1 Corinthians 14 - Speaking in unknown Tongues by Albert Barnes Commentary
Below is the whole commentary on 1 Corinthians 14 from Albert Barnes Notes on the Bible commentary that is related to speaking in tongues i.e. speaking in an unknown tongue to you of another foreign country.
1 Corinthians 14 - Introduction
This chapter is a continuation of the subject commenced in 1 Cor. 12 and pursued through 1Co_13:1-13. In 1 Cor. 12 Paul had entered on the discussion of the various endowments which the Holy Spirit confers on Christians, and had shown that these endowments were bestowed in a different degree on different individuals, and yet so as to promote in the best way the edification of the church. It was proper, he said 1Co_12:31, to desire the more eminent of these endowments, and yet there was one gift of the Spirit of more value than all others, which might be obtained by all, and which should be an object of desire to all. That was love; and to show the nature, power, and value of this, was the design of the thirteenth chapter, certainly one of the most tender and beautiful portions of the Bible. In this chapter the subject is continued with special reference to the subject of “prophecy,” as being the most valuable of the miraculous endowments, or the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit.
In doing this, it was necessary to correct an erroneous estimate which they had placed on the power of speaking foreign languages. They had prized this, perhaps, because it gave them importance in the eyes of the pagan. And in proportion as they valued this, they undervalued the gift of being able to edify the church by speaking in a known and intelligible language. To correct this misapprehension; to show the relative value of these endowments, and especially to recommend the gift of “prophecy” as the more useful and desirable of the gifts of the Spirit, was the leading design of this chapter. In doing this, Paul first directs them to seek for charity. He also recommends to them, as in 1Co_12:31, to desire spiritual endowments, and of these endowments especially to desire prophecy; 1Co_14:1. He then proceeds to set forth the advantage of speaking in intelligible language, or of speaking so that the church may be edified, by the following considerations, which comprise the chapter:
- The advantage of being understood, and of speaking for the edification of the church; 1Co_14:2-5.
- No man could be useful to the church except he delivered that which was understood, any more than the sound of a trumpet in times of war would be useful, unless it were so sounded as to be understood by the army; 1Co_14:6-11.
- It was the duty of all to seek to edify the church; and if a man could speak in an unknown tongue, it was his duty also to seek to be able to interpret what he said; 1Co_14:12-15.
- The use of tongues would produce embarrassment and confusion, since those who heard them speak would be ignorant of what was said, and be unable to join in the devotions; 1Co_14:16-17.
- Though Paul himself was more signally endowed than any of them, yet he prized far more highly the power of promoting the edification of the church, though he uttered but five words, if they were understood, than all the power which he possessed of speaking foreign languages; 1Co_14:18-19.
- This sentiment illustrated from the Old Testament; 1Co_14:20-21.
- The real use of the power of speaking foreign languages was to be a sign to unbelievers, an evidence that the religion was from God, and not to be used among those who were already Christians; 1Co_14:22.
- The effect of their all speaking with tongues would be to produce confusion and disorder, and disgust among observers, and the conviction that they were deranged; but the effect of order, and of speaking intelligibly, would be to convince and convert them; 1Co_14:23-25.
- The apostle then gives rules in regard to the proper conduct of those who were able to speak foreign languages; 1Co_14:26-32.
- The great rule was, that order was to be observed, and that God was the author of peace; 1Co_14:33.
- The apostle then gives a positive direction that on no pretence are women to be allowed to speak in the church, even though they should claim to be inspired; 1Co_14:34-35.
- He then required all to submit to his authority, and to admit that what he had spoken was from the Lord; 1Co_14:36-37. And then,
- Concludes with directing them to desire to prophesy, and not to forbid speaking with tongues on proper occasions, but to do all things in decency and order; 1Co_14:38-40,
1 Corinthians 14:1 “Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy.”
Follow after charity - Pursue love 1Co_13:1; that is, earnestly desire it; strive to possess it; make it the object of your anxious and constant solicitude to obtain it, and to be influenced by it always. Cultivate it in your own hearts, as the richest and best endowment of the Holy Spirit, and endeavor to diffuse its happy influence on all around you.
