King: The Gift of Tongues Was the Gift of Foreign Languages
“There are those who say Paul’s epistles present the gift of tongues in a very different connection from that of being supernaturally enabled to speak foreign languages for the purpose of evangelizing. Paul speaks of the gift as being exercised in churches already formed and, some claim, in a way peculiar and unaccountable — suggesting ecstatic, mysterious, unearthly ejaculations, not always intelligible even to the speakers.
This representation breaks down when it is scrutinized. “He that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God,” (1 Corinthians 14:2) The term unknown is here, as elsewhere, inserted by our translators. The tongue is unknown only in the sense of it being foreign and not learned through normal means, not as being unintelligible to men. A tongue unknown to both speakers and hearers was not among the distinctions of primitive Christianity: only some modern churches have claimed such manifestations.
“If I pray in a tongue my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful.” (1 Corinthians 14:14). Does not this seem to imply that in the case supposed the suppliant would not understand himself? Certainly not; for then how would he in the use of that tongue pray in the spirit, or how could he be said to pray in the tongue at all! The prayer and the tongue would have no connection. Paul evidently speaks of public prayer, and intimates that if the individual used a tongue known to himself, but unknown to his hearers, his own spirit would be engaged in the exercise; but his understanding (Greek nous — can mean mind or meaning) would be unfruitful for his listeners.
“He that speaketh in a tongue edifieth himself” (1 Corinthians 14:4) “From this,” says M’Night, “it is plain that the person who uttered in an unknown language a revelation made to himself must have understood it, otherwise he could not increase his own knowledge and faith by speaking it.”
“If there be no interpreter let him keep silence in the church” (1 Corinthians 14:28) We might say the same of any foreigner in the midst of a church using a different language from his own. Of what use to the assembly was a tongue, though known to him, if neither he nor any other present could interpret it intelligibly to the rest? This quite likely happened at times when the gift of speaking in all tongues was not given to every individual, and the speaker therefore did not possess the tongue of the particular people he found himself among.
It will be found, we believe, that all of Paul’s allusions to tongues are explicable on these principles. He speaks of the gift as “a sign to them who believed not,” i.e., as one of the credentials of the gospel, carrying conviction of its truth to those who heard its disciples speak a language not acquired by ordinary means. The reason for the cautioning instructions regarding the use of the gift is that once received and possessed it was liable to be abused, since the unerring correct use of it would have required not one miracle, but an indefinite series of them, or necessitate at all events divine inspiration co-extensive with the use of that language.
It is evident, too, from what happened at Corinth, that the physical power of speaking a foreign language was separable from the higher spiritual endowment which accompanied it on the day of Pentecost, so that the tongue might be had in its integrity while the fire was wanting or feeble. Paul himself, though avowing that he could speak with tongues more than they all, felt the need of being prayed for by saints, “with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, that utterance might be given him, that he might open his mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel.””
— David King (1806-1883), Gift of Tongues, Imperial Bible Dictionary (1866)