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Chapter 8: Tongues and Interpretation

The last two of the nine gifts of the Spirit are listed in the last part of 1 Cor. 12:10, “to another various kinds of tongues [glossa], and to another the interpretation of tongues.” To understand the purpose of the gift of tongues requires us to study its origin in the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel, where diverse tongues originated.

As we will see, the spiritual gift of tongues was designed to provide the solution to the problem of tongues at the Tower of Babel. The confounding of languages at Babel divided the people; the gift of tongues, when used properly, unites the people. Ironically, however, there has been much controversy over the gift of tongues, which has served to divide the church further. Hence, the gift of tongues seems to have a double-edged blade, for it both divides and unites.

The Greek word for “tongue” is glossa, which means language or the tongue in a person’s mouth. This Greek word appears to have two Hebrew equivalents: lashon and safah.

The Hebrew word lashon comes from the root word lashan, “to slander, accuse, or to lap (with the tongue).” The word is also used in a positive sense, but the idea of slander and accusation seems to be inherent in the word itself. So lashon is seen in a negative light in Psalm 140:11,

11 May a slanderer [ish lashown, “man of tongue”] not be established in the earth; may evil hunt the violent man speedily.

The second word, used in the story of the Tower of Babel, is safah, “lip, language, speech, edge, border.” Its root word means “to scrape (off or together), sweep, destroy, consume.” The underlying idea seems to be to divide into separate piles by creating borders between each pile. This is what God did when He confounded the languages of the people.

In the genealogy of Japheth, we read in Gen. 10:5,

5 From these the coastlands of the nations were separated into their lands, every one according to his language [lashon], according to their families, into their nations.

This verse anticipated the story of their division by language in the next chapter. The Greek translation (Septuagint) renders lashon as glossa, the same word that Paul used when speaking of “tongues.” The same rendering is found in Gen. 10:20 and 31. Hence, we have reason to define glossa according to the Hebrew definition of lashon.

However, in Genesis 11 we find that the Hebrew word translated “tongue” is safah, not lashon. God said in Gen. 11:7,

7 Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language [safah], that they may not understand one another’s speech.

Here the Septuagint also renders safah as glossa. God divided the people by language, and this brought division, apparently causing them to accuse or slander each other. In other words, God did some divine scraping to separate the people and to put borders or edges between the families. Hence, “tongues” manifested division among the families and nations of the earth. When they did not “understand one another’s speech,” the implication is that they began to accuse and slander each other, so they were no longer in agreement or unity.

As I said earlier, the gift of tongues was designed to overcome the problem of tongues at the Tower of Babel. The New Testament gift of tongues, by definition, brought the word of God—the truth—which was to be the unifying factor in the church. So in David’s last words, 2 Sam. 23:2 says,

2 The Spirit of the Lord spoke by me, and His word was on my tongue [lashon].

David wrote again in Psalm 15:3,

3 He does not slander with his tongue [lashon], nor does evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend.

So we see that the tongue—and the gift of tongues—is to be used to convey the word of God, not to slander. Unfortunately, even the word of God can divide the people, for it is a two-edged sword. But in this case, the word of God divides believers from unbelievers, even as it unites the believers themselves.

Paul will say much more about the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14, so we will say no more about it at this time. But this background will provide us with greater understanding when we study it later. As we will see, Paul quotes the Old Testament prophet Isaiah when expounding on the purpose of tongues. While tongues may be a New Testament gift, its origin is clearly rooted in the law and the prophets.

Interpretation of Tongues

The ninth and last spiritual gift that Paul lists is “and to another the interpretation of tongues” (1 Cor. 12:10).

Keep in mind that these are spiritual gifts, not mere soulish talent as some believe. If a person learns another language, the soul is enlightened. But the gift of tongues and interpretation is something that comes through one’s spirit, not through one’s soul. So Paul said in 1 Cor. 14:13, 14,

13 Therefore let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind [of the soul] is unfruitful.

Anyone can use the soulish mind to formulate words in prayer. Such prayer is understandable, for the soul prays in its familiar language. But prayer that comes from one’s spirit leaves the soulish mind “unfruitful,” that is, without understanding. Prayer from one’s spiritual mind bypasses one’s soulish mind. The key is in knowing the origin of such prayer.

What Happened in Twenty Years?

On the day of Pentecost in Acts 2:3-8, the original 120 disciples in the upper room “began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.” The people hearing them speak were amazed, saying, “how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born?”

There were at least 17 different languages spoken that day, listed in Acts 2:9-11. All of them were earthly languages that were clearly understood by those attending the feast of Pentecost in Jerusalem. The gift of interpretation was not needed that day, nor is there any indication that this gift was given to anyone at that time.

But twenty years later, the situation was quite different. Tongues needed interpretation, if not always, then at least some of the time. What happened? Did this change represent a progression into something greater or a degeneration on account of some flaw in the believers? Paul does not answer this directly, but he does tell us in 1 Cor. 14:18, “I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all.” He gives no indication that unknown tongues are evil in any way. Whatever happened since the day of Pentecost had affected Paul as much as any other believer.

Further, Paul confessed that he prayed with his soul as well as with his spirit. 1 Cor. 14:15 says, “I shall pray with the spirit and I shall pray with the mind also.” Paul’s spirit had a mind (or consciousness), but here Paul was also talking about the mind of his soul. If one does not understand the difference between soul and spirit and that each has its own mind, then that person needs to go back and study the second chapter of Paul’s letter. Without such background, chapters 12 and 14 cannot be understood properly.

Tongues and Prophecy

As we will see later in our study of 1 Corinthians 14, Paul acknowledges the difference between soul and spirit in his discussion about the difference between tongues and prophecy. Prophecy comes in one’s own (understandable) language and is essentially what occurred on the day of Pentecost. Tongues has become nearly synonymous with unknown tongues that need interpretation to be understood. Hence, tongues plus interpretation is the equivalent of prophecy.

On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit created a new situation where the gift of tongues became normal in the church. Twenty years later, there was a new normal, in which tongues required interpretation to be the equivalent of the tongues spoken on the day of Pentecost. Paul’s greatest concern was that the people would remain in the dark, having no understanding of what the Spirit was saying to the church.

As we will see later in our study of 1 Cor. 14:21, this was also the great concern of Isaiah (in Isaiah 28:11, 12). He prophesied of tongues and showed us the difference between tongues and prophecy. But 1 Cor. 12:7-10 was only Paul’s introduction to the nine gifts of the Spirit. Before expounding on them in greater detail, he returned to his familiar theme of division and unity in the church.