And desire spiritual gifts - I do not forbid you, while you make the possession of love your great object, and while you do not make the desire of spiritual gifts the occasion of envy or strife, to desire the miraculous endowments of the Spirit and to seek to excel in those endowments which he imparts; see the note at 1Co_12:31. The main thing was to cultivate a spirit of love. Yet it was not improper also to desire to be so endowed as to promote their highest usefulness in the church. On the phrase “spiritual gifts,” see the note at 1Co_12:1.
But rather that ye may prophesy - But especially, or particularly desire to be qualified for the office of prophesying. The apostle does not mean to say that prophecy is to be preferred to love or charity; but that, of the spiritual gifts which it was proper for them to desire and seek, prophecy was the most valuable. That is, they were not most earnestly and especially to desire to be able to speak foreign languages or to work miracles; but they were to desire to be qualified to speak in a manner that would be edifying to the church. They would naturally, perhaps, most highly prize the power of working miracles and of speaking foreign languages. The object of this chapter is to show them that the ability to speak in a plain, clear, instructive manner, so as to edify the church and convince sinners, was a more valuable endowment than the power of working miracles, or the power of speaking foreign languages.
On the meaning of the word “prophesy,” see the note at Rom_11:6. To what is said there on the nature of this office, it seems necessary only to add an idea suggested by Prof. Robinson (Greek and English Lexicon, under the article, Προφήτης Prophētēs), that the prophets were distinguished from the teachers (διδάσκαλοι didaskaloi), “in that, while the latter spoke in a calm, connected, didactic discourse adapted to instruct and enlighten the hearers, the prophet spoke more from the impulse of sudden inspiration, from the light of a sudden revelation at the moment (1Co_14:30, ἀποκάλυφθη apokalupthē), and his discourse was probably more adapted, by means of powerful exhortation, to awaken the feelings and conscience of the hearers.” The idea of speaking from “revelation,” he adds, seems to be fundamental to the correct idea of the nature of the prophecy here referred to. Yet the communications of the prophets were always in the vernacular tongue, and were always in intelligible language, and in this respect different from the endowments of those who spoke foreign languages.
The same truth might be spoken by both; the influence of the Spirit was equally necessary in both; both were inspired; and both answered important ends in the establishment and edification of the church. The gift of tongues, however, as it was the most striking and remarkable, and probably the most rare, was most highly prized and coveted. The object of Paul here is, to show that it was really an endowment of less value, and should be less desired by Christians than the gift of prophetic instruction, or the ability to edify the church in language intelligible and understood by all, under the immediate influences of the Holy Spirit.
1 Corinthians 14:2 “For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries.”
For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue - This verse is designed to show that the faculty of speaking intelligibly, and to the edification of the church, is of more value than the power of speaking a foreign language. The reason is, that however valuable may be the endowment in itself, and however important the truth which he may utter, yet it is as if he spoke to God only. No one could understand him.
Speaketh not unto men - Does not speak so that people can understand him. His address is really not made to people, that is, to the church. He might have this faculty without being able to speak to the edification of the church. It is possible that the power of speaking foreign languages and of prophesying were sometimes united in the same person; but it is evident that the apostle speaks of them as different endowments, and they probably were found usually in different individuals.
But unto God - It is as if he spoke to God. No one could understand him but God. This must evidently refer to the addresses “in the church,” when Christians only were present, or when those only were present who spoke the same language, and who were unacquainted with foreign tongues. Paul says that “there” that faculty would be valueless compared with the power of speaking in a manner that should edify the church. He did not undervalue the power of speaking foreign languages when foreigners were present, or when they went to preach to foreigners; see 1Co_14:22. It was only when it was needless, when all present spoke one language, that he speaks of it as of comparatively little value.
