Alliterated Sermon Outlines
John G. Butler's commentaries on Genesis, Matthew, and Mark are available from Logos as part of the Analytical Bible Expositor Collection (3 Vols.)!
This brochure is about preaching expository sermons with alliterated outlines. Using alliterated outlines in preaching is a method of preaching that is quite popular in our time. This method is not the only method of preaching, of course. If it is not your method, do not feel discouraged and deficient. And if you do alliterate, do not criticize those who do not alliterate. Some of my favorite preachers never alliterated or even outlined their sermons, but they could preach and expound the Word of God with excellence.
The techniques presented in this brochure are my techniques. They are not rules set in cement. I make no claim for perfection but am always trying to improve my techniques. There are no books on the market that I know of which tell one how to do this sort of thing. Therefore, we who preach with alliterated outlines have to make up our own rules as we go along.
Whether or not you preach with alliterated outlines, always remember that in preaching you must open the Word of God to your listeners. There is a great dearth in our pulpits today of good Bible preaching. Not many preachers are preaching the Word of God. Some preach politics, some preach psychology, some preach in pride (to exalt themselves), and some preach for the purse (to make money—but you have to be greatly deluded if you think preaching the Word of God is the way to become rich). Some preachers can tell exciting stories and move people emotionally, but they do not preach the Word well. It is hoped that this brochure will not only help the reader in the matter of alliterated outlines but will also encourage the reader to do a much better job in this matter of preaching the Word of God.
In this brochure we address six aspects of alliteration:
- The Precedence for Alliteration
- The Purpose of Alliteration
- The Practices of Alliteration
- The Props for Alliteration
- The Preparation for Alliteration
- The Perils of Alliteration
1. Precedence for Alliteration: Biblical Examples of Alliteration
It may surprise some that the Bible does have some good illustrations of alliteration and other literary devices which give a preacher a good precedence for alliterating his sermons. These biblical illustrations of alliteration are, however, often lost in our English translations; for what alliterates in one language will not always alliterate in another language.
The best illustration of alliteration found in the Bible is Psalm 119. This Psalm is a literary masterpiece second to none. Psalm 119 is composed of 176 verses divided into twenty-two sections. These twenty-two sections of eight verses correspond to the Hebrew alphabet, which has twenty-two letters (our English alphabet has twenty-six letters the last time I checked). At the top of each section is a word which is a letter of the Hebrew alphabet (such as Aleph, Beth, Gimel, Daleth, etc.).
In the Hebrew text, each section of Psalm 119 has eight stanzas. Those who numbered the verses in Scripture wisely kept the number of the verses in accordance with the stanzas. The fact that each section has eight stanzas is a musical characteristic, for there are eight keys in an octave of music. David was really clever in organizing this Psalm. It is not only alliterated but it was set up musically. This is a good illustration of the literary excellence of the Scriptures and a good precedence for preachers to put good organization into their sermons.
The alliteration of the Psalm is found in the fact that each of the eight verses in each section begins with the Hebrew letter which is given in the heading of that section. Thus all the verses in the first section entitled Aleph begin with a word that starts with the letter Aleph. In each section, all the verses begin with a word that starts with the letter which is printed at the top of the section in your Bible.
The amazing thing about the alliteration of this Psalm is that David used every letter of the Hebrew alphabet. As will be noted later, there are some letters in the alphabet which are nigh impossible to use in alliteration. David was a genius, however, and was able to use every letter of the Hebrew alphabet at least eight times in alliterating Psalm 119. Therefore, we unhesitatingly say that the original and champion alliterator concerning the biblical text was David. The prophet Jeremiah runs a close second, for he used every letter at least three times in alliterating Lamentations 3, which is another illustration of an alliterated text in Scripture.
2. Purpose of Alliteration: Reasons for and Value of Alliteration
There are at least three important reasons for alliterating which gives alliteration of sermons a significant value. They are as follows:
A Listening Ear
Alliteration of the sermon will help the listener to tune into your sermon much better than a rambling bunch of words that requires the listener to do extra work to know what you are talking about. We preachers should do the work, not the listener.
A listener of your sermon is much more likely to have a listening ear when you announce that you are going to speak about (1) the age of John the Baptist, (2) the appetites of John the Baptist, and (3) the apparel of John the Baptist rather than announce that you are going to speak on (1) the various thoughts and ideas about when John was born, (2) the nutritional habits of John which are very different from our day, and (3) the garments worn by John during his wilderness appearances. Don’t force your listeners to try to digest long and complicated point titles, or their ears will soon turn you off.
A Learning Mind
Learning requires an assimilation of facts. If you cloak the facts in long, complicated sentences at the very beginning, you will impede the learning of your audience. Your sermons are to be instructive. Too many think their preaching is to be entertainment. Preaching is not to entertain but to educate and exhort. To do that you must have substance and you must have it well organized in delivery or you will lose your audience quickly. People do not take to spiritual instruction well; and when you give them a rambling, unorganized sermon with points difficult to remember, your audience will be turned off quickly and learn little from your sermon.
