1 Corinthians 14
Pulpit Commentary
Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy.
Verses 1-25. - The gift of preaching superior to the gift tongues. Verse 1. - Follow after charity; literally, chase; pursue. The word is one of which St. Paul is fond (Romans 9:30, 31; Romans 13:13; Romans 14:19; Philippians 3:12, 14; 1 Timothy 6:11, etc.). And desire; rather, yet be zealous for. But rather that ye may prophesy; and yet more strive after the gift of sacred preaching.
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.
Verse 2. - In an unknown tongue. The interpolation of the word "unknown" in our Authorized Version is quite unjustifiable, and shows the danger of giving way to the bias of mere conjectures. Probably it is this word, not found in the original, which has given rise to the perplexing, unhistoric, and unwarranted theory that "the gift of tongues" was a power of speaking in foreign languages. Speaketh not unto men. Because, as a rule, no one understands anything that he says. The word literally means "hears." It may, perhaps, imply that no special attention was given to those who gave way to these impulses of utterance. The whole of this chapter proves in a most striking way the close analogy between "the tongue" and the impassioned soliloquies of inarticulate utterance which were poured forth in tones of thrilling power among the Montanists, and in modern times among the Irvingites. In the spirit. It is uncertain whether this means "in his own spirit," or "in the Spirit of God," i.e. as a result of inspiration. Probably the former (John 4:24; Romans 8:13, etc.). Perhaps, however, the two imply the same thing. The spirit is the one Divine part of our human being, and when a man is a true Christian his spirit is in union with, is as it were lost in, the Spirit of God. St. Paul recognizes the true tongue - for it might be simulated by hysteria and even by mere physical imposture - as a result of inspiration, that is, of the overpowering dominance of the human spirit by a supernatural power. Nevertheless, he points out the extreme peril of yielding to or self inducing these emotions public, or in leaving them uncontrolled. Mysteries. Secrets revealed possibly to him, but unrevealed by this strange "tongue" to others.
But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort.
Verse 3. - To edification, and exhortation, and comfort. The "to" should be omitted. His words build up the Christian soul, by rousing its efforts and consoling its sorrows. The "Son of prophecy" (Barnabas) is, as Stanley points out, also "a Son of consolation" (Acts 4:36). "Support" (paraklesis) involves "comfort," i.e. strength and calm.
He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.
Verse 4. - Edifieth himself. When the "tongue" was genuine, and under due control (ver. 32); when it avoided the physical and orgiastic manifestations by which a sort of spiritual possession was indicated in the ancient oracular shrines; when the self consciousness was not wholly obliterated, - a sense of ennobling conviction would be produced by this spiritual outpouring. Those who have experienced the emotion describe this very result. They felt enlarged and elevated - their whole being was for a time expanded - by this emotion. The Church. Primarily the body of assembled Christians which he is addressing, and through them the Church of God in general.
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.
Verse 5. - I would that ye all spake with tongues. The language of relative disparagement which St. Paul uses throughout these chapters may lead us to regard this with surprise. Yet it is perfectly intelligible. Montanus truly said that each human spirit is like a harp, which the Holy Spirit strikes as with a plectrum, and which yields itself to the mighty hand by which the chords are swept. We have seen all along - and history has in various ages confirmed the impression, on every occasion when these phenomena have been reproduced in seasons of great spiritual revival - that the external symptoms may be imitated with most dangerous and objectionable results both to the speaker and to others. But when the expression is genuine, the fact that the tides of the Spirit can thus sweep through the narrow channels of individuality is in itself a sign that the spirit of the man is alive and not dead; and thus he is an evidence of God's power both to himself and to others. Those who have heard "the tongue" have told me that its force, melody, and penetrative quality produced an impression not to be forgotten. When we see the stuffed and stopped-up hearts and lives of thousands of frivolous and worldly money worshippers, we might well echo St. Paul's wish. Greater. Not of necessity greater absolutely or morally, but greater in the fact of his wider and deeper usefulness. Except he interpret. From this we infer that sometimes, when the passion had spent its force, the speaker in the tongue could give rational explanation of the thoughts and feelings to which he had given ecstatic utterance.
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?
