A "rainbow round about the throne" in the thought of B.M. Palmer

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And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald. (Rev. 4:2-3)

Sometimes a recurring theme is evident in the writings that an author leaves behind in their several works. One such theme to be found in the sermons and other literature produced by Benjamin Morgan Palmer — whom his friend Theodore L. Cuyler once described as “the prince of Southern preachers” — is that of “a rainbow round about the throne” of Jesus Christ.

What did this particular double symbol from the vision of John the Apostle signify to this Southern Presbyterian theologian? To answer that question, let us first take note of some examples of this reference which appear in his various published works.

  • And with such a champion might not the rainbow of the ancient glory once more encircle the throne of David? — Christianity, the Only Religion for Man: A Discourse (1855)

  • What glory too surrounds the Church! an outer halo, a second rainbow to that which, like an emerald, John saw round the throne! She is the body of Christ, the bride, the Lamb's wife, whose "beauty" the "King hath greatly desired." — Opening Sermon at the First General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of the Confederate States of America (1861)

  • He, who sits enthroned beneath the emerald rainbow, smiles upon us from out the dark cloud, as he writes against it the hour of deliverance. — A Discourse Before the General Assembly of South Carolina on December 10, 1863 (1864)

  • 2. This Mediatorial supremacy explains to us also the intermingling of mercy with providence. What an exquisite symbol of this was afforded in one of the earliest of John’s visions in Patmos! “And immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. And He that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone; and THERE WAS A RAINBOW ROUND ABOUT THE THRONE, in sight like unto an emerald.” (Rev. iv.2, 3.) It is the emblem of mercy, and gives assurance of the staying of wrath. How easy to comprehend it, when it is the author of grace who executes justice, and who covers its claim with a perfect obedience He himself has rendered! Hence, the extension of common mercies to the guilty no less than to the righteous. It is under the administration of Him who “maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Mat. v.45.) — “Christ’s Universal Dominion” (Sermon preached on May 10, 1877) in Sermons, Vol. 2, p. 393

  • I have this to Him for, the greatest of all His mercies, and then for this, that He gave her to me so long. The memories of almost half a century encircle me as a rainbow. I can feed upon them through the remainder of a short, sad life, and after that can carry them up to Heaven with me and pour them into song forever. If the strings of the harp are being stretched to a greater tension, it is that the praise may hereafter rise to higher and sweeter notes before His throne — as we bow together there.” — Letter from B.M. Palmer to Theodore L. Cuyler after the death of Palmer’s wife (1888), in Theodore L. Cuyler, Recollections of a Long Life (1902), p. 223; and Thomas Cary Johnson, The Life and Letters of Benjamin Morgan Palmer (1906), pp. 526-527

  • In addition to all this, consider what it imports to the child of God that the whole administration of providence is committed to him who has redeemed his soul from death. The dispensations of providence are often dark and forbidding, and they seem to frown upon us when we regard them only as issuing from the hand of “the unknown God.” No wonder that the crushed heart cries out from the depths, “Hath God forgotten to be gracious? Hath he in anger shut up his tender mercies?” But how soon is seen “the rainbow round about the throne,” when we view our Priest-King seated beneath its blessed arch, dispensing grace to help in every trial and in every sorrow! — Theology of Prayer (1894), p. 283

Chiefly, we may also take note of this sermon by Palmer: The Rainbow Round the Throne; or, Judgment Tempered With Mercy: A Discourse Before the Legislature of Georgia, Delivered on the Day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer (1863). From the text (Rev. 4:2-3), Palmer argues thus:

But the most remarkable feature in this scene is "the rainbow round about the throne," with its predominant green so refreshing to the eye, "in sight like unto an Emerald." This symbol, purely historical in its character, admits a more certain interpretation than the two which preceded. You remember that after the deluge God set his how in the clouds, a sign of the covenant into which he had entered with Noah, the second father of our race, and a seal of the promise that he would not again destroy the Earth, with a flood. From that day, the rainbow has been recognized as problem of mercy, and of mercy returning after judgment….Henceforth it is an integral principle of the Divine government, seated by the side of law in its administration both in Heaven and on Earth — and God shall rule forever over the redeemed, not simply as a king over his subjects, but as a father over his sons. If then the primary design of God in the creation of man be the revelation of his grace, surely this grace must interpenetrate his entire history. The record may vindicate the supremacy of law, but of law as it is tempered by mercy. He who sits upon the throne may be look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone; but he will sit and reign beneath the sign of the emerald rainbow. 2. The union of mercy with judgment in the government of this world, is more determinately proved by the fact that the whole administration of Providence is specially committed by the Father to his son, Jesus Christ….Upon the dark back-ground of the cloud which now hangs so low and drenches it with sorrow and with blood, can we discover the sign of the rainbow, the emblem of mercy and of hope? To these questions, I will return the long-pondered and deeply cherished convictions of my own heart: and may God help me this day “to speak comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned, and that she shall receive of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins”!

Consistently throughout his life, B.M. Palmer made reference to the double symbol of the throne encircled by a rainbow, a reference to Jesus Christ, whose government is that of both justice and mercy. It was, for Palmer, a “long-pondered and deeply cherished” conviction that the mediatorial rule of Christ brings together mercy and judgment (Ps. 85:10; 101:1).

