"So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church. Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up." 1 Corinthians 14:12-17 ESV

I tend to follow readings of the New Testament that assume tongues to be earthly languages. But in that case this verse puzzles me - why would one pray that you can interpret your own words, if they are an intelligible language? v28 in particular seems to assume that a speaker would know beforehand whether anybody nearby would be able to interpret.

Open to all sensible exegesis on the passage and topic to help clearly resolve the meaning of the passage, regardless of how it fits with my own preferred lean.

  • Perhaps I wasn't clear enough: uttering words in a certain language, and understanding said language, are two different things; this is so painfully obvious, even outside of glossolalia, that one has to seriously wonder why you've even felt the need to ask such a trivial question in the first place.
    – Lucian
    Aug 31, 2020 at 10:10
  • @Lucian - I would argue that the NT never clearly suggests that a speaker says something in another language that they themselves do not understand. v28 is yet clearer - don't speak in another language unless you know there's somebody nearby who can interpret it. If you interpret the chapter otherwise, please feel free to add your own Answer - I did say plainly that I'm open to having answers from all perspectives.
    – Steve can help
    Aug 31, 2020 at 10:19
  • So, if I understand correctly, you believe X, based on passage(s) Y, and now you've stumbled upon passage(s) Z, which seem(s) to hint at previous conclusion being arguably false, hence the need to address a question, asking for a possible harmonization between X, which seems to imply Y, and Z, which would appear to imply non-Y ?
    – Lucian
    Aug 31, 2020 at 10:55
  • @SteveTaylor your assumption that others should/can understand is not Scriptural across the board. ”For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.” ‭‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭14:2‬ Not all languages are of the earth especially if the audience is God Himself there is no need to speak in an earthly language. The fact that God can on occasion allow the interpretation of the codified secret mysteries is His prerogative. V4 says tongues build up only the speaker v5 says UNLESS someone can interpret Aug 31, 2020 at 12:38
  • When T.S. Eliot was asked: "Why are you reading so many critical reviews on your own poetry?" He responded: "To understand myself better", for poet is just an instrument of inspiration and the full meaning of inspiration can be better understood by others. The same was noticed by Socrates, who found that he could understand message of the inspired poets better than they themselves. Something similar is here as well: inspired prophet should pray to understand better his own inspired insights. Aug 31, 2020 at 19:39

2 Answers 2


The answer to this question is a very simple and practical one.

The key to understanding this is found earlier in the same chapter, 1 Cor 14:5, where Paul imagines a group of people, some of whom speak in various languages. For illustration, suppose a speaker speaks Mongolian but find themselves among a group of English speakers. If such a person gives a testimony in Mongolian (as a result of a miraculous gift of God) then no one will understand. Thus, in V5 we have:

I wish that all of you could speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets so that the church may be edified.

In V10, 11 Paul makes the same point in another way:

Assuredly, there are many different languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. If, then, I do not know the meaning of someone’s language, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me.

Lastly, allow me to quote the last four verses of this chapter (with comments by myself) as Paul concludes:

22 Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers, but for unbelievers [so that new fields can be entered and evangelised]. Prophecy, however, is for believers [in their regular services to share God's Word], not for unbelievers.

23 So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, > and some who are uninstructed or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your minds? 24 But if an unbeliever or uninstructed person comes in while everyone is prophesying, he will be convicted and called to account by all, 25 and the secrets of his heart will be made known. So he will fall facedown and worship God, proclaiming, “God is truly among you!”

Lastly, to the trickiest part of the question: "he pray that he may interpret". Let us begin with a concrete example where the language is not at issue. Examine the example of Dan 8:27 which is the conclusion of the the vision of the Ram and Goat. Daniel records what he saw and Gabriel's explanation and concludes:

I was appalled by the vision; it was beyond understanding.

Thus, Daniel could not understand what had been revealed to him. I believe it is possible to have a revelation from God, even when the recipient understands the language, that the meaning is still obscure.

To continue the above hypothetical example, if one person receives a divine revelation, which is in a language he/she understands, namely Mongolian but is unknown to the rest of the group, that does not mean that even when translated, the revelation could be necessarily understood. Thus, Paul urges people to pray that they might have understanding.

  • @SteveTaylor - I have added some extra and hope that furthers the discussion.
    – Dottard
    Aug 31, 2020 at 8:26
  • Thanks Dottard, I've added a (+1), but I don't think you've dealt with the core text sufficiently, or really examined it in its own immediate context. I'd honestly prefer to believe you're right, but don't find the brief "I believe it is possible" argument adequately persuasive or comprehensive enough to nail down as the 'Answer'. At face value v13-14 still seem to read more neatly with a 'spiritual' reading. I've expanded the quotation in the original question, but still keen on keeping v13 as the locus, and want to avoid shifting the goalposts on you.
    – Steve can help
    Aug 31, 2020 at 10:36
  • V13 says that he may ινα be able to interpret. In other words it’s conditioned on praying which is essentially asking (permission) to know what was said. And given prayer is a two way dialogue, it’s possible, or at least reasonable to expect (at times) a negative. God can deny the interpretation. In that event the person speaking in tongues shouldn’t take up precious time in a meeting on something no one but his spirit and God understands, under the guise of order and common courtesy to others. Especially if it’s a longer mystery being uttered. Aug 31, 2020 at 12:47
  • 1
    @NihilSineDeo - well said. I agree.
    – Dottard
    Aug 31, 2020 at 21:09

Tongues are earthly languages and more. Here is a bit of the context just one chapter earlier:

1 Corinthians 13:1 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

Another chapter earlier on spiritual gifts, we have

1 Corinthians 12:10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues.

Paul has been talking about spiritual realities all along. Else where in Romans 8:26 English Standard Version

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.

I have personal experiences of this. When it happened, I understood what I had just said in my spirit and it was confirmed later in the future. So tongues are not just human languages restricted by grammatical rules. There exists more concepts than can be articulated by a human language.

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