Verse 6. - Except I shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine? My "tongue" will be useless to you unless I also speak to you of what I know by revelation, or by my thoughtful study, which may take the form of preaching or of teaching (1 Corinthians 12:28).
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?
Verse 7. - Even things without life giving sound. Even musical instruments - flute or harp - dead instruments as they are, must be so played as to keep up the distinction of intervals, without which the melody is ruined and the tune is unrecognizable. Much more is this the ease with the human voice.

"How sour sweet music is,
When time is broke and no proportion kept!"
The indiscriminate use of the tongue is here compared to the dissonance of jarring and unmodulated instrumental sounds, In harmony there must be due sequence and intervals of sound.
For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?
Verse 8. - If the trumpet give an uncertain sound. A spiritual exhortation should be like the "blowing of a trumpet in Zion;" but if, as in "the tongue," the trumpet only gave forth an unintelligible blare, its sounds were useless.
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.
Verse 9. - Words easy to be understood; rather, distinguishable speech. Ye shall speak; rather, ye shall be (all the time) speaking. Into the air. Mere pulses of useless inarticulate breath, spoken ins Blaue hinein. Philo has the word aeromuthos one who speaks to the wind.
There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification.
Verse 10. - It may be. A mere expression of uncertainty as to the exact number (comp. 1 Corinthians 15:37). It is one of the very few instances where even the verb which implies "chance" is recognized. The word "chance" itself (τυχὴ) does not occur in the New Testament. So many kinds of voices. This does not seem to mean "so many languages." The Jews always asserted that the languages, of the world were seventy in number. It seems to mean "classes of expressive sounds." None of them is without signification. The words rendered "without signification," literally mean dumb. The meaning must either be that "nothing - no creature - is dumb," or that "every class of sounds has its own distinct meaning."
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.
Verse 11. - A barbarian; in other words, unintelligible, according to the definition of the word by Ovid —

"Barbarus hic ego sum, quia non intelligor ulli." Unto me; rather, in my eyes.
Even so ye, forasmuch as ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church.
Verse 12. - Even so ye. A general form of conclusion from the previous remarks. Of spiritual gifts; literally, since ye are zealots of spirits. That ye may excel to the edifying of the Church; rather, seek them to the edifying of the Church, that ye may abound. The same word is used in Matthew 5:20 ("exceed"); 1 Corinthians 8:8 ("are we the better").
Wherefore let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret.
Verse 13. - Pray that he may interpret; either, so pray as to be able to interpret, or, pray with the object of afterwards interpreting. The meaning, "pray to have the power of interpretation given him," seems excluded by the next verse.
For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful.
Verse 14. - My understanding is unfruitful. I am only aware that I am praying. I have no definite consciousness as to what I say.
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.
Verse 15. - What is it then? A phrase like the Latin quorsum haec? What is the purport of my exhortations? I will sing. This shows that the glossolaly sometimes took the form of singing. With the understanding also. When we worship or sing we must indeed "worship in spirit," but also worship and "sing praises with understanding" (Psalm 47:7; John 4:24).
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?
Verse 16. - That occupieth the room of the unlearned; that is, "one in the position of an ordinary worshipper, who has no spiritual gifts." An idiotes is a private person; one who does not possess the skill or the knowledge which is immediately in question. Say Amen; rather, say the Amen. The custom of ratifying prayer and praises with the "Amen" of hearty assent and participation existed in the Jewish (Deuteronomy 27:15. Nehemiah 5:13; Revelation 5:14; Philo, 'Fragm.,' p. 630) as well as in the Christian Church (Justin Martyr, 'Apol.,' 2:97). The sound of the loud unanimous "Amen" of early Christian congregations is compared to the echo of distant thunder.

"Et resonaturum ferit aethera vocibus Amen." Being the answer of the congregation, the "Amen" was regarded as no less important than the prayer itself.
For thou verily givest thanks well, but the other is not edified.
Verse 17. - Well. It is good and honourable for thee to utter the voice of Eucharist; but if this be done in the unintelligible tongue, what does the Church profit? The other. The "layman" or "ungifted person."
