What is a list of literary devices in "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," and what are their emotional appeals?

Expert Answers
salterdm eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Let us go for four.

1) Allusion. To state the most obvious literary device first, like any good revivalist sermon, the text of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" depends on allusions to the Bible. In his day, Jonathan Edwards was notable not only as a preacher, but also as a theological scholar. His sermons, though fiery in their message, are rigorous in their structure. Citations and even quotes from Scripture abound in Edwards's sermon. The emotional appeal is to reason and reflection: without a firm grounding in Scripture, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" would be a mere fire-and-brimstone rant. By providing textual foundation through allusion, Edwards shows that he expects his listeners to believe in his words as not just the intense, emotional setting of a revivalist church, but a sober reflection on their own lives.

2) Imagery. In "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," Jonathan Edwards consistently employs vivid imagery to drive home the point that salvation is in God's hands alone. The human condition is intrinsically sinful and every soul is in constant danger of damnation. This is especially prevalent in the beginning of the sermon, in which he enumerates his arguments in favor of that view. In arguing for God's power to cast souls into Hell, he employs the image of effortlessly crushing a worm underfoot. In arguing that souls deserve Hell, he describes the human condition with the image of a sword brandished over the head of every human, stayed solely by the hand of God. In describing the eagerness of devils to claim human souls, he uses the image of lions hungry for prey, barely held back by their keeper. Each image is simple, harsh, and violent. His imagery is chosen in order to inspire fear and elicit renewed commitment in the pursuit of salvation.

3) Personification. In some ways, it is ironic that the most striking image in Edwards's sermon, that of the spider held over the flame, hinges on the personification of God as a human being. After all, virtually the whole of the sermon is a list of ways God is good and humans are not. Yet, it is that image that sticks with the reader; it is the personification that makes it work. It relies on universal human experiences: the horrible feeling of a spider or other repulsive thing on one's skin and the feeling of heat when by a nearby flame. Through personification, Edwards makes damnation personal: if you were sitting in front of a fireplace and a spider ran onto your hand, would you not throw the spider into the flame? The emotional appeal here, ironically, is one of comfort, a reminder of God's infinite mercy and grace. Though sin disturbs Him as the constant touch of a spider's legs might disturb us, in Edwards's theology, through His grace He spares us from the flame.

4) Rhetorical Question. Jonathan Edwards really liked rhetorical questions:

- "What are we, that we should think to stand before him, at whose rebuke the earth trembles, and before whom the rocks are thrown down?"

- "Oh! then, what will be the consequence! What will become of the poor worm that shall suffer it! Whose hands can be strong? And whose heart can endure?"

- "But, alas! Instead of one, how many is it likely will remember this discourse in hell?"

To state the obvious, Edwards was not expecting anyone in the Church to stand up and answer these questions. They simply lead up to further emotional appeals. They serve as tools of persuasion, encouraging his listeners to reach the same conclusions he already has.

favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Simile: "That they were always exposed to destruction; as one that stands or walks in slippery places is always exposed to fall." Here, Edwards uses a simile to explain how precarious is the position of the "wicked unbelieving Israelites."  They remain in constant danger of unexpected destruction as a result of their lack of understanding of God.  They would be destroyed as a result of their own flaw; they are not the victims of some other power.  Emotionally, this comparison focuses on the hopelessness of such a condition while simultaneously assigning blame for one's condition.  We are not to sympathize with these individuals when they fall, because they do so as a result of their own ignorance.

Metaphor: "There is no fortress that is any defence from the power of God."  In other words, there is nothing a person can do to defend themselves from God's wrath when his appointed time comes.  There is no protection from it.  Emotionally, this comparison shows us how pointless it is to hide our sins from God, and this goes with the next simile in the list.

Simile: God's enemies "are as great heaps of light chaff before the whirlwind; or large quantities of dry stubble before the devouring flames."  Those who oppose God, then, are so incredibly insignificant they are rendered as nothing more than corn husks or tiny seeds to a massive whirlwind or dry tinder against an advancing fire.  Emotionally, this comparison makes us feel small, especially when up against God's wishes.  We are nothing when we oppose him.

edcon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the sermon, Jonathan Edwards uses many literary devices, and here are six:

1) Imagery, such as: "the dreadful Pit of the glowing Flames of the Wrath of God"

This image is meant to elicit terror in the minds of listeners who envision themselves at the mercy of a vengeful God.

2) Personification, such as, "Hell’s wide gaping Mouth open"

Edwards personifies hell (or makes it beast-like) to unsettle his listeners as they consider being consumed by something demonic and insatiable.

3) Simile, such as: "you would be like the Chaff of the Summer threshing Floor"

This comparison is meant to make listeners understand how inconsequential and worthless they are in God's eyes.

4) Concession, such as, "'Tis true, that Judgment against your evil Works has not been executed hitherto"

This concession is meant to counter the argument that if God were really that angry and bent on destroying them, it would have already happened.

5) Metaphor, such as: "The Bow of God’s Wrath is bent, and the Arrow made ready on the String"

This metaphor is meant to invoke fear; it suggests that God is poised to make an imminent strike.

6) Juxtaposition, such as: "To see so many others feasting, while you are pining and perishing!"

It's a strange strategy, but Edwards seems to be trying to invoke envy for those who are already saved.

Read the study guide:
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

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