Speaking in Tongues in the Old Testament

Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues God will speak to this people, to whom he said, “This is the resting place, let the weary rest”; and, “This is the place of repose”— but they would not listen.

‭- Isaiah‬ ‭28:11‬-12

Speaking in tongues is the least understood, least talked about, and, according to Paul, the least important spiritual gift. And yet, entire doctrines are established around it. Its importance is greatly magnified, and we start an unhealthy habit of majoring on the minors. God is telling us quite simply that he is the resting place, but so frequently we don’t listen and dwell on insignificant doctrines to include/exclude ourselves and our neighbors from salvation.

Paul gives us all of the information we need to understand what speaking in tongues means, and the Old Testament gives us an example of it being used. In this post, we’re going to look at what speaking in tongues really looks like, what the sign of tongues is for, and how we can steer back our focus to the simple, powerful message of Christ: he is the resting place.

Are we sure this happens in the Old Testament?

Many commentators will answer this question with a resounding no, and the reason cited it that speaking in tongues only appears after Pentecost. And this would be a convincing argument if all of the spiritual gifts from the Holy Spirit only occurred after Pentecost as well. But that’s not true.

To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 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.

– 1 Corinthians 12:8-10

Before Pentecost, in the Old Testament, how did Isaiah prophesy? How did Samson destroy the Philistine temple? How did Abraham have faith in God? How did Solomon have such divine wisdom? These feats all come from an indwelling spirit that has been with us since the beginning:

By His Spirit He adorned the heavens;
His hand pierced the fleeing serpent.

– Job 26:13

Therefore, speaking in tongues is a spiritual gift that Pentecost didn’t invent. Paul is able to list all of the gifts because he understands what the Holy Spirit has done in the Old Testament.

What does speaking in tongues look like?

What do you imagine when you think about speaking in tongues? Most likely you think about ecstatic utterances, unintelligible words, or the speaking of a heavenly language.

The thing is, there is no mention of a heavenly language in the Bible, no scripture that shows this being used through the Holy Spirit. When we see the word tongues used in the New Testament, the original Greek word is γλῶσσα, transliterated as glossa, it has two meanings depending on the very simple context of either anatomy or language:

1)  The tongue, a member of the body, an organ of speech

2) The language or dialect used by a particular people distinct from that of other nations.

– Strong’s Concordance, reference #1100

Wherever you see the word tongues in the New Testament, it means either the physical tongue, or a human, natural language. This is the word the original authors of the Bible chose to use. Therefore, at Pentecost, the apostles spoke human languages:

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?

– Acts 2:4-8

Jesus, who exemplifies all of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, doesn’t use ecstatic utterances or a heavenly language ever. But he speaks in foreign languages:

We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”

Then I asked, “Who are you, Lord?”

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

– Acts 26:14-15

Do you really think we can do more than what Jesus did? More than the apostles? More than what the Holy Spirit provides?

Is speaking in tongues a sign of salvation?

Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers.

– 1 Corinthians 14:22

We always want more signs that we’re saved! Everyone wants a sign. Everyone wants something tangible to prove they’re saved. Everyone wants a sign that God is real, that Jesus is God, and that their baptism worked. Jesus was so sick of this sentiment:

“Evil and unfaithful people look for a miraculous sign. But the only sign they will be given is that of Jonah.”

Then he left them standing there and went away.

– Matthew 16:4

The only sign we’re given for our salvation is the sign of Jonah, the sign of a transformed life. Is a broken, sinful life, transformed in Christ and renewed in righteousness not enough for us? Speaking in tongues is a sign for unbelievers, not a sign for believers to validate themselves.

Is speaking in tongues okay without interpretation?

Does speaking in tongues without anyone to interpret build up the church?

Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air.

Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker is a foreigner to me.

So it is with you. Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church.

– 1 Corinthians 14:9-12

The Old Testament shows us a real-world example of speaking in another language, in a way that builds up the church through both the tongues and the interpreter:

Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or tell the king what it meant. So King Belshazzar became even more terrified and his face grew more pale. His nobles were baffled.

– Daniel 5:8-9

You did not honor the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways. Therefore he sent the hand that wrote the inscription.

This is the inscription that was written:


Here is what these words mean: Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end. Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting. Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.

– Daniel 5:24-28

Here, God himself uses tongues! And Daniel interprets. Imagine if God wrote those words and Daniel never interpreted them. It would have been meaningless. Even still, God wasn’t using a secret, heavenly language. He used Aramaic, which the king couldn’t understand, to allow his prophet an audience to speak.

So many of us believe that speaking in tongues without anyone understanding is from God. Paul says otherwise:

For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.

– 1 Corinthians 14:13-14

When you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer, say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying?

You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified.

– 1 Corinthians 14:16-17

Should we actively seek to speak in tongues?

Paul, who could speak many different languages, says this:

I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.

– 1 Corinthians 14:18-19

And he further continues to place far more importance on apostles, prophets, and teachers in the church, than in the spiritual gift of speaking foreign languages:

And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.

– 1 Corinthians 12:38-41

What should we focus on?

This is the great issue I mentioned at the beginning of this post: majoring on the minors. Paul uses Isaiah to explain why tongues are a sign strictly for unbelievers, and how it’s childish to think that it’s an ecstatic utterance of a made-up, meaningless language that no one can interpret:

Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. In the Law it is written:

“With other tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.”

Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers.

– 1 Corinthians 14:20-22

The law quoted is from Isaiah, who faced a similar issue. Isaiah shared the message of God, and the response of Ephraim and Judah was childish. “Who is he trying to teach?” They mock. “To children weaned from their milk?” Isaiah writes:

Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues God will speak to this people, to whom he said, “This is the resting place, let the weary rest”; and, “This is the place of repose”— but they would not listen.

So then, the word of the Lord to them will become: Do this, do that, a rule for this, a rule for that; a little here, a little there— so that as they go they will fall backward; they will be injured and snared and captured.”

– ‭‭Isaiah‬ ‭28:11-13‬

God has but one simple message for us today on the topic of tongues: This is the resting place, let the weary rest. But so many of us see God’s word and see “Do this, do that” or “follow all these rules” and they become snared and captured. They focus on the tongues, they focus on the signs, and it distracts from the entire purpose of Christ’s message. After death when we face judgement, God won’t ask if we ever spoke in tongues. The thief on the cross didn’t speak in tongues. Instead, when we die, God will say this:

Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

– Matthew 25:34-36

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