I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all:
Verse 18. - I speak with tongues; rather, with a tongue. More than ye all. This is exactly what we should expect of the emotional, impassioned nature of St. Paul, who was so wholly under the influence of the Spirit of God. But it is clear from all that he has been saying that, while the personal and evidential value of this gift of yielding his whole being to the spiritual impulse, which expressed and relieved itself by inarticulate utterance, was such as to make him "thank God" that he possessed it, he must either have exercised it only in private gatherings or must have always accompanied it by interpretation.
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.
Verse 19. - Yet in the Church. In any public assembly of Christians. Five words. No disparagement of the prominence given to glossolaly could be more emphatic. "Rather half of ten of the edifying sort than a thousand times ten of the other" (Besser). That... I might [may] teach others also. The word rendered "teach" is rather instruct, the root of our "catechize" (Luke 1:4; Romans 2:8; Galatians 6:6, etc.).
Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men.
Verse 20. - Be not children in understanding; rather, in your minds. Your tendency to overvalue glossolaly shows you to be somewhat childish. It is remarkable that this is the only verse of the New Testament in which the common Greek word "mind" (phren) occurs. Howbeit in malice be ye children; better, but in wickedness be babes. The Authorized Version misses the climax involved in the change of the word. The Christian should always be childlike (Matthew 11:25; Matthew 19:4), but never childish (1 Corinthians 13:11; Ephesians 4:14). Be men; rather, become or prove yourselves full-grown; literally, perfect.
In the law it is written, With men of other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people; and yet for all that will they not hear me, saith the Lord.
Verse 21. - In the Law. The quotation is from Isaiah 28:11, 12, but the term "the Law" was applied generally to the Old Testament, as in John 10:34; John 12:34; John 15:25; Romans 3:19). With men of other tongues, etc. The application of this Old Testament quotation furnishes one of the many singular instances of quotation which prove that the Jews often referred to the words without any direct reference to their context or original meaning. He here wishes to show that glossolaly had little or no value except as an evidence to unbelievers, and illustrates this by Isaiah 28:11, 12. Now, in that passage Isaiah tells the drunken priests, who scornfully imitated his style, that, since they derided God's message so delivered to them, God would address them in a very different way by the Assyrians, whose language they did not understand; and that even to this stern lesson, taught them by people of alien tongue, they would remain deaf. In the original, therefore, there is not the least allusion to any phenomenon resembling the "gift of tongues." But the mere words of a scriptural passage always came to Jews with all the force of an argument, independently of their primary meaning; and it was enough for St. Paul's purpose that in Isaiah the allusion is to unintelligible utterance, and to the fact that the teaching which it was meant to convey would be in vain. And other lips. St. Paul does not quote the LXX. The Hebrew has "with stammerings of lips and another tongue will he speak" (comp. Deuteronomy 28:49).
Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not: but prophesying serveth not for them that believe not, but for them which believe.
Verse 22. - Wherefore. In accordance with this illustration. Not to them that believe. Because their belief depends on other and far deeper grounds. Serveth. This word is wrongly supplied; it should be, is for a sign. Not for them that believe not. Because there is nothing necessarily startling in preaching. It might, indeed, produce conviction in the unbelieving (ver. 25), but it was not a special "sign" "The unbelieving" are those who used to drop in at the Christian services out of curiosity.
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 ye are mad?
Verse 23. - All speak with tongues. He does not necessarily mean that all are speaking at once; though, amid these strange scenes of self-asserting enthusiasm, even that was not wholly impossible; but he means, "if there be nothing, going on except glossolaly." Will they not say that ye are mad? This has often been the actual impression produced by these phenomena upon those who stand aloof from the spiritual influences which cause them. On the day of Pentecost the exaltation of the disciples caused mockers to charge them with drunken exhilaration (Acts 2:13).
