The devils stand behind each of them and watch them like greedy, hungry lions stalking their prey, held back only by God’s restraining hand.
Though throughout his sermon Edwards frequently compares humans to lowly or despicable animals, here Edwards uses a metaphor in which it’s precisely in our humanness that we’re weak, vulnerable, mere prey. Through use of the plural “devils,” Edwards evokes a world populated by a multitude of demons, threatening us on all sides. This almost certainly was guaranteed to instill even more fear and suspicion into the hearts of his congregation. In addition, the comparison between devils and lions is yet another example of the manner in which Edwards makes his sermon’s message regarding salvation vs. damnation more visceral, and thus compelling, through effective use of imagery and metaphor. You may not know what a devil looks like, but a lion is a clear image—an image of something you clearly do not want to anywhere near.
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; it is inexpressible and inconceivable: For “who knows the power of God’s anger?”
What many readers today might not realize—but which almost certainly every member of the congregation would have recognized at once—is that this query is not the words of Edwards himself but a quoted allusion to an allusion to the Psalm 90:11 from the Bible. The use of this quotation positions Edwards as a mere messenger of the truth of the Bible. And while the over-the-top rhetoric of much of “Sinners” feels sort of like being hit over the head with a blunt object, this quote is an example of the author’s often quite subtle rhetorical skills. Without ever relinquishing his position of authority—that which gives “him” the right to tell “you” that you’re a sinner doomed to hell—he slips in a moment of identification with his audience: a “we.” He too, this implies, is in awe of God’s wrath. However, Edwards manages to convey this without dirtying himself with any association with “your” status as a “sinner.” Moreover, with the experience we’ve already had of Edwards’s considerable learning and descriptive prowess, the idea of a force even Edwards cannot grasp or describe is even more alarming.
Therefore, let anyone who does not now know Christ awake and fly from the wrath to come. The wrath of Almighty God is now undoubtedly hanging over a great part of this congregation. Let everyone fly out of Sodom!! Run for your lives! Don't look back! Escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed!
This striking, powerful conclusion to Edwards’s sermon effectively jolts his audience out of their passive role as listeners, creating a kind of rhetorical “bridge” that encourages them to carry the lessons, and the terror, of his words out with them into the world. They’re not meant to ponder or reflect on his words, but react viscerally, emotionally, immediately. It’s also noteworthy that Edwards chooses to end his sermon with a quote from Genesis—that is, the beginning of the Bible—that describes the beginning of the universe itself. The implication is, perhaps, that the world to which the congregation now returns outside the church ought to be entirely different than the one they left when they came in.
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.