The Law of Tongues
All New Testament teachings or doctrines are rooted in the divine law and confirmed by the prophets.
Grace itself is rooted in the law of Jubilee. Even spiritual gifts are in the law, although for the most part these “blessings” are imparted only through obedience, since they are discussed primarily in the context of the Old Covenant. The Old Covenant requires obedience in order for us to be blessed as God’s people.
So Deuteronomy 28:2-9 says,
2 And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you will obey the Lord your God…. 9 The Lord will establish you as a holy people to Himself, as He swore to you, if you will keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in His ways.
Today the New Covenant puts the responsibility upon God to make us His people, and so now His blessings come through His grace that is bestowed upon us according to His will. Such grace is foreshadowed in God’s treatment of King Saul, the Pentecostal king who prophesied, though he was in rebellion against God. He did not obey God, but yet he was blessed with the spiritual gift of prophecy.
Hence, it became a saying in Israel, “Is Saul also among the prophets?” (1 Sam. 10:11). When men noticed a strange contradiction that they could not explain, they shrugged their shoulders and said, “Is Saul also among the prophets?”
Regardless of who is responsible and by which covenant, the fact remains that all of the spiritual gifts in the New Testament are included in the blessings in the law. The nine spiritual gifts in Paul’s list are not specifically listed in the law, of course, because Scripture is a gradual unfolding of the mind of God through history. The spiritual gifts were not fully clarified until the writings of the Apostle Paul. In the law, they are included only under the general term, “blessings.”
Having Maturity in our Understanding
In 1 Corinthians 14:20, 21 Paul writes,
20 Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be babes, but in your thinking be mature. 21 In the law it is written…
Paul had already been explaining spiritual gifts, focusing on tongues and interpretation. His teaching thus far was milk, or baby food, which anyone ought to be able to understand. But in verse 20 Paul shifts toward deeper teaching, “meat,” as it were. Mature believers ought not only to experience the blessings and gifts of God but also to understand the mind of God behind these things. So Paul begins to expound on the gift of tongues and prophecy from the Scriptures themselves—specifically from Isaiah, who in turn was applying the law to Israel’s situation.
1 Corinthians 14:21, 22 refers to Isaiah 28, saying,
21 In the law it is written, “By men of strange tongues and by the lips of strangers I will speak to this people, and even so they will not listen to Me,” says the Lord. 22 So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe, but to unbelievers; but prophecy is for a sign, not to unbelievers, but to those who believe.
In order to understand what Isaiah was saying, we must go back to Isaiah 28, which is the prophet’s great exposition on the difference between tongues and prophecy. Paul understood what Isaiah was saying, and for this reason he referenced Isaiah’s prophecy in his own discussion of tongues and prophecy.
Because Paul had already taught this to the Corinthians, he did not see a need to repeat himself here. Unfortunately, we today need such teaching. So we should be grateful that Paul referenced Isaiah 28 in his letter, for this gives us the mandate to search out what Paul must have taught the church while he was yet among them.
The Drunkards of Ephraim
Isaiah 28:1 begins by saying,
1 Woe to the proud crown of the drunkards of Ephraim, and to the fading flower of its glorious beauty, which is at the head of the fertile valley of those who are overcome with wine!
Isaiah was not speaking merely of Ephraimite drunkards. Wine was a metaphor for teaching and a way of life. In a negative sense, the “grapes” of Sodom and Gomorrah were poppies and the juice was opium (Deut. 32:32, 33). Isaiah 1:22 paints another negative picture,
22 Your silver has become dross; your drink (sobe, “wine”) diluted with water.
Isaiah was not speaking literally, but metaphorically. Israel’s character was like impure silver, and her teachings were a mixture of the word of God and the traditions of men.
Jeremiah, too, spoke prophetically of the “wine” of Babylon. Jeremiah 51:7 says,
7 Babylon has been a golden cup in the hand of the Lord, intoxicating all the earth. The nations have drunk of her wine; therefore the nations are going mad.
Again, the prophet was not speaking of literal wine, but of Babylonian teachings, which, in the end, are a form of mental instability, or insanity. This can be seen very clearly in the world today among those who are drunk on Babylonian wine. They insanely advocate policies and life styles that can only destroy the nation and themselves as well.
So when Isaiah speaks of “the drunkards of Ephraim,” he was speaking prophetically. Paul understood this, and so he wrote later in Eph. 5:18,
18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit.
The comparison between literal wine and spiritual wine and the contrast between Babylonian wine and Kingdom wine is evident throughout the Scriptures. We even see it come to the surface on the day of Pentecost, when we read in Acts 2:13-16,
13 But others were mocking and saying, “They are full of sweet wine.” 14 But Peter, taking his stand with the eleven, raised his voice and declared to them, “Men of Judea, and all you who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give heed to my words. 15 For these men are not drunk as you suppose, for it is only the third hour of the day; 16 but this is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel.”
