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!

To seek our eternal rest: Theodore L. Cuyler

A devotional meditation for today:

The Princess Elizabeth [Stuart] of England [(1635-1650)] was found dead with her head resting on the Bible open at these words, “Come unto me, all ye that are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” So may we fall asleep at last when the day’s work for Jesus is over, and wake up in heaven, to find ourselves in the delicious rest that remaineth for the people of God! Theodore Ledyard Cuyler, Pointed Papers for the Christian Life, p. 231 (HT: Denise Hopeman)

Princess Elizabeth Stuart tomb.jpg

God's Light on Dark Clouds - Theodore L. Cuyler

Theodore Ledyard Cuyler (1822-1909) was, like his Savior, “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief,” which served him as he ministered to others in their grief, as we have noted before, including his The Empty Crib: A Memorial of Little Georgie. With Words of Consolation For Bereaved Parents (1868). Besides losing two infant children of his own, as he notes in his autobiographical Recollections of a Long Life, he lost a daughter at the age of 22:

Fourteen years afterwards, in the autumn of 1881, ‘the four corners of my house were smitten’ again with a heart-breaking bereavement in the death, by typhoid fever, of our second daughter, Louise Ledyard Cuyler, at the age of twenty-two, who possessed a most inexpressible beauty of person and character. Her playful humor, her fascinating charm of manner, and her many noble qualities drew to h he admiration of a large circle of friends, as well as the pride of our parental hearts. After her departure I wrote, through many tears, a small volume entitled God's Light on Dark Clouds, with the hope that it might bring some rays of comfort into those homes that were shadowed in grief.

His classic work of comfort for the wounded and the bereaved begins with a very personal and intimate insight that is shared from experience and resonates still (and is reminiscent of William Cowper’s God Moves in a Mysterious Way):

TO-DAY as I sit in my lonely room, this passage of God's Word flies in like a white dove through the window: "And now men see not the bright light which is in the clouds; but the wind passeth and cleanseth [or cleareth] them." [Job 37:21] To my weak vision, dimmed with tears, the cloud is exceeding dark, but through it stream some rays from the infinite love that fills the Throne with an exceeding and eternal brightness of glory. By and by we may get above and behind that cloud into the overwhelming light. We shall not need comfort then; we want it now. And for our present consolation God lets through the clouds some clear, strong, distinct rays of love and gladness.

One truth that beams in through the vapors is this: God not only reigns, but He governs His world by a most beautiful law of compensations. He setteth one thing over against another. Faith loves to study the illustrations of this law, notes them in her diary, and rears her pillars of praise for every fresh discovery. I have noticed that the deaf often have an unusual quickness of eyesight; the blind are often gifted with an increased capacity for hearing; and sometimes when the eye is darkened and the ear is closed, the sense of touch becomes so exquisite that we are able to converse with the sufferer through that sense alone. This law explains why God puts so many of His people under a sharp regimen of hardship and burden-bearing in order that they may be sinewed into strength; why a Joseph must be shut into a prison in order that he may be trained for a palace and for the premiership of the kingdom. Outside of the Damascus Gate I saw the spot where Stephen was stoned into a cruel death; but that martyr blood was not only the "seed of the Church," but the first germ of conviction in the heart of Saul of Tarsus. This law explains the reason why God often sweeps away a Christian's possessions in order that he may become rich in faith, and why He dashes many persons off the track of prosperity, where they were running at fifty miles the hour, in order that their pride might be crushed, and that they might seek the safer track of humility and holy living. What a wondrous compensation our bereaved nation is receiving for the loss of him who was laid the other day in his tomb by the lakeside! That cloud is already raining blessings, and richer showers may be yet to come. God's people are never so exalted as when they are brought low, never so enriched as when they are emptied, never so advanced as when they arc set back by adversity, never so near the crown as when under the cross. One of the sweetest enjoyments of heaven will be to review our own experiences under this law of compensations, and to see how often affliction worked out for us the exceeding weight of glory.

There is a great want in all God's people who have never had the education of sharp trial. There are so many graces that can only be pricked into us by the puncture of suffering, and so many lessons that can only be learned through tears, that when God leaves a Christian without any trials, He really leaves him to a terrible danger. His heart, unploughed by discipline, will be very apt to run to the tares of selfishness, and worldliness, and pride. In a musical instrument there are some keys that must be touched in order to evoke its fullest melodies; God is a wonderful organist, who knows just what heart-chord to strike. In the Black Forest of Germany a baron built a castle with two lofty towers. From one tower to the other he stretched several wires, which in calm weather were motionless and silent. When the wind began to blow, the wires began to play like an AEolian harp in the window. As the wind rose into a fierce gale, the old baron sat in his castle and heard his mighty hurricane-harp playing grandly over the battlements. So, while the weather is calm and the skies clear, a great many of the emotions of a Christian's heart are silent. As soon as the wind of adversity smites the chords, the heart begins to play; and when God sends a hurricane of terrible trial you will hear strains of submission and faith, and even of sublime confidence and holy exultation, which could never have been heard in the calm hours of prosperity. Oh, brethren, let the winds smite us, if they only make the spices flow; let us not shrink from the deepest trial, if at midnight we can only sing praises to God!

If we want to know what clouds of affliction mean and what they are sent for, we must not flee away from them in fright with closed ears and bandaged eyes. Fleeing from the cloud is fleeing from the Divine love that is behind the cloud.

If you are seeking a balm for your soul, take up Cuyler’s classic, God’s Light on Dark Clouds. There is a profound wisdom and Scriptural comfort to be found here that brings light to dark places even a century and a half after it was written.