In the "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" what does this line mean: "Justice bends the arrow at your heart and strains the bow"?
I agree much more with Posts 3 and 4 than with Post 2. Edwards certainly does think that God has reason to punish us and that God might want to punish us in the same way that we get very angry with our children when we see them purposely doing things just to test us. We have the right to be angry and so, to Edwards, does God.
However, just because he says the arrow is set in the bow, pulled back and aimed at us, does not mean that Edwards is trying to scare us. Instead, he is trying to emphasize how much we deserve damnation and, therefore, how immensely good God is to forgive us our sins. This is more of a message of hope and gratitude than it is a message of "fear--sheer fear."
I think another approach to understanding the quote can be achieved by combining the above two answers. In other words, the fear of God and God's grace are not incompatible. In fact, according to Christian theology and more specifically Puritan Reformed theology (this is most reflective of Edwards) the wrath of God in view of sin and God's grace as seen in his sacrifice of his Son, Jesus, are completely married.
So, on the one hand, God's wrath is towards people who are sinners. The just displeasure or God is a given in a sinful world. The Puritans and Edwards did not hide this fact at all. The proper response should be one of fear and trembling. On the other hand, God has a gracious solution, the death of Christ on the cross. To use theology of the apostle Paul, God is just in justifying sinners, because of the work of Christ. From this perspective, there is grace and love.
In conclusion, we read Edward's correctly insofar as we combine the wrath and love of God in the gospel of Christ.
It is a common misconception that Edward's famous sermon was one of condemnation, and that God was going to
"stick that arrow up your heart just so that you would learn your lesson"
to quote the previous response. However, Edward's sermon was not one of condemnation, but was rather of God's Grace. All through the sermon, Edwards employs colorful metaphors, such as the one in your question, and his most famous one, of the spider held over the flaming pit. But notice in each instance, although God appears ready to strike, he does not do so. The arrow strains at the bow string, waiting to be released, but it is withheld. Sinful man deserves punishment, but God in his mercy has withheld that judgment purely as a matter of grace--undeserved and unmerited favor. Had he not considered it heathen, he might had used the illustration of the sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of the congregation. The meaning, however, is the same. Edwards' sermon was a call to people to repent while God's grace yet endured; they were already under condemnation, so they should mend their ways now while God still withheld the judgment they so richly deserved. It is no small wonder that when Edwards finished his sermon (which he read calmly and dispassionately) several minutes were required to calm the congregation who were hysterical. They were under judgment and only grace had prevented this from befalling them. So the sermon is of Grace and forbearance, not condemnation.
The sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, by Jonathan Edwards has one clear and direct purpose: To instill the fear of God itself in the heart of a flock that is somehow disintegrating in the settlement.
Historically speaking, it is an accepted fact that Edwards creates his sermon when the flock is, indeed, disbanding. The once- loyal and faithful immigrants who were brothers in arms through their faith were now too busy trying to adapt to life in the new land, and less worried about preternatural issues.
Therefore, when Jonathan Edwards writes this sermon he is on a mission to remind them who's boss, basically: That they are sinners for caring about something other than the salvation of their souls, and that they better change their act or there will be some trouble.
In the sermon, God is not the heavenly father portrayed in modern tradition, but a vengeful and angry entity that is capable of doing anything to demonstrate the loathe he feels for sinners. Hence, that same God will take a bow and arrow if he has to, and he will put you against a wall, straining the bow to show you that he means business, and he is willing to stick that arrow up your heart just so that you would learn your lesson.
That is basically what that part of the sermon means, and fear-sheer fear- is the sole intention behind it.