Tongues as the Back of Our Hand

“At thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Ps. 16: 11)

The Basket Case Chronicles #170

If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad? But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all: And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth” (1 Cor. 14:23–25).

Paul has just finished telling us that to have a bunch of people chattering in a language that you don’t understand is represented by Isaiah as a sign of judgment. He then moves on into application. If an unbeliever or an untutored person comes into your assembly, you should want the service to be edifying to them. But if everybody is speaking in tongues, the ungifted or unbelieving will simply dismiss you as being crazy. But this dismissal would indicate that they are under judgment—as we see with the people who dismissed the Christians on Pentecost as being drunk. But Paul does say that for the believers to pray in tongues in church together is a provocation—and that is not our calling.

On the other hand, if the words spoken in the service of words of intelligible prophecy, then unbeliever comes under the judgment of his own conscience, which is the way we avoid coming under the judgment of God. The secrets of his heart are laid bare by intelligible speech, and causes him to confess that God is indeed present.

This is why an assembly of Christians all speaking together in an unintelligible way is simply a way of telling non-Christians to go to Hell. And while a worship service is not structured in order to cater to non-believers, it should anticipate their presence, and not place needless obstacles in front of them.

Tongues as Pending Judgment

“At thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Ps. 16: 11)

The Basket Case Chronicles #169

“Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men. In the law it is written, With men of other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people; and yet for all that will they not hear me, saith the Lord. Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not: but prophesying serveth not for them that believe not, but for them which believe.” (1 Cor. 14:20–22).

We now come to a place in the New Testament where it is really important to let the testaments speak to one another. Paul starts by saying that we must not be childish in our thinking, but instead we should be mature. When it comes to malice we should not be mature, but in our theology we are called to maturity.

With this exhortation, Paul then quotes Isaiah 28, and cites it as his reason for encouraging them to speak intelligibly in their worship services. The context of Isaiah’s warning is a context of judicial blindness, where Isaiah’s warnings to the hard-hearted were all yammer yammer yammer.

“For with stammering lips and another tongue Will he speak to this people. To whom he said, This is the rest wherewith ye may cause the weary to rest; And this is the refreshing: yet they would not hear. But the word of the Lord was unto them Precept upon precept, precept upon precept; Line upon line, line upon line; Here a little, and there a little; That they might go, and fall backward, and be broken, And snared, and taken.” (Isaiah 28:11–13).

This is the passage Paul quotes when he is explaining why tongues is a sign (of judgment) on unbelievers. Isaiah taught them plainly, but they taunted him in return, mocking his simplistic teaching—line on line, precept on precept, sing-songy ABCing to the widdle Sunday School kids. Very well then, Isaiah says, if you treat the plain Word of God as gibberish, what you will get is gibberish. You don’t listen to God when the prophet speaks, and so maybe you will understand it when your streets are full of Babylonian soldiers speaking a strange language. The end result is that they go and fall backward, are broken, snared and captured.

The same thing is promised in the law.

“The Lord shall bring a nation against thee from far, from the end of the earth, as swift as the eagle flieth; a nation whose tongue thou shalt not understand;” (Deut. 28:49).

Tongues speaking was therefore given as a sign of judgment. When the streets of Jerusalem were filled with the praises of God in multiple languages, this was a great blessing to those who were speaking those praises, along with those who heard them and entered into the praise But it was simultaneously (and more importantly) a sign of judgment on the residents of Jerusalem who did not know what was going on. Those who accused them of drunkenness were being handed over to the judgment of God, a precursor to the Latin-speaking soldiers who would be on them within a generation. It is not a good thing.

Tongues are a sign of pending military judgment, and they were an ominous sign given to the obdurate and unbelieving. So why should such a practice be emphasized inside a Christian worship service? Prophesy—intelligibility—is for the community of faith. Why? Because we are not under condemnation, not under judgment.

Straight to the Meaning

“At thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Ps. 16: 11)

The Basket Case Chronicles #168

I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all: Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue” (1 Cor. 14:18–19).

Paul distinguished praying in tongues for private edification from speaking in tongues in the assembly. He prays in tongues himself more than anybody, but in the church he would rather speak five intelligible words than ten thousand words that are unknown to the rest of the people there. As we will see a few verses down, unintelligible speaking in church is a sign of God’s judgment, not of His blessing. And if you fix that problem by translating what is said, you remove the element of judgment, but you have not removed the middle man. Why not just go straight to the interpretation? Why say something in church that nobody understands, then translate it, when you could just go straight to the meaningful talk?

Essential Translation

“At thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Ps. 16: 11)

The Basket Case Chronicles #167

Even so ye, forasmuch as ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church. Wherefore let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful. What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also. Else when thou shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned say Amen at thy giving of thanks, seeing he understandeth not what thou sayest? For thou verily givest thanks well, but the other is not edified” (1 Cor. 14:12–17).

When it comes to the public meeting of the church, the apostle Paul privileges the mind over the heart. This is not the same thing as privileging the intellect over love because the reason he is doing it is because he wants us to excel in the edifying of the church (v. 12). The Corinthians were zealous for spiritual gifts, but he wants them to press on beyond that—with the edifying of the body in mind. A man who speaks in tongues should (as far as public worship is concerned) pray for the gift of translation (v. 13). Genuine tongues that are untranslated are therefore excluded from public worship. How much more would untranslatable sounds be excluded?

