Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God is a sermon: it’s a message about God delivered through the spoken word. As sermons and the Bible (a written text, whose words are “the words of the great God”) are the primary modes by which a person can understand and relate to God, language should be understood as having a special role in religion and faith. In this instance, in order for language to do its job of propelling the congregation towards Christ, Edwards places extra emphasis on the power and limits of language and metaphor. He uses extreme and evocative metaphors to try to help the congregation understand religious ideas, such as their own precariousness and the wrath of God, but he also acknowledges that these metaphors can only say so much: he occasionally gestures towards the things that language cannot express.
The great variety and creativity of Edwards’ metaphors is one of the most notable aspects of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Were Edwards simply to say that “God is full of wrath,” the congregation would understand what he meant, but the statement would likely remain fairly abstract. By comparing God’s wrath to familiar situations on Earth, however, the congregation is able to feel the force and meaning of the phrase “God is full of wrath” more viscerally. For example, when Edwards tries to communicate how powerless sinners are, he doesn’t simply state that they are weak compared to God; instead, he says that God’s enemies are “as great heaps of light chaff [cornhusks] before the whirlwind; or large quantities of dry stubble before devouring flames.” By using these images of a powerful wind carrying cornhusks or of kindling thrown into a raging fire, Edwards gives the congregation a concrete way to understand the magnitude (and violence) of God’s power compared to theirs. Metaphor, in other words, helps Edwards to make spiritual principles personal to the congregation, thereby communicating the necessity of finding Christ.
However, not wanting the congregation to get the wrong idea, Edwards is also careful to underscore that, though his metaphors give a sense of abstract spiritual ideas, they cannot adequately communicate the truth of those ideas. In fact, Edwards suggests that despite his best efforts to be brutal and extreme, his metaphors paint a rosier spiritual picture than his congregation should expect. This is most apparent in the section in which Edwards attempts to describe the abject horror that awaits sinners during an eternity of torture in hell. Edwards makes such threats as, “you will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance, any end, any mitigation, any rest at all; you will know certainly that you must wear out long ages, millions of millions of ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this almighty merciless vengeance,” but he then goes on to remind the congregation that, “Oh who can express what the state of a soul in such circumstances is! All that we can possibly say about it, gives but a very feeble, faint representation of it; ‘tis inexpressible and inconceivable: for who knows the power of God's anger?” Edwards makes a similar statement about his attempts to explain the fierceness of the wrath of God: “Who can utter or conceive what such expressions carry in them! But it is not only said so, but the fierceness and wrath of almighty God.” In other words, despite the fact that Edwards’ words are inadequate to communicate reality, they are not just words: they stand for something real, which is the unimaginable wrath of God.
Thus, for Edwards, language is the primary tool through which sinners can be brought to Christ and saved, and this is unfortunate, since language cannot approach the truth of God. Edwards does his best to use the power, variety, and limits of language to communicate his message. He quotes often from the Bible (God’s own words), he uses florid and brutal metaphors to personalize abstract concepts, and, in case that wasn’t enough, he reminds the congregation that his metaphors are underwhelming in comparison to the inexpressible truth. It’s worth noting that this combination of linguistic tactics was persuasive: members of the congregation were reported to have wept and moaned and even fainted, with some crying out to Edwards asking what they needed to do to be saved.
Language and Metaphor ThemeTracker
Language and Metaphor Quotes in Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
Sometimes an earthly prince meets with a great deal of difficulty to subdue a rebel, that has found means to fortify himself, and has made himself strong by the numbers of his followers. But it is not so with God. There is no fortress that is any defence from the power of God. Tho’ hand join in hand, and vast multitudes of God’s enemies combine and associate themselves, they are easily broken in pieces: They are as great heaps of light chaff before the whirlwind; or large quantities of dry stubble before devouring flames. We find it easy to tread on and crush a worm that we see crawling on the earth; so ‘tis easy for us to cut or singe a slender thread that any thing hangs by; thus easy it is for God when he pleases to cast his enemies down to hell.
Were it not that so is the sovereign pleasure of God, the earth would not bear you one moment; for you are a burden to it; the creation groans with you; the creature is made subject to the bondage of your corruption, not willingly; the sun don’t willingly shine upon you to give you light to serve sin and Satan; the earth don’t willingly yield her increase to satisfy your lusts; nor is it willingly a stage for your wickedness to be acted upon; the air don’t willingly serve you for breath to maintain the flame of life in your vitals, while you spend your life in the service of God’s enemies. God’s creatures are good, and were made for men to serve God with, and don’t willingly subserve to any other purpose, and groan when they are abused to purposes so directly contrary to their nature and end.
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; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.
Oh who can express what the state of a soul in such circumstances is! All that we can possibly say about it, gives but a very feeble, faint representation of it; ‘tis inexpressible and inconceivable: for who knows the power of God’s anger?