A preacher’s study is like a pressure cooker. As he pores over the Word, everything on his mind—congregational sins, cultural concerns, faithful exegesis, gospel connections, and more—simmers and hisses, threatening at any moment to blow the lid. Why on earth would he add one more thing to the pot? Should a preacher really care about chiasms?
A what? Perhaps it would help if we first knew what a chiasm is. Chiasm (or chiastic structure) is when an author communicates using symmetry. Chiasms can be as short as a sentence or phrase. Take for instance Hamlet’s famous quip:
(A) “to be
(B) or not
(A’) to be”
The term chiasm comes from the shape the corresponding parts form when you diagram them; they look like the left side of the Greek letter chi (Χ). Often, an author’s point hinges on the center of the structure. In our example, the crux of Hamlet’s dilemma is the “or not”—the choice between life or death.
Chiasms can also be much longer, shaping an entire narrative, poem, or even book. Indeed, the way many of us summarize salvation history is itself a chiasm:
In the overarching narrative of Scripture, we see why chiasms are sometimes called ring structures. They give us a feeling of completion—of coming full circle, from creation to re-creation. If chiasms are woven into God’s Word, the question isn’t whether we will preach them, but how.
Here are four basic tips to help you recognize and employ chiasms in your sermons.
1. Preach in Context
For the sake of illustration, consider a novel that seems the opposite of intentional, structured literature: The Catcher in the Rye. Though it appears formless and void on the surface, the erratic stream of consciousness filling its pages actually forms a basic chiasm. Holden Caulfield’s scatterbrained incoherence begins and ends in the same place: an insane asylum.
The author, J. D. Sallinger, uses a simple ring structure to create a context for the meandering story of his narrator. Can we trust the ravings of this angsty teen? Are we getting the whole truth—or any of it? To miss Sallinger’s subtle structure is to misread the entire work.
In a similar fashion, chiasms in Scripture help us place our passage in its intended context. For instance, Luke interjects the story of the bleeding woman into the plot of Jairus and his sick daughter (Luke 8). These two stories fit together into a tight chiasm, and to interpret them separately would be to miss Luke’s bigger point. Or consider the infamous head-scratcher, the cursing of the fig tree. Jesus’s prophetic act comes into clear focus as we read it in context of the five-part chiasm of Mark 11.
Sometimes expositional preachers can get so focused on the bark of one tree that we forget to poke our head above the canopy. Panoramic views may reveal a chiastic context that explains the placement and meaning of a specific verse, passage, or narrative.
2. Let the Chiasm Structure Your Sermon
But do I have to point out every chiasm I see? Faithful preachers should seek the edification of our hearers, and weekly sermons overflowing with words like “chiastic structure,” “sections B and B prime,” and “inclusio” might cause eyelids to (rightly) droop. Rather than constantly pointing out chiastic structure, why not use the author’s intentionality to structure your own sermon’s outline and points?
A chiasm forms a kind of visual arrow for preachers, pointing to the heart of the passage.
For example, in Nehemiah 5 the author uses chiasm to contrast his own sacrificial leadership with the oppressive corruption of Jerusalem’s previous rulers. Rather than going on in detail about the complex structure when I preached this passage, I allowed Nehemiah’s own words to illustrate the contrast:
(A) They burdened
(B) They took
(C) They lorded
(C’) I labored
(B’) I gave
-(A’) I carried
The center of the chiasm was the main point of my sermon: “But I did not do so, because of the fear of God” (Neh. 5:15). A chiasm forms a kind of visual arrow for preachers, pointing to the heart of the passage. Let that guide you as you preach.
3. Honor the Author
Chiasms can help those of us who struggle with chronological snobbery. Many people visualize the Bible’s characters as just one level above cavemen. Some of this is due to books they’ve read, movies they’ve seen, or poor preaching in the past that scoffs at supposed errors and backwoods perspectives held by the biblical writers.
A preacher can bring great honor to the intelligence and skill of the authors of Scripture by occasionally pointing out chiasms. Powerful preaching demonstrates that the deeper understanding of the authors shows how we are in error. Even more, it develops humility before the great Author himself, as we learn to cry with Paul: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom. 11:33).
4. Imitate the Beauty
The Bible overflows with chiastic structure because it is a book of beauty, a work of wonder, a masterpiece. The Puritan William Perkins (1558–1602) wrote a classic book called The Art of Prophesying. Nothing could be truer: Preaching is an art. If we discover poetic beauty and rhetorical structure in the Scriptures, we become imitators of God by honing our preaching from basic fingerpaints to oil and canvas.
So spend time meditating on the Psalms and pondering how you can craft your own sentences with poetic flourish:
(A) The sacrifices of God are
(B) a broken spirit;
(B’) a broken and contrite heart,
(A’) O God, you will not despise. (Ps. 51:17)
Even better, memorize biblical poetry! As you grow in your appreciation for the beauty of the Scriptures, may your preaching reflect the glory of God, to the praise of his great name among his people.