And the dove came back to him in the evening, and behold, in her mouth was a freshly plucked olive leaf. So Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth.
— Genesis 8:11
Here is one of the simpler but more beautiful pictures we receive in the account of Noah and the great flood. It is the first sign of the re-starting of God’s creative process. The land emerges out of the waters in an echo of the creation event, where God separated the land from the water. It is a “reboot,” if you will. And a foreshadow. It is a foreshadow of the day still to come – future from us – when Christ will return and he will judge the living and the dead, and the wicked will be condemned (Luke 17:25-27). But God will remember his children who have trusted in his Son and who have been declared righteous by their trust. And his plan isn’t simply to evacuate them off of the cursed earth into heaven but to bring a flood of heaven, a flood of glory, to the earth and restore it. He will vanquish the curse. The flood of sin will be dried up and peace and justice will reign. And so will we. In a restored creation.
We very much need to remember this gospel hope of a restored body and a restored creation through the work of Christ. We need to remember it every day because life is not easy. And God keeps calling us into difficult circumstances, into times of suffering and hardship.
When we go through something difficult, that is typically when we begin to question whether God is actually good, whether he’s actually remembered us, whether he even cares, if we’re even saved!
But we have to remember his character and his designs – that he is love and that he is gracious and that his plan for us is to deliver us from evil and death – we have to remember this especially when we are most tempted to doubt it!
Sometimes, like Noah in those latter stages, we look around and see only the raging torrent. No horizon. Simply the gray seas meeting the gray skies. And we feel lost, adrift, hopelessly tossed about on the endless current of murky chaos. We are looking for a big sign, perhaps, a big deliverance. In the meantime, however, we get a glimpse. Something to look at that doesn’t at first strike us as much to look at.
The dove with the leaf in her mouth is a very pretty image, but as it flies over the flooded earth with just this tiny shred of evidence of something new bursting forth, we have also a reminder of God’s holiness, of his power. The image of the dove is one of hope but also a reminder of curse. We see in the entirety of the story of Noah’s flood, in fact, that — as CS Lewis says of Aslan in the Narnia stories — “he is not safe but he is good.”
Like God did Noah, he may call us into a long obedience in a dark direction. He calls us to give up our lives and abandon ourselves to his sovereignty. But to run from the fearful God is to run into a terrible disaster of eternal proportions. I am always moved by this from The Silver Chair:
Anyway, [Jill] had seen its lips move this time, and the voice was not like a man’s. It was deeper, wilder, and stronger; a sort of heavy, golden voice. It did not make her any less frightened than she had been before, but it made her frightened in rather a different way.
“Are you not thirsty?” said the lion.
“I’m dying of thirst,” said Jill.
“Then drink,” said the lion.
“May I—could I—would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.
The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.
The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
“Will you promise not to—do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.
“I make no promise,” said the Lion.
Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer. “Do you eat girls?” she said.
“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.
“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.
“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.
The image of the dove with the olive leaf in her mouth is a now iconic religious image. It reminds us of God’s holiness and his power and his purity. But in doing so, it also becomes a picture of salvation. Of hope. Of restoration. Noah saw it and he knew the waters were subsiding.
When the flood waters come up around us, then, whatever they might be, we ought to be remembering God’s creative purpose. See, so often we have our eyes set on the wrong things – or at least, the lesser things. We suffer and we want simply to feel better, which is not a bad thing to want! But do we want more than that to be sanctified? Do we say to God, “Nevertheless, not my will be done, but yours”? Fearing the flood God calls us to, do we seek other streams that don’t even exist?
When we think of the things we hope for, that we even trust God for, we are typically setting our sights pretty low even when we think we are waiting on a miracle. A financial break. The right job. Success. Comfort. When all along God is calling us to remember not his material blessings but his creative purpose – specifically in his Son.
The dove with the leaf in her mouth, like the ark itself, is a shadow cast by the cross of Christ, where we see definitively that God is not safe but he is good! That the judgment and wrath he must pour out for guilty sinners can make sinners clean, make them righteous, make them forgiven and justified and eternally free. That’s what we look to in times of terror, in times of hardship, in all times! If you think God has forgotten you, look to the cross. As Augustine says, “”If you are ever tempted to hold yourself cheap, value yourself by the price which was paid for you.”
The cross stands as eternal proof that God loves sinners. It stands as eternal proof that no matter how deep the waters get, even if they drown us – our condemnation has been taken by Christ and removed forever.
In 2 Chronicles 20, the great armies of the Moabites and the Ammonites are marching in battle toward the children of Israel, quickly descending to lay waste to God’s people and destroy them and all they hold dear. And it says King Jehosophat was afraid. And the people of God all gathered together to figure out what they were going to do. Because their enemies were quickly rising against them, like a flood they could not escape from. And King Jehosophat stands in the middle of the assembled cities and offers this desperate, faithful prayer:
“O LORD, God of our fathers, are you not God in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. In your hand are power and might, so that none is able to withstand you. 7 Did you not, our God, drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel, and give it forever to the descendants of Abraham your friend? 8 And they have lived in it and have built for you in it a sanctuary for your name, saying, 9 ‘If disaster comes upon us, the sword, judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we will stand before this house and before you—for your name is in this house—and cry out to you in our affliction, and you will hear and save.’ 10 And now behold, the men of Ammon and Moab and Mount Seir, whom you would not let Israel invade when they came from the land of Egypt, and whom they avoided and did not destroy— 11 behold, they reward us by coming to drive us out of your possession, which you have given us to inherit. 12 O our God, will you not execute judgment on them? For we are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us. . . . (vv.6-12)
And then he adds at the end:
“We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (v.12)
We don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on you. I’m thinking that is a prayer Noah could have Amen‘d heartily. Maybe you could too.
If overwhelmed, look to the cross. The vision comes back to you like the dove with an olive leaf in her mouth. The waters that threaten you have subsided, conquered by their Master. You see the wrath is over and the blessings have begun.