. 40:34). It was this veil—this barrier between the iniquity of man and the holiness of God—that was torn in half from top to bottom upon the death of the Man/God Jesus Christ, who’d become human to dwell among us (Matt. 27:50-51; John 1:14). Now mankind had free access to the presence of the Father through the flesh of the Son (Heb. 6:19-20; Heb. 10:19-22).
The colours of the rainbow—from the greening of creation to the shed blood of Christ—radiate throughout Scripture and reflect the grace of God in His promises, provision, and protection.
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These short literary articles tied to the Bible explore what God might have been saying in His pattern of usage for each symbol. English rendition of the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek varies with translations (e.g., “scroll” is sometimes interchangeable with “book”); however, the quality and underlying meaning of the selected emblem remain consistent across versions. Sketches are by Lorenda Harder. I recommend the website of Dr. Grant C. Richison for thorough expository Bible study: www.versebyversecommentary.com.