The method of grace is perfectly safe for the sinner, because it never presents God in contradiction with himself. The language of grace is at the same time the language of law. The reconciliation between them is complete; for “mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other: truth shall spring out of earth, righteousness shall look down from heaven.” (Ps. lxxxv.10, 11.) Justice, no less than mercy, is the guardian of the believer’s hope and all the divine attributes unite to lay the ground of his assurance of eternal life. — Theology of Prayer, pp. 186-187

From the double symbol of the “rainbow round about the throne,” Palmer himself has been comforted during times of personal and national troubles, and on the basis of such comfort Palmer was enabled to encourage and strengthen others. May this thought be a comfort to readers today — that He who rules and governs over all from his mediatorial throne of justice and judgment does so encircled by a rainbow of hope and mercy. His royal throne is a mercy-seat!

A Visit to the South Carolina Lowcountry

Charleston, South Carolina is a city famous, among other things, for its historic churches. A walking tour of the city, especially along Meeting Street, offers the opportunity to travel through time as it were and explore places of worship and graveyards that continue to testify to the faith of our forefathers.

This writer had such an opportunity recently and was privileged to visit such churches in Charleston and the surrounding vicinity. A trip to Elmwood Cemetery, Columbia, SC, was part of the experience as well, where John Lafayette Girardeau, James Henley Thornwell and George Andrew Blackburn were laid to rest between 100 and 150 years ago.

Having consulted several resources beforehand — Erskine Clarke, Our Southern Zion: A History of Calvinism in the South Carolina Low Country, 1690-1990; Charles E. Raynal, Johns Island Presbyterian Church: Its People and Its Community From Colonial Beginnings to the Twenty-First Century; George Howe, History of the Presbyterian Church in South Carolina; and Joanne Calhoun, The Circular Church: Three Centuries of Charleston History — I made my way first to the Johns Island Presbyterian Church (founded in 1710, its building dates to 1719 — three hundred years ago now). As with many of the churches I toured, the graveyard is an ever-present Memento mori. Next on the tour was the James Island Presbyterian Church (founded in 1706). Both of these churches were established by Archibald Stobo, a Presbyterian pioneer who also founded the first presbytery in the Western Hemisphere, as well as in the southern United States. He established other churches in the area which I do hope to visit on a future tour.

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In Charleston proper, my walking tour began with a visit to the Unitarian Church, which began its existence in 1774 as the Archdale Street Meeting House, founded by Dissenters who branched off from what we know now as the Circular Congregational Church, originally a mixed Independent and Presbyterian Church, itself founded in 1685. William Tennent III (grandson of the founder of the original Log College) is buried on the grounds of the Unitarian Church, though he was no Unitarian. The fan vault ceiling is modeled after the one at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge.

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Next, was the First Scots Presbyterian Church on Meeting Street (founded in 1731). It was another breakaway from the Circular Congregational Church, by a decidedly Presbyterian group. George Buist is buried in the church graveyard.

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Further along Meeting Street is the Circular Congregational Church, a remarkable architectural and spiritual landmark, where I paid my respects at the graves of David Ramsay and Benjamin Morgan Palmer (1781-1847).

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After this, I visited the Second Presbyterian Church of Charleston (founded in 1811), where I was given a tour of the sanctuary and the graveyard (Thomas Smyth and John Bailey Adger are laid to rest there).

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Also on my tour I worshiped at the Independent Presbyterian Church of Savannah, Georgia (founded in 1755). At each stop along the way, I was reminded that the past is not dead, and American Presbyterians are not irrelevant. The old Presbyterian history of the South Carolina lowcountry is very much alive for those with eyes to see.

William S. Plumer on the Offices of Christ

There are two volumes published by William Swan Plumer which examine in great deal the mediatorial offices of Christ as Prophet, Priest and King, both of which merit in-depth study by those who wish to delve into this important aspect of Christology.

The first is an abridgment of an original work by George Stevenson (1771-1841), a Scottish divine who was instrumental in the founding of the Associate Synod of Original Seceders, having written the doctrinal part of its 1827 Testimony (the historical portion of the Testimony was written by Thomas M’Crie the Elder). Stevenson’s original work, The Offices of Christ, was first published in Scotland in 1834, with a second edition following posthumously in 1845, and it has received high acclaim. Plumer published his abridgment with the same title in 1840. The 1845 edition has over 500 pages of material, while Plumer’s abridgment tops out at around 150 pages.

The second is an original work by Plumer titled The Rock of Our Salvation: A Treatise Respecting the Natures, Person, Offices, Work, Sufferings, and Glory of Jesus Christ (1867). It covers many additional aspects of the person and work of Christ beyond his mediatorial offices (see here for our previous notice of this work along with a table of contents), but the portion covering the mediatorial offices constitutes just under 80 pages out of a volume that is over 500 pages in length. His practical lessons for Christians after examining Christ as Priest and King are very devotional and encouraging.

Together these works represent a synthesis of Scottish and Southern Presbyterian (though Plumer was born in Pennsylvania, he ministered and taught a great deal in the South and is considered to be “one of the most renowned men of the old Southern Presbyterian Church”) perspectives on the mediatorial offices of Christ. And though neither Stevenson nor Plumer was a Reformed Presbyterian (or Covenanter), a Reformed Presbyterian in the vein of William Symington (author of the classic work on Christ’s kingship, Messiah the Prince (1840), would find in their works much with which to happily agree on the kingly office of Christ, particularly regarding the universal scope of his dominion and reign. (Another similar Scottish-Southern Presbyterian take on the universal dominion of Christ in his kingly office as mediator can be found in the Sermons of Rev. Benjamin Morgan Palmer, republished by Sprinkle Publications.)

Presbyterians of all branches and stations would do well to read Plumer / Stevenson on the offices of Christ. These works will help to enrich your understanding of the work that Christ performed and continues to perform to accomplish our redemption.