I suspect that those of you who hear a fair amount of preaching have experienced this, haven’t you? Somewhere along the line the preacher has been informed that a rhetorical question is a good way to engage his congregation, hasn’t he? And so what does he do? Well, he uses them almost relentlessly, doesn’t he? Doesn’t he make sentences that don’t need to be questions into questions? If in doubt – and perhaps this is the most distressing approach – he even throws in some form of interrogation at the end of most sentences, doesn’t he?
It is possible that he honestly believes that this is carrying his congregation along with him, isn’t it? Isn’t it likely that there is some preacher who – or some school of preaching which -has developed this kind of thing to its mutated art form, and our man is merely embracing the method? (Can you guess about whom or where I am thinking?) But hasn’t it almost become a kind of inescapable verbal tic?
It seems as if the preacher is always begging for some kind of affirmation from the congregation, doesn’t it? He sounds as if he cannot state anything without at least checking to make sure that someone agrees with him, doesn’t he? It’s hardly proclamation though, is it? Is this really how a herald of God speaks, as if perpetually unsure that what he says stands on its own authority?
Do you wish he would stop doing it? Do you remember when the rhetorical question had power and purpose? When such was genuinely eloquent, and not part of a series of pointless inquisitions? When it would neatly guide a congregation on to the next point in the argument? Or when it would leave some thought hanging pregnantly in the air, inexorably drawing out a conclusion in thoughts that the preacher is not stating in words? Or when a finely poised query would demand that the congregation silently supply a piercing answer that drove into the soul of many of those hearing?
After all, don’t we have many examples of the proper and positive use of such a device in Scripture? Have you considered Isaiah? “Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy?” (Is. 55:2) As part of a section inviting the needy to come to the Lord God for the blessings he holds out, doesn’t that single question, finely placed, hit home?
Again, do we not have another powerful example of this in the letter of that superb stylist, the writer to the Hebrews (might it have been Paul?)? Have you noted how he builds the tension with his catalogue of the faithful, and then emphasizes the weight of evidence, saying, “And what more shall I say? For the time would fail me to tell of Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah, also of David and Samuel and the prophets”? Doesn’t that simple query, riding on the back of the survey just given of godly tenacity and genuine hope, pack a real punch?
Would you agree that there are few finer or more poignant examples than that of our Lord himself, who, when faced with the pressing necessity and awful prospect of his death, cried out, “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save Me from this hour?'”?
Or – if you want to consider those examples where there are more questions in sequence – what about the apostle Paul’s pithy series of enquiries when he is contending against factionalism in the Corinthian church? “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” Surely this drives home the point with those three inquisitive thrusts?
Or how could we forget that superb polemical sequence of fiery logic found in the letter to the Galatians, where Paul is emphasizing the danger of departing from the gospel?
Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? This only I want to learn from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh? Have you suffered so many things in vain – if indeed it was in vain? Therefore he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you, does he do it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? (Gal 3.1-5)
Is that not irresistible? Don’t you feel the force of its progress, building its relentless weight against these dangerously erring saints?
If we emulated the perfect timing, appropriate placement, and potent restraint of such models, all would be well and good, would it not? Can we deny the effectiveness of the rhetorical question, properly and wisely employed? Can we not agree on this at least?
I hope so, but this is hardly what we find, is it? Instead, don’t we face a scenario in which, with servile relentlessness and thoughtless over-reliance, preachers pepper their sermons with unending queries? I hope you will permit me a brief excursus into parody, but isn’t this the kind of thing we are becoming accustomed to hear?
Well, dear friends, isn’t it a blessing that we read this chapter of God’s Word this morning? It is good to read the Bible together, isn’t it? Will you turn there with me once more? Now, what do we find here? Don’t we find something that warms our hearts? Isn’t this a challenge to our lives? We are also warned here, aren’t we? There is teaching here too, isn’t there? But we are not left without encouragements, are we? And what is this telling us? Isn’t it telling us that we need to be ready to serve the Lord more readily? Are we hearing that? Do we embrace that? Do we? Do we? Or do we?
Where are the teeth in that? Where is the flow of reason? Where the building force of unavoidable logic? Doesn’t this kind of pap grieve the heart? Aren’t we tempted to bellow, “Get on with it!”? What would apostolic preaching have sounded like if this abomination had gripped the hearts of Peter and Paul? Something like this, perhaps?
Men of Israel, will you hear these words? Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves also know– wasn’t he delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, but taken by your lawless hands, crucified, and put to death? Didn’t God raise him up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that he should be held by it? For didn’t David say concerning him:
‘Did I not foresee the Lord always before my face? For is he not at my right hand, that I may not be shaken? Therefore did not my heart rejoice? And was my tongue not glad? Moreover my flesh also will rest in hope, won’t it? For you will not leave my soul in Hades, Nor will you allow your Holy One to see corruption, will you? Haven’t you have made known to me the ways of life? Won’t you make me full of joy in your presence?’ Men and brethren, may I speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day?
Do you notice how you are almost obliged to take out the second person pronouns and replace them with first person plurals? Can you not do the same tragic exercise with Paul’s sermons, stripping out all the declaration and proclamation, and leaving them toothless and crawling? I mean, had Paul had such a feeble style he could hardly have written to the Thessalonians that his gospel came not in word only, but in power, in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance, could he? Would it not be more like in word, in weakness, without spirit, and with much querying?
How can we expect anyone to be gripped by the truth we proclaim when we cravenly offer it as a possibility to be endorsed rather than a reality to be received? Why should anyone listen to you if you give the perpetual impression that you’re really not sure about your message? Is there any penetrating and abiding force in such an approach as a matter of course?
So, preachers, shall we eschew the abuse of the rhetorical question and the overuse of the interrogative? Shall we save rhetorical questions for the occasions when they appropriately and fruitfully demand that our congregations fill the void they leave? Shall we learn from Christ himself, and from Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and Paul, and John, and Peter, to use our questions with restraint and place them with precision? Shall we stop begging our congregations to agree with everything we say in the act of saying it, and return to the business of speaking the Word of God with humble authority, as true heralds?
And, for those hearers who have to put up with this, may I suggest at least one solution? What would happen if you offered an audible response – I should think a simple yes or no would suffice – to every question that the preacher put to you? Might that begin to expose the error of his ways in this regard? Might it not at least reveal to him quite how often he is demanding an empty answer of his congregation?
So, will these few words make any difference to this frustrating practice? Will we at last see the back of the pointless, endless series of queries, and the return of the rhetorical question in its proper form and function? Will the land, or at least the pulpit, be rid of incessant and aimless interrogation? I don’t know. Do you?
Jeremy Walker is a pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church in Crawley, UK. He and his longsuffering wife, Alissa, are parents to three delightful children. Jeremy is co-author of A Portrait of Paul and author of The Brokenhearted Evangelist, and also blogs at The Wanderer.