person lying in the fetal position surrounded by hellfire

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

by Jonathan Edwards
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Examine the purpose of Edwards's meaning in "the bow of God's wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string." 

Edwards's purpose in the expression “the bow of God's wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string” is to provoke a sense of urgency among the members of his congregation. He wants his audience to realize that God can take action against sinners at any time he chooses.

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A bow and arrow is not a particularly compelling image for a modern audience, many of whom may never have seen, let alone used one. For a New England congregation in the middle of the eighteenth century, however, the bow and arrow were everyday objects, as well as a perennial...

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A bow and arrow is not a particularly compelling image for a modern audience, many of whom may never have seen, let alone used one. For a New England congregation in the middle of the eighteenth century, however, the bow and arrow were everyday objects, as well as a perennial threat. They would have been associated with Native American raids, and therefore with danger, specifically with sudden danger at a distance. An antagonist who kills with a knife or a sword is generally obliged to give some warning and get within striking range. An arrow can hit you before you know you are under attack.

The congregation would not only have feared bows and arrows, however. Some of them would have used archery themselves for the purpose of hunting. They would have been used to handling bows and would have known how much muscular strength it takes to bend a longbow. Once you have the arrow on the string, it is much easier to shoot than it is to keep the arrow there and wait. Edwards says that "justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow." The implication is clear and accords with Edwards's other images in the sermon. Once the bow is bent and the arrow is on the string, the simplest thing is simply to let it go. It requires considerable restraint and effort not to shoot, just as it does for a person who is holding a loathsome insect over a fire not to let it go. The image, therefore, vividly illustrates the immediacy of the danger and the lack of any reason for God to resist casting the sinner into hell.

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It's really not surprising that so many of Edwards's congregation fainted after hearing him preach “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Right throughout his sermon Edwards uses frightening imagery to drive home his point that God will not hesitate to take firm, decisive actions against sinners.

In the above quotation, Edwards is reminding his listeners that there is effectively no statute of limitations when it comes to sin. God can, and will, strike at any time he chooses against those who sin. In metaphorical terms, his bow is primed and ready to fire sharpened arrows against sinners. No one must be left in any doubt that God will take action against those foolish and impious enough to turn their backs on him.

In ramming home this message, Edwards wants his audience to feel scared, to feel uncomfortable, to feel that, at any given moment, God will consign to hell anyone who dares transgress his laws. Edwards looks around the congregation before him and sees nothing but a sea of sinners, but he wants those sinners to repent of their sins before it's too late. Hence his use of lurid imagery and vivid metaphors that emphasize just how urgent it is that sinners turn from their lives of sin and set foot once more upon the path of righteousness.

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For Edwards, the idea of "The bow of God's wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string" helps to convey the urgency of the moment.  This urgency is one in which Edwards claims that God is angry right now, at this moment and is ready to take action against those who are "sinners."  Edwards has his audience in mind when he speaks of the bow and arrow of God's anger.  He recognizes that some individuals might feel that the anger of the divine is something that can offset with time or something that is in the distant future.  This would enable the individual to engage in more sin and transgression.  

Yet, this condition is not something that Edwards sees.  He wishes to convey that God is angry right now with the amount of transgression being displayed.  This anger has a form of the immediate attached to it in how the bow is ready and the arrow is prepared.  For Edwards, this condition is one of urgency, intended for individuals to change their ways right now.  The sense of immediacy in the need to reform is a part of why Edwards embrace this image to convey God's anger and the sense of wrath associated with it.

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