The Gift of Tongues and The Old Testament
In 1 Corinthians 13:8 the Apostle Paul, writing under the supernatural influence of the Holy Spirit, declared the following: “Love never faileth; but . . . whether there be tongues, they shall cease.”
Since the Holy Spirit moved Paul to make this declaration of his most extensive discourse on spiritual gifts, it would appear that the apostle’s statement was intended to communicate the following truth: in contrast with love which is permanent (never faileth), the gift of tongues would be temporary in duration (shall cease).
In spite of the fact that Paul taught the temporary duration of the gift of tongues, nowhere in 1 Corinthians 13 did he indicate when that gift would cease. One must look elsewhere in Scripture in order to learn how long God intended tongues to last.
1 Corinthians 14:22
In an earlier article, the following significant principle.concerning spiritual gifts was noted: the duration of a spiritual gift is determined by its purpose or function. Once it fulfills that purpose or function, the gift is no longer necessary, and God does away with it.
In light of this principle, in order to learn how long God intended the gift of tongues to last, one must search the Scriptures to find the God intended purpose or function of that gift.
There is only one biblical passage which clearly indicates the purpose or function of the gift of tongues. That passage is 1 Corinthians 14:22 where the Apostle Paul drew the following conclusion: “Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not.”
Several significant things should be noted concerning Paul’s statement in this passage. First, the combination of Greek words which are translated “are for” in Paul’s statement was used in New Testament times to indicate “the vocation, use, or end” which something was to serve.1 In addition, the word which is translated “for” was used by Paul to denote “appointment.” 2 Thus, in 1 Corinthians 14:22 Paul was drawing a conclusion concerning the divinely appointed vocation, use or end which the gift of tongues was to serve. In other words, he was indicating the God-intended purpose or function of that gift. No other biblical passage related to tongues uses such terms which indicate the divinely appointed purpose or function of that gift.
Second, Paul’s statement indicated that God appointed tongues to function as a sign. Thus, God intended tongues to be a sign gift. He did not intend it to be an edification gift by itself.
Third, Paul’s statement also indicated that God appointed tongues to be a sign to unbelievers, not to believers. Thus, God intended the gift of tongues by itself to be exercised for the benefit of unbelievers, not for the benefit of believers. In order for that divine intention to be fulfilled, the gift had to be exercised in public, not in private, by the believer who possessed the gift.
These three things which have been noted concerning Paul’s statement prompt two significant questions. First, God intended the gift of tongues to be a sign of what to unbelievers? Second, did God intend tongues to be a sign to all unbelievers in general or to a specific group of unbelievers?
The opening word of Paul’s 1 Corinthians 14:22 statement gives a clue concerning where the answers to these questions can be found. The word “wherefore” indicates that Paul based his conclusion concerning the purpose of the gift of tongues (v. 22) upon what he had just stated in the preceding verse (v. 21). In verse 21 Paul had stated the following: “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.”
In verse 21 Paul quoted from Isaiah 28:11-12. The context of Isaiah 28:11-12 emphasized the tragic situation which existed in Judah during Isaiah’s time. Through Isaiah the prophet, His spokesman, God had told the leaders of Judah what they should do in order to give the people of Judah rest from conquest and oppression by foreign powers (v. 12). Isaiah spoke God’s word very clearly and repeatedly, “precept upon precept; line upon line” (vv. 10, 13), so that the leaders of Judah could not miss the message.
In spite of Isaiah’s clear, methodical way of presenting God’s message, the leaders “would not hear” (v. 12). They ridiculed the fact that God’s prophet spokesman was trying to teach them, the leaders of the nation, knowledge. They complained that, in so doing, Isaiah was treating them as immature, little children (v. 9). They mocked his clear, repetitive method of presenting God’s Word (v. 10). In other words, they willfully rejected God’s message and prophet messenger.
Because these leaders of Judah rejected God’s message in spite of its clear, methodical presentation by God’s prophet messenger, God declared that He would speak to them in another way -“with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people” (v. 11).
