As the basis for his sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," Johnathan Edwards uses the Bible verse Deuteronomy 32:35, which reads:
"Vengeance belongs to Me; I will repay. In time their foot will slip, for their day of disaster is near, and their doom is coming quickly" (NIV).
Edwards uses many analogies and images to illustrate his main theme, namely, that the unrepentant man is subject to God's wrath,which is greater than any earthly king's power. The only way to escape this wrath is to accept the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as a mediator between the sinner and God. He says that the only thing keeping back this wrath is God's mercy. According to Edwards, many men flatter themselves with the thinking that they are good and can, by their actions, strive to escape God's wrath, but this is a delusion.
The primary images Edwards uses are of water and fire. These two images are repeated in several analogies.
John 3:18: “He that believeth not is condemned already.” So that every unconverted man properly belongs to hell; that is his place; from thence he is, John 8:23: “Ye are from beneath. And thither be is bound; it is the place that justice, and God’s word, and the sentence of his unchangeable law assign to him. They are now the objects of that very same anger and wrath of God, that is expressed in the torments of hell. And the reason why they do not go down to hell at each moment, is not because God, in whose power they are, is not then very angry with them; as he is with many miserable creatures now tormented in hell, who there feel and bear the fierceness of his wrath. Yea, God is a great deal more angry with great numbers that are now on earth: yea, doubtless, with many that are now in this congregation, who it may be are at ease, than he is with many of those who are now in the flames of hell."
In this section of the sermon, Edwards is expressing the condemnation that awaits those who do not believe in God's son for their salvation. He expresses the wrath of God towards those who are rebellious against him and cites the torment and flames of hell as their punishment for not obeying God or accepting his method of salvation: the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Edwards continues with the images of flames, fiery furnaces, and torment:
"The wrath of God burns against them, their damnation does not slumber; the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage and glow. The glittering sword is whet, and held over them, and the pit hath opened its mouth under them."
Later in the narrative, Edwards combines the fire and water imagery:
"There are in the souls of wicked men those hellish principles reigning, that would presently kindle and flame out into hell fire, if it were not for God’s restraints. There is laid in the very nature of carnal men, a foundation for the torments of hell. There are those corrupt principles, in reigning power in them, and in full possession of them, that are seeds of hell fire. These principles are active and powerful, exceeding violent in their nature, and if it were not for the restraining hand of God upon them, they would soon break out, they would flame out after the same manner as the same corruptions, the same enmity does in the hearts of damned souls, and would beget the same torments as they do in them. The souls of the wicked are in scripture compared to the troubled sea, Isaiah 57:20: 'For the present, God restrains their wickedness by his mighty power, as he does the raging waves of the troubled sea, saying, 'Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further;' but if God should withdraw that restraining power, it would soon carry all before it. Sin is the ruin and misery of the soul; it is destructive in its nature; and if God should leave it without restraint, there would need nothing else to make the soul perfectly miserable. The corruption of the heart of man is immoderate and boundless in its fury; and while wicked men live here, it is like fire pent up by God’s restraints, whereas if it were let loose, it would set on fire the course of nature; and as the heart is now a sink of sin, so if sin was not restrained, it would immediately turn the soul into a fiery oven, or a furnace of fire and brimstone."
In this section, Edwards speaks of the hearts of men as having seeds of wickedness in them, which have the potential to be fanned into flames if God did not restrain this potential. Edwards says that God holds back and restrains the wickedness of man just like he restrains the seas. He set boundaries for the waters of the oceans that they cannot cross, and he does the same with men's hearts. If he did not, those flames of wickedness would be let loose, and the souls of men would be turned into a fiery furnace and destroyed.
"So that, thus it is that natural men are held in the hand of God, over the pit of hell; they have deserved the fiery pit, and are already sentenced to it; and God is dreadfully provoked, his anger is as great towards them as to those that are actually suffering the executions of the fierceness of his wrath in hell, and they have done nothing in the least to appease or abate that anger, neither is God in the least bound by any promise to hold them up one moment; the devil is waiting for them, hell is gaping for them, the flames gather and flash about them, and would fain lay hold on them, and swallow them up; the fire pent up in their own hearts is struggling to break out: and they have no interest in any Mediator, there are no means within reach that can be any security to them."
Edwards creates here the image of men being held in God's hand over a fiery pit which is hell. He says that men deserve to be thrown into this pit and have been sentenced to it. He speaks again of the gaping mouth of hell (another image) that is filled with the flash and heat of flames waiting to devour them. He speaks again of the fire in the hearts of man which burns against God and keeps them away from any "mediator," which refers to Jesus Christ.
In the following simile, Edwards compares the wrath of God the waters of a reservoir:
"The wrath of God is like great waters that are dammed for the present; they increase more and more, and rise higher and higher, till an outlet is given; and the longer the stream is stopped, the more rapid and mighty is its course, when once it is let loose. It is true, that judgment against your evil works has not been executed hitherto; the floods of God’s vengeance have been withheld; but your guilt in the mean time is constantly increasing, and you are every day treasuring up more wrath."
Edwards compares God's ability to condemn man to a person holding a spider or other loathsome insect over a fire. He says that man's own work have no more power to save him than a spider web has to stop a falling rock.