Question: "What is the significance of the emerald rainbow in Revelation 4:3?"
Answer: In Revelation 4, the apostle John is given a glimpse into the future glory of heaven when God’s people gather around the throne to worship the Lord for all eternity. God the Father is seated on the throne (verse 2) as John begins to describe His appearance: “And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and ruby. A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne” (Revelation 4:3).
How does one begin to illustrate God in all His sovereign glory? No doubt, words fall short for John. The best he can do is compare God’s brilliance to the most beautiful and dazzling of gemstones: “The one sitting on the throne was as brilliant as gemstones—like jasper and carnelian. And the glow of an emerald circled his throne like a rainbow,” explains John in the New Living Translation of Revelation 4:3.
Jasper is a precious gemstone “as clear as crystal” (Revelation 21:11), and ruby or carnelian are red. According to the psalmist, God is “dressed in a robe of light” (Psalm 104:2, NLT). “He lives in light so brilliant that no human can approach him. No human eye has ever seen him, nor ever will,” expressed Paul (1 Timothy 6:16, NLT). John perceives God as clothed in an array of prismatic, jewel-toned light.
John’s vision is reminiscent of that of the prophet Ezekiel, who saw “something that looked like a throne made of blue lapis lazuli. And on this throne high above was a figure whose appearance resembled a man. From what appeared to be his waist up, he looked like gleaming amber, flickering like a fire. And from his waist down, he looked like a burning flame, shining with splendor. All around him was a glowing halo, like a rainbow shining in the clouds on a rainy day. This is what the glory of the Lord looked like to me. When I saw it, I fell face down on the ground” (Ezekiel 1:26–28, NLT).
In Exodus 24, when God confirmed His covenant with the people of Israel, Moses also described God’s glorious appearance. Moses’ portrayal also uses references to brilliant gemstones: “Then Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel climbed up the mountain. There they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there seemed to be a surface of brilliant blue lapis lazuli, as clear as the sky itself” (Exodus 24:9–10, NLT).
Radiating out from God’s throne is an emerald rainbow, according to John’s vision. Emeralds are rich green, brightly colored precious stones. Whether the rainbow was all green or predominantly greenish in hue, it gave off a jeweled effect. This rainbow does not appear to be an arc or partial rainbow one typically sees from Earth but a complete circle around God’s heavenly throne. “In heaven all things are complete,” expounds Warren Wiersbe (The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 2, Victor Books, 1996, p. 582)
John’s emerald rainbow is a symbolic reminder of God’s covenant with His people and His promise to restrain his wrath. With the manifestation of the world’s first rainbow, God promised never again to destroy the earth by flood (Genesis 9:11–17). The Lord told Noah that the rainbow was “the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth” (verse 17). From the beginning of Genesis, God’s covenant was with His whole creation. Now, in the finale of Revelation, John is about to witness God’s judgment of the entire world again. The emerald rainbow declares, “In wrath remember mercy” (Habakkuk 3:2). Even though God delivers wrath, the judgment is never without His great mercy.
After God’s final judgment, a new beginning for humanity will come. Noah witnessed the covenant-initiating rainbow and the first restart of humankind. But John sees the eternal and complete emerald rainbow, representing the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise and everlasting mercy.