Is tongues unintelligible and incomprehensible?
1. Tsav latsav, tsav latsav, kav lakav, kav lakav
Is tongues a text inspired by the Holy Spirit in an existing language (such as during Pentecost), or can it also be a text in a non-existent language? And what about the gift of interpreting tongues that Paul talks about? Is speaking in tongues a sign for unbelievers, or not?
We would like to address these questions in this contribution, and we would like to draw attention to a remarkable quote from Paul when he writes about tongues in the first letter to Corinth. He then quotes a prophecy from Isaiah. This is the text:
Jes. 28:10-13: Hear him: “Tsav latsav, tsav latsav, kav lakav, kav lakav, a little of this, a little of that.” Indeed, through people with a strange accent, in a different language, the LORD speaks to this people. He once said to them: "Here is rest, here you will find rest, here let those who are weary rest." But they refused to listen to him. So now they hear from the LORD: 'Tsav latsav, tsav latsav, kav lakav, kav lakav, a little of this, a little of that.' And so they go, but they stumble, they are wounded, they are entangled, and they are captured.
It is not entirely clear what exactly is meant by 'Tsav latsav, kav lakav'. Had the drunken prophets become unintelligible? Or did they want to indicate that the prophet Isaiah used childish language? Or should it be translated: 'For it is law upon law, law upon law, claim upon claim, demand upon demand, here something, there something' (NBV)? However, the meaning of the prophecy of which these words are part is clear. The people refused to listen to the words that the prophet Isaiah spoke to them on behalf of God in their own language. Because they continue to disobey, God will send against them a people whose language they do not understand and will send the people into exile. In this way, the people will come to understand that the prophet indeed spoke on behalf of God and that they are being punished for acting against God's commandments. The people speaking a foreign language is a sign to the Jews that they have ignored the voice of the prophets, God's voice. Later we read as a promise for the future: 'You will no longer see the impudent people, that people with their unintelligible language, their strange and incomprehensible accent' (Isa. 33:19).
In the first letter to Corinth, Paul refers to Isaiah ostensibly to indicate that speaking in tongues is a sign for unbelievers and not for believers:
1 Kor. 14:21-22 The law says, “I will speak to this people through tongues, through the mouths of strangers, and they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” So tongues are a sign that is not is intended for believers but for unbelievers, and prophesying is not for unbelievers but for believers.
But when we read what follows, Paul's last statement seems contradictory:
1 Kor. 14:23-25 For when the whole congregation comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, will not unbelieving outsiders who attend the meeting say that you are insane? But if everyone prophesies, then an unbelieving outsider will be judged and rebuked by everyone. Everything that secretly moves him will come to light and then he will fall to the ground, worship God and confess: “Truly, God is among you.”
What Paul writes here is exactly the opposite: speaking in tongues is not for unbelievers and prophesying is. What does Paul mean?
For that we have to go back to the quote from Isaiah. The entire context of the chapter from 1 Corinthians shows that the church was strongly committed to tongues and also claimed that it would be a sign to unbelievers. Paul strongly disagrees with this and cynically uses the quote from Isaiah. Tongues a sign for unbelievers? Indeed. Just look at Isaiah. Isaiah indicates that the people did not want to listen to the (intelligible) prophecy and that the (incomprehensible) language of the Babylonians will be a sign for them. A sign that their disobedience will not go unnoticed. So indeed, foreign tongues are a sign for the unbelievers! In this case the unbelieving Jews. But that also means that these unbelieving Jews will not convert.
From what follows it becomes clear what Paul wants to say. He strongly prefers prophecy to tongues in the church, because it allows unbelievers to be addressed. And if tongues are spoken, it must be translated so that outsiders can understand it.
2. Translating tongues
In relation to the gift of speaking in tongues, Paul also speaks about the gift of interpreting these tongues (1 Cor. 12:10,30; 14:5,13,28). Here the word 'ermeneuo' or 'di-ermeneuo' is used, which primarily means 'to explain, to explain', as Jesus did with the disciples at Emmaus (Luke 24:27). The second meaning is “translate,” as in the text: “And there was a disciple in Joppa named Tabita, which, translated, means Dorcas (Acts 9:36 NKJV). Paul does not use the word 'meth-ermeneuo' here, which simply means 'translate' (Matt. 1:23; Mark 5:41; 15:22,34; John 1:38,41,42; 9:7 ; Acts 4:36; 13:8; Heb. 7:2). This means that with this gift Paul certainly also wants to indicate that, in addition to translating, it is also about explaining.
Paul's texts suggest that the translation of tongues can be done by the same person speaking in tongues (1 Cor. 14:5,13) or by another person present (1 Cor. 14:30).
3. Again: the message of 1 Cor. 14
Already in the first verse of the chapter, Paul's commitment becomes clear: 'seek especially the prophecy'. In what follows, the gifts of prophecy and speaking in tongues are placed side by side. Tongues are unintelligible to others, prophecy is intelligible. Tongues are spoken for oneself, prophecy for others. Only when tongues are explained does the church benefit. And the latter is crucial: the gifts must serve to build up the church. And so efforts should be made to ensure that tongues are explained.
Then Paul calls for using common sense (1 Cor. 14:20). It sounds cynical: don't behave like little children! It is the introduction to the quote from Isaiah. Tongues intended for the unbelievers? Indeed, a sign for the unbelieving Israelites. And yet they did not believe. Anyone who turns back to Isaiah will understand what is meant here. People did not want to listen to Isaiah's prophecy, and as punishment they would have to deal with the language of foreign peoples. Like a sign, but a very negative sign.