A Lasting Effect
For a sermon to produce good results, it must have a lasting effect. To have a lasting effect, the person hearing your sermon must be able to remember your sermon. Obviously they will not be able to remember every word you spoke; but if you have given the main points of your sermon in a simple alliterated way, your audience will be better able to remember them (even if he or she does not take notes) than if you gave your main points in long and complicated sentences.
3. Practices of Alliteration: Various Ways of Alliterating
Alliteration is not limited to making the first letter of a word in your outline the same. That is the most common form used. But there are other forms and practices of alliteration, too, which are included here.
Same Beginning (Letter)
This is the most common form of alliteration. An alliterated outline from John 3:16 illustrates this practice.
- Passion of God’s love: “so”
- Perimeter of God’s love: “the world”
- Proof of God’s love: “He gave”
- Price of God’s love: “gave His only begotten Son”
- Prerequisite for God’s love: “believeth”
- Protection by God’s love: “shall not perish”
- Provision of God’s love: “have everlasting life”
Same Beginning (Prefix)
Sometimes one can keep the sermon points alliterated by prefixing nonalliterated words. “Un” works especially well here, such as unwanted, unable, unfaithful.
Same Ending (Suffix)
If you cannot begin the points the same, try ending the points the same way. I used the “ation” for Psalm 119 with a different word for each of the 176 verses. Words included information, obligation, regulation, compensation, adoration. In the first chapter of my book on Paul I used the “ing” suffix to alliterated twenty-one points. Words including assisting, consenting, destroying, intruding, dragging, imprisoning. Other suffixes such as “ly” (directly, suddenly, weakly) or “fully” (mercifully, respectfully, faithfully) or “ed” will give good alliteration. Luke 7:38 can be outlined with “ed” suffix in washed His feet, dried His feet, kissed His feet, and anointed his feet.
Same Ending (Subject)
If you cannot alliterate the first word of a point, keep the last word the same. This will give the alliterative effect. A Genesis 15:1 outline illustrates this practice.
- Word of God: “Word of the LORD came to Abraham”
- Comfort of God: “Fear not”
- Shield of God: “I am thy shield”
- Reward of God: “I am…thy…great reward”
Same Sound (Assonance)
This is alliteration by sound. Rhyming produces a valid alliterative effect.
4. Props for Alliteration: Useful Aids for Alliterating
Here are some aids for alliterating besides prayer. Don’t laugh, prayer is vital for alliterating—just ask me!
A thesaurus is a dictionary of synonyms. It is an invaluable aid for alliteration. Purchase several brands. The more words the better. Get a thesaurus that says it has 30,000 or more words.
A dictionary is needed to have the right meaning of a word. As an example, it will distinguish between “sorrow” and “remorse.” All remorse is sorrow, but not all sorrow is remorse. Dictionaries vary in size. The more words the better. Old dictionaries can be a problem, for words change meaning over the years.
Sometimes in desperation when the thesaurus does not give me a word I need, I will go to a speller and go through the entire list of words under a particular letter. A speller is better for this search than a dictionary because it lists the words without the meaning and thus it is easier to search through the words quicker.
Use your computer internet services. Do a Google search for more help.
Alliteration skill is often more a gift from God than anything else. Some many try very hard to alliterate and just cannot do it. That may reflect a lack of a gift, not a lack of intelligence. Gifts need to be developed, of course. A gifted piano player needs to practice to develop his gift. The gift of alliteration can be developed using our suggestions. But if you lack the gift, don’t be discouraged. Simply use the gifts you do have.
Some letters alliterate better than other letters. The following is how I evaluated the letters. Other preachers may have different favorites, but these are mine.
Best—C, P, R, S (I work these four letters to death.)
Good—D, I, M, W (These letters will sometimes work as well as the first four letters above.)
Fair—A, B, E, F, N, V, T, L (These letters will give good outlines but not as frequently as the above letters.)
Seldom—G, H, O (If I can alliterate with these letters I think I am really on a roll—sometimes they do work well.)
Rare to Never—Q, U, X, Y, Z (The only letter of this group that I have used much is “u” and that is general in an “un” prefix like unwanted, untamed, unfruitful, etc.)
5. Preparation for Alliteration: Organizing the Sermon Text
Before you can alliterate, you must have some points. To get points for your sermon, you must organize your text. Here are a few suggestions on how to organize your text.
This method of organizing your text is best for a small passage of Scripture, especially one verse.
Psalm 136:1: “O give thanks unto the Lord for he is good, for his mercy endureth forever.” Three sentences:
- "Give thanks unto the Lord": Gratitude to God
- "He is good": Goodness of God
- "His mercy endureth forever": Grace of God
John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Three sentences:
- "In the beginning was the Word": Duration of the Word
- "The Word was with God": Dwelling of the Word
- "The Word was God": Deity of the Word
This method of organizing the text is the most common and practical method. Study the text thoroughly to get the subject well in mind; then alliterate them. Luke 12:16–20 has four distinct subject points:
- The Prosperity of the Farmer (v. 16): “The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully.”