Peter then expounds on Joel’s Pentecostal prophecy in Joel 2:28-32. Most are familiar with Joel’s prophecy, but not as many are familiar with Isaiah 28 and its Pentecostal prophecy that was cited by the Apostle Paul.
Isaiah 28 goes on to describe Israel’s life style in terms of an all-night party. Isaiah 28:7, 8 says,
7 And these also reel with wine and stagger from strong drink; the priest and the prophet reel with strong drink, they are confused by wine, they stagger from strong drink; they reel while having visions, they totter when rendering judgment. 8 For all the tables are full of filthy vomit, without a single clean place.
The Israelites certainly knew about such wine parties, but the prophet was not really condemning these. He was condemning the fact that the priests and prophets were drunk on the wine of false teachings, and the judges were rendering judgments while under the influence of the laws of other gods. Hence, “all the tables are full of filthy vomit, without a single clean place.” Their teachings, prophecies, visions, and judgments, coming as “vomit” from their mouths, rendered everything around them unclean.
Isaiah 28:9, 10 then says,
9 To whom would He teach knowledge? And to whom would He interpret the message? Those just weaned from milk? Those just taken from the breast? 10 For He says, “Order on order, order on order, line on line, line on line, a little here, a little there.”
The Hebrew text here differs from both the Septuagint Greek text and the Peshitta (translation of the Aramaic text). The Septuagint version of verses 10, 11 reads, “Expect thou affliction on affliction, hope upon hope; yet a little and yet a little, by reason of the contemptuous words of the lips, by means of another language.” This version tells us that the divine message was to expect “affliction on affliction” and “hope upon hope,” because of contemptuous words that are spoken in another language.
The Aramaic text is even stranger.
9 To whom shall He teach knowledge? And whom shall He make to understand the report? Those who are weaned from the milk and drawn from the breasts. 10 For filth is upon filth, filth upon filth, vomit upon vomit, vomit upon vomit; a little here, a little there; 11 For with a difficult speech and with an alien tongue will He speak to this people.
Strange as it may read, this text is perhaps the most consistent with the overall context of the wine party. At such parties, people often went outside to vomit, and so if a person left the tent at night, he would have to make his way carefully to avoid stepping in piles of vomit. It pictures the Israelites having a wine party with foreigners whose language they do not understand.
What is more obscure is the fact that while the foreigners are speaking in their foreign tongues, yet it is God who is speaking to the people through them. I will explain this shortly.
The Hebrew text says that God teaches the people “line on line,” that is to say, a little at a time. No doubt this is true, especially if you are teaching “those just weaned from milk.”
Perhaps also, this is why the Apostle Paul, quoting the next verse, speaks to the Corinthians about being mature.
The Hebrew text continues in Isaiah 28:11, 12 (NASB),
11 Indeed, He will speak to this people through stammering lips and a foreign tongue. 12 He who said to them, “Here is rest, give rest to the weary,” and “Here is repose,” but they would not listen.
These are the verses that Paul quoted in 1 Cor. 14:21, though in a shortened form:
21 In the law it is written, “By men of strange tongues and by the lips of strangers I will speak to this people, and even so they will not listen to Me,” says the Lord.
Paul understood that this was somehow a reference to tongues and prophecy. Yet this is difficult to understand. It is not for those who have just been weaned from the milk. This teaching is for the mature who are capable of understanding the law—that is, the law of tongues.
The Assyrians Speak in Tongues
Isaiah prophesied in a time when Israel’s apostasy had reached its climax. He was the main prophet in Jerusalem when God sent the Assyrians to bring judgment upon Israel and to deport them to the area near the Caspian Sea. Though he prophesied, the people refused to listen, so God spoke to Israel in tongues—specifically the Assyrian language! Isaiah 28:11-13 says,
11 Indeed, He will speak to this people through stammering lips and a foreign tongue. 12 He who said to them, “Here is rest, give rest to the weary,” and “Here is repose,” but they would not listen. 13 So the word of the Lord to them will be, “Order on order, order on order, line on line, line on line, a little here, a little there,” that they may go and stumble backward, be broken, snared, and taken captive.
Isaiah had been faithful to give Israel the word of the Lord in their own Hebrew language, but the rebellious people and carnally-minded leaders scoffed at it (Isaiah 28:14, 22). In essence, God said that if they refused to hear and believe the word spoken to them in their own language, then He would speak to them in an unknown tongue.
Hence, Paul tells us in 1 Cor. 14:22,
22 So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe, but to unbelievers; but prophecy is for a sign, not to unbelievers, but to those who believe.
Prophecy, by Paul’s definition, comes in one’s own native language. It is understandable, and the people hear and obey. But if we refuse to hear the word of God in our own language, God will not cease to speak, but He will switch to an unknown tongue.
