In “Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God,” Jonathan Edwards uses several similes and metaphors to persuade his audience. For example, he uses a simile to compare God's wrath to a terrible flood (“The wrath of God is like great waters that are dammed for the present...”). Edwards also uses a metaphor to express how even powerful rulers are nothing but feeble worms in comparison with God (“...the greatest earthly potentates in their greatest majesty and strength...are but feeble, despicable worms of the dust, in comparison of the great and almighty Creator and King of heaven…”).
Jonathan Edwards uses the emotional appeal of fear to persuade his audience that they should turn to God. A first way he does this is through the image of hell. He does this in a metaphor that suggests hell is a burning pit of fire that God holds his people over and is ready to drop them at any moment:
O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell.
You can see this is also a metaphor of hell to mean a furnace... it must be hot.
A good simile is in this next quote:
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked.
Both of these quotes paint a picture of God that is mean as if He wants to doom people to hell. If I were in that audience at that time and heard Edwards utter this fire and brimstone sermon, I think I would have been fearfully persuaded too.
In this harsh piece of literature, there are three infamous figures of speech that Edwards employs and develops to impress the severity of the judgement of God on his listeners. He firstly compares the wrath of God to damned waters, with God holding back "the fiery floods". He then compares the wrath of God to a bent bow, whose tension is increasing as justice prepares to loose the arrow of God's vengeance upon those "out of Christ". Sinners are compared to "loathsome" spiders held over the fire and threatened with being dropped into the flames. Consider how one of these is presented:
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... If God should only withdraw His hand from the gloodgate, it would immediately fly open, and the fiery floods of the fierceness and wrath of God, would rush forth with inconceivable fury, and would come upon you with omnipotent power; and if your strength were ten thousand times greater than it is... it would be nothing to withstand or endure it.
This is typical of the scare tactics and fear that Edwards uses to make his point, but of course this exaggerated, hyperbolic focus on the wrath of God completely ignores His other qualities, such as his love, mercy and compassion, which themselves are swept away by the might flood of wrath described by Edwards, leaving an exaggerated caricature of a God that is not appealing.
The most famous of these is the simile in which people are spiders. In this simile, Edwards says that God holds people over the pit of hell as if they were spiders or some other kind of "loathsome insect." Because he uses the word "as" it is a simile and not a metaphor.
Edwards uses this simile as a way of showing the people how angry God is at them. We encourages people to think of their attitudes towards insects and he says that God's view of them is similar to their view of those insects.
Earlier in the sermon, Edwards uses the spider simile to show how useless good actions are. There, he says that right conduct is no more able to keep you out of Hell than a spider's web is able to catch a boulder.