Interpretation of Tongues

I just discovered that I posted a lot about speaking in tongues in May last year, but not since. However, I have continued to practice it and to reflect about it. For example, last November I led a study on interpretation of tongues for my home group. Here are my notes, slightly edited. I don’t think there is anything new here, but this may be helpful for any of my readers who are not already familiar with this:


Peter Kirk, 20th November 2008

5 I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. Those who prophesy are greater than those who speak in tongues, unless they interpret, so that the church may be edified.

6 Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? 7 Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the pipe or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? 8 Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? 9 So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. 10 Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. 11 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. 12 So it is with you. Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church.

13 For this reason those who speak in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 15 So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. (1 Corinthians 14:5-15, TNIV)

26 What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, two-or at the most three-should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. 28 If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church; let them speak to themselves and to God. (1 Corinthians 14:26-28, TNIV)

Should all tongues be interpreted?

Paul clearly writes in this passage that messages given in tongues in public meetings of the church should be interpreted. But he does seem to distinguish this from private prayer in tongues, which does not require public interpretation. Nevertheless 1 Corinthians 14:13 seems to suggest that one should pray for understanding of one’s own tongue, without restricting this to public meetings. In 14:15 there is an apparent reference to singing in tongues, in worship to God, implying that this too should be interpreted at least for the sake of outsiders.

Who interprets?

According to 1 Corinthians 14:5,13, the one who speaks in tongues should interpret the message. But 14:27,28 and 12:10 suggest that someone else should interpret. I suppose this means that someone should not speak out loud in tongues in church unless they are confident that either they or someone else will be able to bring an interpretation. It should be accepted as normal if the same person brings the tongue and the interpretation.

What does it mean to interpret a tongue?

A “tongue” is sometimes a human language not known to the speaker. In Acts 2:4,6 the apostles spoke in various languages which were understood in the normal way by people present. I have heard of modern examples of Christians being given words to speak in foreign languages which they don’t know, to preach the gospel or as words of knowledge etc.

Sometimes people recognise individual words of a message in tongues as in a language they know. [Our pastor] has recognised [words in a foreign language he knows] in the private prayer language of people at [my church]; I have recognised [ones in a foreign language I know]. But in these cases there has not been a complete message in [one of these languages]. Sometimes this may be chance resemblance, or maybe the Holy Spirit is using this deliberately to reveal the meaning of part of the prophetic message.

In other cases, as suggested by 1 Corinthians 13:1, a tongue may be an angelic language. Certainly it is often a language not understood by anyone present – but then no one would recognise all of the more than 6,000 living human languages, not to mention extinct ones. The gift of interpretation, as usually understood, is about giving the meaning of a message which one does not understand in the normal way, but only as the Spirit reveals the meaning.

As such this is very similar to prophecy. While I have not personally been given a clear interpretation of anyone else’s tongue, God has showed me the meaning of visions etc reported by others. I suppose that it is in a similar way that the meaning of a tongue is revealed to the interpreter. Any experiences to share?

Also the combination of a message in tongues and its interpretation is seen as equivalent to prophecy. Is there in fact a difference, for example in the typical content?

Note 1 Corinthians 14:22-25:

22 Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers. 23 So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? 24 But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, 25 as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!” (TNIV)

In the context the tongues here must be interpreted tongues. What does this mean in practice? This passage is rather obscure but I suppose means that uninterpreted tongues make unbelievers say we are out of our mind, but interpreted tongues will have the effect of prophecy, convicting of sin leading to repentance and faith.

25 thoughts on “Interpretation of Tongues

  1. Peter

    That is about the clearest and most succinct explanation of this subject I have seen. I hope you don’t mind me drawing on it if the need arises! I wonder how some of those who entered recent debate with you on New Leaven will find it!

    My first encounters with toungues, some 23 years ago, were examples of singing in toungues (spring Harvest, St Andrews Chorleywood and a Penetecost Eve service in St Albans Abbey). I have come across those who feel that this phenomena stretches the interpretation “rule” beyond breaking point. The explanation I have usually heard, and given when explaining to others, is that this is a language of praise. Arguably interpretation is about conveying the overal sense and meaning, and is not restricted to a word for word translation. I am broadly happy with that, but would be interested in your take in the light of what you say above.

    for interest, my own use of tongues, apart from the occaisional singing as you have mentioned, is largely in private or soto voce when praying with or for others, such as post service prayer on a ‘sunday. The congregation has been guided to expect that some of us on the team might do this. I have sometimes encountered the tongue and interpretation as you describe, but never to date felt moved to exercise it that way.

  2. Colin, please do use this material. Why don’t you post a link in a comment at New Leaven? I don’t have time to myself as I must go to bed soon and I am away early tomorrow morning. Thanks also for your testimony. I think I agree with your understanding of singing in tongues.

  3. I too will make use of this. I agree with Colin. This is the clearest and most easily understood explanation I have come across.

    I have to admit that in my usual circle, the topic of speaking in tongues can cause contention. As a consequence, I do not do it very often, even in private. When I’m on an assignment, I’m often out of town for a few months, and attending a congregation which is unfamiliar. Speaking of which, I need to find one here in Missouri, where I’m working now.

  4. I agree with the others, this is a great explanation of a subject that gets unnecessarily complicated. To date, I have had only one occasion to interpret a “tongue”. It was hardly a word-for-word translation, rather conveying a message (in this case, a passage of scripture – whether the “tongue” was a recitation of said scripture but in an unknown language, I have no idea). It is certainly a gift which has not been explored enough by most Christians.

  5. I would be interested to know if people think there are any resonances in these NT passages with the confusion of tongues in Genesis.