This is the judgment found in the Law of Tribulation, given in Deut. 28:49,
49 The Lord will bring a nation against you from afar, from the end of the earth, as the eagle swoops down, a nation whose language you shall not understand.
When Moses gave this law, he probably was unaware that this was a law of tongues. That was a revelation for a later time. When Isaiah applied this law prophetically to the divine judgment upon Israel, it is not likely that he understood the gift of tongues. His understanding too was limited. But when the gift of tongues was given to the church, Paul understood both the law and the prophets well enough to know the purpose of this gift and to whom it was given. He had a greater revelation because he lived in the time when the Pentecostal gift of tongues was well known in the church.
On the day of Pentecost, when the gift of tongues was first given to the church, Acts 2:4 says,
4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.
These tongues were not unknown, however, for we read in Acts 2:6,
6 And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were bewildered, because they were each one hearing them speak in his own language.
As we have already seen, there are two kinds of tongues: “tongues of men and of angels” (1 Cor. 13:1). On the day of Pentecost, the disciples in the upper room spoke in the tongues of men. But when Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he spoke of tongues which men did not understand. We are given no clue as to when the gift of unknown tongues first appeared in the church. We only know that it was being practiced and that Paul cautioned the church about the use of unknown tongues without interpretation.
On the day of Pentecost, there were those who believed what God was speaking to them in their own languages, and there were those who followed the example of the Israelites in the time of Isaiah by mocking or scoffing at them (Acts 2:13). So it would naturally follow that because of the scoffers, God would institute unknown tongues that were suited to their unbelief. Speaking of unknown tongues, Paul says “tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe, but to unbelievers.”
The Carnal Mind
Even believers themselves speak in unknown tongues—including the apostle himself, as he says in 1 Cor. 14:18. Does this mean that the apostle Paul was an unbeliever? Well, yes and no. Paul’s spiritual man (his New Creation Man) was a true believer; but his soulish man (his “old man” from Adam) was carnal. The carnal mind scoffs at prophecy, for it has a tendency to disbelieve. Recall that Paul said in 1 Cor. 2:9 that our physical eyes and ears have “not heard all that God has prepared for those who love Him.” Why? Because the revelation of God is received only by the spiritual man within us. As for the soulish man, Paul says in 1 Cor. 2:14,
14 But a natural [soulish] man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.
In other words, the soul is incapable of accepting (fully) and understanding (fully) the deep things of God. Such things “are foolishness to him.” The soul (carnal mind) must therefore submit to the spirit (spiritual man), which has superior intellect and discernment. The soul must be obedient to the commands of the spirit. The revelation of God runs contrary to the mortal nature of the soul, so it is required to be obedient. But one’s spirit, which “appraises all things” (1 Cor. 2:15), has been begotten by God and therefore has the nature of his heavenly Father. The spirit, then, does the will of the Father by nature, not by forced obedience.
We all have two “I’s” within us. The old man is incapable of believing fully, but the new man is fully incapable of unbelief. Tongues is for the old man; prophecy is for the new man. The unknown tongue is a judgment upon the old man—the scoffer within. Prophecy is the word of God to the believer—that is, the spiritual man within us.
Since every believer (including Paul) had to contend with their soulish man, as Paul tells us clearly in Romans 7, the gift of tongues was an important part of a believer’s life. Just as God spoke to the unbelieving Israelites in the tongue of the Assyrians, so also does the unknown tongue bring judgment upon the soul—that is, the carnal mind. Judgment is discipline and correction, compelling the soul to be subject to the spirit.
But if the soul does not understand the unknown tongue, how can it be obedient? One might ask the same question of the Israelites when God spoke to them in the (unknown) Assyrian tongue. No doubt when the Assyrians cracked the whip, the Israelites knew what to do, even without understanding the language. They learned sign language!
But here is where the gift of interpretation of tongues becomes important. To be instructed more fully by tongues, interpretation is needed. So also is it in the church, and for this reason Paul says he would rather speak five understandable words than give an hour-long speech in an unknown tongue.
When Nonbelievers Attend the Meeting
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:23-25,
23 If therefore the whole church should assemble together and all men speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad? 24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you.
If the church engages in an outburst of unknown tongues, any unbelievers who are present will probably think that the church is insane. But if the church prophesies (in the common language), the secrets of the heart are disclosed. True prophecy brings us into the presence of God Himself, and the unbelievers will be “called to account.”
Paul is again showing the superiority of prophecy over tongues, especially in a group meeting. If tongues are employed in the church, the message ought to be interpreted for the instruction of all and for the benefit of unbelievers. Interpretation raises the value of tongues to the level of prophecy that is directed toward unbelievers, while prophecy is for the believers.