Biblical Principles of Persuasion
Various words related to the subject of persuasion appear in the Scriptures in numerous texts of the Old and New Testaments. In “The Priority of Persuasive Preaching” (Preaching, July-August 2003, pp. 50-57), I specifically examined the various NT words related to persuasion, including their usage in secular literature.
In addition to the NT words, specific OT words are relevant to the study: the verbs, chazaq, sooth, pahtzar, pahthah, shasa; and the noun leqach. A brief consideration of these terms shows the breadth of the idea of persuasion as it was practiced in ancient times. This broad use of the concept is consistent with the comparable Greek terms of the NT.
New Testament Principles for Persuasion
“The Priority of Persuasive Preaching” focused on the NT emphasis concerning the validity of persuasion. There it was demonstrated that persuasion can be by argument (logos), by emotion (pathos), by character of the speaker (ethos), and by style of speaking. It was also shown that the outcomes of persuasion include yielding or being obedient to someone as a resulting action of persuasion, and of exercising belief or trust because of being persuaded. Furthermore, the NT stresses that persuasion should not rest solely on the self-reliance of oratorical skills, but should be done in a clear and cogent style in dependence upon the Holy Spirit, emphasizing the message and not the preacher (Sunukjian, 1972, pp. 171-75).
Old Testament Principles for Persuasion
The verb chazaq is quite common in the OT, being used some 291 times. The basic meaning of this word relates to the ideas of strength, to be(come) strong, to make strong, to strengthen oneself or to take courage, and to seize (Weber, 1980, p. 276; see also The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, abbreviated HALOT, 1994, pp. 302-03). It often occurs for being strong in battle or warfare. The particular usage of the term related to this study is found in 2 Kings 4:8, “Now there came a day when Elisha passed over to Shunem, where there was a prominent woman, and she persuaded (chazaq) him to eat food” (Scripture quotations are from NASB unless otherwise noted). One Hebrew lexicon renders the word “prevail upon to” in this text (BDB, 1977, p. 305). Another lexicon focuses on the ideas of “seize, grasp,” and concerning 2 Kings 4:8 says it has the emphasis “to urge” (HALOT, 1994, p. 303). The term, therefore, stresses how the woman of Shunem with great determination “seizes” Elisha with her persuasive words to accomplish her goal to have him remain with them. The principle of persuasion emphasized here is: be determined to accomplish your goal.
The verb sooth occurs some eighteen times in the OT. Patterson observes that in the majority of its uses “the verb has an evil connotation,” and that “there is also the underlying idea of cunningness in this root” (TWOT, 1980, p. 621). The verb is instructive, however, in its use in 2 Kings 18:32 (and the parallel texts of 2 Chron. 32:11, 15; Isa. 36:18) in Rabshakeh’s speech at the wall of Jerusalem warning the Jews that Assyria would certainly defeat them, and that they should “hearken not unto Hezekiah, when he persuadeth you, saying, The LORD will deliver you” (AV). The NASB and the NIV both use “mislead” instead of “persuade” in this text (see also HALOT, 1995, p. 749). From Rabshakeh’s perspective, Hezekiah was being cunning and evil in his intentions, since his “ideas reflect a polytheistic and pagan concept of God” (Constable, 1985, p. 575). However, from God’s perspective, Hezekiah’s persuasive appeals to his people were appropriate and godly. A principle to be gleaned here concerning persuasion is: the motive behind persuasion must be godly even if misunderstood by people.
The next OT verb to examine is pahtzar, which only occurs seven times in Scripture. The word’s basic meaning is to “push, press” (BDB, 1977, p. 823). It is used in a physical sense in Genesis 19:9 as the men of Sodom “pressed hard (pahtzar) against Lot and came near to break the door” seeking to attack the “men” (angels) who were with Lot. The word is used more frequently in a metaphorical sense of “urge,” or pressing upon someone by means of persuasive words (HALOT, 1996, p. 954). This is its usage in Genesis 19:3 when Lot “urged” the angels to stay with him, and in 33:11 when Jacob “urged” Esau to take his gift of animals (cf. also Judg. 19:7; 2 Ki. 2:17; 5:16). Concerning this word’s use in Genesis 19:3, Wenham asserts, “Perhaps here ‘he twisted their arm’ would be an equivalent English idiom” (Wenham, 1994, p. 54). The persuasion principle gleaned from this word is: be persistent until your goal is reached.