Praying in tongues is a blessing to the spirit, but not a blessing for the mind. As far as the mind is concerned, the whole thing is “unfruitful” (v. 14). Why choose? Paul says that he will pray in the spirit and he will pray with his understanding as well (v. 15). If he does not do this, then someone who is ungifted or unlearned is in no position to say amen when the whole thing is over—which means that it must not be done (v. 16). You had a good time, but your brother was not edified (v. 17). What was the point?

We can see here a distinction between an emotional “blessing” and real edification. As the proverb goes, nothing dries more quickly than a tear. You can have all kinds of sensations, but when the sensation is passed, nothing is different. But when you build an edifice, when the project is done, the building is still there. That is what it means to be edified—the listener is built up, and changed from that point on. It is like adding a wing to your house. When you are done, the wing remains.

When the sermon series is completed, the congregation is transformed. It is like taking a journey—with a good map. When you get there, you have arrived somewhere. Speaking in tongues without true translation is like running in place.

Babel and Pentecost

“At thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Ps. 16: 11)

The Basket Case Chronicles #166

There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification. Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me” (1 Cor. 14:10–11).

The miracle at Pentecost was a reversal of Babel, which meant that it was a unifying miracle. When God confused the tongues at Babel, the result was that men scattered, divided by their different languages. When God gave different languages at Pentecost, the intent was to move men in the opposite direction, to gather them all to Christ. At Babel, the different languages scattered. At Pentecost, the different languages gathered. They all heard, in their own tongues, “the wonderful works of God” being declared (Acts 2:11).

God has set the direction, and so our worship services should continue to move in that same direction. There are many voices in the world and all of them, Paul says, have specific signification. There is a meaning there, but if I don’t know the meaning, what effect does that have? It has the effect of making the speaker a barbarian to the listener, and the listener a barbarian to the speaker. But God’s purpose in the church is to make us all members of the same household, the same holy nation (1 Pet. 2:9). We are not supposed to be foreigners to one another.

The word barbarian came from this idea of what alien chatter sounds like. When someone is a foreigner talking away aimlessly in my presence, I am going to tag him with an onomatopoeic label – they sound like they are saying nothing other than bar bar bar bar. And so, Paul says, don’t do that to your brothers in church. And if you withhold from your brother the signification of what you have said, that is exactly what you are doing. You are exiling your brother, who ought to live right next door to your meaning, and you are exiling him to a distant and barbarous land.

When you do this in church, you are introducing the tongues of Babel, and not the tongues of Pentecost.

Tangled Blatts

“At thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Ps. 16: 11)

The Basket Case Chronicles #165

And even things without life giving sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped? For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle? So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air” (1 Cor. 14:7–9)

Paul’s argument here is a fortiori, a “how much more” argument. A melody cannot be made out apart from a distinction of notes, whether from a pipe, or harp. And if a trumpet gives a series of tangled blatts, how will the troops know to get ready for battle? Unless there is distinction in the notes, the whole operation is just a disturbance in the air. In the same way, speaking in an unknown tongue apart from interpretation is just so much noise.

Therefore, in a Christian worship service clarity and ease of understanding are to be prized. We are to stand opposed to anything that gets in the way of such understanding, even if that something is edifying to this person or that one individually. The body needs to be able to say amen.

Private Edification Kept Private

“At thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Ps. 16: 11)

The Basket Case Chronicles #164

Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine?” (1 Cor. 14:6).

Paul allows that speaking in tongues in private is an edifying activity. A man by himself can edify himself by speaking in tongues (v. 4). He may be ministered to in the spirit because he is the only one in the room. But if there are others in the room, then their edification is only possible if there is content.

So, Paul says, if I come to you speaking in tongues, there is no profit in it. The only way there is profit is if content is given by one of three supernatural methods—revelation, knowledge, or prophesying—or by opening the Bible and teaching expositionally, which is doctrine.

Tongues speaking in a group (even when it is the genuine gift of tongues) has no point of edification. There is one good thing that can come from it, as we will see later in this chapter, but if love for your brother is your goal, tongues speaking in the congregation is to be discouraged.

The Point of Prophecy

“At thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Ps. 16: 11)

The Basket Case Chronicles #163

But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort. He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church. I would that ye all spake with tongues, but rather that ye prophesied: for greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying” (1 Cor. 14:3–5).

The three elements of prophecy that are mentioned here are edification, exhortation, and comfort. This can happen when the prophesying is fresh revelation, as when Agabus spoke under the power of the Spirit, and it can also happen when the Holy Spirit empowers a man who is speaking expositionally from the text. In the former instance, the Spirit is giving new words, and in the latter He is keeping the preacher close to the words. In both instances, He is anointing the words. This identification of preaching with the gift of prophesy was common among the Puritans. For example, William Perkins wrote a book on preaching that was called The Art of Prophesying.

Aside from that use of terms, it is undeniable that in a modern healthy church, the three consequences of prophecy described here are the three consequences of good preaching—edification, exhortation, and comfort. Every preacher ought to aim for that, every time.

When someone speaks in a tongue, he himself is edified while no one else is. Tongues speaking closes in on itself. The man who prophesies edifies everyone. Paul wishes that everyone could speaking in tongues, but more than that, he wishes that they could all prophesy. This is because prophesy is greater than speaking in tongues, unless an interpretation of tongues accompanies it, so that the church may be edified. This is the reason why I believe that tongues + interpretation = prophesy. A man who speaks in tongues is not just speaking his thoughts in a language he never acquired naturally. He is speaking God’s thoughts, such that when the tongues are interpreted, it is the equivalent of prophesy. And so, Paul argues, in the congregation, why not just cut out the middle man?