Begging the question
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 he 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 sequence? Or when it would leave something 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?
I hope you 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?
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? Therefore, being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that of the fruit of his body, according to the flesh, he would raise up the Christ to sit on his throne, didn’t he foresee this and speak concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that his soul was not left in Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption? Hasn’t God raised up this Jesus? And aren’t we all witnesses of that? Therefore, hasn’t he been exalted to the right hand of God, and hasn’t he received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, and poured out this which you now see and hear?
For David did not ascend into the heavens, did he? Didn’t he say this?
Has not the Lord said to my Lord
‘Sit at my right hand,
Till I make your enemies your footstool’?
Therefore all the house of Israel should know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ, shouldn’t you?
Can you imagine anyone in Israel being cut to the heart by a message that depends entirely on them for affirmation? And if they were, what gentle recommendation would Peter offer to be accepted by these judges of all that he said?
We should repent, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, shouldn’t we? And we shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, shan’t we? For isn’t the promise to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call?
Do you notice how you are almost obliged to take out the second person pronouns and replace them with first person plurals? Can’t you do the same tragic exercise with Paul’s sermon, stripping out all the declaration and proclamation, and leaving it toothless and crawling?
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 stop begging our congregations to agree with everything we say in the act of saying it, and return to the business to 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 – whether yes or no – 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 interrogation? I don’t know. Do you?