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Homer Hoeksema was professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

God’s Covenant with Noah


As to the idea and meaning of the covenant of which the Lord speaks to Noah, we must notice, in the first place, that the Lord here refers to something very definite and to something which Noah knew and understood. This is plain from this entire revelation. This means that this covenant and its establishment were not something new and hitherto unknown. This is simply assumed when God speaks to Noah concerning it. Moreover, the Lord does not say that He will establish a covenant with Noah, but very definitely “my covenant.” That is definite language. When the Scriptures here speak of “my covenant,” therefore, that means not that there are all kinds of covenants, or all kinds of possible covenants, but that there is only one covenant (already known to Noah), that that one covenant is God’s, and that it is this one covenant which God will establish with Noah.

This is important for two reasons. In the first place, it means that we must not understand that there are all sorts of different, separate covenants—one with Adam, another with Noah, yet another with Abraham, a different one with Israel, and another in Christ. There is not a covenant of works, a covenant with nature, a covenant of Sinai, etc. There is but one covenant of God. All the distinct dealings which are mentioned in the Scriptures are so many historical phases, revelations, realizations, of the one covenant which the Lord establishes and perfects throughouthistory, the covenant which shall have its final and full realization when the tabernacle of God shall be with men in the new heavens and the new earth.

In the second place, this is important specifically with respect to the history immediately after the Flood. In that connection we read again of God’s covenant with Noah (Gen. 9:8-17). There the same language is used, referring to the same covenant. We shall have occasion to consider this matter in detail in connection with that postdiluvian history, and to show that this was no covenant of “common grace.” But even now we must point out: 1) That the covenant inGenesis 6 (which is obviously particular, not general) and the covenant in Genesis 9 are one and the same covenant. 2) That this covenant, identified here and in many other places in the Scriptures as “my covenant” (for example, Genesis 17:7), is one and the same throughout the ages. It is God’s everlasting covenant. It is altogether distinct and particular. Thus here, while God brings a flood of waters upon the whole earth and destroys all mankind in His wrath, He singles out Noah, who finds grace in His eyes, and says to him, “But with thee will I establish my covenant.”

This is a key idea in the Scriptures.

God’s covenant, first of all, means that Jehovah is a covenant God in Himself. The Triune God, even apart from any relation to the creature, lives a covenant life. That life is based on absolute unity of being, of nature, and of life, on the one hand, and on threeness of persons, on the other hand. God is one in being, one in heart and mind and will, one in His divine thoughts and purposes and desires, all characterized by infinite goodness and perfection. Yet He is three persons, so that there is distinction and interaction of persons, fellowship and communion in God. The covenant of God is that most intimate fellowship of love and friendship of the Father, in the Son, and through the Holy Spirit. That is, in the deepest sense, God’s covenant.

Now it pleased God, according to His everlasting counsel and purpose, to reveal this covenant life to the creature outside of Himself by imparting it to His people in Christ Jesus, so that they might be taken up into the current of His own covenant life, might dwell with Him and enter into His fellowship of friendship. This eternal will of the triune God to realize this covenant through Christ, God’s Son in the flesh, who as Immanuel (God with us) is the Head of His elect people—that is the decree of God’s eternal covenant of grace. The essence of that covenant relation is that it is the relation of friendship between God and His people in Christ Jesus, according to which they partake of His own life, dwell with Him, are members of His family, walk with Him and talk with Him, enjoy His favor and His blessings, and serve and glorify Him freely as their Friend-Sovereign.

To this must be added that for the greater manifestation of His glory and of the beauty of His covenant, God the Lord chose to reveal light in darkness, and to realize His covenant along the antithetical line of sin and grace, election and reprobation. This is the deepest reason why God’s people stand in the midst of the wicked world, why they are of His party over against the world, why they are called to fight the Lord’s battle in that world, and why, finally, the church, God’s covenant people, is always redeemed through judgment! All must serve for the greater manifestation of the glory of the covenant God.

Now that covenant had a history, a history which began in Paradise the First and which shall end in the heavenly Paradise of God in the new creation. In fact, the covenant and its realization is the meaning of all of history!

Adam stood originally as God’s friend-servant over against the devil in the state of righteousness. He was God’s covenant friend-servant, and God was his Friend-Sovereign. Yet in all that is found in the first Paradise there is only an earthly picture of the better things to come. Adam falls, and, from the viewpoint of God’s purpose, Adam must fall, in order to make room for Christ. For God purposed to realize His covenant in Christ and along the lines of sin and grace. Immediately after that fall of Adam God announces this, “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed,” etc. That announcement of enmity between the two seeds was at the same time the announcement of the covenant of friendship between God and the seed of the woman. For even as the friendship of the world is enmity with God, so the enmity of the world is friendship with the living God (James 4:4).

Here it is that same covenant that is announced to Noah. The Lord God had continued that covenant in the seed of the woman—in Abel, in Seth, in Enoch, in Methuselah, in Lamech the righteous, Noah’s father. Now the end of all flesh is come before God. The whole world is wicked and is to be destroyed. It is the time of judgment. It would seem, therefore, that God’s covenant must fail, and that, after all, the seed of the serpent succeeds not merely in bruising the heel of the seed of the woman but in crushing its head. But God’s purpose stands, and His promise cannot fail. Noah is God’s covenant friend, by sovereign grace. Thus, singularly blessed, he hears God’s saving word amid the threatening clouds of the judgment of the Flood: “But with thee I will establish my covenant.”

