Illustrations in Preaching, Part 5

Third Series of Lectures to My Students

The Art of Illustration: Being Addresses Delivered ot the students of The Pastor’s College, Metropolitan Tabernacle

By C. H. Spurgeon, 1905

Lecture 1: Illustrations in Preaching [Continued. Read the series.]

Illustrations should really cast light upon the subject in hand, otherwise they are sham windows, and all shams are an abomination. When the window-tax was still in force many people in country houses closed half their lights by plastering them up, and then they had the plaster painted to look like panes; so that there was still the appearance of a window, though no sunlight could enter. Well do I remember the dark rooms in my grandfather’s parsonage, and my wonder that men should have to pay for the light of the sun.

Blind windows are fit emblems of illustrations which illustrate nothing, and need themselves to be explained. Grandiloquence is never more characteristic than in its figures; there it disports itself in a very carnival of bombast. We could quote several fine specimens of sublime spread-eagleism and magnificent nonsense, but one alone may suffice as a favorable sample of a form of display which is rather more common across the water than in these old-fashioned regions. The author’s name we will not mention, but the extract is given verbatim, and is taken from a sermon upon “To die is gain.” Let the young preacher ponder and wonder, but let him not imitate.

We give the whole passage for the sake of the frigate bird, and the granite porphyry-jasper staircase.

“There is a bird that mariners call the ‘frigate bird,’ of strange habits and of stranger power. Men see him in all climes, but never yet has human eye seen him near the earth. With wings of mighty stretch, high borne, he sails along. Men of the far north see him at midnight moving on amid auroral fires, sailing along with set wings amid those awful flames, taking the color of the waves of light which swell and heave around him. Men in the tropics see him at hottest noon, his plumage all incarnadined by the fierce rays that smite innocuous upon. him. Amid their ardent fervor, he bears along, majestic, tireless, Never was he known to stoop from his lofty line of flight, never to swerve. To many he is a myth, to all a mystery. Where is his perch? [This is fine indeed. Let us add,Who shall lay salt on his tail?”] Where does he rest? Where was he brooded? None know. They only know that above cloud, above the reach of tempest, above the tumult of transverse currents, this bird of heaven (so let us call him) on self-supporting vans that disdain to beat the air on which they rest, moves grandly on. [Grand idea! The critter flies without moving his wings, disdaining to beat the air, as well he may, for he beats all creation.] So shall my hope be. At either pole of life, above the clouds of sorrow, superior to the tempests that beat upon me, on lofty and tireless wing, scorning the earth, it shall move along. Never shall it stoop, never swerve from its sublime line of flight. They shall see it in the morning of my life; they shall see it in its hot noon-day; and when the shadows fall, my sun having set, using your style of speech; but, using mine, when the shadows disappear, my sun having risen, the last they see of me shall be this hope of gain in dying, as it sails out on steady wing, and disappears amid the everlasting light.”

“I feel, friends, that no exhortation of mine will lift you to this pedestal of hewn granite, on which it is given to monumental piety to stand. [Quite right: an exhortation cannot very well lift a body on to a pedestal; it needs a leg or an arm to do that. But what is monumental piety?] Only by analysis, by meditation, by thought that ponders in the night time the majestic utterances of Scripture, and by the open lattice — or, better yet, beneath the grand dome — bows in prayer, and holds communion with the possibilities that stand beyond this life, like unfilled thrones waiting for occupants. Only in this way, and in others suggested by the Spirit to minds. fit to receive them, will you or any ever rise to the level of the emotion which dictated the text. Where is Paul to-day? Where does he stand, who, from his prison at Rome, sent out this immortal saying? Is there one of us that has verified the statement that “to die is gain? Not one.” [Pretty safe question! Who among us has been dead?] We know he walks in glory. He moves amid the majestic spaces where even Deity is not cramped. [Eloquent or blasphemous, which?] After all his struggles, he has entered into rest. Yet what has he received that is not in reserve for us? What has he that has not come to him in the way of gift? And is not his God mine and yours? Will the eternal Father feed with a partial hand? Will he discriminate, and become a respecter of persons, even at his own table? Piety can never receive into its mind the awful suspicion. Our Father feeds his children alike; and the garments that they wear are cut from a royal fabric, even his righteousness. They shine like suns brought by the action of a sublime movement into conjunction. “Rise, then, my friends, ye people of his love; rise and climb with me the mighty stairway whose steps are changed from granite to porphyry, and from porphyry to jasper, as we ascend, until our feet, pure as itself, stand on the sea of crystal which stretches in seamless purity before the throne.” [Upstairs to the sea! And up three pair of stairs too! Sublime idea, or, at least, within a step of it.]

This piece of high-flown oratory sheds light upon nothing, and does not in the faintest degree enable us to understand the reason why “to die is gain.” The object of language of this kind is not to instruct the hearer, but to dazzle him, and if possible to impress him with the idea that his minister is a wonderful orator. He who condescends to use clap-trap of any kind deserves to be debarred the pulpit for the term of his natural life. Let your figures of speech really represent and explain your meaning, or else they are dumb idols, which ought not to be set up in the house of the Lord.

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Aaron Blumer's picture


This one was quite a laugh. Don't miss Spurgeon's wry comments in the brackets. (I've found myself thinking many similar things during poorly-chosen or poorly-told sermon illustrations!)

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

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