What did God mean by this declaration? He meant that He would speak to these rebellious Jews through judgment—the judgment of conquest and oppression by foreigners whose language the Jews would not understand. As the Jews would be forced to listen to this foreign language of their oppressors, it would be a sign to them that they were under the judgment of God and that God was working with those who spoke the foreign language.
Several other Old Testament passages demonstrate that this is what God meant by His Isaiah 28:11 statement. In Jeremiah 5 God accused Israel and Judah of treacherous dealings against Him (v. 11). They had denied the truthfulness of what God had said about them through His prophets (v. 12). They had accused God’s prophets of being windbags who proclaimed something other than the true Word of God (v. 13). In other words, these Jews willfully rejected God’s message and prophet messengers.
Because of this treachery by the Jews, God said that He would do the following to them: “I will bring a nation upon you from far, O house of Israel, saith the LORD; it is a mighty nation, it is an ancient nation, a nation whose language thou knowest not, neither understandest what they say” (v. 15). Thus, here again, because of their rejection of His message and prophet messengers, God declared that He would judge the Jews through conquest and oppression by foreigners whose language the Jews would not understand.
Very early in Israel’s history, God mapped out the future course of His dealings with that nation in another significant Old Testament passage. In Deuteronomy 28:1-14 God declared that, if the people of Israel would listen to and obey His Word, which was delivered through Moses His prophet (v. 1), He would bless them more than any other nation on the earth. But in Deuteronomy 28:15-68 God warned that, if they would not listen to and obey His Word, which was delivered through Moses His prophet (v. 15), He would curse them severely. One of the curses which God promised to bring upon Israel was this: “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” (v. 49). Once again God associated the speaking of a foreign language, which the Jews could not understand, with His judgment of the Jews because of their rejection of His message delivered through His prophet.
In Deuteronomy 28:46 God made the following statement concerning His promised curses of Israel: “And they shall be upon thee for a sign and for a wonder, and upon thy seed forever.” This declaration by God is most significant for several reasons. First, it indicates that God intended His promised curses upon Israel to function as a sign -a sign to the effect that God was intervening into the course of history to judge the Jews. Since one of God’s promised curses was the speaking of a foreign language which the Jews could not understand (v. 49), this means that God intended the speaking of such a foreign language to function as a sign of His judgment.
Second, in light of the fact that the curses of Deuteronomy 28 were promised by God specifically for the people of Israel, God indicated that those curses would function as a sign specifically for the Israelites.
Since one of those promised curses was the speaking of a foreign language which the Jews could not understand, this means that God intended the speaking of such a foreign language to function as a judgment sign only for the Jews. He never intended such speaking to function as a judgment sign for the Gentiles.
Third, in His Deuteronomy 28:46 statement God indicated that His promised curses of Deuteronomy 28 would function as a sign of God’s judgment for the seed of Israel forever. In other words, they would function as a sign of God’s judgment to every generation of Jews which would be exposed to those curses as the result of rejecting God’s message which had been delivered to that generation by God’s prophet. Since one of those promised curses was the speaking of a foreign language which the Jews could not understand, this means that God intended the speaking of such a language to function as a sign of God’s judgment to every generation of Jews which He judges for rejecting God’s message delivered to it by God’s prophet. Because of this, as noted earlier in Isaiah 28 and Jeremiah 5, since the Jews of Isaiah’s and Jeremiah’s times rejected God’s message and prophet messengers, God declared that He would speak to them in another way—through judgment. A sign of this judgment to those rebellious Jews would be as follows: they would be forced to listen to a foreign language which they could not understand.
In light of this meaning of Isaiah 28:11, and in light of the fact that Paul used Isaiah 28:11 as the basis of his conclusion concerning the God-intended purpose of the gift of tongues in the Church, a significant question must be asked at this point. Since God made His Isaiah 28:11 statement several centuries before He gave the gift of tongues to the Church, what possible connection could there be between His Old Testament statement and the gift of tongues in the New Testament Church?
The next article on spiritual gifts will deal with this question.
- 1 William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (4th rev. ed.; Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), pp. 228, 224.
- 2 Albrecht Oepke, “eis,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. II (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964), p. 428.