The Divine Establishment of the Covenant

In these words the Lord speaks to Noah of the confirmation of that covenant between Himself and Noah. The word “establish” means literally “to cause to rise up, to make something stand, and thus, to make firm.” Hence, the meaning is: I will cause the relation of friendship between Me and thee to be. And I will cause that relation of friendship to be firm and to abide. Notice that in this particular connection the meaning is, therefore: I will cause that relation of friendship to remain firm even when all the world perishes! For this is the emphasis in the context (Gen. 6:17, 18): “And, behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; and every thing that is in the earth shall die. But with thee will I establish my covenant.” There is a sharp contrast here. Even when all the world perishes under God’s consuming anger, with Noah the Lord will maintain His covenant, His relation of friendship. In fact, it is in and through that destruction of the world that God reveals and maintains that covenant of friendship with Noah.

These words also look to the future. They speak of the continuation and realization of that covenant in the future. God’s covenant is not yet realized. That shall take place only in and through the final, the Great Seed of the woman, our Lord Jesus Christ. Of that Seed and of the victory of that Seed the Lord had spoken to His people immediately after the Fall. Now it seemed as though that promise were about to fail. The Lord was about to destroy the earth and every living creature; and the victory of the Seed of the woman had not been attained. It certainly appeared as though the devil and his seed were victorious, and that the cause of the Seed of the woman was a lost cause. The whole world was about to perish, and all the works of God’s hands seemed to be for nought. But the Lord singles out Noah, Noah who found grace in His eyes, and assures him: “With thee will I make firm, with thee will I continue my covenant.”

It is important that this establishment of the covenant with Noah is strictly a work of God. The Lord says, “But with thee will I establish my covenant.” So often the presentation is that this covenant is a matter of cooperation between God and man in one degree or another. The covenant is an agreement, or an alliance, entered into by God and man together. In that agreement, or pact, or alliance, there are mutual pledges of friendship and faithfulness on the part of man and God, and mutual obligations and benefits as well.

But such a presentation of the covenant is impossible. How can man ever be a contracting party in relation to the living God? God is God! He is the infinite, eternal, Self-existent One, the Lord, the absolute Sovereign. Man is the creature, who owes all that he is and all that he has to his Lord and Creator. There is no obligation which man can assume, apart from that which is incumbent upon him by reason of his very creation. There is nothing that he can bring to the Most High. There is nothing that he can do for God, who is perfectly Self-sufficient. Even if that man may love and serve his Creator, that is itself a gift of divine goodness for which man owes God thanks! How, then, can the relation of the creature to his Creator ever be or become an agreement or pact of any kind? How can a mere man be a contracting party with the Most High God? How shall God’s covenant and promise ever be dependent upon or limited by anything that man, a mere speck of dust, may do or fail to do? This is altogether impossible.

Nor do we ever read in the Scriptures any other language with respect to that covenant than the language which you find in this passage. You never read in the Scriptures of a mutual transaction between God and man in which God stipulates certain conditions which man accepts and by fulfilling which man may make himself worthy of eternal life. You do not find such a transaction in Paradise, before the fall. Nor is the covenant ever presented in the Scriptures anywhere as any kind of pact or agreement.

Uniformly in the Scriptures you find the language which you find here, according to which God establishes His covenant freely and absolutely. Thus it was immediately after the fall: “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed….” Thus it is now to Noah, “I will establish my covenant….” Thus it is throughout the Scriptures. This is altogether God’s work. That covenant is not dependent upon Noah’s choice, nor upon Noah’s work, nor upon Noah’s doing anything whatsoever. The Lord does not ask Noah, “Shall we enter into an agreement together? Shall we agree to be friends?” He does not say to him, “I am willing to be your God and to be your Friend, provided you are also willing and will obey and serve Me.” Not at all! The Lord simply comes to Noah, His covenant-friend, with His own Word, “But with thee will I establish my covenant.” All is of God; nothing is of Noah.

Moreover, we must notice that when the Lord God establishes His covenant, He works organically, not individualistically. Not merely with Noah as an individual does the Lord establish His covenant. God’s work is indeed personal; but it is never individualistic. When God created Adam, He did not create merely an individual, but an entire race in him and an entire creation with him. When Adam fell, he did not fall as a mere individual; but the whole race and the entire creation fell with him. When God works His work of salvation, the realization of His everlasting covenant, He also does not work individualistically. He saves an entire church, the glorious body of our Lord Jesus Christ. Not only so, butHe saves a whole world: His church together with the whole creation.

Hence, in the first place, not only Noah is included in that covenant and must enter the ark. For then God’s covenant could not be established but would surely come to an end. But Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him must enter the ark. They constitute the church of that day in the organic sense of the word. To be sure, this does not mean, as also becomes clear in later history, that all who are of Noah’s generations are children of God; but it means that in the line of the generations of Noah God will establish His covenant, and that the seed of the woman, the covenant people, will be gathered from and in the line of Noah’s family.

