Why Care About Poetic Devices In Songs, Sermons And Testimonies?

by Bobby Gilles

in Church Communications,Songwriting/Hymn Workshop,Testimony Tips

Does the pursuit of poetic skill detract from the power of the cross? When we study hymn meter, rhyme schemes, storytelling devices, consonance, assonance and other elements of poetry, is this what Paul warned about in 1 Corinthians 2:1 when he said:

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom.

Should we quit studying the techniques necessary to write modern hymns, as well as effective sermons and memorable testimonies?

Eloquent Pastor John Piper Speaking At Advance '09 in North Carolina

Eloquent Pastor John Piper Speaking At Advance '09 in North Carolina

Nope. And while you might expect me to take you through a study of Isaac Watts, Anne Steel or Charles Wesley here, we’ll reserve them for other occasions (like this post on internal rhyme and alliteration in the work of Watts). Today, read the excerpt below from John Piper’s “Is There Christian Eloquence? Clear Words and the Wonder of the Cross,” and watch a three-minute part of this sermon (different from the text excerpt below) in the video player above. When you have more time, watch John Piper’s whole “Christian Eloquence” sermon and read it in its entirety at desiringgod.org:


Certain kinds of eloquence—cadence, parallelism, meter, rhyme, assonance, consonance—may not only interest and awaken the heart, but increase that impact by making what is said memorable, that is, more easy to remember or memorize. Consider the title of this conference. I am very picky when it comes to cadence and consonance and assonance. I worked on the title the same way I work on a poem: “The Power of Words and the Wonder of God.” I want it to be pleasing and memorable.

  • So first, there is an intentional cadence or meter that I find pleasing: -/- -/- -/- -/ (The POWer of WORDS and the WONder of GOD).
  • Second, there is consonance or alliteration between the W’s in Words and Wonder. Compare “The Power of Language and the Wonder of God” or “The Power of Words and the Majesty of God.” Both cadence and alliteration are lost.
  • Third, there is assonance. Six of the nine words are dominated by the sound of the letter O: power, of, words, wonder, of, God. Compare: “The Strength of Language and the Marvel of Deity.”
  • Finally, I think the juxtaposition of “words” and “wonder” and “God” is unusual, provocative, and attractive.

All of that I think helps people remember the title, not because it is displeasing the way nine-eleven is remembered because it hurt, but because it is esthetically satisfying. (Next year: “With Calvin in the Theater of God”—iambic pentameter—so we can’t add “John,” Calvin’s first name.)

I presume that this mnemonic purpose is why some parts of the Bible are written in acrostics. For example, Psalm 119 is 22 stanzas of 8 verses each and each stanza begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and all 8 verses in each stanza begins with that letter. That is not careless, but intentional, artistic, eloquent.

Excerpted from John Piper, “Is There Christian Eloquence? Clear Words and the Wonder of the Cross, c. Desiring God.

Photo courtesy Sojourn deacon of photography Chuck Heeke, from the Advance 2009 conference

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