Q257 : How Can Speaking in an Unknown Tongue Edify the Speaker?

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Q257 : How Can Speaking in an Unknown Tongue Edify the Speaker?

Hello, Can you please explain to me what Paul means in 1 Corinthians 14:4

He that speaks in an unknown tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church.1

I assume speaking in an unknown tongue is referring to the gift of speaking in tongues? How can it edify if you cannot understand it?

I hope you can help me out.


1.NKJV, 1Corinthians 14:4


NKJVUnless indicated otherwise, all Scripture references are from the New King James Version, copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

A257 : by Tony Garland

Paul's first letter to the church at Corinthian contains many challenging passages, but one of the most difficult to grasp for modern-day believers would have to be chapter 14. In this portion of his letter (from chapters 12 through 14), Paul is correcting an apparent abuse of spiritual gifts within the church at Corinth: especially the tendency at Corinth to employ these gifts for purposes of gaining attention or to appear more spiritual than others.

Within this corrective passage, Paul emphasizes the superiority of the fruit of the spirit (e.g., 1 Corinthians 13) over the gifts and the need for the revelatory gifts to be understood if they are to edify (build up) the body of Christ. (After all, revelation cannot function unless understood!) Thus, spiritual gifts exercised by the early church were primarily intended to edify others rather than the one with the gift. The edification of others could only occur where the message being conveyed was understood.

But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you unless I speak to you either by revelation, by knowledge, by prophesying, or by teaching? Even things without life, whether flute or harp, when they make a sound, unless they make a distinction in the sounds, how will it be known what is piped or played? For if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare himself for battle? So likewise you, unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air. There are, it may be, so many kinds of languages in the world, and none of them is without significance. Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me. Even so you, since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, let it be for the edification of the church that you seek to excel.1

Notice that Paul singles out various revelatory gifts: revelation (1Cor. 14:26), knowledge (1Cor. 12:8), prophesying (1Cor. 12:10), and teaching (1Cor. 12:28). These gifts all have one thing in common: they reveal information from God which would otherwise not be known. Thus, they were to operate in such a way that the message could be understood—which was especially important in the context of the early church while new revelation was being given prior to the establishment of the New Testament. His point is clear: speaking in an unknown language without interpretation does not accomplish a revelatory purpose for the congregation.

This all seems clear enough.

Yet, in the midst of these instructions mandating that revelatory spiritual gifts must be understood, we find several statements regulating the use of tongues which imply they also had benefit to the tongues speaker, even in situations where they are not interpreted for the congregation or understood by the speaker.

  • “For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands him; however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries.” (1Cor. 14:2)
  • “He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church.” (1Cor. 14:4)
  • “Therefore let him who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret.” (1Cor. 14:13)
  • “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful.” (1Cor. 14:14)
  • “But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God.” (1Cor. 14:28)
When taken in concert, these passages indicate that Paul recognized situations where a person with the gift of tongues might speak “privately” in a Spirit-inspired, unlearned, foreign language without the benefit of interpretation or self-understanding. Even though no public interpretation could be made, there was still spiritual purpose and benefit which accrued.

  1. Speaking mysteries (information not yet revealed by God) in the spirit “to God.”
  2. The edification of the one speaking: even in situations where he, himself, did not understand the message and remained unable to interpret its meaning (1Cor. 14:5,13).
  3. The speaker's spirit prays speaking “to himself and to God.”
Several questions then arise. If this occasional practice was a true manifestation of a spiritual gift, then why would the Spirit do such a thing without also providing an interpretation? Moreover, as you've expressed, how could the speaker be edified if he does not understand the content of the message?

I think the answer to these questions can be found by considering the case of musical worship. If worship were purely a revelatory process based entirely on cognitive expression and had no other spiritual and emotional element, then why the need of music? As much as I am a proponent of the biblical mandate to engage all our faculties (including the mind) in musical worship—-one must recognize, it seems to me, that there is a non-cognitive aspect to musical worship that surpasses the meaning of the lyrics alone. This aspect of musical worship engages our spirit and our emotions in a way which enhances the cognitive content (the words). This may be part of the answer to understanding how the believer could be edified (spiritually, emotionally, if not cognitively) when his “spirit speaks mysteries” “not to men, but to God.”

The believer could also be edified in knowing and recognizing that God, the Holy Spirit, was speaking through him: gracing him with the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues even if in that particular occasion it was not for the edification of the church (1Cor. 14:4,28).

The edification resulted from the fact that the user of a gift experienced the confirmation that he was the individual object of God’s grace (cf. 1Cor. 12:18,28) and able to offer praise to God (1Cor. 14:16). Though he himself would not comprehend the content of that praise, his feelings and emotions would be enlivened, leading to a general exhilaration and euphoria. This was not a bad thing. Paul certainly was no advocate of cold, dispassionate worship.2

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.3

We should not conclude, however, that Paul's teaching here supports the claim that biblical tongues in the early church were one-and-the-same as the ecstatic speech practiced by the modern tongues movement. Although I've dealt with this more fully elsewherea, the unambiguous evidence of Scripture indicates that tongues were bona fide languages carrying real encodedb information—not repetitive syllables devoid of meaning. Hence the need for interpretation: the information content was in the tongue itself—not created “out of thin air” by the interpreter.4


1.NKJV, 1 Corinthians 14:6-12
2.Ref-0038, 1 Corinthians 14:4
3.Ref-0974, 1 Corinthians 14:4
4.Regarding tongues being bona fide languages, consider the Day of Pentecost, and especially where the term tongues (γλώσσαις [glōssais], Acts 2:4) is equated with language (διαλέκτῳ [dialektō], Acts 2:8). Elsewhere in Acts, the phrase Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ [Hebraidi dialektō] describes Paul's use of his native Hebrew language (Acts 21:40; 22:2; 26:14).


Ref-0038John Walvoord and Roy. B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Wheaton, IL: SP Publications, 1983).
Ref-0974Barnes, Barnes' Notes on the New Testament (n.p.: Word Search Corporation, 2007).

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