1 Cor 14 tells us that the early church practiced “tongues” in the assembly, and this was approved so long as the tongues were translated by someone with the gift of interpretation.
We really don’t know what “tongues” were. The word was idiomatic for “languages,” and so some contend that the tongues were human languages learned by the power of the Spirit. This seems to clearly have been the case in Acts 2 (although some contend that the miracle was in the hearing and not in the speaking). But most NT scholars believe the “tongues” of 1 Cor 12 and 14 were some sort of ecstatic speech.
Although many Christians object to the notion of ecstatic speech, there is ample evidence that the Spirit prompted ecstatic speech in both the OT and NT.
Ecstatic speech in the Old Testament
We read in the Old Testament passages such as,
(1Sa 10:5-7 ESV) 5 After that you shall come to Gibeath-elohim, where there is a garrison of the Philistines. And there, as soon as you come to the city, you will meet a group of prophets coming down from the high place with harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre before them, prophesying. 6 Then the Spirit of the LORD will rush upon you, and you will prophesy with them and be turned into another man. 7 Now when these signs meet you, do what your hand finds to do, for God is with you.
Really? If a group of men are playing instruments, walking together and speaking, what about their speech would let you know that they’re prophesying? Does this mean that they speak in Hebraic poetry, like the Psalms or much of Isaiah? And if this is prophecy, to whom are they speaking? Who hears this prophetic message? Did they rattle off iambic pentameter like Shakespeare?
I mean, what gave them away as prophets? To my ear, it sounds like ecstatic speech — kind of like, you know, tongues — because it surely didn’t sound like someone teaching a Bible class or preaching a sermon.
The text implies that this is ecstatic prophecy, the kind in which men are seized and overpowered by divine spirit (cf. 1 Sam 10:10–13; 19:20–24). The author seems anxious to stress that this is a once-for-all experience associated with their installation in office.
Philip J. Budd, Numbers (Word BC 5; Accordance/Thomas Nelson electronic ed. Waco: Word Books, 1984), 128.
Ecstatic prophecy, or prophecy that appears to proceed from someone in a “possessed” or trancelike state, is known in Israel as well as in the ancient Near East. In Mesopotamia the ecstatic prophet’s title was muhhu, and in Israel the ecstasies often resulted in the prophets being thought of as madmen (see, for example, 1 Sam 19:19–24; Jer 29:26). Here the phenomenon does not result in prophetic messages from the Lord but serves as a sign of the power of God on the elders. In that sense it could be compared to the tongues of fire in the upper room in Acts 2.
John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 148.
As with Saul, the prophecy described here was probably an unintelligible ecstatic utterance, what the New Testament terms speaking in tongues, not the inspired, intelligible speech of the great Old Testament prophets and the unnamed prophets of the early church (1 Kgs 18:29; Acts 21:10–11; 1 Cor. 14).
Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale OTC 4; IVP/Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1981), 123.
And while the Old Testament speaks of prophecy, it says nothing of tongues — although the other gifts mentioned in 1 Cor 12 are anticipated by the Old Testament. For example, the gifts of knowledge and wisdom echo the language of the gifts given by God to Solomon. The Old Testament speaks of healing. But not tongues — unless we take the OT’s use of “prophecy” to sometimes include ecstatic speech and consider the tongues in Corinth to be ecstatic as well.