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Previous article in this series: February 15, 2015, p. 223.

In Genesis 8:21 we read that God said this in His heart: “I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; 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.” Many say that God in this word is promising to give some grace to all human beings, so that there will be at least some good in unbelieving man and, thus, human society will be preserved. Some go a step further and say that when God said “I will not again curse the ground,” He meant, “I will delay the final judgment because I desire that all human beings be saved.”

It is true that to refute these teachings we simply need to refer to the manifold passages that teach that God desires to save only some people, and that there is no good in the natural man. But it is one thing to say what a passage does not teach, and another thing to say what it does. We begin to consider the latter in this article.

The sweet savour of Christ

What was quoted above was only part of Genesis 8:21. When we look at that entire verse as well as the verse before it, we see that the two verses together direct our attention to the sacrifice that Noah offered:

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, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; 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 (Gen. 8:20-21).

It is after God smells the sweet smell of Noah’s sacrifice that He makes this statement about not cursing the ground.

What God smells is the sweet savour of Christ. Noah’s sacrifice pointed to the sacrifice of Christ, the Seed of the woman, who would suffer and die to pay for the sins of His people. Noah, in offering this sacrifice, confessed that he believed God’s promise and looked to Him for forgiveness. By faith he offered his sacrifice, confessing his own sinfulness and requesting that God would show mercy to him and his seed and forgive them for Christ’s sake. God says He will show mercy to His people in Christ, and in that connection makes this statement about no longer cursing the ground.

The sacrifice of Christ that would one day be offered would deliver God’s people and the entire creation from the curse. Going through the accursed death, Christ would deliver from the curse not only His people but also the earth itself. That helps to explain why God speaks of the ground no longer being cursed. God cursed the ground because of man’s sin. Now, after smelling Christ’s atoning sacrifice, God says the ground will be cursed no more.

God’s everlasting covenant

As we read on in the passage, we see that God explains more what He means by no longer cursing the ground. Going into chapter 9, we find another statement about what God would not again do to the earth: “…neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth” (Gen. 9:11). From the context we see that not again cursing the ground is explained to mean not again destroying the earth with a flood.

Yet there is more. We read that God is making a covenant promise regarding the earth: “I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth” (Gen. 9:13).

Smelling Christ’s sacrifice, God is also promising that one day the land of God’s covenant people will be fully delivered from the curse. The land itself shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God (Rom. 8:21).

God’s covenant spoken of here is indeed everlasting: “…That I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth” (Gen. 9:16). It is an everlasting covenant, one that refers to blessings we begin to enjoy now but that will not be fully enjoyed until the age to come.

Some deny that this covenant is everlasting. They say the word “everlasting” here means merely “for a very long time.” But the word used in Genesis 9:16 is the normal word for “everlasting.” It is precisely the same word used later to refer to the everlasting covenant that God made with Abraham (Gen. 17:7). It does not make sense to say that the covenant with Abraham is everlasting while the covenant with Noah is temporary, when God uses the same word (rightly translated “everlasting”) to describe both.

Isaiah’s reference to “the waters of Noah”

When considering the explanation of a verse, it is important not only to look at the verse in its immediate context, but also to search the Scriptures to find other places where the same subject is discussed. One such place is found in the prophecies of Isaiah.

Isaiah prophesied about how the Babylonians were going to be brought like a flood against God’s people, and that after God had chastened His people in this way, He would no longer be wroth with them and would bring them back again to their own land. It is in that context that we find the following reference to God’s promise not to send another flood:

In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer. For this is as the waters of Noah unto me: for as I have sworn that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth; so have I sworn that I would not be wroth with thee, nor rebuke thee (Is. 54:8-9). In this passage God is speaking about delivering His people from Babylon. For a moment God hid His face from His people and gave them over to the Babylonians, who kept them captive for seventy years. But after this was over God would “not be wroth” with His people any more, but rather with everlasting kindness would show them mercy.

Both the one flood of waters and the one flood of Babylonians pointed forward to the one judgment upon Christ. The waters covered the earth once, and then God said He would no longer curse the ground. There was one Babylonian captivity, and then God said He would be wroth with His people no more. Yet neither of these events satisfied the demands of God’s justice. They did, however, both point forward to the one judgment that came upon our Lord, by which we are forever delivered from God’s wrath and freed from the curse.

God did, of course, show mercy to His people also in the days of the Old Testament, before the sacrifice of Christ. But in various ways He showed them that the basis upon which they received the blessings was the one perfect sacrifice that would one day be offered. The day would come, God was saying, when Christ would experience the baptism to which the flood pointed. Under the waves of God’s wrath our Lord would willingly go. Yet He would emerge victorious and make us partakers of the blessings that He would purchase as our Head.

“for the imagination of man’s heart…”

That brings us to a consideration of the reference that God makes in Genesis 8:21 to man being depraved from his youth. The Scriptures make two similar statements about man’s depravity, one before the flood and the other after it. Let us take a look at those two statements together:

And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth… (Gen. 6:5-7a).

And the Lord smelled a sweet savour; and the Lord said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; 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 (Gen. 8:21).

First God sees man’s wicked deeds and depraved nature and says He will destroy man. Then after the flood He says that man’s nature is still evil, yet He will not again curse the ground. What explains the difference?

The difference has to do with Christ and His sacrifice. The first statement is what God says about man as he is outside of Christ. His nature is evil and his thoughts are only evil continually. The second statement is what God says about the mercy He will show to His people who are in Christ and yet still have a sinful nature. God looks at His people, knows that they still have a sinful nature, and for Christ’s sake has mercy on them.

The flood did not change the nature of man. His nature is still evil and God would not be unjust if He sent a flood repeatedly. Yet for the sake of His people in Christ, God says He will not do this. He will show His people mercy and will not again destroy the earth with a flood.

Mercy shown to God’s people

Though it is commonly denied, the mercy spoken of here is promised only to those who are in Christ. This is evident from the following:

1. The promised mercy is based on Christ’s sacrifice (to which Noah’s sacrifice pointed), and Christ died only for His people.

2. The promise is to Noah and his family, who were the church at this time. Since the flood was a picture of baptism, those who went through the flood picture those who have been baptized (i.e. the church).

3. The prophecy of Isaiah that we have looked at says that no more flood means that there will be no more outpouring of God’s wrath, and it can be said only of God’s people that they have been delivered from the wrath of God.

4. God says He will look at the bow in the cloud and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature (Gen. 9:16). The only people who are in God’s everlasting covenant are those who have been chosen to be so in Christ.

“But,” someone might say, “God’s act of not sending another flood is a blessing to all human beings.” That, however, is not the case. Only to God’s people is it a blessing. But we will consider that subject, Lord willingly, next time.