    The fact that we read that the church has the ability to interpret and understand diverse tongues to my mind, points to a restoration of unity which was torn asunder at l.

    Is there a connection here? Or maybe I’m reading more into this than is justified.

  6. I would suggest a resonance between the tower of Babel story and its reversal at Pentecost, signifying also a reversal of the curse of people being scattered across the world as people from across the world came together into a new nation. I’m not sure if there is a specific tie-in with 1 Corinthians 14.

    By the way, Roger Mugs has posted an interesting story about a woman speaking perfect Arabic in tongues.

  7. At a time when my church was closely involved with Youth With a Mission, we were given a report of a DTS team who were sent to a remote village in Portugal whose people were known for being very insular and resitant to outsiders. The interpreter failed to show so They prayed as prescribed “what are we going to do now?” and one of the party was “given” the language and enabled to preach perfectly to the village. The report was that all present in the village got saved because the villagers said that even the Portughese in nearby areas were unable to speak their dialect properly so, to them, it was a miracle that communicated God’s intimate knowledge and love for them as a people. I asked other members of the team and they said that the man had retained the ability to speak that dialect afterwards.

  8. Thanks, Duncan. That’s an amazing story, but rather different from what I had in mind. I was thinking of cases where people think they are speaking in tongues or nonsense and people who hear it understand. But I think you are meaning that one person received the supernatural ability to learn the language with understanding immediately. That is no doubt a greater gift, at least in terms of practical usefulness, and one which I would be very pleased to receive, in any of a number of languages I am learning or would like to.

  9. Hi Peter, my story related to this paragaph: “A “tongue” is…I have heard of modern examples of Christians being given words to speak in foreign languages which they don’t know, to preach the gospel or as words of knowledge etc.”
    On tongues in church: An important point, I feel, is that a message in tongues is from the spirit of the speaker, with the help of the Holy Spirit, and normally a prayer to God. I noticed that most “interpretations” were not actually the interpretation but the prophetic response from God. So I started listening for both the interpretation and the response and found that both were there. Theological ignorance was causing people listening for the prophetic voice to present the response as the interpretation, thus confusing people further. Fairly often, the interpretation turns out to be a psalm or similar passage from the bible, which one would expect I guess if the Holy Spirit is helping our spirit to pray.

  10. you know I’ve had a lot of people ask me if I know what I’m praying when I pray in tongues… my answer is that I’ve heard other people say they know what they’re praying but I seldom (though occasionally) feel like I have any idea…

    its funny it never occurred to me to me to ask for the ability to understand what I myself am praying. or to interpret…

    i sometimes wonder why I dont pray in tongues more often.. .i imagine if I had some idea of what I was praying I would be more encouraged to do it…

    if it was an exercise that also helped me understand God’s heart in prayer I might get a big kick out of it…
    i’m on it.

  11. Yes, Roger, try it. But I must say I haven’t myself so I can’t tell you whether it works. I think it is obligatory with public messages in tongues but not for private prayer.

  12. Hey Guys,
    Been out here for many years listening to my prayer language after hearing it loud and clear while driving in my car. Jesus has been telling me stories…and many things in 46 NOW journals. I wrote a couple of books after the experience and just got them published in 2010. Can’t find anyone who’s experienced this “Interpretation of Tongues” with their own tongues. Jesus spoke to begin telling people about it. It’s been the most awesome for the relationship between the Lord and I. Ministry has been blessed because of it….started coming with many visions as I prayed and wrote the word of the Lord. All alone out here with this incredible BIBLICAL PHENOMENA
    Shirley Hall

  13. Shirley, that’s interesting. I’m surprised no one else is taking the same position as we are on people interpreting their own tongues. I would be interested in a link to where I can find more about your books.

  14. WishHi Mr. Kirk,
    Just playing on my kindle fire to see if my books popped up with key words “Interpreting tongues”
    Ran across a message I wrote quite a while back with your response. Yes…wrote two books “Voice of God” & Jesus the Same Yesterday… I have been and still journal His words. I still here it loud and clear in English.wish I knew someone else who did like I am experiencing. I know this is what God desires.

  15. I hope someone responds…It would be interesting to hear about the interpreting from others. I always heard Oral Roberts,Lester Sumerall experienced this also. It was said, Oral built that city of faith from interpreting his tongues. He said it came back to him. Cool! Sorry misspelled words in last note. This kindle keeps changing my words. Crazy stuff!
    Shirley Hall

  16. My books are on many websites. I will have my own website soon with my children”s books also. I wrote “Buggy Buggy” & (a parable) “A Fairy Tale” which is about the church. God spoke and brought these about too. I’ve had very little to do except be obedient. I love Him and His ways!!!!
    Shirley Hall

  17. Dear Shirley Hall and Peter Kirk,
    I came across this forum when i typed the name Shirley Hall. I have been looking for her contacts ever since I came across her books – The Voice of God and Jesus, The Same Yesterday, Today and Forever. I was so amazed reading them since this was the first time I was finding someone testifying to two sermons I heard from Richard Roberts ( and Tom Scarella (
    I have since heard similar experiences from Dave Roberson and Gary Carpenter ministries.
    Kindly help me get in touch with Shirley Hall. She’s really blessed me in her books.

    • Alfred, Shirley may have seen your kind comment about her work. Otherwise, the best I can do is to email your comment to the address she gave five years ago, and with your permission include your email address. If you would like me to do that, please ask me to, by reply to this comment or through my contact form.

      • Dear Peter, Yes I allow you to include my e-mail while you email her. Thank you so much for your response. I look forward to hearing from both of you.

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