Five Words or Ten Thousand?
Tongue speaking in the Bible was the ability given one to speak in a language he did not know and had not studied. A careful reading of Acts 2:1-11 will show that the apostles of Christ were given this power. The feast of Pentecost brought "Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven" (Acts 2:5) to the city of Jerusalem. These people being from all over the Jewish world spoke different languages or tongues. The apostles were Galileans and did not know the language of all of these new comers to the city of Jerusalem. The apostles were enabled by God to know and speak in the languages of those present. "We do hear them speak in our tongues. . . " (Acts 2:11).
But what about today? Tongue speaking today is not available as it was in the first century. The apostle Paul told the Corinthians, "But whether there be tongues, they shall cease" (1 Cor. 13:8). After the Word of God was completed by the end of the first century, tongue speaking was no longer needed. Once God is finished with a thing, he takes it out of the way! (1 Cor. 13:8-13)
Paul said, "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" (1 Cor. 14:19). Paul is saying, "If no one understands his speech, it is of no value." This is the reason it is written, "But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church: and let him speak to himself, and to God" (1 Cor. 14:28). It can be seen as you read 1 Corinthians 14 that the main theme is that of understanding. Folks today who claim to speak in tongues will go to 1 Corinthians 14 and claim they are just speaking in an unknown tongue while speaking to God. This is their answer when we ask them what they are saying or why can't we understand what is being said! Often, the so-called tongue speaker will admit that he does not know what he is saying. It is just an "unknown tongue." But, please observe that the word "unknown" is not in the real text. The word is italicized; meaning it is not in the original Greek text. So, in 1 Corinthians 14, we are just dealing with tongues or languages as in Acts 2.
Speaking in a tongue not understood by the hearer becomes unfruitful. The reasons this is so:
1. He speaketh not to men. "For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him" (1 Cor. 14:2). If a person talks to me in a language I do not know, it is of no value. God knows but not me! People today who claim to speak in tongues, do not really speak any known language at all!
2. It does not edify others. "He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself" (1 Cor. 14:4). If one is speaking to a group it should be to edify the whole group, not just the one speaking!
3. One is speaking into the air. Paul said, "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? For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare for battle? 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" (1 Cor. 14:7-9). If the call of the sleeping soldier is a sound he does not know or understand, he sleeps on and makes no preparation to fight.
4. The understanding is unfruitful. "For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful" (1 Cor. 14:14). Why pray a public prayer in a language no one understands? What profit is it to the audience?
5. No one can say "Amen. "The word "Amen" simply means "I agree." As the apostle Paul said, "How shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned say Amen at thy giving of thanks, seeing his understandeth not what thou sayest?" (1 Cor. 14:16) If the hearer does not know the language he cannot say "Amen" because he does not know whether he agrees with the prayer or not.
6. The unlearned will think one is mad. "If therefore the whole church be come together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad?" (1 Cor. 14:23) If a person is unlearned in the language being spoken, to him it is as if he were among a group of mad people! He does not understand what is going on.
Tongue speaking even when it was being done in New Testament times was to be done "by two, or at the most by three, and then by course; let one interpret. But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God" (1 Cor. 14:27-28). God commands and expects that "all things be done decently and in order" (1 Cor. 14:39). No wonder Paul said, "I had rather speak five words with my understanding . . . than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue."
Guardian of Truth XXXV: 24, pp. 750