The verb pahthah occurs some 27 times in the OT and usually has the negative idea of “enticement” (Ex. 22:15) or “deception” (Deut. 11:16). Goldberg observes that, “The basic verb idea is ‘be open, spacious, wide,’ and might relate to the immature or simple one who is open to all kinds of enticement, not having developed a discriminating judgment as to what is right or wrong” (TWOT, 1980, p. 742). In 1 Kings 22:20, 21, 22, the verb is translated “persuade”(AV), and in Proverbs 25:15 it is rendered “persuaded” (AV, NASB, NIV). The references in 1 Kings 22 fit with Goldberg’s assessment. Such is not the case with Proverbs 25:15, “By forbearance a ruler may be persuaded, And a soft tongue breaks the bone.” Clifford correctly observes: “The verb for ‘to persuade’ is negative (‘to deceive, seduce’) in its other four occurrences in Proverbs, but it has a positive meaning here and in Hos. 2:16 and Judg. 14:15” (Clifford, 1999, p. 225). Garrett explains the parallelism in this verse: “The bones are the most rigid parts inside of a person, and fracturing the bones here refers to breaking down the deepest, most hardened resistance to an idea a person may possess” (Garrett, 1993, p. 207). Zuck concisely sets forth that this persuasiveness which overcomes resistance in a ruler is through a person’s words: “Words should be spoken with restraint (10:19; 11:12; 13:3; 15:28; 16:23; 17:27; 21:23; 29:20), and should be fitting or appropriate to the occasion (10:32; 15:1, 23; 16:24; 25:11, 15)” (Zuck, 1995, p. 108). The principle of persuasion of Proverbs 25:15, therefore, is: words must be appropriate to the occasion.
The final verb to examine is shasa which is used nine times in the OT, with five “describing the cloven hoof of quadrupeds” (Austel, 1980, p. 944). Three of the other four uses refer to the tearing apart of an animal. The pertinent use of the term related to this study occurs in 1 Samuel 24:7 where “David persuaded (shasa) his men with these words and did not allow them to rise up against Saul.” The significance of the verb in this verse is presented by Gordon: “the Hebrew has ‘cleft . . . with words’, which is both more colourful and worthy of better treatment in the versions, ancient and modern. The addition of ‘with words’ (not ‘with these words’, as RSV) suggests that we have a figurative usage comparable with the English ‘tear in pieces’, ‘excoriate’, etc. NEB ‘reproved . . . severely’ is dull but adequate. For the expression we might compare Hosea 6:5 (‘I have hewn them by the prophets, I have slain them by the words of my mouth’) and perhaps also the use of dichotomein (‘cut in two’) in Matthew 25:41 and Luke 12:46” (Gordon, 1986, p. 180). The verb’s emphasis is on David’s emotional fervor as he uses words to persuade his men not to kill Saul when the opportunity for such action was at hand. The principle for persuasion here is: be outwardly fervent in your persuasion endeavor.
A Hebrew noun (leqach) also conveys the idea of persuasion. This noun only appears nine times in the OT. Its primary emphasis is that of “learning, teaching” (BDB, 1977, p. 544), but it also includes the idea of “teaching-power,” which is “persuasiveness” (BDB, 1977, p. 544). The persuasion emphasis occurs in Proverbs 7:21; 16:21, 23 (HALOT, 1995, p. 535). Proverbs 7:21 uses the term of a harlot, “With her many persuasions she entices him; With her flattering lips she seduces him.” The persuasive power of words is obvious in 7:21 as the “designation of the woman’s enticing description as a didactic discourse or argument” (Toy, 1904, p. 155). The persuasion principle for godly proclamation is: do not use persuasion to achieve selfish immoral ends.
