The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Father Callan’s Commentary on 1 Corinthians 14:7-20

Posted by Dim Bulb on February 1, 2011

A Summary of 1 Corinthians 14:7-20.

By examples drawn from two musical instruments and from the daily use of language St. Paul now shows the uselessness of the gift of tongues, so far as the faithful in general are concerned. If, therefore, one has this gift, he should pray that he may also receive the power of interpreting what he says to others.

7. Even things without life that give sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction of sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped?
8. For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?
9. So likewise you, except you utter by the tongue plain speech, how shall it be known what is said? For you shall be speaking into the air.

The necessity of intelligible language for purposes of utility is illustrated even by inanimate things. If a musical instrument, like the pipe or harp, gives only a confusion of sounds, makes only noise, who can perceive any melody or meaning in its music? It would not, in fact, be music at all. Likewise if the trumpet gives not a distinct and intelligible sound, how shall the soldier, who waits upon its signal, know whether to prepare for battle or not? The same rule holds with regard to the gift of tongues. Unless one speaks in such a way as to be understood by others, he can be of no verbal profit to them, he may as well speak to the winds.

To the battle (verse 8) should be “for battle,” as in the Greek.

10. There are, for example, so many kinds of tongues in this world; and none is without voice.
11. If then I know not the power of the voice, I shall be to him to whom I speak a barbarian; and he that speaketh, a barbarian to me.

Another example is drawn from the use of foreign languages. The Apostle says there is a certain number of different languages in the world, none of which is without its own determined signification. But if one knows not the power of the voice, i.e., the meaning of the language, he will be a barbarian, etc., i.e., he will be making only unintelligible sounds. The ancients called everyone who did not understand their own language, or who spoke a language they did not understand, a barbarian.

12. So you also, forasmuch as you are zealous of spirits, seek to abound unto the edifying of the church.

The practical conclusion for the Corinthians then, is that since they are anxious to possess spiritual gifts, they should try to abound in those which especially contribute to the edification of the Church, such as prophecy.

Spirits means the gifts of the Spirit.

13. And therefore he that speaketh by a tongue, let him pray that he may interpret.

Since, therefore, the gift of tongues by itself does not edify or help the Church, he who has it ought to pray that he may also obtain the gift of interpreting his language. A less probable meaning of let him pray, etc., is that he should pray in a language which he already understands and can thus interpret to others.

14. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is without fruit.

If the gift of interpretation were joined to that of tongues, the latter would be more useful not only to others, but also to its possessor. For if one prays in a strange language which he does not understand, his spirit, i.e., his soul with its affections, indeed, prays under the impulse of the Holy Ghost; but his understanding, i.e., his mind and human faculties, do not grasp the meaning of his prayer and of the words he is using.

15. What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, I will pray also with the understanding; I will sing with the spirit, I will sing also with the understanding.

What is it then? i.e., what are we to conclude from the foregoing? This, that we should try to have not only the gift of speaking strange languages, but also the further gift of interpreting them. Thus we shall be able to pray both affectively and understandingly.

There is no argument here against the use of Latin by the Church in her liturgy, or by nuns in the recitation of their office. For very wise reasons the Church has adopted a uniform and unchangeable language for her liturgy, and the faithful through their prayer books, as also the nuns in their office books, are supplied with vernacular translations of everything that is said in Latin.

16. Else if thou shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that holdeth the place of the unlearned say, Amen, to thy blessing? because he knoweth not what thou sayest.

A further argument is now given against the gift of tongues taken alone. If in the public religious assemblies of the faithful anyone, under the impulse of the Holy Ghost, shall bless with the spirit, i.e., shall praise God in an unintelligible language, how shall the unofficial person who is assisting the speaker be able to give the proper response to what he does not understand?

If thou shalt bless (ευλογησης, with Rec, F G, Vulg., and most
copies of Old Latin). Better, “If thou bless” (ευλογñς, with B, A, D, E).

Unlearned (ιδιωτου) means ordinarily a private person as opposed to one holding a public office, or an unskilled person as opposed to one having technical knowledge (Acts 4:13; 2 Cor 11:6). The meaning here is one who unofficially represented the listeners in responding to the prayers of the person speaking in a tongue (Estius).

Amen. Literally, “The Amen,” i.e., the response to prayers, meaning: So be it, or So it is. Justin Martyr (c. 150 a.d) says this response was used in answer to the Eucharistic prayer in his day.

Thy blessing. Literally, “Thy thanksgiving,” i.e., your prayer.

17. For thou indeed givest thanks well, but the other is not edified.

Thou indeed givest thanks well, etc., i.e., he who speaks with the strange language prays worthily to God, but the other, i.e., his neighbor, is not helped because he does not understand.

18. I thank my God I speak with all your tongues.
19. But in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may instruct others also; than ten thousand words in a tongue.

To show his readers that he does not despise the gift of tongues, St. Paul now says he thanks God that he speaks in a tongue more than all of them. Literally, the best Greek is : “I thank God, I speak in a tongue more than you all” (γλωσσαις λαλω with N D E F G, Old Latin, and Vulg. against the rendering of B and Peshitto). Nevertheless, he adds that in the church, i.e., in the religious assemblies of the faithful, he prefers to speak five words which he and his hearers understand than ten thousand words which, while they would edify himself, would not be

20. Brethren, do not become children in sense : but in malice be children, and in sense be perfect.

Closing now what he has said about the in-utility of tongues for the faithful, the Apostle exhorts the Corinthians not to be children in sense (ταις φρεσιν), i.e., in mind and intelligence, but to become perfect (τελειοι), i.e., full grown men and women, who are not carried away by showy things like the gift of tongues, but prize rather things of greater usefulness like the gift of prophecy. If they wish to be children in any respect, he tells them, let it be in regard to malice and sin, as our Lord Himself commanded (Matt 18:3).



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