Illustrations in Preaching, Part 7

Third Series of Lectures to My Students

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

By C. H. Spurgeon, 1905

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

Elaboration into minute points is not commendable when we are using figures. The best light comes in through the clearest glass: too much paint keeps out the sun. God’s altar of old was to be made of earth, or of unhewn stone, “for,” said the word, “if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it:” Ex. xx:25.

A labored, artificial style, upon which the graver’s tool has left abundant marks, is more consistent with human pleadings in courts of law, or in the forum, or in the senate, than with prophetic utterances delivered in the name of God and for the promotion of his glory. Our Lord’s parables were as simple as tales for children, and as naturally beautiful as the lilies which sprang up in the valleys where he taught the people. He borrowed no legend from the Talmud, nor fairy tale from Persia, neither fetched he his emblems from beyond the sea; but he dwelt among his own people, and talked of common things in homely style, as never man spake before, and yet as any observant man should speak. His parables were like himself and his surroundings; and were never strained, fantastic, pedantic, or artificial.

Let us imitate him, for we shall never find a model more complete, or more suitable for the present age. Opening our eyes, we shall discover abundant imagery all around. As it is written, “The word is nigh thee,” so also is the analogy of that word near at hand: —

“All things around me whate’er they be
That I meet as the chance may come,
Have a voice and a speech in them all ­
Birds that hover, and bees that hum,
The beast of the field or the stall;
The trees, leaves, rushes, and grasses;
The rivulet running away;
The bird of the air as it passes;
Or the mountains that motionless stay;
And yet those immovable masses
Keep changing, as dreams do, all day.”*

There will be little need to borrow from the recondite mysteries of human art, nor to go deep into the theories of science; for in nature golden illustrations lie upon the surface, and the purest is that which is uppermost and most readily discerned. Of natural history in all its branches we may well say, “the gold of that land is good”: the illustrations furnished by everyday phenomena seen by the ploughman and the waggoner are the very best which earth can yield. An illustration is not like a prophet, for it has most honor in its own country; and those who have oftenest seen the object are those who are most gratified by the figure drawn from it.

I trust that it is scarcely necessary to add that illustrations must never be low or mean. They may not be high-flown, but they should always be in good taste. They may be homely, and yet chastely beautiful; but rough and coarse they should never be.

A house is dishonored by having dirty windows, cobwebbed and begrimed, patched with brown paper, or stuffed up with rags: such windows are the insignia of a hovel rather than a house. About our illustrations there must never be even the slightest trace of anything that would shock the most delicate modesty.

We like not that window out of which Jezebel is looking. Like. the bells upon the horses, our lightest expressions must be holiness unto the Lord. Of that which suggests the groveling and the base we may say with the apostle, “Let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints.” All our windows should open towards Jerusalem, and none towards Sodom.

We will gather our flowers always and only from Emmanuel’s land; and Jesus himself shall be their savor and sweetness, so that when he lingers at the lattice to hear us speak of himself he may say “Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue.” That which grows beyond the border of purity and good repute must never be bound up in our garlands, nor placed among the decorations of our discourses. That which would be exceedingly clever and telling in a stump orator’s speech, or in a cheap-jack’s harangue, would be disgusting from a minister of the gospel. Time was when we could have found far too many specimens of censurable coarseness, but it would be ungenerous to mention them now that such things are on all hands condemned.

Gentlemen, take care that your windows are not broken, or even cracked: in other words, guard against confused metaphors and limping illustrations. Sir Boyle Roche is generally credited with some of the finest specimens of metaphorical conglomerate. We should imagine that the passage is mythical in which he is represented as saying, “I smell a rat; I see it floating in the air; I’ll nip it in the bud.” Minor blunderings are frequent enough in the speech of our own countrymen. An excellent temperance advocate exclaimed, “Comrades, let us be up and doing! Let us take our axes on our shoulders, and plough the waste places till the good ship Temperance sails gaily over the land.”

We well remember, years ago, hearing a fervent Irish clergyman exclaim, “Garibaldi, sir, he is far too great a man to play second fiddle to such a wretched luminary as Victor Emmanuel.” It was at a public meeting, and therefore we were bound to be proper; but it would have been a great relief to our soul if we might have indulged in a hearty laugh at the spectacle of Garibaldi with a fiddle, playing to a luminary; for a certain nursery rhyme jingled in our ears, and sorely tried our gravity. A poetic friend thus encouragingly addresses us, —

“March on, however rough the road,
Though foes obstruct thy way,
Deaf to the barking curs that would
Ensnare thy feet astray.”

The other evening a brother expressed his desire that we might “all be winners of souls, and bring the Lord’s blood-bought jewels to cast their crowns at his feet.” The words had such a pious ring about them that the audience did not observe the fractured state of the expression. One of your own number hoped “that every student might be enabled to sound the gospel trumpet with such a clear and certain sound that the blind might see.” Perhaps he meant that they should open their eyes with astonishment at the terrific blast; but the figure would have been more congruous if he had said “that the deaf should hear.” A Scotch writer, in referring to a proposal to use an organ in divine service, says: — “Nothing will stem this avalanche of will-worship and gross sin but the falling back on the Word of God.

The Daily News in reviewing a book written by an eminent Nonconformist minister, complained that his metaphors were apt to be a little unmanageable, as when he spoke of something which had remained a secret until a strangely potent key was inserted among the hidden wards of the parental heart, and a rude wrench flung wide the floodgates and set free the imprisoned stream. However, there is no wonder that ordinary mortals commit blunders in figurative speech when even his late Infallible Holiness Pius IX said of Mr. Gladstone that he “had suddenly come forward like a viper assailing the barque of St. Peter.” A viper assailing a barque is rather too much for the most accommodating imagination, although some minds are ready for any marvels.

One of those reviews which reckon themselves to be the cream of the cream took pains to inform us that the Dean of Chichester, being the select preacher at St. Mary’s, Oxford, “seized the opportunity to smite the Ritualists hip and thigh, with great volubility and vivacity.” Samson smote his foes with a great slaughter; but language is flexible.

These blunders are to be quoted by the page: I have given enough to let you see how readily the pitchers of metaphor may be cracked, and rendered unfit to carry our meaning. The ablest speaker may occasionally err in this direction; it is not a very serious matter, and yet like a dead fly it may spoil sweet ointment.

A few brethren of my acquaintance are always off the lines; they muddle up every figure they touch, and as soon as they approach a metaphor we look for an accident. It might be wisdom on their part to shun all figures of speech till they know how to use them; for it is a great pity when illustrations are so confused as both to darken the sense and create diversion. Muddled metaphors are muddles indeed; let us give the people good illustrations or none at all.

At this point I will close my lecture, which is only meant to be an introduction to my subject, and not a full treatment of it.

* Slightly altered from “Fables in Song.” By Robert Lord Lytton. William Blackwood and Sons 1874, 2 vols.

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