In contrast to the negative emphasis of Proverbs 7:21, the noun leqach occurs in a positive sense in 16:21, “The wise in heart will be called discerning, And sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness.” Concerning the relationship of the two halves of 16:21, Bridges observes that the “internal qualities [of a wise heart] gain increasing acceptance from external gifts [of persuasive speech],” and that “when we are enabled to clothe our thought in a flowing style and clear expression” then this “doubtless gives a great advantage in communicating knowledge” (Briggs, 1987, p. 241). The “sweetness of speech” refers to “gracious and friendly words” which results in teaching that “will be well received because it is persuasive” (Ross, 1991, p. 1009). Proverbs 16:23 furthers the emphasis on the positive use of the noun leqach, “The heart of the wise teaches his mouth, And adds persuasiveness to his lips.” Delitzsch correctly notes that “the contents of the learning, and the ability to communicate it, are measured by the wisdom of the heart of him who possesses it” (Delitzsch, 1968, p. 348). The principle applicable to persuasion is: a godly inner character [ethos] combined with appropriate communication gains acceptance.
Biblical Principles Summarized
In summary, the basic principles concerning persuasion presented in the terminology of the OT (as seen in this article) and the NT (as seen in the earlier article) are:
1. Persuasion can be accomplished:
a. Through logical argumentation; this is the clear and direct exposition of God’s Word (for its persuasive power, see: Ps. 19:7; Isa. 55:11; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; Heb. 4:12, etc.) through rational presentation (see Acts 17:2, 17; 18:14, 19, etc.).
b. Through emotional appeal.
– Be outwardly fervent in your persuasion endeavor.
c. Through personal character (ethos) (cf. 1 Thess. 2:1-12).
(1) The motive behind persuasion must be godly, even if misunderstood by people.
(2) Do not use persuasion to achieve selfish immoral ends.
d. Through style of speaking.
(1) It is not by self-reliance on oratorical skills.
(2) It should be clear and cogent.
– Words must be appropriate to the occasion.
(3) It should be in dependence on the Holy Spirit.
(4) It should emphasize the message, and not the preacher.
– A godly inner character combined with appropriate communication gains acceptance.
2. The outcomes of persuasion:
a. The means to the goals.
– “Persuasive speaking urges us to choose from among options” (Osborn and Osborn, 1994, p. 359).
(1) Be determined to accomplish the goal.
(2) Be persistent until the goal is reached.
b. The identification of the goals.
– “Persuasive speaking asks the audience for more commitment than does informative speaking” Osborn and Osborn, 1994, p. 359).
(1) Exercising belief or trust in the Lord.
(2) Yielding to, or being obedient to, God’s will and Word.
Structuring Persuasive Messages
In the process of structuring persuasive messages, some specific items need to be included. To begin, a definition of persuasion is required. Most, if not all, preachers have some ideas as to what persuasion is. However, providing a precise definition of the concept is somewhat elusive.
Some definitions of persuasion are brief and general: “Persuasion is responsible communication leading to mutually desirable change or resistance to change” (Jabusch and Littlejohn, 1995, p. 107); or, persuasion is “the process of changing or reinforcing attitudes, beliefs, values, or behavior” (Beebe and Beebe, 1994, p. 340). In even greater contrast, O’Keefe seeks to de-emphasize the whole concept of definition in order to recognize the “fuzzy edges” involved in persuasion. He writes that persuasion is “a successful intentional effort at influencing another’s mental state through communication in a circumstance in which the persuadee has some measure of freedom. But it should be apparent that constructing such a definition would not eliminate the fuzzy edges of the concept of persuasion. Such a definition leaves open to dispute just how much success is required, just how intentional the effort must be, and so on” (O’Keefe, 2002, p.5).
In contrast, other definitions of persuasion seek to be inclusive. For example, Woodward and Denton define “persuasion as a process composed of five dimensions. Persuasion is 1. the process of preparing and presenting 2. verbal and nonverbal messages 3. to autonomous individuals 4. in order to alter or strengthen 5. their attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors” (emphasis theirs, Woodward and Denton, 2000, p. 5). Others assert that “Persuasion involves one or more persons who are engaged in the activity of creating, reinforcing, modifying, or extinguishing beliefs, attitudes, intentions, motivations, and/or behaviors within the constraints of a given communication context” (Gass and Seiter, 2003, p. 34). Yet again, others assert that “Persuasive speaking is the process of producing oral messages that (1) increase personal commitment, (2) modify beliefs, attitudes, or values, or (3) induce action” (Gronbeck, et al, 1994, 409).