In the second place, all creation is included in that covenant. The Lord does not merely save a church; for where, then, would He put that church, and what purpose would they serve, and what kind of life would they enjoy? No, indeed; He saves an entire creation. For His covenant people are to be the heirs of the world. Hence, God’s covenant is ultimately all embracing. It involves the whole creation. For this reason, when the Lord is about to send the flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh, Noah must take into the ark with him a remnant of every living thing: of fowls, and of cattle, and of every creeping thing. The immediate reason lies, of course, in the fact that after the Flood there is continuity, and the earth must be inhabited again.

The Flood is not the final end of this present creation, but only a stage in the realization of God’s purpose. Therefore, life must go on again after the Flood; and the present creation, as well as the seed of the woman, must be preserved. The ultimate reason lies in the fact that God’s covenant is all embracing. When the final end of all things shall come, then, too, God will save not only His people, but also the whole creation, which, as Paul tells us, is waiting with earnest expectation for the manifestation of the sons of God and shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. Then there shall be not only a glorified and perfect church, but a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness shall dwell. All things shall be united in Christ as the glorious Head over all, and the perfection of God’s covenant shall be attained. The tabernacle of God shall be everywhere and over all forever!

Noah’s Part in the Covenant

When God establishes His covenant with Noah, the result is not that Noah becomes what we would call an antinomian, or a passive stock and block. He does not assume the attitude, “If God does it all, then I can sit down and I have nothing to do but wait until the flood comes.”

On the contrary, Noah becomes of God’s party. Through this very work of God whereby He takes up Noah into His covenant of friendship, Noah becomes God’s friend-servant. Through the grace of the covenant God, Noah and his family are God’s people; they are of God’s party in the midst of the world. They have a calling which follows from the very fact that they are God’s covenant people, a calling which they can fulfill only as His covenant people: the calling to manifest themselves as the friend-servants of God in the midst of the world that lies in darkness.

Thus it was with Noah. He must be busy in the work of the Lord, the work of faith. He must manifest himself over against the world that lies in darkness as believing and obeying and serving the Lord. Thus we read, too, that the Lord instructs Noah to build an ark: “Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch. This is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: the length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits. A window shalt thou make to the ark, and in a cubit shalt thou finish it above; and the door of the ark shalt thou set in the side thereof; with lower, second, and third stories shalt thou make it.” In Hebrews 11 we are informed that this was the work of faith (Heb. 11:7).

As to the ark, we may remark, in the first place, that its exact form is not known, although its main lines were in the shape of a box. We must bear in mind—although there have been all kinds of speculations on such questions as to whether the ark had a keel, whether it was a flat-bottomed vessel or a round-bottomed vessel—that the ark was not built for sailing purposes, but simply to be lifted up on the waters of the Flood and to float as a shelter for its inhabitants. Parenthetically, we may note that whatever form the ark had, it was no mean construction project. This again gives the lie to the notion that the civilization of that early date was a primitive and undeveloped one.

In the second place, also the dimensions of the ark are not certain, since they depend upon the size of the cubit. But let us take the minimum size which is usually ascribed to the cubit, a cubit of one and one-half feet. Then the ark was 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and forty-five feet high. There have also been other estimates which make the ark as large as some 560 feet long, over 90 feet wide, and over 55 feet high. Whichever figures are approximately correct—in fact, even if the minimum figures are accepted—the ark was evidently a large vessel, with a rather large capacity. It was a vessel comparable in size to many a modern ocean liner. In the third place, it was apparently constructed with three stories and with a series of windows placed, perhaps, one cubit below the roof. Again, we are not able to determine the precise design. We may remark, however, that the construction of the ark was according to the instructions which Noah received from the Lord. The purpose of the ark was to be the means—contrary to the contentions of all criticism—for the salvation of the church and of the living creatures in the midst of the judgment of a universal flood.

This work of Noah was of great significance. It was exactly in connection with the building of the ark that Noah became manifest as God’s covenant friend. In the first place, the building of the ark was an act of faith, of faith that is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. For there was no water as yet. There was nothing to be seen of a coming Flood. No one in all the world, apart from Noah, believed that judgment was coming. It even appeared that the Lord delayed His coming. And there was Noah, building an ark on dry land, the laughingstock of the world! Unconditionally Noah obeyed the Word of the Lord and built the ark according to the instructions which God Himself had given him. That was faith, faith in the Word of the covenant God.

In the second place, this work of Noah was an act of condemnation of the world. Noah became manifest in this work as God’s covenant friend antithetically. He condemned the world both in deed and in word. The building of the ark was itself a testimony against the wicked world. But in connection with it, Noah was also a preacher of righteousness, according to the Scriptures. When the world mockingly questioned Noah, “Why are you building that ark, Noah?” he preached righteousness. He told them the Word of God, “I am building this ark because a flood is going to destroy all of you, and that justly, because of your wickedness. For you are wicked, and God is righteous.” Thus Noah manifested his faith, manifested that he was of the part of the living God, through the grace of the everlasting covenant.