For no man understandeth him - That is, no man in the church, since they all spoke the same language, and that language was different from what was spoken by him who was endowed with the gift of tongues. As God only could know the import of what he said, it would be lost upon the church, and would be useless.
Howbeit in the Spirit - Although, by the aid of the Spirit, he should, in fact, deliver the most important and sublime truths. This would doubtless be the case, that those who were thus endowed would deliver most important truths, but they would be “lost” upon those who heard them, because they could not understand them. The phrase “in the Spirit,” evidently means “by the Holy Spirit,” that is, by his aid and influence. Though he should be “really” under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and though the important truth which he delivers should be imparted by his aid, yet all would be valueless unless it were understood by the church.
He speaketh mysteries - For the meaning of the word “mystery,” see Note, 1Co_2:7. The word here seems to be synonymous with sublime and elevated truth; truth that was not before known, and that might be of the utmost importance.
1 Corinthians 14:3 “But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort.”
But he that prophesieth - See the note at 1Co_14:1. He that speaks under the influence of inspiration in the common language of his hearers. This seems to be the difference between those who spoke in foreign languages and those who prophesied. Both were under the influence of the Holy Spirit; both might speak the same truths; both might occupy an equally important and necessary place in the church; but the language of the one was intelligible to the church, the other not; the one was designed to edify the church, the other to address those who spoke foreign tongues, or to give demonstration, by the power of speaking foreign languages, that the religion was from God.
Speaketh unto men - So as to be understood by those who were present.
To edification - See the note at 1Co_10:8, note at 1Co_10:23. Speaks so as to enlighten and strengthen the church.
And exhortation - See the note at Rom_12:8. He applies and enforces the practical duties of religion, and urges motives for a holy life.
And comfort - Encouragement. That is, he presents the promises and the “hopes” of the gospel; the various considerations adapted to administer comfort in the time of trial. The other might do this, but it would be in a foreign language, and would be useless to the church.
1 Corinthians 14:4 “He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.”
Edifieth himself - That is, the truths which are communicated to him by the Spirit, and which he utters in an unknown language, may be valuable, and may be the means of strengthening his faith, and building him up in the hopes of the gospel, but they can he of no use to others. His own holy affections might be excited by the truths which he would deliver, and the consciousness of possessing miraculous powers might excite his gratitude. And yet, as Doddridge has well remarked, there might be danger that a man might be injured by this gift when exercised in this ostentatious manner.
1 Corinthians 14:5 “I would that ye all spake with tongues, but rather that ye prophesied: for greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying.”
I would that ye all spake with tongues - “It is an important endowment, and is not, in its place, to be undervalued. It maybe of great service in the cause of truth, and if properly regulated, and not abused, I would rejoice if these extraordinary endowments were conferred on all. I have no envy against anyone who possesses it; no opposition to the endowment; but I wish that it should not be overvalued; and would wish to exalt into proper estimation the more useful but humble gift of speaking for the edification of the church.”
Greater is he that prophesieth - This gift is of more value, and he really occupies a more elevated rank in the church. He is more “useful.” The idea here is, that talents are not to he estimated by their “brilliancy,” but by their “usefulness.” The power of speaking in an unknown tongue was certainly a more striking endowment than that of speaking so as simply to be “useful,” and yet the apostle tells us that the latter is the more valuable. So it is always. A man who is useful, however humble and unknown he may be, really occupies a more elevated and venerable rank than the man of most splendid talents and dazzling eloquence, who accomplishes nothing in saving the souls of people.
Except he interpret - However important and valuable the truth might he which he uttered, it would be useless to the church, unless he should explain it in language which they could understand. In that case, the apostle does not deny that the power of speaking foreign languages was a higher endowment and more valuable than the gift of prophecy. That the man who spoke foreign languages had the power of interpreting, is evident from this verse. From 1Co_14:27, it appears that the office of interpreting was sometimes performed by others.