Homiletics books generally consider the process of preparing and presenting biblical messages, and commonly do so from the perspective of being true to the exposition of the biblical text(s). Indeed, such is the emphasis in my own book, Biographical Preaching: Bringing Bible Characters to Life (chs. 4 & 5 in particular). At the same time, homileticians often stress the need for preaching to effect change in the listeners (as in chapter 3 of my book). An omission often found in homiletics books, however, is how to prepare sermons with a persuasive goal specifically in view.
I believe that the goal of preaching is ultimately to effect change in the listeners to bring them into conformity with the will and Word of God, to persuade the listeners. The definition of persuasion, therefore, by Woodward and Denton, given above, adequately provides a framework for my modified definition of persuasive preaching:
Persuasive preaching is (1) the process of preparing biblical, expository messages using a persuasive pattern, and (2) presenting them through verbal and nonverbal communication means (3) to autonomous individuals who can be convicted and/or taught by God’s Holy Spirit, (4) in order to alter or strengthen (5) their attitudes and beliefs toward God, His Word, and other individuals, resulting in their lives being transformed into the image of Christ.
Various organizational patterns are suggested by communication scholars to effect persuasion. For preaching purposes, however, four basic organizational patterns can be effectively used to structure persuasive sermons: problem-solution, refutation, cause-effect, and motivated sequence (Beebe and Beebe, 1994, see ch. 16). Each of these will be briefly explained, and a sample sermon outline presented to illustrate each one.
Problem-Solution. The problem-solution type of sermon will have two main emphases: a statement of the problem, and a presentation of the solution to the problem. Political candidates often use this approach. “The problem-solution pattern works best when a clearly evident problem can be documented and a solution can be proposed to deal with the evils of the well-documented problem” (Beebe & Beebe, 1994, p. 383; see also Lucas, 1995, pp. 180-81, 351-53). Biblical preaching often deals with just this type of issues. Indeed, probably all of the “life situation” or the “felt needs” sermons fall into this category.
An example of this approach is seen in John Ortberg’s (teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church) sermon on April 12-13, 2003, titled, “Why Promiscuity?” His four section sermon actually fits well into these two broad categories. Under what can be called the “Problem” element, he discussed three areas: [a] “some observations about sexuality;” [b] the questions, “Why? It’s just a simple act, involving body parts and nerve endings. It’s biological. Why does it have this power?” and [c] “It’s not just biological; the Bible says it’s spiritual.” Under what can be called the “Solution” element, he discussed his fourth area: “To honor God’s design for sexuality means to reserve sexual intimacy for marriage” (www.willowcreek.org; 7/17/2003). The persuasive goal for the sermon is for biblical obedience to the sacred commitment of marital intimacy.
Refutation. The refutation type of presentation also logically divides into two broad categories: identification of the objections to your position, and refuting those objections through evidence and argumentation. “You would be most likely to use a refutation organizational strategy when your position is being attacked; or, if you know what your listeners’ chief objections are to your persuasive proposal, you could organize your speech around the arguments your listeners hold” (Beebe and Beebe, 1994, p. 384; see also Brydon and Scott, 1994, p. 220). Books and articles (including my previous article related to this study) often follow the refutation model; sermons can also adopt it (see its use in texts such as, Acts 26:25-29; Rom. 3:5-31; 6:1-4; 9:19-21).
