Interpretation of Tongues

  • …Still another person is given the ability to speak in unknown languages, while another is given the ability to interpret what is being said.1ἑρμηνεία γλωσσῶν: The “interpretation” or “explanation” that renders intelligible a message given in words that otherwise would not be understood. (1 Cor 12:10)


The New Testament gives no examples of this gift in operation; however, modern Pentecostalism is familiar enough with the gift to need little explanation.

But in the Old Testament we may see something like this in the work of Ezra and the Levites, who taught the postexilic residents of Jerusalem, who spoke Aramaic but not Hebrew: “They read from the Book of the Law of God and clearly explained the meaning of what was being read, helping the people to understand each passage” (Neh 8:8).2Commentators argue whether this involved linguistic work (i.e., translating from Hebrew to Aramaic) or hermeneutical work (i.e., explanation and exposition). I’m inclined toward the latter (Ezra 7; Neh 8).

I am not saying that anyone who claims to have the gift of interpreting tongues should suddenly become a long-winded expositor of the ideas embedded in messages in tongues. But I am saying that listeners shouldn’t be surprised if the interpretation sometimes runs longer than the message by a few phrases or sentences. Interpretation can be a wordy business. Nor should they be surprised if the interpretation is shorter than the message. A concise summary can be just as enlightening as a long excursus.

Nature of the Gift

This isn’t the linguist’s skill to qualify you for work as a United Nations interpreter—or as a missionary. It may not even be the gift of translating; rather, it’s probably the gift of interpreting the sense of the message.3I distinguish “translating,” which attempts exact representation of what was said, from “interpretation,” which explains the meaning of what was said. The term ἑρμηνεία, from which we get “hermeneutics, “ has to do with getting at the sense of a message.


Author: Dale A. Brueggemann

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