1 Corinthians 14:6 “Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine?”
Now, brethren, if I come unto you… - The truth which the apostle had been illustrating in an abstract manner, he proceeds to illustrate by applying it to himself. If he should come among them speaking foreign languages, it could be of no use unless it were interpreted to them.
Speaking with tongues - Speaking foreign languages; that is, speaking them “only,” without any interpreter. Paul had the power of speaking foreign languages 1Co_14:18; but he did not use this power for ostentation or display, but merely to communicate the gospel to those who did not understand his native tongue.
Either by revelation - Macknight renders this, “speak intelligibly;” that is, as he explains it, “by the revelation peculiar to an apostle.” Doddridge, “by the revelation of some gospel doctrine and mystery.” Locke interprets it, that you might understand the revelation, or knowledge,” etc.; but says in a note, that we cannot now certainly understand the difference between the meaning of the four words here used. “It is sufficient,” says he, “to know that these reruns stand for some intelligible discourse tending to the edification of the church.” Rosenmuller supposes the word “revelation” stands for some “clear and open knowledge of any truth arising from meditation.” It is probable that the word here does not refer to divine inspiration, as it usually does, but that it stands opposed to that which is unknown and unintelligible, as that which is “revealed” ἀποκαλύψις apokalupsis stands opposed to what is unknown, concealed, “hidden,” obscure. Here, therefore, it is synonymous, perhaps, with “explained.” “What shall it profit, unless that which I speak be brought out of the obscurity and darkness of a foreign language, and uncovered or explained!” The original sense of the word “revelation” here is, I suppose, intended ἀποκαλύψις apokalupsis, from ἀποκαλύπτω apokaluptō̄, “to uncover”), and means that the sense should be uncovered, that is, explained or what was spoken could not be of value.
Or by knowledge - By making it intelligible. By so explaining it as to make it understood. Knowledge here stands opposed to the “ignorance” and “obscurity” which would attend a communication in a foreign language.
Or by prophesying - See the note at 1Co_14:1. That is, unless it be communicated, through interpretation, in the manner in which the prophetic teachers spoke; that is, made intelligible, and explained, and actually brought down to the usual characteristics of communications made in their own language.
Or by doctrine - By teaching (διδαχῇ didachē̄). By instruction; in the usual mode of plain and familiar instruction. The sense of this passage, therefore, is clear. Though Paul should utter among them, as he had abundant ability to do, the most weighty and important truths, yet, unless he interpreted what he said in a manner clear from obscurity, like “revelation;” or intelligibly, and so as to constitute “knowledge;” or in the manner that the prophets spoke, in a plain and intelligible manner; or in the manner usual in simple and plain “instruction,” it would be useless to them. The perplexities of commentators may be seen stated in Locke, Bloomfield, and Doddridge.
1 Corinthians 14:7 “And even things without life giving sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped?”
Things without life - Instruments of music.
Whether pipe - This instrument (αὐλὸς aulos) was usually made of reeds, and probably had a resemblance to a flageolet.
Or harp - This instrument (κιθάρα kithara) was a stringed instrument, and was made in the same way as a modern harp. It usually had ten strings, and was struck with the plectrum, or with a key. It was commonly employed in praise.
Except they give a distinction in the sounds - Unless they give a difference in the “tones,” such as are indicated in the gamut for music.
How shall it be known… - That is, there would be no time, no music. Nothing would be indicated by it. It would not be suited to excite the emotions of sorrow or of joy. All music is designed to excite emotions; but if there be no difference in the tones, no emotion would be produced. So it would be in words uttered. Unless there was something that was suited to excite thought or emotion; unless what was spoken was made “intelligible,” no matter how important in itself it might be, yet it would be useless.