A sermon by A. T. Robertson, titled “Asaph’s Recovery from Pessimism” (from Psalm 73) follows this approach (Robertson, 1979, pp. 56-64). The issue refuted is that living an ungodly life has benefits that you miss when living a godly life. The identification of the objections to living a godly life are presented in his first point: “The Psalmist’s Absence from the Sanctuary Gave Him a Wrong View of Life.” Here he identifies how the wicked enjoy temporal prosperity, seem to be free from trouble, show insolence towards others, and even talk against God, and have no negative results from it. The refutation comes in his second point, “Return to the Sanctuary Gave Asaph the True Angle of Vision” (wherein he shows that the final end of the wicked is disaster), and in his third point, “And Good Now Came to Asasph” (wherein he shows Asaph’s trust and his ultimate reception into God’s glory). The persuasive goal of the sermon is for listeners to continue to trust God through life’s trials since He is conforming us to His glorious image.
Cause and Effect. The cause and effect message logically divides into two broad classifications, and can be presented in alternate ways (Beebe and Beebe, 1994, pp. 384-85; see also Zeuschner, 1993, pp. 222-23). A common approach is to start by showing effect(s), either negative or positive, and then to follow that by identifying the cause(s) of that effect. However, it can also be reversed, noting the cause(s) at the beginning, followed by the effect(s).
I will illustrate this with one of my sermons on John 2:1-11, Jesus’ first miracle when He turned the water into wine. Under the broad category of the cause, I included three emphases: [a] Jesus is the One who supplies needed wine (2:1-5); [b] Jesus is the One who supplies abundant wine (2:6-7); and [c] Jesus is the One who supplies better wine (2:8-10). The category of effect was then presented: Jesus is the One who supplies purposeful wine (2:11). The persuasive goal of the sermon is reached in 2:11 since the purpose of the miracle is explained there as showing forth His glory in order to bring people to faith in Him.
Motivated Sequence. The motivated sequence was developed into its present form by Alan H. Monroe, and first copyrighted in 1935 (Monroe, 1955). However, I believe that Paul’s basic approach in the book of Romans follows this primary sequence of thought, and he obviously precedes Monroe’s copyright date. Although Monroe intended it to be used for all types of speech (including entertaining, informing, stimulating, convincing, and actuating), it has continued to be used more in persuasive speeches than any other. It follows five organizational steps:
(1) Attention – get the audience’s attention; this is the “introduction.”
(2) Need – present clear reasons why the subject concerns this audience, what Bryan Chapell calls the “Fallen Condition Focus” (Chapell, 1994, pp. 40-44); this can also be included in the introduction, or in the first part of the body of the sermon.
(3) Satisfaction/Solution – demonstrate how the need can be met and satisfied; this makes up the body of the sermon.
(4) Visualization – paint a word picture showing what the future will be like if the solution is adopted, and/or if it is not adopted; this can either be in the body or in the first part of the conclusion.
(5) Action – specifically set forth what the audience now needs to do in clear, easy-to-follow steps; this is the “conclusion.” (Monroe, 1955)
– “When we say to a friend, ‘Won’t you come and call on us sometime?’ we are not nearly so likely to induce a visit as we would were we to put the request more specifically and definitely, saying, ‘Won’t you come over next Tuesday evening at eight o’clock?’ A great deal of writing and speaking [and preaching] fails for this very simple reason. We leave the reactor favorably disposed but confused as to just how he can translate his favorable disposition into concrete action” (Weaver, 1948, p. 353).
McDill provides an example of this approach in a sermon from Ephesians 1:3-6 (McDill, 1994, pp. 176-77). In the Introduction he presents: (1) Attention, a childhood experience of being “chosen” for games; (2) Need, the need for belonging, for affirmation, for being wanted. In the sermon Body he presents: (3) Satisfaction, with five statements: [a] We are chosen by God’s grace to be completely blessed (v. 3); [b] we are chosen by God’s grace to be fully accepted (v. 4); [c] we are chosen by God’s grace to be adopted as sons (v. 5); [d] we are chosen by God’s grace to fulfill His plan (v. 5); and [e] we are chosen by God’s grace to glorify God (v. 6). In his Conclusion, McDill incorporates the final two steps: (4) Visualization, story of a family that adopted handicapped children, and (5) Action, acknowledge what God has done and thank Him, and trust your needs to Him now. The action step is the persuasive goal of the sermon.
