Speaking an Unknown Tongue by Bible Commentary

Unknown tongue is the phrase used by the KJV Bible that has caused much confusion, yet the word unknown was added by the translators. Below are some of the key verses that relate to speaking in tongues i.e. an unknown foreign language with up to three different Bible commentaries given for each verse if available.

Mark 16:17 was fulfilled at Pentecost

Mark 16:17 “And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;”

“Albert Barnes' Notes on the Bible”

Mark 16:7 - Shall speak with new tongues - Shall speak other languages than their native language. This was remarkably fulfilled on the day of Pentecost, Act_2:4-11. It existed, also, in other places. See 1Co_12:10.

“Adam Clarke's Commentary on the Bible”

Mark 16:7 - Speak with new tongues - This was most literally fulfilled on the day of Pentecost, Acts 2:4-19.

The purpose of Speaking in Tongues

Acts 2:6 “Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.”

“Adam Clarke's Commentary on the Bible”

Acts 2:6 - When this was noised abroad - …and as various circumstances might direct their attention to the temple, having flocked thither they were farther astonished and confounded to hear the disciples of Christ addressing the mixed multitude in the languages of the different countries from which these people had come.

Every man heard them speak in his own language - Use may naturally suppose that, as soon as any person presented himself to one of these disciples, he, the disciple, was immediately enabled to address him in his own language, however various this had been from the Jewish or Galilean dialects. If a Roman presented himself, the disciple was immediately enabled to address him in Latin - if a Grecian, in Greek - an Arab, in Arabic, and so of the rest.

The gifts of the spirit are NOT for private use

1 Corinthians 12:7 “But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal.”

“Adam Clarke's Commentary on the Bible”

1 Corinthians 12:7 - The manifestation of the Spirit - Φανερωσις του Πνευματος. This is variably understood by the fathers; some of them rendering φανερωσις by illumination, others demonstration, and others operation. The apostle’s meaning seems to be this: Whatever gifts God has bestowed, or in what various ways soever the Spirit of God may have manifested himself, it is all for the common benefit of the Church. God has given no gift to any man for his own private advantage, or exclusive profit. He has it for the benefit of others as well as for his own salvation.

“John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible”

1 Corinthians 12:7 - to profit withal; not to make gain of, as Simon Magus intended, could he have been possessed of them; nor to encourage pride or envy, or to form and foment divisions and parties; but for profit and advantage, and that not merely private, or a man's own, but public, the good of the whole community or church, to which the least grace or gift, rightly used, may contribute.

“The People's New Testament”

1 Corinthians 12:7-11 - But the manifestation of the Spirit, etc. However varied these manifestations, all are for the profit of the whole body. No gift of the Spirit is for the benefit of the recipient. This is now shown.

We don’t all have the same gifts of the Spirit

1 Corinthians 12:10 “To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues:”

“Albert Barnes' Notes on the Bible”

1 Corinthians 12:10 - To another divers kinds of tongues - The power of speaking various languages; see Act_2:4, Act_2:7-11. This passage also seems to imply that the extraordinary endowments of the Holy Spirit were not conferred on all alike.

To another the interpretation of tongues - The power of interpreting foreign languages; or of interpreting the language which might be used by the “prophets” in their communications; see the note at 1Co_14:27. This was evidently a faculty different from the power of speaking a foreign language; and yet it might be equally useful. It would appear possible that some might have had the power of speaking foreign languages who were not themselves apprized of the meaning, and that interpreters were needful in order to express the sense to the hearers. Or it may have been that in a promiscuous assembly, or in an assembly made up of those who spoke different languages, a part might have understood what was uttered, and it was needful that an interpreter should explain it to the other portion; see the notes on 1Co_14:28.