1 Corinthians 14:8 “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?”
For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound - The trumpet was used commonly in war. It is a well-known wind instrument, and was made of brass, silver, etc. It was used for various purposes in war - to summon the soldiers; to animate them in their march; to call them forth to battle; to sound a retreat; and to signify to them what they were to do in battle, whether to charge, advance, or retreat, etc. It therefore employed a “language” which was intelligible to an army. An uncertain sound was one in which none of these things were indicated, or in which it could not be determined what was required.
Who shall prepare himself… - The apostle selects a single instance of what was indicated by the trumpet, as an illustration of what he meant. The idea is, that foreign tongues spoken in their assembly would be just as useless in regard to their duty, their comfort, and edification, as would be the sound of a trumpet when it gave one of the usual and intelligible sounds by which it was known what the soldiers were required to do. Just as we would say, that the mere beating on a drum would he useless, unless some tune was played by which it was known that the soldiers were summoned to the parade, to advance, or to retreat.
1 Corinthians 14:9 “So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air.”
So likewise ye… - To apply the case. If you use a foreign language, how shall it be known what is said, or of what use will it be, unless it is made intelligible by interpretation?
Utter by the tongue - Unless you speak.
Words easy to be understood - Significant words (margin), words to which your auditors are accustomed.
For ye shall speak into the air - You will not speak so as to be understood; and it will be just the same as if no one was present, and you spoke to the air. We have a proverb that resembles this: “You may as well speak to the winds:” that is, you speak where it would not be understood, or where the words would have no effect. It may he observed here, that the practice of the papists accords with what the apostle here condemns, where worship is conducted in a language not understood by the people; and that there is much of this same kind of speaking now, where unintelligible terms are used, or words are employed that are above the comprehension of the people; or where doctrines are discussed which are unintelligible, and which are regarded by them without interest. All preaching should be plain, simple, perspicuous, and adapted to the capacity of the hearers.
1 Corinthians 14:10 “There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification.”
There are it may be… - There has been considerable variety in the interpertation of this expression. Rosenmuller renders it, “for the sake of example.” Grotius supposes that Paul meant to indicate that there were, perhaps, or might be, as many languages as the Jews supposed, to wit, seventy. Beza and others suppose it means, that there may he as many languages as there are nations of people. Bloomfield renders it, “Let there he as many kinds of languages as you choose.” Macknight, “There are, no doubt, as many kinds of languages in the world as ye speak.” Robinson (Lexicon) renders it, “If so happen, it may be; perchance, perhaps;” and says the phrase is equivalent to “for example,” The sense is, “There are perhaps, or for example, very many kinds of voices in the world; and all are significant. None are used by those who speak them without meaning; none speak them without designing to convey some intelligible idea to their hearers.” The “argument” is, that as “all” the languages that are in the world, however numerous they are, are for “utility,” and as none are used for the sake of mere display, so it should be with those who had the power of speaking them in the Christian church. They should speak them only when and where they would be understood. Voices - Languages.
1 Corinthians 14:11 “Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me.”
The meaning of the voice - Of the language that is uttered, or the sounds that are made.
I shall be unto him… - What I say will be unintelligible to him, and what he says will be unintelligible to me. We cannot understand one another any more than people can who speak different languages.
A barbarian - See the note at Rom_1:14. The word means one who speaks a different, or a foreign language.
1 Corinthians 14:12 “Even so ye, forasmuch as ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church.”
Even so ye - Since you desire spiritual gifts, I may urge it upon you to seek to he able to speak in a clear and intelligible manner, that you may edify the church. This is one of the most valuable endowments of the Spirit; and this should be earnestly desired.
Forasmuch as ye are zealous - Since you earnestly desire; See the note at 1Co_12:31.
Spiritual gifts - The endowments conferred by the Holy Spirit; See the note at 1Co_12:1.
Seek that ye may excel… - Seek that you may be able to convey truth in a clear and plain manner; seek to be distinguished for that. It is one of the most rare and valuable endowments of the Holy Spirit.
