Jonathan Edwards returns over and over to the notion that, while human beings might think that they have power over their own lives, their position on Earth (and beyond) is precarious because they are in the hands of a God whose will is arbitrary and all-powerful. In other words, for people to consider themselves to be safe from death or damnation based on their health, strength, intelligence, goodness, or pragmatism is, to Edwards, pure vanity and self-delusion.
Edwards uses various metaphors throughout the sermon to illustrate the precariousness of the human condition and the power of God. The first is the metaphor of the person walking on a slippery surface. Edwards remarks that this person is vulnerable to falling (damnation, metaphorically speaking), that the fall will be sudden and unexpected, and that the fall will be due to their own weight, rather than any external force. He then shifts the metaphor to emphasize God’s role: the person is not walking on a slippery surface, but is rather held by God on a slippery slope above a pit. Once God lets go, the person will fall—still due to his or her own weight—into damnation, and the person is powerless to resist. Some of Edwards’ most evocative metaphors of precariousness include: sinners walk on a rotted floor above the pit of hell, sinners “hang by a slender thread” over flames that threaten to singe and break that thread, and sinners could be crushed by God as easily as one crushes a worm underfoot.
Edwards also goes to great lengths to explain just how powerful God is. He discusses the powerlessness of the individual before God, and the futility of even “vast multitudes of God’s enemies” banding together to resist God. Though humans tend to fear the power of rulers, particularly “absolute monarchs” whose subjects are “wholly in their power,” Edwards notes that, “the greatest earthly potentates, in their greatest majesty and strength, and when clothed in their greatest terrors, are but feeble despicable worms of the dust, in comparison of the great and almighty Creator and King of Heaven and Earth.” God is even more powerful than spiritual forces, too: “if your strength were ten thousand times greater than it is, yea, ten thousand times greater than the stoutest, sturdiest Devil in Hell,” you would still not be able to overpower God’s will or endure his fury. Indeed, there is “no fortress that is any defence from the power of God.”
This relentless emphasis of the precariousness of man and the power of God can be seen as Edwards’ reaction to historical circumstances. Edwards gave this sermon during a time in which New Englanders were becoming used to new affluence and security, and were thus beginning to feel that they had more control over their own lives and destinies. He was also preaching to a congregation that was reputed to be particularly difficult to move. In order to bring these parishioners into line, Edwards must have felt that he needed to undercut the congregation’s new sense of power and security; he would have seen these feelings as dangerous vanities that were preventing them from coming to Christ. The only way for the congregation to achieve salvation, according to Edwards, was through a genuine commitment to Christ, and in order for them to have the proper relationship with Christ, they would have to first understand their own powerlessness to affect their circumstances without him, and the danger they were in because of the wrath and power of God.
Power and Precariousness ThemeTracker
Power and Precariousness Quotes in Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
There is nothing that keeps wicked men, at any one moment, out of hell, but the meer pleasure of 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.
Joh. 3:18. He that believeth not is condemned already. So that every unconverted man properly belongs to hell; that is his place; from thence he is Joh. 8:23. Ye are from beneath. And thither he is bound; ‘tis the place that justice, and God’s word, and the sentence of his unchangeable law assigns him.
Yea God is a great deal more angry with great numbers that are now on earth, yea doubtless, with many that are now in this congregation, that it may be are at ease and quiet, than he is with many of those that are now in the flames of hell.
There is laid in the very nature of carnal men, a foundation for the torments of hell: There are those corrupt principles, in reigning power in them, and in full possession of them, that are seeds of hell fire. These principles are active and powerful, exceeding violent in their nature, and if it were not for the restraining hand of God upon them, they would soon break out, they would flame out after the same manner as the same corruptions, the same enmity does in the hearts of damned souls, and would beget the same torments in ‘em as they do in them.
Unconverted men walk over the pit of hell on a rotten covering, and there are innumerable places in this covering so weak that they won’t bear their weight, and these places are not seen. The arrows of death fly unseen at noon-day; the sharpest sight can’t discern them. God has so many different unsearchable ways of taking wicked men out of the world and sending ‘em to hell, that there is nothing to make it appear that God had need to be at the expence of a miracle, or go out of the ordinary course of his providence, to destroy any wicked man, at any moment.
But the foolish children of men miserably delude themselves in their own schemes, and in their confidence in their own strength and wisdom; they trust to nothing but a shadow.
God has laid himself under no obligation, by any promise to keep any natural man out of hell one moment. God certainly has made no promises either of eternal life, or of any deliverance or preservation from eternal death, but what are contained in the covenant of grace, the promises that are given in Christ, in whom all the promises are Yea and Amen.
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.
That God will execute the fierceness of his anger, implies that he will inflict wrath without any pity: when God beholds the ineffable extremity of your case, and sees your torment to be so vastly disproportion’d to your strength, and sees how your poor soul is crushed and sinks down, as it were into an infinite gloom, he will have no compassion upon you, he will not forbear the executions of his wrath, or in the least lighten his hand; there shall be no moderation or mercy, nor will God then at all stay his rough wind; he will have no regard to your welfare, nor be at all careful lest you should suffer too much, in any other sense than only that you shall not suffer beyond what strict justice requires: nothing shall be with held, because it’s so hard for you to bear.