“John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible”

1 Corinthians 12:10 - To another divers kinds of tongues; whereby such could speak all manner of languages, which they had never learned, understood, and been used to: this Christ promised his disciples, when he sent them into all the world to preach the Gospel, Mar_16:16 and so anticipates an objection they otherwise might have made, how they should be able to preach it to all, so as to be understood, when they were not acquainted with the languages of all nations; an instance of which we have in the apostles on the day of Pentecost, Act_2:4 and which continued many years after with them, and other persons in the churches; see 1Co_13:2.

To another the interpretation of tongues; one that had this gift, when a discourse was delivered in an unknown tongue, used to stand up and interpret it to the people, without which it could be of no use to them; and sometimes a person was gifted to speak in an unknown tongue, and yet was not capable of interpreting his discourse truly and distinctly in that the people understood: see 1Co_14:13. The rules to be observed in such cases, and by such persons, see in 1Co_14:27.

Not all have the gift of Speaking in Tongues

1 Corinthians 12:30 “Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?”

“Albert Barnes' Notes on the Bible”

1 Corinthians 12:29 -30 - Are all apostles?… - These questions imply, with strong emphasis, that it could not be, and ought not to be, that there should be perfect equality of endowment. It was not a matter of fact that all were equal, or that all were qualified for the offices which others sustained. Whether the arrangement was approved of or not, it was a simple matter of fact that some were qualified to perform offices which others were not; that some were endowed with the abilities requisite to the apostolic office, and others not; that some were endowed with prophetic gifts, and others were not; that some had the gift of healing, or the talent of speaking different languages, or of interpreting and that others had not.

“John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible”

1 Corinthians 12:30 - Have all the gifts of healing?… No; when these gifts were in being, all had them not. When anointing with oil, in order to heal the sick, was in use, it was only performed by the elders of the church, not by the common members of it, who were to be sent for by the sick on this occasion:

do all speak with tongues? no; it was not true in fact, as they well knew; though this was greatly coveted after, as a following chapter of this epistle shows;

do all interpret? that is, unknown tongues, strange languages; or can they? no. This also was a peculiar gift bestowed on some persons only.

By the Spirit you speak mysteries if others don’t speak the language

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.”

“Albert Barnes' Notes on the Bible”

1 Corinthians 14:2 - 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.

“Adam Clarke's Commentary on the Bible”

1 Corinthians 14:2 - For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue - This chapter is crowded with difficulties. It is not likely that the Holy Spirit should, in the church, suddenly inspire a man with the knowledge of some foreign language, which none in the church understood but himself; and lead him to treat the mysteries of Christianity in that language, though none in the place could profit by his teaching.

Dr. Lightfoot’s mode of reconciling these difficulties is the most likely I have met with. He supposes that by the unknown tongue the Hebrew is meant, and that God restored the true knowledge of this language when he gave the apostles the gift of tongues. As the Scriptures of the Old Testament were contained in this language, and it has beauties, energies, and depths in it which no verbal translation can reach, it was necessary, for the proper elucidation of the prophecies concerning the Messiah, and the establishment of the Christian religion, that the full meaning of the words of this sacred language should be properly understood. And it is possible that the Hebrew Scriptures were sometimes read in the Christian congregations as they were in the Jewish synagogues; and if the person who read and understood them had not the power and faculty of explaining them to others, in vain did he read and understand them himself. And we know that it is possible for a man to understand a language, the force, phraseology, and idioms of which he is incapable of explaining even in his mother tongue. We shall see, in the course of these notes, how this view of the subject will apply to the illustration of the apostle’s words throughout the chapter.

Speaketh not unto men, but unto God - None present understanding the language, God alone knowing the truth and import of what he says: -

In the spirit he speaketh mysteries - Though his own mind (for so πνευματι is understood here by many eminent critics) apprehends the mysteries contained in the words which he reads or utters; but if, by the spirit, we understand the Spirit of God, it only shows that it is by that Spirit that he is enabled to speak and apprehend these mysteries. See the note on 1Co_14:19.