But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all:
Verse 24. - All prophesy. If one after another speak the word of spiritual exhortation. He is convinced of all, he is judged of all; literally, he is being convicted by all, he is being examined by all; in other words, each address is calculated to awaken conviction in him and to search his heart. Thus the address of St. Peter pierced the consciences of his hearers, when the glossolaly even of Pentecost produced no effect beyond that of irreverent wonder (Acts 2:37). It is easy to see that the style and method of worship in the assemblies of Christians at this early epoch resembled that now prevalent among Quakers. The teaching was not left to recognized pastors, but any Christian might speak who had gifts which moved him to address his brethren. The externals of worship are of no eternal signifiance, but are best left to be moulded by the requirements of time and place, with reference to the teachings of past experience. No doubt St. Paul's depreciation of glossolaly led to its rapid disappearance when it had done its work of being "a sign to unbelievers." But if ancient modes of worship were too independent of rigid conditions, modern modes are, on the other hand, too stereotyped and inelastic.
And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth.
Verse 25. - The secrets of his heart. "The Word of God is quick and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword,.., and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12). Falling down on his face. An Oriental. mode of showing humility and deep conviction (Isaiah 45:14; 1 Samuel 19:24). It does not furnish the shadow of an excuse for the encouragement of catalepsy by the mechanical excitement of revivalism. That God is in you of a truth. St. Paul is probably thinking both of Isaiah 45:14 and Zechariah 8:23, where similar phrases are used.

"Truth from his lips prevailed with double sway,
And fools, who came to scoff, remained to pray."

How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.
Verses 26-33. - Rules to check disorderly self-assertion in Christian assemblies. Verse 26. - How is it then? The same phrase as in ver. 15. Every one of you hath a psalm, etc. We see here a somewhat melancholy picture of the struggling self assertion of rival claimants to attention. A doctrine; rather, a teaching, The glossolaly had probably been promoted by Syrian enthusiasts, perhaps of the Petrine party; the egotism of oratory and itch of teaching now described (James 3:1) may have been developed in the Apollonian party. Unto edifying. The object is moral improvement, not idle self display, not the ostentation of individual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:7, 8, 10). To this he recurs again and again (1 Corinthians 3:9; 1 Corinthians 14:3, 5, 12; 2 Corinthians 5:1; 2 Corinthians 10:8; 2 Corinthians 11:19; 2 Corinthians 13:10; and the verb frequently). The substantive, as used by St. Paul, only occurs again in Romans (Romans 14:19; Romans 15:2), and in Ephesians (Ephesians 2:21, etc.).
If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret.
Verse 27. - And that by course; rather, and that in turn. He does not allow more than one glossolalist to speak at a time, and not more than three at the most in any one service. This rule alone tended to extinguish the disorderly exhibition of" tongues." To control the passion which leads to it is, sooner or later, to stop the manifestation - a result which St. Paul would probably have been the last to regret, when its purpose had been accomplished.
But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God.
Verse 28. - Let him keep silence. The "him" refers to the glossolalist, not to the interpreter. To himself. In his private devotions (as St. Paul himself seems to have done); not in the public assembly.
Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge.
Verse 29. - Two or three. If more than two or three preached, the congregation would get weary. Let the other judge; rather, let the rest discriminate the value of what is said. "Prophesyings" are not to be despised, but we are only to hold fast what is good (1 Thessalonians 5:20, 21), and we are "to try the spirits" (1 John 4:1). St. Paul is not encouraging the Corinthians to the consoriousness of conceited and incompetent criticism, but only putting them on their guard against implicit acceptance of all they hear; which was a very necessary caution at a place where so many teachers sprang up.
If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace.
Verse 30. - Let the first hold his peace. It would be easy enough to judge whether the revelation vouchsafed to his neighbour was more pressing and important than his own address.
For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted.
Verse 31. - Ye may all prophesy; rather, ye all can; that is, "if you have the gift of prophesying." St. Paul has already implied that at every assembly there would be idiotai, unendowed worshippers, who only came to profit by the gifts of others, and that "all" are not prophets (1 Corinthians 12:29). May be comforted; rather, may be exhorted or cheered.
And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.
Verse 32. - And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. Into this golden aphorism St. Paul compresses the whole force of his reasoning. The articles are better omitted: "Spirits of prophets are under the control of prophets." Mantic inspirations, the violent possession which threw sibyls and priestesses into contortions - the foaming lip and streaming hair and glazed or glaring eye - have no place in the self-controlling dignity of Christian inspiration. Even Jewish prophets, in the paroxysm of emotion, might lie naked on the ground and rave (1 Samuel 19:24); but the genuine inspiration in Christian ages never obliterates the self consciousness or overpowers the reason; It abhors the hysteria and simulation and frenzy which have sometimes disgraced revivalism and filled lunatic asylums.