And then Paul summarizes the message again. If the church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, an outsider will think they have gone insane. But if there is a prophecy, he will confess God. And so the church must strive for the gift of prophecy. And when speaking in tongues, it should only be allowed if there is also someone present who has the gift of translating and interpreting.
4. Is tongues an existing language?
After the resurrection, Jesus speaks about the signs that His followers will do: 'Those who have believed will be known by these signs: in my name they will cast out demons, they will speak in tongues unknown (NIV: new tongues) They shall take up serpents with their hands, and if they drink deadly poison it shall not hurt them, and they shall heal the sick by laying their hands on them” (Mark 16:17-18). Here we talk about speaking 'new languages' as a sign for unbelievers. The question is what is meant by 'new'. Are they indeed languages that the speaker did not previously know, or are they languages that did not exist before? The Greek language allows both possibilities.
The next time we encounter this word combination is at Pentecost (Acts 2). Moved by the Holy Spirit, the disciples speak in tongues unknown to them, so that the strangers in Jerusalem all hear them in their own language: 'and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with a loud voice in other tongues (NKJV: other tongues), just as they were given inspiration by the Spirit” (Acts 2:4). It is clear that 'speaking in tongues' here means speaking in known, foreign languages.
In the remainder of Acts we read how the outpouring of the Holy Spirit spreads further and further away from Jerusalem. When Peter goes to Cornelius and speaks to those present, we read that Gentiles also start speaking in tongues as a sign of the filling with the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:46). Paul meets about 12 people in Ephesus who had been baptized with John's baptism. When Paul baptizes them in the name of Jesus, they receive the Holy Spirit and start speaking in tongues (Acts 19:6). Does these two cases involve speaking in another existing language? Or is it not an existing language? It is striking that here we speak of 'speaking in tongues' (NBG: 'speaking in tongues'), while at Pentecost we speak of 'foreign languages' (NBG: 'other tongues'). Some interpreters argue that this must be something else. That's possible, but that's the question. And actually that doesn't matter much here. After all, there were no strangers present at Cornelius and in Ephesus who spoke a different language. So in both cases those present heard the believers speaking in a language that was incomprehensible to them. And whether that was an existing or non-existent language does not matter.
In Paul's first letter to Corinth there is mention of 'speaking in tongues' (NKJV: 'speaking in tongues'; 1 Cor. 12:30; 14:2,4,5,6,13,18,19,23, 27,39). Furthermore, we encounter the gift of 'kinds of tongues' (NBV: 'speaking in tongues'; NKJV: 'all kinds of tongues', 'diversity of tongues'; 1 Cor. 12:10,28). And Paul speaks about the language of men and of angels (1 Cor. 13:1; see also verse 8).
There were words in Greek to describe the utterance of unintelligible sounds through ecstasy, such as 'manteuomai' (see Acts 16:16; literally 'giving oracle', translated as 'divination') and 'chresteuomai' ('giving oracle '; does not appear in the Bible). It is striking that Paul does not use these words to indicate the gift of speaking in tongues. This may indicate that speaking in tongues is about something essentially different.
If we look at the Biblical data, it is not clear whether tongues are always an existing foreign language. In any case, the church fathers of the fourth century (Irenaus, Hippolytus, Hegemonius, Gregory or Nazianzus, Ambrose, Chrysostom, Augustine, Leo the Great) and great names from the early period of the Pentecostal movement (such as Charles Fox Parham) were convinced that it must have concerned existing languages. In Hand. 2 and in Isa. 28 there are existing languages, and by extension it was convinced that there were also existing languages in Corinth. The difference between private use and public gift is that in the first case there is no translation, and in the second case there is.
Striking are the examples from our time in which it becomes clear that tongues appear to be a foreign language, a language that the person speaking in tongues does not know, but which turns out to be an existing language.
A Mormon member from America and a member from Polynesia befriended a Pentecostal family. They agreed to attend each other's services. During the service at the Pentecostal church, a woman walked up to the podium and spoke in tongues. The Polynesian man stated after the service that the woman who spoke in tongues was fluent in the language of Samoa, and that she cursed God and praised Satan.
Something similar has happened in Rotterdam. An asylum seeker from Africa had heard someone in a large Pentecostal church who spoke in tongues uttering terrible slander in an African language known to him.
These types of examples are not new. In the book “The domain of the snake” by W.J. Ouweneel has already mentioned this phenomenon. It seems to me that this is one more reason to only allow tongues in the church if it is translated. So it appears to be possible that people who speak in tongues are not driven by the Holy Spirit but by a completely wrong spirit. That is not new; Paul also speaks of this: 'Therefore I tell you emphatically, no one can ever say, 'Cursed is Jesus,' by the Spirit of God, and no one can ever say, 'Jesus is Lord,' except by by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3).
5. Closing remarks
Paul calls for organizing the meetings in such a way that outsiders can understand the message and glorify God. “Tsav latsav, kav lakav” does not address an outsider. So tongues are not a sign for unbelievers unless it is translated.
Paul's intention in his letter to Corinth is clear. It is all the more remarkable that the comment from 1 Cor. 14:22 ('So tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, and prophesying is not for unbelievers but for believers') is often taken out of context and used to justify the use of tongues in worship without translation to defend.