“John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible”

1 Corinthians 14:2 - For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue,…Or with tongues, as some copies and the Ethiopic version read: Dr. Lightfoot thinks, that the Hebrew tongue, which was become a dead language, and understood but by few, is here meant, and that not without reason; seeing the public prayers, preaching, and singing of psalms among the Jews, were in this languages (x); in imitation of whom, such ministers, who had the gift of speaking this language, read the Scriptures, preached, prayed, and sung psalms in it, which were no ways to the edification of the people, who understood it not; upon which account the apostle recommends prophesying, praying, and singing, in a language that was understood: otherwise he

speaketh not unto men; to the understanding, profit, and edification of men: but unto God: to his praise and glory, and he only knowing, who knows all languages, and every word in the tongue what is said; excepting himself, unless there should be any present capable of interpreting:

for no man understandeth him : or "heareth him": that is, hears him, so as to understand him; he may hear a sound, but he cannot tell the meaning of it, and so it is of no use and advantage to him:

howbeit in the Spirit he speaketh mysteries; though under the influence and by the extraordinary gift of the Spirit he has, and to his own Spirit and understanding, and with great affection and devotion within himself, he speaks of the deep things of God, and the mysteries of his grace, the most glorious truths of the Gospel, yet the meaning of his voice and words not being known, he is a barbarian to them that hear him; and though what he delivers are truths of the greatest importance, they are a mere jargon to others, being unintelligible.

You only edify yourself if the Church doesn’t speak the language

1 Corinthians 14:4 “He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; [Paul said the gifts are NOT for yourself. 1 Cor 12:7] but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.” [Which Paul said is the purpose of the gifts]

Paul said the gifts of the spirit are for the “profit of all” and not the individual (1 Corinthians 12:7). And here he shows that speaking in a foreign language the listeners don’t know does not edify the Church but prophesying does. Paul is not saying that tongues are for your edifying but for the whole Church as are all the gifts.

“Albert Barnes' Notes on the Bible”

1 Corinthians 14:4 - 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.

“Adam Clarke's Commentary on the Bible”

1 Corinthians 14:4 - He that speaketh in an unknown tongue - In the Hebrew for instance, the knowledge of the depth and power of which he has got by a Divine revelation, edifieth himself by that knowledge.

But he that prophesieth - Has the gift of preaching.

Edifieth the Church - Speaketh unto men to edification, exhortation, and comfort, 1Co_14:3.

“John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible”

1 Corinthians 14:4 - He that speaketh its an unknown tongue,… Be it the Hebrew language, or any other; some copies, and the Ethiopic version, read, "with tongues":

edifieth himself; his heart may be warmed, his affections raised, his devotion kept up, and he be in a very spiritual and comfortable frame, knowing and understanding what he himself says:

but he that prophesieth, edifieth the church : which is the great end of the Gospel ministry, which is for the edifying the body of the church: wherefore that which tends to the edification of more, even the whole church, must be preferable to that, which at most can only edify one, and that the speaker himself.

It profits no one speaking in an unknown foreign language

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?”

“Albert Barnes' Notes on the Bible”

1 Corinthians 14:6 - 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.

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.

You may as well speak to the air than speak an unknown foreign language

1 Corinthians 14:9 “So likewise you, except you utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for you shall speak into the air.”

“Albert Barnes' Notes on the Bible”

1 Corinthians 14:9 - 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.

Speaking in a foreign language no one understands is unfruitful

1 Corinthians 14:14 “For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful.”

“Adam Clarke's Commentary on the Bible”

1 Corinthians 14:14 - For if I pray in an unknown tongue - If my prayers are composed of sentences and sayings taken out of the prophets, etc., and in their own language - my spirit prayeth, my heart is engaged in the work, and my prayers answer all the purpose of prayers to myself; but my understanding is unfruitful to all others, because they do not understand my prayers, and I either do not or cannot interpret them. See the note on 1Co_14:19.