For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.
Verse 33. - Of confusion. The word is rendered "commotion" in Luke 21:9; "tumult," in 2 Corinthians 6:5 and 2 Cor 12:20. "Confusion" is, as St. James says (James 3:16), the result of envious and pushing egotism. But of peace; which cannot coexist with inflation and restlessness. As in all Churches of the saints. The clause probably belongs to this verse, not to the following. It is a reflection on the exceptional turbulence and disorder which disgraced the Corinthian Church.
Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law.
Verses 34, 35. - Rules about the public teaching by women. Verse 34. - Let your women keep silence in the Churches. St. Paul evidently meant this to be a general rule, and one which ought to be normally observed; for he repeats it in 1 Timothy 2:11, 12. At the same time, it is fair to interpret it as a rule made with special reference to time and circumstances, and obviously admitting of exceptions in both dispensations (Judges 4:4; 2 Kings 22:14; Nehemiah 6:14; Luke 2:36; Acts 2:17; Acts 21:9), as is perhaps tacitly implied in 1 Corinthians 11:5. But... to be under obedience (Ephesians 5:22; Colossians 2:18; Titus 2:5; 1 Peter 3:1). Christianity emancipated women, but did not place them on an equality with men. As also saith the Law (Genesis 3:16; Numbers 30:3-12).
And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.
Verse 35. - Let them ask their husbands. Here again St. Paul is dealing with general rules.
What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only?
Verses 36-40. - Appeal and summary. Verse 36. - What? An indignant exclamation. Came the word of God out from you? Are you the authors of the Christian system, that you are to lay down rules about it? No rebuke was too strong for the pretensions of these Corinthians. Or came it unto you only? Is no one to be considered but yourselves? Have you no respect for Christian custom? end that when you were by no means the first Gentile Church in Europe (1 Thessalonians 1:8)?
If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord.
Verse 37. - If any man think himself to be a prophet. Test your pretensions by the capacity to recognize that I have been speaking to you what Christ approves and requires (comp. 1 John 4:6). Or spiritual. He has already said that to most of them he could only speak as carnal (1 Corinthians 3:1).
But if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant.
Verse 38. - Let him be ignorant. The formula seems to fall under the idiom which refuses to say anything more about a subject ("If I perish, I perish;" "What I have written, I have written;" "He that is filthy, let him be filthy still," etc.). The readings vary considerably ("He is ignored;" "He has been ignored;" "He shall be ignored;" "Let him be ignored"). These other readings would be a statement of retribution in kind - of God "sprinkling penal blindnesses on forbidden lusts." But the reading of our translation is on the whole the best supported, and means that to invincible bigotry and ignorant obstinacy St. Paul will have no more to say (Matthew 15:14; 1 Timothy 6:3-5).
Wherefore, brethren, covet to prophesy, and forbid not to speak with tongues.
Verse 39. - Wherefore. The final conclusion. Covet... forbid not. The power to preach is to be desired; all that can be said of glossolaly is that it is not to be absolutely forbidden so long as the conditions which St. Paul has laid down for its regulation are observed. But glossolaly is hardly possible under conditions of order, decorum, and self suppression, and we are not surprised that we hear no more of it in the Church, but only in the wild excitement of fanatical sects. The suppression, however, of the startling manifestation by no means necessarily involves any enfeeblement of the inspiring conviction from which it sprang. The brawling torrent which "foams its madness off" is lost in the calm and majestic flow of the deep river.
Let all things be done decently and in order.
Verse 40. - Let all things. The "but" of the original should not be omitted. It is a final caution against the abuse of the permission accorded in the last clause. Decently; that is, "with decorum." Thus Milton uses the term —

"... and held
Before his decent steps a silver wand."
In Romans 13:13 and 1 Thessalonians 4:12 it is translated "honestly," i.e. honourably. In order. Time, proportion, regulation, self suppression, are as necessary in worship as in "the music of men's lives."

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