1 Corinthians 14:13 “Wherefore let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret.”
Pray that he may interpret - Let him ask of God ability that he may explain it clearly to the church. It would seem probable that the power of speaking foreign languages, and the power of conveying truth in a clear and distinct manner, were not always found in the same person, and that the one did not of necessity imply the other. The truth seems to have been, that these extraordinary endowments of the Holy Spirit were bestowed upon people in some such way as “ordinary” talents and mental powers are now conferred; and that they became in a similar sense the “characteristic mental endowments of the individual,” and of course were subject to the same laws, and liable to the same kinds of abuse, as mental endowments are now. And as it now happens that one man may have a special faculty for acquiring and expressing himself in a foreign language who may not be by any means distinguished for clear enunciation, or capable of conveying his ideas in an interesting manner to a congregation, so it was then.
The apostle, therefore, directs such, if any there were, instead of priding themselves on their endowments, and instead of always speaking in an unknown tongue, which would he useless to the church, to “pray” for the more useful gift of being able to convey their thoughts in a clear and intelligible manner in their vernacular tongue. This would be useful. The truths, therefore, that they had the power of speaking with eminent ability in a foreign language, they ought to desire to be able to “interpret” so that they would be intelligible to the people whom they addressed in the church. This seems to me to be the plain meaning of this passage, which has given so much perplexity to commentators. Macknight renders it, however, “Let him who prayeth in a foreign language, pray so as some one may interpret;” meaning that he who prayed in a foreign language was to do it by two or three sentences at a time, so that he might be followed by an interpreter. But this is evidently forced. In order to this, it is needful to suppose that the phrase ὁλαλῶν holalōn, “that speaketh,” should be rendered, contrary to its obvious and usual meaning, “who prays,” and to supply τις tis, “someone,” in the close of the verse. The obvious interpretation is that which is given above; and this proceeds only on the supposition that the power of speaking foreign languages and the power of interpreting were not always united in the same person - a supposition that is evidently true, as appears from 1Co_12:10.
1 Corinthians 14:14 “For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful.”
For if I pray… - The reference to prayer here, and to singing in 1Co_14:15, is designed to illustrate the propriety of the general sentiment which he is defending, that public worship should be conducted in a language that would be intelligible to the people. However well meant it might be, or however the “heart” might be engaged in it, yet unless it was intelligible, and the understanding could join in it, it would be vain and profitless.
My spirit prayeth - The word spirit here (πνεῦμα pneuma) has been variously understood. Some have understood it of the Holy Spirit - the Spirit by which Paul says he was actuated. Others of the “spiritual gift,” or that spiritual influence by which he was endowed. Others of the mind itself. But it is probable that the word “spirit” refers to the “will;” or to the mind, as the seat of the affections and emotions; that is, to the heart, desires, or intentions. The word “spirit” is often used in the Scriptures as the seat of the affections, and emotions, and passions of various kinds; see Mat_5:3, “Blessed are the poor in spirit;” Luk_10:21, “Jesus rejoiced in spirit.” So it is the seat of ardor or fervor Luk_1:17; Act_18:25; Rom_12:11; of grief or indignation; Mar_3:12; Joh_11:33; Joh_13:21; Act_17:16. It refers also to feelings, disposition, or temper of mind, in Luk_9:55; Rom_8:15. Here it refers, it seems to me. to the heart, the will, the disposition, the feelings, as contradistinguished from the understanding; and the sense is, “My feelings find utterance in prayer; my heart is engaged in devotion; my prayer will be acceptable to God, who looks upon the feelings of the heart, and I may have true enjoyment; but my understanding will be unfruitful, that is, will not profit others. What I say will not he understood by them; and of course, however much benefit I might derive from my devotions, yet they would be useless to others.”
But my understanding - (ὁ δὲ νοῦς μου ho de nous mou). My intellect, my mind; my mental efforts and operations.
Is unfruitful - Produces nothing that will be of advantage to them. It is like a barren tree; a tree that bears nothing that can be of benefit to others. They cannot understand what I say, and of course, they cannot be profited by what I utter.
