This is the first of two posts on rhetorical devices. Next week we will review 5 Overused Rhetorical Devices (in my opinion of course). For this week we’re going to consider five that we can use effectively in our preaching. Let’s jump right in.
1. The Periodic Sentence
The periodic sentence is attributed to Isocrates who used it for climactic emphasis. He would withhold the subject and the verb of a sentence to the very end, lengthening the sentence with clauses that would build up to a climax at the end. It gives rise to an eager anticipation for the point of the sentence. He would do this by either withholding both the subject and the verb for the end, or just the verb.
Example: “No matter how hungry I am or how desperate I am for calories, even if I am stranded on a desert island with no hope for any other kind of food, I would never eat bugs.”
Example: “Paul, who repudiated the law, in a real sense abandoned it and frequently corrected those who lived by it, still saw a place for it in Christian living.”
In the first example both the subject and the verb were held to the end. In the second example just the verb was withheld. But you can see the effect. The first sentence would lose no meaning by being simply put: “I would never eat bugs.” But the statement strikes harder when it is stacked with qualifying clauses as it is in the example I gave. The same goes for the second example. The train of clauses strips the listener of excuses. The speaker is saying, “Yes I know Paul does not accept the law, and yes I understand that he in one sense has abandoned it, and trust me I understand: he often rebukes those who live under it. But I am telling you even with all of that being said, he still holds a place for the law in the life of the Christian. It is an effective way of simultaneously taking away the listener’s barriers to receive the point while also emphatically building toward it with tension.
You might remember this one in a class where you studied the literary forms of the Bible. An inclusio is when a unit of thought is bracketed or book-ended with the same or similar lines. In a sermon this would mean that your introduction and your conclusion match up in an obvious way. You might start out by asking questions that the conclusion will answer. In your conclusion you might finish a story that you began in the introduction (that your listeners did not realize was unfinished). It works to bring a unified feel to the sermon and a sense of satisfactory completion. It ties the sermon up nicely for the audience. I have heard it called a “wrap-around.” You “wrap” the sermon up by going back around to the introduction.
If you’ll allow me to stretch the definition – it does not always have to be the introduction and conclusion. I once heard a sermon by Charles Swindoll where he had us in Luke 10. Jesus just told the parable of the Samaritan who was a neighbor to the hapless victim on the road. He told the expert in the law to “go and do likewise.” Swindoll explained that where he’s from (Dallas), they have a phrase: “Ya got it? Now get at it.” We laughed. He finished his exposition of the passage and finally, after his conclusion, he closed his Bible and looked at us intently: “Ya got it? Now get at it.” And he walked off. That stuck. That was an effective wrap-around.
An anaphora is the stacking of a repeated word or phrase in order to achieve emphasis.
Example: “We are every day, every hour, at every moment, completely dependent upon Christ’s grace.”
Example: “I went to the pastor, I went to the secretary. I went to the young people, I went to the old people. No one could tell me where this picture was taken.”
Example: “There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and in all and through all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6 ESV).
You can see that in one sense what is being emphasized is what is being repeated. “Every” in the first example, “one” or “all” in the third. But you will notice that what those words describe is also underscored in the anaphora. Not just every day, and not just every hour, but every MOMENT. In the second example this is more obvious. The weight does not fall merely on “I went” – the emphasis is on how the person searched here and there, there and here and yet there was no answer. The emphasis is on the various places in which the answer was sought. The point that there was no answer is heavier in the end because of the anaphora.
A prolepsis is essentially when you anticipate an objection from the listener and you answer it. You might already use this. As you are making your point you know there might be an objection to it. You might think of an objection that you had when you first started studying the passage or one that you would have if say, you were an unbeliever in the audience. You would state the objection and then answer it.
Example: “God loves you. Now, you might be thinking about hardships, difficulties, even tragedies in your life. You’re wondering how God could love you when he permits such pain. But I tell you he proves it on the cross…”
You know you’re listening to a prolepsis when the speaker says something like “I know what you’re thinking” or “You say, ‘Pastor I don’t believe that.’” Try not to use the same entrance every time – it’ll get worn out and its effect will lose luster. But its utility is clear. Listeners build little walls of resistance as they argue with your point in their head. “Yeah, but what about the next verse?” “Hmm, I thought Jesus says the opposite in the New Testament.” “I don’t know – maybe you’re seeing it in this verse but I’m not sure the rest of the Bible would confirm this idea.” “But earlier in the sermon you said it wasn’t!” The iterations are endless. But if you can anticipate the most crucial objections, you can use prolepsis to show that they are on the right track and it’s good to think critically. But there’s an answer. It brings the listener along with you as you get past their defenses and gain their trust.
This one might be a little bit more controversial. Many see the anachronism strictly as an error on the speaker’s part. And technically it is. But it can be used effectively if done wisely and carefully.
The anachronism is a word, phrase or concept used “against (its) time” as the word suggests. If you’re watching a movie where an 11th century knight is injured and someone yells, “Call the doctor!” you might be witnessing an anachronism. Is the doctor nearby? If not, it’s unlikely they can “call.” “Send for” more like. If you’re preaching a sermon and you say something like, “So he slid off their sandals and washed their feet.” Did sandals slide off back then? They weren’t flip-flops or Nike slides. Perhaps he “unstrapped” them.
I don’t know how many times I’ve done this unwittingly. But I have done it on purpose. I had a professor in seminary once who did not like it when I used anachronisms in my sermon on the father with two sons in Luke 15. I talked about how the son “packed his bags” and took everything he owned because he wasn’t coming back. “He took his posters down, grabbed all his CDs, cleaned out his closet…” Anachronisms all. But what I was trying to do, successfully or not, was to get the other students in the class to imagine what it was like. I did this by likening the younger son to a rebellious teenager that we can think of today. I was transporting our language, our surroundings, our context and inserting them for a brief moment in the ancient setting. I was trying to make the foreign story feel familiar.
When anachronisms are mistakes then, sure, they’re errors. But when we use them intentionally they can help the listener see how this passage is directly relevant to them. It also helps them understand it. The caution is to make the anachronisms rather obvious. If you say a sword had a crossguard when you’re speaking of a time or a culture when crossguards were not prominent, then a historian might catch you but most won’t. Intentional anachronisms only work when you make them obvious:
“Judas sold Jesus out for 600 measly dollars.”
“When Isaiah was in the presence of Seraphim worship, he wasn’t checking his phone for texts. He wasn’t thinking through his Fantasy Football roster. He was floored.”
A Word of Caution
Use rhetorical devices sparingly. None of them are necessary to preaching. And if they are overused they can have a negative effect. At the very least they can lose their edge. But when used infrequently and intentionally they can enhance your communication of God’s Word.