Rhetoric seeks to communicate effectively, with a goal to persuasion. Biblical writers use rhetorical devices with great effect. Rhetorical questions are common in the Bible. How are they used, and how may they be used in teaching and preaching? Here are a few points about rhetorical questions that are generally applicable.

  1. The rhetorical question implies an answer, needs no reply, or suggests that the answer is obvious.
    • Is anything impossible for me? Jer 32.27.
  2. Context, structure, and tone indicate that the question is rhetorical, but it is generally learned naturally as a part of language use.
    •  Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith? Mark 4.40.
  3. The rhetorical question usually carries emotional weight: sarcasm, wonder, disbelief, etc.
    • Is Israel a slave? Is he a homeborn servant? Why then has he become a prey? Jer 2.14.
    • For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith? 1 Thes 3.9-10.
    • How could you do such a thing?
  4. As such, the rhetorical question posits the point with greater force.
    • Who can say, “I have kept my heart clean; I am pure from my sin”? Pro 20.9.
    • Why does this generation ask for a sign? Mk 8.12.
    • But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? Gal 4.9 ESV.
  5. The usage is designed to capture the attention of the hearers, engage their minds, and establishes credibility or authority of the speaker.
    • Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will trouble, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?  Rom 8.35.
    • What shall we say then? Rom 6.1.
    • Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? 2 Thes 2.5.
  6. The rhetorical question should be used with care, since it has the potential to distance the speaker from the hearer by undermining the perception of humility or by creating an air of self-importance.
    • See God’s questions to Job in chapters 38-41, used with good effect.
    • What do you know?
  7. The rhetorical question may build on previously shared information for greater effect.
    • Before she goes into labor, she gives birth! Before her contractions begin, she delivers a boy! Who has ever heard of such a thing? Isa 66.7-8a.
    • The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? Psa 27.1.
    • Since all these things are to melt away in this manner, what sort of people must we be, conducting our lives in holiness and godliness, while waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God? 2 Pet 3.11-12.
    • Another death due to drinking and driving occurred today. When will this stop?
  8. The rhetorical question may serve as a lead-in to a truth or as a call to action.
    • If they sin against you—and who has never sinned?—you might become angry with them and let their enemies conquer them and take them captive to their land far away or near, 1 Kgs 8.46 NLT.
    • Are you a speaker? Speak as one who utters God’s oracles. Do you give service? Give it in the strength which God supplies, 1 Pet 4.11 REB.
    • Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord, Jas 5.13-14.
  9. The rhetorical question may at times reach for cliches which might better be avoided.
    • Can pigs fly?
  10. The rhetorical question brings the so-called obvious to the fore, perhaps forgotten or ignored by the hearers, thus serving an important function in establishing truth.
    • But if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for the church of God? 1 Tim 3.5.
    • For who is going to harm you if you are devoted to what is good? 1 Pet 3.11.
    • Now who is the person who has conquered the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?  1 Jn 4.5.
    • What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can this kind of faith save him? Jas 2.14. (See the series of rhetorical questions in Jas 2.14-26.)
  11. The rhetorical question may be used to challenge prevailing opinions.
    • Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct he should show his works done in the gentleness that wisdom brings, Jas 3.11.
  12. The rhetorical question is used to state a conclusion forcefully.
    • God alone, who gave the law, is the Judge. He alone has the power to save or to destroy. So what right do you have to judge your neighbor? Jas 4.12 NLT.
    • And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle? Jon 4.11 ESV.