1 Corinthians 14:15 “What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.”
What is it then? - What shall I do? What is the proper course for me to pursue? What is my practice and my desire; see the same form of expression in Rom_3:9, and Rom_6:15. It indicates the “conclusion” to which the reasoning had conducted him, or the course which he would pursue in view of all the circumstances of the case.
I will pray with the spirit… - I will endeavor to “blend” all the advantages which can be derived from prayer; I will “unite” all the benefits which “can” result to myself and to others. I deem it of vast importance to pray with the spirit in such a way that the “heart” and the “affections” may be engaged, so that I may myself derive benefit from it; but I will also unite with that, utility to others; I will use such language that they may understand it, and be profited.
And I will pray with the understanding also - So that others may understand me. I will make the appropriate use of the intellect, so that it may convey ideas, and make suitable impressions on the minds of others.
I will sing with the spirit - It is evident that the same thing might take place in singing which occurred in prayer. It might be in a foreign language, and might be unintelligible to others. The affections of the man himself might be excited, and his heart engaged in the duty, but it would be profitless to others. Paul, therefore, says that he would so celebrate the praises of God as to excite the proper affections in his own mind, and so as to be intelligible and profitable to others. This passage proves:
(1) That the praises of God are to be celebrated among Christians, and that it is an important part of worship;
(2) That the heart should be engaged in it, and that it should be so performed as to excite proper affections in the hearts of those who are engaged in it; and,
(3) That it should be so done as to be “intelligible” and edifying to others.
The words should be so uttered as to be distinct and understood. There should be clear enunciation as well as in prayer and preaching, since the design of sacred music in the worship of God is not only to utter praise, but it is to impress the sentiments which are sung on the heart by the aid of musical sounds and expression more deeply than could otherwise be done. If this is not done, the singing might as well be in a foreign language. Perhaps there is no part of public worship in which there is greater imperfection than in the mode of its psalmody. At the same time, there is scarcely any part of the devotions of the sanctuary that may be made more edifying or impressive. It has the “advantage” - an advantage which preaching and praying have not - of using the sweet tones of melody and harmony to “impress” sentiment on the heart and it should be done.
1 Corinthians 14:16 “Else when thou shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned say Amen at thy giving of thanks, seeing he understandeth not what thou sayest?”
Else - (Ἐπεί Epei). Since; if this is not done; if what is said is not intelligible, how shall the unlearned be able appropriately to express his assent, and join in your devotions?
When thou shalt bless - When thou shalt bless God, or give thanks to him. If thou shalt lead the devotions of the people in expressing thanksgiving for mercies and favors. This may refer to a part of public worship, or to the thanks which should be expressed at table, and the invocation of the divine blessing to attend the bounties of his providence. Paul had illustrated his subject by prayer and by singing; be now does it by a reference to the important part of public worship expressed in giving thanks.
With the spirit - In the manner referred to above; that is, in an unknown tongue, in such a way that your own “heart” may be engaged in it, but which would be unintelligible to others.
He that occupieth the room - Is in the place, or the seat of the unlearned; that is, he who is unlearned. On the meaning of the word “room,” see the note at Luk_14:8. To “fill” a place means to occupy a station, or to be found in a slate or condition.
Of the unlearned - (τοῦἰδιώτου tou idiōtou. On the meaning of this word, see the note at Act_4:13. Here it means one who was unacquainted with the foreign language spoken by him who gave thanks. It properly denotes a man in “private,” in contradistinction from a man in “public” life; and hence, a man who is ignorant and unlettered, as such people generally were.
Say Amen - This word means “truly, verily;” and is an expression of affirmation Joh_3:5 or of assent. Here it means assent. How can he pronounce “the” Amen; how can he express his assent; how can he join in the act of devotion? This “might” have been, and probably “was,” expressed aloud; and there is no impropriety in it. It “may,” however, be “mental” - a silent assent to what is said, and a silent uniting in the act of thanksgiving. In one way or the other, or in both, the assent should always be expressed by those who join in acts of public worship.
