Tongues 5PMT 2014-067 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

Tongues-speaking is an unusual phenomenon that has caused confusion among Christians. I am offering a series on tongues because they have eschatological significance. In this study I will be showing that God gave tongues as a sign of covenant curse on Israel.

Probably the least understood aspect of the function of tongues is its serving as a sign to Israel of God’s covenant curse due to her unbelief. Yet Paul explicitly suggests this in 1 Corinthians 14:21-22: “In the Law it is written: ‘By men of strange tongues and by the lips of strangers I will speak to this people, and even so they will not listen to Me,’ says the Lord. So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe, but to unbelievers.” To properly grasp Paul’s biblico-theological intent here, I will survey some of the Old Testament’s covenantal background, as well as some of the cultural and historical factors influencing the Corinthian church.

The Old Testament teaches that Israel was a special people in the sight of God. The Lord richly blessed Israel in terms of his covenant in numerous respects. He was bound in a special, covenantal love to Israel alone of all the nations (Deut. 7:6-8; Amos 3:2. Thus only they received His gracious Law (Deut. 4:10-13; Psa. 147:19, 20), his oracles (Rom. 3:2), the covenantal sign of circumcision (Rom. 3:1) — indeed, all the gracious promises and means of covenant life (Rom. 9:4,5; Eph. 2:12).

The covenant, however, is a two-edged sword. Covenant life was one of both privilege and responsibility. Whereas covenant obedience brought spiritual and material blessings to the people, covenant disobedience brought spiritual and material curses (Deut. 28:15-68). Israel knew full well the two-fold direction of the covenant: “Now it shall come to pass, if you diligently obey the voice of the LORD your God, to observe carefully all His commandments which I command you today, that the LORD your God will set you high above all nations of the earth . . . . But it shall come to pass, if you do not obey the voice of the LORD your God, to observe carefully all His commandments and His statutes which I command you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you” (Deut. 28:1, 15; cp. Deut. 30:15-19; Josh. 1:6-9). Israel voluntarily consented to the covenant (Exo. 24:3, 7) and dramatically had heaven and earth called as witness to it (Deut. 30:19; 32:1; Isa 1-2).

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Regarding tongues let us focus on one particular element of covenantal life for Israel. A vital aspect of covenant blessing for Israel is national freedom and political self-rule. The Ten Commandments begin by referring to this important truth: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exo. 20:2; Deut. 5:6). See also in this connection Deuteronomy 6:10-12, 20-24; 7:1-2.

Thus, one aspect of covenant curse would be the loss of national freedom and self-rule:
Because you did not serve the LORD your God with joy and gladness of heart, for the abundance of everything, therefore you shall serve your enemies, whom the LORD will send against you, in hunger, in thirst, in nakedness, and in need of everything; and He will put a yoke of iron on your neck until He has destroyed you. The LORD will bring a nation against you from afar, from the end of the earth, as swift as the eagle flies, a nation whose language you will not understand, a nation of fierce countenance, which does not respect the elderly nor show favor to the young. (Deut. 28:47-52)

Israel was a nation of people accustomed to receiving signs within their covenant history: “We do not see our signs; There is no longer any prophet” (Psa. 74:9). “Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered, saying, ‘Teacher, we want to see a sign from You’” (Matt. 12:38). “And Thou didst bring Thy people Israel out of the land of Egypt with signs and with wonders, and with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm, and with great terror” (Jer. 32:21). “For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:22). Consequently, they were given warning signs indicating that the particular calamities befalling them were indeed the judgment of God (just as the confusion of tongues at Babel expressed the wrath of God, Gen. 10:7–9). The particularly poignant sign of national curse would be the presence of a people speaking a foreign language overrunning the nation (cp. Psa. 81:5; 114:1; Eze. 3:5):

• This sign is mentioned in the great covenant blessing and curse chapter, Deuteronomy 28. Citing Deuteronomy 28:49 again, note that: “The Lord will bring a nation against you from afar, from the end of the earth, as the eagle swoops down, a nation whose language you shall not understand” (v. 49; cp. Lev. 26:17).

