Building Illustrations with Rhetorical Devices

by Derek Kitterlin | Apr 12, 2023

In my last article, I walked you through the process of creating an illustration using natural analogies. Our hypothetical preacher, Dave, needed a sermon illustration on the Love of God for his sermon on 1 John 4:7-16. After encountering a number of difficulties, Dave used the McDill method of building natural analogies and chose an analogy from the animal kingdom to support his sermon content. 

This is a good option but not Dave’s only option. He can use a figure of speech. Figures of speech are typically divided into two categories: Schemes and Tropes. Schemes are figures of speech that involve a deliberate change of word order. Tropes are figures of speech that involve a change in the meaning of a word. 

Figures of speech—also known as rhetorical devices—are prevalent in the Bible. Jesus’ seven “I Am” statements in the book of John are metaphors. Our Savior used hyperbole in the Sermon on the Mount to illustrate the danger of sin: “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away…” (CSB) Jesus was not instructing His audience to physically harm themselves, but He used hyperbole to shock their attention and grab their imagination—the intended outcome of hyperbole.

Another rhetorical device is found in 1 Cor. 13:4–5, in which the Apostle Paul used personification. He wrote, “Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not arrogant, is not rude, is not self-seeking, is not irritable, and does not keep a record of wrongs.” Paul clothed love with the attributes of a loving person. He appealed to the audience’s imagination and converted love into something they could see rather than an abstract concept to consider. Metaphor, hyperbole, and personification are all tropes.

Figures of speech inherently appeal to the imagination. Metaphor cuts through the abstract nature of language and enlivens concepts through substitution. Simile and analogy—the first used for beauty and the second for reason—engage our imagination by appealing to our mind’s natural tendency for comparison. Personification endows an object with human characteristics and provides us with the ability to see an object come to life. These are only a few of the many figures of speech available, and they provide us with a type of illustration aside from an anecdote.

Let’s return to Dave’s sermon illustration. I want to begin by identifying Dave’s need and then build an illustration using the device of personification based upon Dave’s need. In looking at the previous article, we can see that Dave’s sermon requires an illustration that portrays love as a sacrificial, loyal relationship that provides for others. The two concepts highlighted in 1 John 4:7-16 were “love addressing a need” and “love taking the initiative.” In creating an illustration using the figure of personification, Dave will need to make sure his illustration addresses one of these concepts, if not both of these concepts.

Here are the steps to creating an illustration using the rhetorical device of personification. 

  1. Write down the subject of the illustration in clear, specific, and transferable language. Transferable language is language that transcends multiple domains of life. Medical terminology is an example of non-transferable language. It is exclusive to the medical field. 
      • Subject: Dave needs images of “love as a sacrificial, loyal relationship that provides for others.
  2. Include any concepts that accompany the subject. The accompanying concepts for our illustration that came from the text are:
      • Love addressing a need.
      • Love taking the initiative.
  3. Search the various domains of life (family, occupation, recreation, entertainment, etc.) for any occurrences of a person committing an act that corresponds to the subject of the illustration. The act should also correspond with the concepts that accompany the subject.
  4. Write down the matching occurrences and determine if they are transferable. Arrange them according to intensity, degree, length, or another form. 
  5. Finalize the rhetorical devices for the sermon

Below you will find an illustration that corresponds with Dave’s sermon need.

Love is a powerful word. Performers sing about it and authors write about it. All people need it but many never truly experience it. Some experience it but at a distance, like seeing one’s favorite entertainer from afar and being blocked by the crowd. Some see illusions of it. They hear “I love you” from the mouth of a supposed loved one but the accompanying actions are absent. All of us find ourselves longing to see it, but what does love actually look like?  

Love rescues and Love defends.

Love works long hours and cries happy tears.

Love drives through the midnight hour to care for someone overwhelmed with distress. 

Love arises at 12, 2, and 4 to comfort a crying child. It fights backs the frustration and complaint while it rocks the innocent one back to sleep. 

Love replies to the humble plea of the unclean leper, “I’m willing, be made clean.”

Love sees a woman in her shame, a woman whose physical illness has destroyed her overall wholeness. Love comforts her with the soothing words that you can “go in peace and be free from your affliction.”

Love suffered and did not slander. Love endured and did not fail. 

A few observations I want to make regarding the illustration. 

  • I set up the rhetorical device of personification by pointing out the universal desire for people to see and feel love.
  • I worked primarily in the domain of family and friends. These domains provide the greatest opportunity for people to experience love.
  • I shifted the rhetorical device of personification from people to Jesus. He is the embodiment of love and according to John 1 and 1 John 4, we are able to see God through Jesus. This reconnects the illustration back to 1 John 4:7-16 where Jesus comes to us because of God’s love.
  • In each occurrence, Love was active; it took the initiative. Each occurrence was a different aspect of need with early devices being more general and working toward the more specific and the more intense.

Now, a word or two of caution and encouragement. First, this is an art, not a science. You might spend a lot of time trying to develop the craft. It’s difficult to accomplish, but the more you practice the better you will be at creating personifications. Second, once you begin working among the figures of speech you will notice the Bible is saturated with figurative language. 

Keep pressing onward as you search for creative ways to preach God’s word.