Persuasion Versus Manipulation
This article advocates that persuasion is appropriate and biblical. Baumann also expresses this: “The ultimate goal of preaching is not the transmission of information, but the transformation of persons; not simply data exchange, but behavioral change. This means that preaching is done for a change in attitudes, beliefs, and values expressed verbally and nonverbally on the part of the persuadee” (Baumann, 1981, p. 236).
The question of what is ethical persuasion and what becomes manipulation must now be briefly answered. A failure to distinguish persuasion from manipulation has probably caused many preachers to avoid persuasive techniques. Christian writers have interacted with this difficulty (see Basinger and Bassett, 1982; Kehl, 1980), and so have secular writers (Hine, 1995; see also Gass and Seiter, 2003, pp. 357-76; Woodward and Denton, 2000, pp. 367-402). That the ethics of persuasion is perceived as a complex issue was set forth by McLaughlin in an article (JETS 1972) and then in a book (1979). More recently, Stephen Hines summarized basic issues (March 17, 1989).
Basic issues of an ethical approach to persuasion are discussed by both secular and Christian writers, and their conclusions are quite similar. Ayres and Miller, for example, state: “To define what is ethical is not easy, but some basic points can be agreed upon: a communicator is unethical if (1) his or her purpose or goal is to manipulate a listener with the intent to harm someone else; (2) if the content of the message is known to be untrue; or (3) if, however good the end may be, the means of achieving it are questionable” (Ayres and Miller, 1994, p. 254). Baumann also summarizes the basic elements of ethical preaching into three guidelines: (1) “It is generally agreed that it is unethical to be dishonest. There is no excuse for deliberate deceit, for intentionally misleading an audience, regardless of the end in view.” (2) “It is also unethical to deceive the audience about your intention. When a speaker has a goal, a predetermined end for his listeners, and seeks to deceive them regarding this intention, he has flirted with untruth.” (3) “Persuasion which either overtly or covertly attacks the basic freedom of response in the individual or subjugates his self-determination is also unethical” (Baumann, 1981, p. 238).
With greater detail, Hanna and Gibson delineate eight basic guidelines for ethical persuasion:
1. Be candid as you reveal your thinking and feelings. Your honesty is your most valuable personal asset. It is the source of your strength as a person and as a persuader.
2. Don’t make arguments you can’t support, and don’t support arguments with evidence that is misleading.
3. Avoid oversimplifying complex matters.
4. Don’t use emotional appeals that are insupportable in evidence or reasoning.
5. Don’t pretend to be sure about something when you’re not.
6. Try, as far as possible, to let others make up their own minds without manipulating them, coercing them, or misleading them.
7. Remember that, sometimes, preserving harmony and peace is more important than speaking your mind. It is sometimes better to keep your mouth shut.
[In contrast to Hanna and Gibson, Christians have an obligation to present the gospel, even if harmony may be disrupted].
8. Respect the enormous power of language to create reality. Take care never to misuse that power (Hanna and Gibson, 1992, p. 359).
Larsen (1989, p. 138) provides a helpful list contrasting manipulation and persuasion:
1. Deception, phoniness
2. Lack of awareness, tunnel vision
3. Control, concealment
4. Cynicism, distrust
The Actualizor (Persuader)
1. Honesty, transparency
2. Awareness, real interest, aliveness
3. Openness, spontaneity, freedom
4. Trust, faith, belief
The Bible itself, both in the OT and in the NT, calls for its preachers to proclaim its truths, and to do so persuasively. The Scriptures themselves set forth integral principles guiding the preacher in that persuasive proclamation. Preaching should have the goal of effecting change in the lives of listeners, seeking to bring them into conformity with the will and Word of God. This will ultimately result in lives being transformed into the image of Christ. The biblical principles of persuasion are not manipulative, and are compatible with persuasion methodologies. The biblical expositor can confidently use those methods as he observes the appropriate parameters of Scriptural ethics.
R. Larry Overstreet is Professor of Pastoral Theology at Northwest Baptist Seminary, Tacoma, WA.
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R. Larry Overstreet is Professor of Pastoral Theology at Northwest Baptist Seminary, Tacoma, WA.