In the Law it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers (1 Corinthians 14:21-22).
Only 12 readers voted in the last poll about speaking in tongues, with six votes going to “unbelievers.” (Was the question too daunting?) What did Paul mean by the words above? What “foreigners” were he referring to? The answer lies in Isaiah 28:11-12 which he quotes:
For by people of strange lips and with a foreign tongue the Lord will speak to this people, to whom he has said, “This is rest… and this is repose”; yet they would not hear (emphasis added).
When Isaiah wrote this prophecy in the 8th century B.C., the immediate fulfillment of “foreigners” were the Assyrians, who spoke “a foreign tongue” and who invaded and exiled the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C. After the Assyrian conquest of Israel, God again sent “a nation whose language you do not know,” the Babylonians, to the southern kingdom of Judah. These invaders destroyed Jerusalem and the first Temple in 586 B.C., and then exiled the people as slaves in Babylon. Jeremiah 5:15 echoes Isaiah’s prophecy when he described God’s coming judgment against Judah,
Behold, I am bringing against you a nation 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 (emphasis added).
The prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah can be traced all the way back to God’s prophecy of judgment against rebellious Israel through Moses in Deuteronomy 28:49 (note the close parallelism to Jeremiah 5:15):
The Lord will bring a nation against you from far away, from the end of the earth, swooping down like the eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand (emphasis added).
There is no doubt then that Paul was also connecting the phenomenon of tongue-speaking in the church in Corinth to Moses’ prophecy of an invasion by “a nation whose language you do not understand.” He understood the double fulfillment of this prophecy in the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions, and then adds a third and future fulfillment in the Roman invasion of Palestine which resulted in the destruction of the second Temple in A.D. 70. This was God’s final judgment against the apostate, rebellious Old Testament people (Mat 8:10-12; Mat 21:18-20; Mat 21:43; Mat 22:1-14; Mat 23:37-39).
This is why Paul says that tongues are a sign for unbelievers. As in the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions, when the Jews again hear a “foreign tongue” among them, the tongue they will hear is the strange language spoken by invading Roman legions. The Jews will not understand them, just as those who speak in uninterpreted tongues in the church (1 Cor 14:9-11). On the other hand, “prophecy” – God’s word – is a sign for believers, because it is understandable and thus has a saving and edifying effect.
Paul restates this when he says that to the outsider, a church practicing unbridled, uninterpreted tongue-speaking would appear to be insane, while a church proclaiming God’s intelligible truths would convict the unbelieving visitor, and he would even marvel that “God is really among you!” (1 Cor 14:23-25).
As I was writing this post, I could not help but think of today’s Pentecostal-Charismatic movement, and its emphasis on signs and wonders, particularly speaking in tongues. Jesus told his disciples that they will see many “false christs and false prophets [who] will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Mat 24:24). Paul prophesied that before the return of Christ, “the lawless one” will be revealed, “with all power and false signs and wonders” (2 Thess 2:9). And John describes a beast who “performs great signs” to deceive many, even imitating the works done by the Holy Spirit, in order that they will worship the beast (Rev 13:13-15).
Although signs and wonders movements have come and gone throughout church history, there is no parallel to the worldwide acceptance and dominance of the charismatic movement today. Because of its appeal to church growth, health and wealth, charismatics have strongly influenced almost all mainstream evangelical churches in their worship and doctrines.
One would be hard-pressed to find a church not singing songs that were written or composed by Pentecostal/charismatic authors, or a church that does not accept speaking in tongues and other so-called “miracles” such as healings, slaying in the spirit, and new revelations. Most cults are rooted in spirit-focused but mindless Pentecostal-charismatic teachings and practices. Millions of evangelicals worldwide are deceived by the false teachings and practices of the Word-Faith movement led by Benny Hinn and Kenneth Copeland. These “signs and wonders” teachings and practices were frowned upon by, if not unknown to most Protestants prior to the 1960s. But everything changed when Chuck Smith’s Jesus People and Calvary Chapel movements influenced worship practices and doctrines so that many who were born in the 1960s and later have never known any other worship practice except the heavily-charismatic contemporary worship.
All of these confirm Jesus’ rebuke of the human penchant for the spectacular and the appeal of success in numbers, “This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation” (Luke 11:29-30).
Thus, signs are for a dual purpose: blessing and judgment. Those who believe the sign which points to Christ, like the Ninevites, are blessed. Those who do not believe are judged. To the unbeliever, the sign of tongues points to the coming judgment due to his unbelief or apostasy. To the believer, the sign of tongues is a reminder to repent of sin and worship God in spirit and in truth.
So it will be beneficial for those who have been seduced by the tongues movement to ask: Is there a relationship between the prophecies of Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Paul regarding “strange tongues” and the present-day tongues movement? Is God again using tongues as a sign of impending judgment against those churches who have apostasized by being seduced into this movement?
 The eagle is used in the Old Testament as a symbol of powerful nations. Isaiah alludes back to Moses’ prophecy which describes Assyria as an eagle “swooping down” on Israel its prey. Jeremiah says of the fearsome Babylonians, “Behold, he comes up like clouds; his chariots like the whirlwind; his horses are swifter than eaglesâ€”woe to us, for we are ruined!” (Jer 4:13; cf. Jer 48:40; Jer 49:22; Eze 17:1-15; Dan 7:4). The Roman legions also used an eagle in their emblems. In the ancient Near East, the eagle (nesher) is prominent in religion, including those of Assyria and Babylon. It was the Assyro-Babylonian god Nisroch, represented as an eagle-headed man, that the great Assyrian King Sennacherib was worshiping when he was assassinated by his sons (2 Kings 19:37; cf. Isa 37:38).
References: Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, Pieter Willem van der Horst, Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible: DDD, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999, pp 271, 630-1. James Silk Buckingham, The Buried City of the East, Nineveh, National Illustrated Library, 1851.
My Favorite Eschatology Books
Beale, G. K. 1-2 Thessalonians. IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Downers Grove, IL: IVPress, 2003.
_________. The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.
Demar, Gary. Last Days Madness: Obsession of the Modern Church. Atlanta: American Vision, 1999.
Johnson, Dennis E. Triumph of the Lamb. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2001.
Hoekema, Anthony. The Bible and the Future. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.
Koester, Craig R. Revelation and the End of All Things. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.
Mathison, Keith. From Age to Age: The Unfolding of Biblical Eschatology. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009.
Poythress, Vern S. The Returning King. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2000. (This book is published online by permission of publisher.)
Riddlebarger, Kim. The Man of Sin: Uncovering the Truth About the Antichrist. Grand Rapids: Baker, June 2006.
Venema, Cornelis. The Promise of the Future. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2000.