- The Perplexity of the Farmer (v. 17): “What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits?”
- The Planning of the Farmer (vv. 18, 19): “I will pull down my barns, and build greater…I will say to my soul, Soul, thou has much goods laid up for many years, take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.” (The plans are twofold: building and banqueting.)
- The Prospects of the Farmer (v. 20): “God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee, then whose shall those things be?” (His prospects concerned his life and his lucre.
When various speakers are involved in a text, it can be practical to organize the text according to the speakers, then develop your sub-points with the message of the speakers.
Acts 15:7–21 has three speakers in it for outline points.
- The Reminding by Peter (v.7–11)
- The Reporting by Paul (v. 12)
- The Responding by James (vv.13–21)
Sometimes different sites in a text will give you a good way of outlining your text. 1 Kings 2:1–18 has four sites in it for outline points.
- Site One: Gilgal (vv.1, 2) Dedication—Elisha declares his dedication to follow Elijah to the end.
- Site Two: Bethel (v. 3) Discouragement—The students of the prophets’ school have to tell Elisha that Elijah is leaving.
- Site Three: Jericho (vv. 4, 5, 15–18) Disbelief—The disbelief at Jericho was in the fact that they sent out men to try and find Elijah. They did not believe he had departed.
- Site Four: Jordan (vv. 6–14) Departure—The place of the departure of Elijah.
Can be similar to sites but different in that they are specific scenes someone saw.
Revelation 19:11–21 has three scenes, each prefaced by the statement “I saw” (Revelation 19:11, 17, 19).
- Scene One—Heaven (vv. 11–16). Coming of the Christ (His coming to each in the end times to end the war of Armageddon.) Sub-points include: The animal for Christ, the attributes of Christ, the anger of Christ, the appellation of Christ, the attire of Christ, the armament of Christ, and the actions of Christ.
- Scene Two—Sky (vv. 17, 18). Communication about the Carnage (The carnage of Armageddon predicted by an angel seen “standing in the sun.”) Sub-points include: The multitude for the message, the mandate in the message, the menu in the message, and the moment of the message.
- Scene Three—Earth (vv. 19–21). Conflict of the Ages (The Battle of Armageddon.) Sub-points include: The armies in the conflict, the anti-Christ in the conflict, and the annihilation in the conflict.
The best illustration of this is found in the Beatitudes, Matthew 5:3–12. There are eight sayings for outline points that illustrate this preparation practice.
- Blessed are the Poor (v. 3)
- Blessed are the Pining (v. 4)
- Blessed are the Pliant (v. 5)
- Blessed are the Panting (v. 6)
- Blessed are the Pitying (v. 7)
- Blessed are the Pure (v. 8)
- Blessed are the Peacemakers (v. 9)
- Blessed are the Persecuted (v. 10–12)
6. Perils of Alliteration: Problems to Avoid When Alliterating
Alliteration is intended to be helpful. But there are some perils in alliterating. We note two prominent perils here.
The Priority Peril
You can become more interested in alliterating than in why you are alliterating. We note two areas here in which the priority peril often shows up.
First, you can become more interested in alliterating your sermon than in the substance of your sermon. Substance in sermons is more important than alliterating. Alliteration without substance is like a skeleton without flesh. It is nothing but dry bones. Dry bones sermons will deaden the church congregation as quick as anything. The quality of the sermon’s substance must always be front and center in preparing a message.
Second, you can also become more interested in alliterating than in the study of the Scriptures. If you want to be a good preacher, you must study the Word of God earnestly. This takes much time and effort. Do not become distracted in your study by undo emphasis on alliterating. It is true that alliterating a message may take considerable time, but be careful that the time you give to alliterating does not take away from the time you should give to the study of the Word of God.
The Perplexity Peril
In your desire to alliterate, you must be careful not to use words that muddy the meaning of your text or outline. I have heard sermons which had alliteration but the alliteration clouded the meaning of the text. It was evident the preacher was more concerned about alliteration than about illumination. There are times when I have simply not alliterated because the alliteration I had was going to darken the meaning of the text. It is more important that people understand our preaching than that we alliterate. Alliteration is to help the listener understand the text more clearly. When this is not accomplished, you need to junk your alliterated outline.
One way to avoid the perplexity peril is to use words that are easy to understand. If the alliterated words are vague in meaning, you have lost the purpose of alliterating. Words should generally be well-known words and simple words or you should be careful to explain the word and justify why you have used it.
About the Author
John G. Butler, originally from Iowa, has been a Baptist minister for over fifty years and a pastor for over thirty-five years with pastorates in Clinton, Iowa; Williamsburg, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; and Chicago, Illinois. Having attended Tennessee Temple University and graduated from Cedarville University, he also authored the 25-volume Bible Biography Series, a 10-volume Study of the Savior series about Jesus Christ, and the 4-volume Butler's Daily Bible Reading set, a unique daily devotional focusing on expository Bible study.
John G. Butler's commentaries on Genesis, Matthew, and Mark are available from Logos as part of the Analytical Bible Expositor Collection (3 Vols.)!