1Co 14:13-17 “Wherefore let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful. 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. 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? For thou verily givest thanks well, but the other is not edified.”
As Paul continues his discussion of unknown tongues, he continues to emphasize the necessity of edifying others. Our human nature is such that we commonly consider various undertakings with the underlying thought “What’s in it for me?” Without a doubt, Paul indicates that there is a blessing to the individual in speaking in tongues. Still, he continues to point out that it is better for others to be edified.
While we generally think that if a person can speak in another language they can also translate that into their native language, Paul’s writing indicates that this may not be the case with the church at Corinth. Some believe that the “unknown tongue” is simply a language one was not raised to understand (like me suddenly speaking Greek). Others think the unknown tongue implies specifically a language unknown to men entirely and granted by the Holy Spirit. Regardless of which understanding is correct, Paul is clear on one thing: it is vital that the speaker of the unknown tongue be able to interpret.
Paul seems to indicate here that even he was not always able to interpret what he prayed in an unknown tongue. He confessed that his spirit prayed, and I am sure this brought a feeling a peace and comfort. However, he indicates that there was still a lack of understanding. Even though his spirit was relieved in prayer, he did not know what he had just prayed for or what exactly that relief signified.
Perhaps we have had the experience of being burdened to pray and not knowing what we needed to pray for or what words to use. Maybe we have just bowed in spirit and groaned within our hearts. The burden may have been lightened and peace granted, but we still do not know what the prayer was. Yet, there is no doubt that we prayed.
Paul asked the question “What is it then?” meaning is there a more desirable way. He then declares that it is possible to pray and sing with both spirit and understanding. We can worship God with spirit and simultaneously know what our worship is about. Furthermore, it will then benefit others who see and hear our worship.
Paul points out here the very real scenario of blessing God with the spirit in the presence of those who do not understand that tongue. They cannot say “Amen (give assent)” to the giving of thanks (praise) because they cannot understand it. No matter how moved we might appear, they do not know if we praised God or were speaking out for some other reason. While our thanksgiving might be zealous and earnest, those around us are not built up by our praise not do they know to honor God for what was said.
May God grant us the grace to embrace every gift that He is pleased to give us, but to never lose sight of the great need to edify!