• Jeremiah 5:15 warns: “‘Behold, I am bringing a nation against you from afar, O house of Israel,’ declares the Lord, ‘It is an enduring nation, it is an ancient nation, a nation whose language, you do not know, nor can you understand what they say.’”

• In rebuke of Israel’s sinful dullness of hearing, Isaiah warns: “Indeed, He will speak to this people through stammering lips and a foreign tongue” (Isa. 28:11).

• In speaking of the removal of the curse and the return of covenantal blessing, the sign of curse would be removed, as Isaiah prophesies: “You will no longer see a fierce people, a people of unintelligible speech which no one comprehends, of a stammering tongue which no one understands” (Isa. 33:19).

Clearly, then, the presence of foreign tongues was a sign of curse upon Israel. And all of this is specifically related to the gift of tongues when Paul applies the sign of covenantal curse (Isa. 28:11) to the explanation of tongues:
In the law it is written: “With men of other tongues and other lips I will speak to this people; and yet, for all that, they will not hear Me,” says the Lord. Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers. (1 Cor. 14:21-22a).

That Paul lifts this verse out of a passage dealing with covenantal curse is tremendously significant to the tongues debate. To properly grasp its import, we need to survey Isaiah’s context.

In Isaiah 28 the Lord rebukes Israel, noting their priests, prophets, and rulers are corrupt drunkards whose tables are filled with vomit and who are ripe for judgment (vv. 1-8). There is no one who can understand the will of God — they are as infants in understanding (v. 9). God had taught them carefully and diligently, line upon line (v. 10); he had promised them rest and peace (v. 12a), but they would not listen (v. 12). So then, the nation will stumble and be broken (v. 13) because rather than the covenant with God, she prefers a covenant with death and Sheol (vv. 14, 15). In the very heart of this rebuke we find the verse Paul alludes to in 1 Corinthians — the verse which gives the sign of curse: “Indeed, He will speak to this people through stammering lips and a foreign tongue” (v. 11). Sinful Israel had transgressed the covenant and had refused simple line-by-line instruction in the will of God. So their judgment is: they will no longer be spoken to by simple instruction in their native language, but in a foreign tongue by an invading nation. They would be given the sign of judgment. This, of course, refers proximately to the impending Assyrian invasion of Israel. But Paul applies its principle to the future and climactic judgment upon Israel subsequent to their rejection of Christ.

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As we read the New Testament we quickly discover that Christ, “the Messenger of the Covenant” (Mal. 3:1) and the Ratifier of the New Covenant (Luke 22:20), comes to, lovingly courts, and carefully instructs Israel (Matt. 10:5, 6; 15:24; 23:37). Yet Israel refuses His covenantal overtures (Matt. 21:42-45; 23:37–38; John 1:11; Rom. 9:31-32; 10:3). She utterly stumbles over Christ, the Cornerstone of Zion (Matt. 21:42-45; Acts 4:11; Rom. 9:32-33; 1 Pet. 2:7), whom the Lord had promised to send (Isa. 28:16). The generation to which Christ ministers is rapidly “filling up the measure of the guilt of their fathers” (Matt. 23:32) Consequently, that generation (Matt. 23:36; 24:34) is to receive the fulness of God’s covenantal curse: God would send the Roman armies (Luke 21:20) as “his armies” (Matt. 22:7) to raze the temple (Matt. 24:2) which the Lord had left desolate (Matt. 23:38).

Thus, the sign of judgment (foreign tongues) is given to Israel for a period of forty years between Christ’s ascension and the A.D. 70 destruction of Jerusalem. God is turning from Israel to the Gentiles (Matt. 21:43; Rom. 9:24-29; 10:19-21). For forty years Israel, the favored people of God, the guardians of the oracles of God, are given the sign of covenant curse and impending judgment. The nation which had been redeemed (Exo. 14:13; 20:2) to be a kingdom of priests (Exo. 19:6) now receives the word of God from others — in a foreign tongue.

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