Sermon Structures: Chiasms

Biblical preaching should be normative for Christian preachers. Long defines biblical preaching as letting the Bible speak into both the ‘content and shape of the sermon’.[1]  This quote has deeply influenced me and pushes me to keep thinking about how my sermon structures can reflect the shape of the literary genre I am preaching on. About six years ago, I wrote a short paper examining the rhetorical and literary devices used by Isaiah in Isaiah 58 and 59. I got introduced to some key devices which still shape my preaching, particularly my sermon on Jonah 2.

A common rhetorical feature in Hebrew poetry is parallelism. Jonah’s prayer begins:

In my distress I called to YAHWEH, and he answered me.

From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry.

The second line basically repeats the first line using different words, and this serves to ‘intensify, or refine the thought’.[2] Repetition is another way of helping listeners to remember the main ideas. Repetition ‘reinforces’ the message in a ‘cumulative, compounding effect’.[3] This is something I have tried to incorporate into my sermons. I will often say the same thing just in different ways. For example, in my Jonah 2 sermon:

Jonah has jumped into chaos.  There is no order here. Nothing makes sense. He is disoriented, not sure which way is up, and which way is down.

I’m basically repeating the same idea. When you see the repetition of words in the Bible, those words can become motifs. Motifs, according to Polan, are the keywords often working with other keywords to establish the theme of the text.[4] In Jonah 2, the motifs I touch on throughout the sermon are chaos, death, monsters, oceans, experiences, etc.

Lastly, in Hebrew literature are chiasms. Chiasms are created when a succession of keywords are used and then ‘inverted within the same literary unit’.[5] They can function in a variety of ways from linking parallel thoughts together, to creating a sense of reversal, to contrasting by reiterating points made earlier in a different way.[6] Chiasms function by drawing people’s attention to the centre wherein lies the key message.[7] This type of structure is different from modern speeches which tend to take linear forms and so it raises the question of how a preacher could incorporate parallelism into their sermonic forms.[8] In the Jonah 2 sermon, I tried to use a chasmic structure:

A – Introduction, talking about ocean and surfing and the experiences we seek

B- Chaos/creation unravelling

C- Death and resurrection

B- Chaotic monsters/new creation coming

A-  Conclusion, talking about ocean and surfing and the experiences we seek

Related to chiasms are devices such as inclusios. Inclusio is a ‘structural device’ that frames the material by echoing words from the beginning of the speech at the end. It can be used in both written and oral discourses, modern and ancient texts.[9] It is associated with parallelism.[10] The difference is that is works at a greater distance between the two parts; instead of following the second line, it concludes a section by referencing the beginning section.[11] So the motif of the ocean and surfing and the questions I raised at the beginning of the sermon is revisited at the end.

This structure seemed to best connect with the genre of Jonah 2. I didn’t deliberately begin with a chiasmic structure in mind, but this is where I ended up. Have you ever tried a chiasmic structure in your sermon? How did it go?

[1] Thomas G. Long, Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989), 52.

[2] D. Brent Sandy and Ronald L. Giese, Cracking Old Testament Codes : A Guide to Interpreting Literary Genres of the Old Testament (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman, 1995), 225.

[3] Geoffrey D. Robinson, “The Motif of Deafness and Blindness in Isaiah 6:9-10: A Contextual, Literary, and Theological Analysis,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 8 (1998): 175.

[4] Gregory J. Polan, In the Ways of Justice toward Salvation : A Rhetorical Analysis of Isaiah 56-59 (New York: Peter Lang, 1986), 28.

[5] Curtis W. Fitzgerald, “A Rhetorical Analysis of Isaiah 56-66” (Dallas Theological Seminary, 2003), 29.

[6] Wilfred G. E. Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry : A Guide to Its Techniques (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1984), 204-05.

[7] John W. Welch, Chiasmus in Antiquity : Structures, Analyses, Exegesis (Hildesheim: Gerstenberg, 1981), 10.

[8] Ibid., 12.

[9] Jack R. Lundbom, “Poetic Structure and Prophetic Rhetoric in Hosea,” Vetus testamentum 29, no. 3 (1979): 301.

[10] Wilfred G.E. Watson, “Chiastic Patterns in Biblical Hebrew Poetry,” in Chiasmus in Antiquity, ed. John W.  Welch (Hildesheim: Gerstenberg, 1981), 136.

[11] Adele Berlin and L. V. Range of biblical metaphors in Smikhut Knorina, The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism, Rev. and expanded ed. ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich. ; Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2008), 132.