“John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible”

1 Corinthians 14:14 - For if I pray in an unknown tongue,…In the Hebrew tongue, which the greatest part of the Jewish doctors insisted (a) upon should be only used in prayer; which notion might be borrowed from them, and now greatly prevailed in the church at Corinth; and the custom was used by such as had the gift of speaking that language, even though the body and bulk of the people understood it not:

my spirit prayeth; I pray with my breath vocally; or else with affection and devotion, understanding what I say myself, and so am edified; or rather with the gift of the Spirit bestowed on me:

but my understanding is unfruitful; that is, what I say with understanding to myself is unprofitable to others, not being understood by them. (a) Vid. Trigland. de Sect. Kar. c. 10. p. 172, 173.

Paul spoke more foreign languages than them all

1 Corinthians 14:18 “I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than you all:”

Paul stating this, in this chapter and in this context, just further verifies that these were all known foreign languages. This is what speaking in tongues is all about. The gifts of the Spirit are to benefit all and not for personal use. Nowhere in the Bible is it introduced as anything but. All of 1 Corinthians 14 is a rebuke for the misuse of the gift of speaking in tongues. In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul refers to them as carnal baby Christians.

“Albert Barnes' Notes on the Bible”

1 Corinthians 14:18 - 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.

“Adam Clarke's Commentary on the Bible”

1 Corinthians 14:18 - I speak with tongues more than ye all - He understood more languages than any of them did: and this was indispensably necessary, as he was the apostle of the Gentiles in general, and had to preach to different provinces where different dialects, if not languages, were used. In the Hebrew, Syriac, Greek, and Latin, he was undoubtedly well skilled from his education; and how many he might understand by miraculous gift we cannot tell. But, even literally understood, it is very probable that he knew more languages than any man in the Church of Corinth.

“John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible”

1 Corinthians 14:18 - I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than you all. This the apostle says, to observe to them that he did not despise speaking with tongues: nor did he endeavour to beat them off, and dissuade them from desiring them, or envied their having them, because he was destitute of them himself; for he had this gift in a very eminent manner, and oftentimes made use of it, and was frequently under a necessity of so doing; he could speak with more tongues than any of those that had them, and spoke them oftener than they did; having occasion for them through his travelling into different countries, and preaching the Gospel to people of divers languages; and this he mentions also not in a boasting manner, but in great humility, giving thanks to God, and acknowledging him to be the author of this gift.

An unbeliever would say a Church speaking in different foreign languages was mad

1 Corinthians 14:23 “If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that you are mad?”

“Albert Barnes' Notes on the Bible”

1 Corinthians 14:23 - Be come together into one place - For public worship.

And all speak with tongues - All speak with a variety of unknown tongues; all speak foreign languages. The idea is, that the church would usually speak the same language with the people among whom they dwelt; and if they made use of foreign languages which were unintelligible to their visitors, it would leave the impression that the church was a bedlam.

And there come in - those that are “unlearned.” Those that are unacquainted with foreign languages, and to whom, therefore, what was said would be unintelligible.

Or unbelievers - Heathen, or Jews, who did not believe in Christ. It is evident from this that such persons often attended on the worship of Christians. Curiosity might have led them to it; or the fact that they had relatives among Christians might have caused it.

That ye are mad - They will not understand what is said; it will be a confused jargon; and they will infer that it is the effect of insanity. Even though it might not, therefore, be in itself improper, yet a regard to the honor of Christianity should have led them to abstain from the use of such languages in their worship when it was needless. The apostles were charged, from a similar cause, with being intoxicated; see Act_2:13.

Paul warns again, if no one interprets or no one understands the language, keep silent

1 Corinthians 14:28 “But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God.”

“Adam Clarke's Commentary on the Bible”

1 Corinthians 14:28 - But if there be no interpreter - If there be none present who can give the proper sense of this Hebrew reading and speaking, then let him keep silence, and not occupy the time of the Church, by speaking in a language which only himself can understand.

Page Six - 1 Corinthians 14 by Albert Barnes Commentary