1 Corinthians 14:17 “For thou verily givest thanks well, but the other is not edified.”
For thou verily givest thanks well - That is, even if you use a foreign language. You do it with the heart; and it is accepted by God as your offering; but the other, who cannot understand it, cannot be benefited by it.
1 Corinthians 14:18 “I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all:”
I thank my God - Paul here shows that he did not undervalue or despise the power of speaking foreign languages. It was with him a subject of thanksgiving that he could speak so many; but he felt that there were more valuable endowments than this; see the next verse.
With tongues more than ye all - I am able to speak more foreign languages than all of you. “How many” languages Paul could speak, he has no where told us. It is reasonable, however, to presume that he was able to speak the language of any people to whom God in his providence, and by his Spirit, called him to preach. He had been commissioned to preach to the “Gentiles,” and it is probable that he was able to speak the languages of all the nations among whom he ever traveled. There is no account of his being under a necessity of employing an interpreter wherever he preached.
1 Corinthians 14:19 “Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.”
Yet in the church - In the Christian assembly. The word “church” does not refer to the “edifice” where Christians worshipped, but to the organized body of Christians.
I had rather… - It is probable that in the Christian assembly, usually, there were few who understood foreign languages. Paul, therefore, would not speak in a foreign language when its only use would be mere display.
With my understanding - So as to be intelligible to others; so that I might understand it, and so that at the same time others might be benefitted.
1 Corinthians 14:20 “Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men.”
Brethren, be not children in understanding - Be not childish; do not behave like little children. They admire, and are astonished at what is striking, novel, and what may be of no real utility. They are pleased with anything that will amuse them, and at little things that afford them play and pastime. So your admiration of a foreign language and of the ability to speak it, is of as little solid value as the common sports and plays of boys. This, says Doddridge, is an admirable stroke of oratory, and adapted to bring down their pride by showing them that those things on which they were disposed to value themselves were “childish.” It is sometimes well to appeal to Christians in this manner, and to show them that what they are engaged in is “unworthy” the dignity of the understanding - unfit to occupy the time and attention of an immortal mind. Much, alas! very much of that which engages the attention of Christians is just as unworthy of the dignity of the mind, and of their immortal nature, as were the aims and desires which the apostle rebuked among the Christians at Corinth. Much that pertains to dress, to accomplishment, to living, to employment, to amusement, to conversation, will appear, when we come to die, to have been like the playthings of “children;” and we shall feel that the immortal mind has been employed, and the time wasted, and the strength exhausted in that which was foolish and puerile.
Howbeit in malice be ye children - This is one of Paul’s most happy turns of expression and of sentiment. He had just told them that in one respect they ought not to be children. Yet, as if this would appear to be speaking lightly of children - and Paul would not speak lightly of anyone, even of a child - he adds, that in “another” respect it would be well to be like them - nay, not only like children, but like “infants.” The phrase “be ye children,” here, does not express the force of the original νηπιάζετε nēpiazete. It means, “be infants,” and is emphatic, and was used, evidently, by the apostle of design. The meaning may be thus expressed. “Your admiration of foreign languages is like the sports and plays of “childhood.” In this respect be not children (παιδίᾳ paidia); be men! Lay aside such childish things. Act worthy of the “understanding” which God has given you. I have mentioned children. Yet I would not speak unkindly or with contempt even of them. “In one respect” you may imitate them. Nay, you should not only be like “children,” that are somewhat advanced in years, but like “infants.” Be as free from malice, from any ill-will toward others, from envy, and every improper passion, as they are.” This passage, therefore, accords with the repeated declaration of the Saviour, that in order to enter into heaven, it was needful that we should become as little children; Mat_18:3.
Be men - Margin, “Perfect, or of a riper age” (τέλειοι teleioi). The word means full-grown men. Act like them whose understandings are mature and ripe.