Volume 47 - Issue 3

The Cryptic Saying of Isaiah 28:10, 13 and Paul’s Controversy over Tongues in 1 Corinthians 14:20–25

By Etienne Jodar


While the study of the New Testament use of the Old Testament has received much attention in the last decades, this discipline has not generally had much bearing on translation. In this article I use Paul’s use of Isaiah 28:11–12 in 1 Corinthians 14:21 in order to shed light on the cryptic saying of Isaiah 28:10 and 13. Presupposing that Paul draws from the immediate context of Isaiah 28:11–12, I suggest that the rhetorical effect of Paul’s quotation is stronger if Isaiah 28:10 (and 13) is interpreted to represent an incomprehensible sequence of syllables, like a minority of English translations do. Starting in the Old Testament, the most likely meaning of Paul’s quotation in its original context is determined. The focus then turns to 1 Corinthians 14:20–25, as various views are presented and considered successively. The discussion concludes by explaining the rhetorical effect that Paul’s quotation would have made upon the Corinthian believers and why the minority view of Isaiah 28:10 and 13 might be the most likely.

How should we interpret Isaiah 28:10 and 13? Should we read, “precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little” as the majority view represented here by the NRSV,1 or should we read an incomprehensible sequence of syllables like the minority view taken by the Message Bible: “Da, da, da, da, blah, blah, blah, blah…” (Isa 28:10, 13)?2 In trying to answer this question, studying Paul’s use of Isaiah 28:11–12 in 1 Corinthians 14:21 might prove useful because the apostle usually draws from the context of his quotations, and his interpretation of Isaiah 28:10 and 13 might therefore be inferred.3

After determining the best interpretations for both the Isaiah quotation and 1 Corinthians 14:20–25, I seek to show that Paul makes an especially strong rhetorical point if Isaiah 28:10 and 13 are intended to represent unintelligible speech, like the uninterpreted tongues-speaking of Corinth. As such, the incomprehensible-sequence-of-syllables interpretation of Isaiah 28:10 and 13 is a natural corollary for interpreters who believe Paul usually draws from the context of his quotations.4

This essay develops in several stages. First, I examine some early versions of Isaiah 28:9–13 to demonstrate that the first translators had great difficulty in understanding the Hebrew text. Then, different issues regarding the meaning of the unit Isaiah 28:7–13 are discussed in order to clarify the context in which Paul’s quotation (Isa 28:11–12) occurs. The remainder of this article is dedicated to 1 Corinthians 14:20–25. After locating this passage in the context of the letter, I consider important interpretational challenges in these verses and then discuss the rhetorical effect that Paul’s quotation might have created in a church that overestimated speaking in tongues.

1. Early Versions of Isaiah 28:9–13

While the existence of a majority view concerning the translation of Isaiah 28:10 and 13 might be taken as proof that the meaning of the underlying Hebrew text is well established, early versions imply that the Vorlage is not straightforward.5 The following table compares the LXX, the MT, and the NRSV.

9 τίνι ἀνηγγείλαμεν κακὰ καὶ τίνι ἀνηγγείλαμεν ἀγγελίαν, οἱ ἀπογεγαλακτισμένοι ἀπὸ γάλακτος, οἱ ἀπεσπασμένοι ἀπὸ μαστοῦ; 9 אֶת־מִי֙ יוֹרֶ֣ה דֵעָ֔ה וְאֶת־מִ֖י יָבִ֣ין שְׁמוּעָ֑ה גְּמוּלֵי֙ מֵֽחָלָ֔ב עַתִּיקֵ֖י מִשָּׁדָֽיִם׃ 9 “Whom will he teach knowledge, and to whom will he explain the message? Those who are weaned from milk, those taken from the breast?
10 θλῖψιν ἐπὶ θλῖψιν προσδέχου, ἐλπίδα ἐπ᾿ ἐλπίδι, ἔτι μικρὸν ἔτι μικρὸν 10 כִּ֣י צַ֤ו לָצָו֙ צַ֣ו לָצָ֔ו קַ֥ו לָקָ֖ו קַ֣ו לָקָ֑ו זְעֵ֥יר שָׁ֖ם זְעֵ֥יר שָֽׁם׃

10 For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little.”
11 διὰ φαυλισμὸν χειλέων διὰ γλώσσης ἑτέρας, ὅτι λαλήσουσιν τῷ λαῷ τούτῳ 11 כִּ֚י בְּלַעֲגֵ֣י שָׂפָ֔ה וּבְלָשׁ֖וֹן
אַחֶ֑רֶת יְדַבֵּ֖ר אֶל־הָעָ֥ם הַזֶּֽה׃
11 Truly, with stammering lip and with alien tongue he will speak to this people,
12 λέγοντες αὐτῷ Τοῦτο τὸ ἀνάπαυμα τῷ πεινῶντι καὶ τοῦτο τὸ σύντριμμα, καὶ οὐκ ἠθέλησαν ἀκούειν. 12 אֲשֶׁ֣ר ׀ אָמַ֣ר אֲלֵיהֶ֗ם זֹ֤את הַמְּנוּחָה֙ הָנִ֣יחוּ לֶֽעָיֵ֔ף וְזֹ֖את הַמַּרְגֵּעָ֑ה וְלֹ֥א אָב֖וּא שְׁמֽוֹעַ׃ 12 to whom he has said, “This is rest; give rest to the weary; and this is repose”; yet they would not hear.
13 καὶ ἔσται αὐτοῖς τὸ λόγιον κυρίου τοῦ θεοῦ θλῖψις ἐπὶ θλῖψιν, ἐλπὶς ἐπ᾿ ἐλπίδι, ἔτι μικρὸν ἔτι μικρόν, ἵνα πορευθῶσιν καὶ πέσωσιν εἰς τὰ ὀπίσω καὶ κινδυνεύσουσιν καὶ συντριβήσονται καὶ ἁλώσονται. 13 וְהָיָ֨ה לָהֶ֜ם דְּבַר־יְהוָ֗ה צַ֣ו לָצָ֞ו צַ֤ו לָצָו֙ קַ֤ו לָקָו֙ קַ֣ו לָקָ֔ו זְעֵ֥יר שָׁ֖ם זְעֵ֣יר שָׁ֑ם לְמַ֨עַן יֵלְכ֜וּ וְכָשְׁל֤וּ אָחוֹר֙ וְנִשְׁבָּ֔רוּ וְנוֹקְשׁ֖וּ וְנִלְכָּֽדוּ׃ פ 13 Therefore the word of the Lord will be to them, “Precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little;” in order that they may go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken.

In addition to a difference of speaker in Isaiah 28:11,6 the main challenge of this passage is the cryptic line of Isaiah 28:10 and 13: צַ֤ו לָצָו֙ צַ֣ו לָצָ֔ו קַ֥ו לָקָ֖ו קַ֣ו לָקָ֑ו זְעֵ֥יר שָׁ֖ם זְעֵ֥יר שָֽׁם.7 Should we read, “Precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little” like most versions, or should we read, “Be expecting affliction upon affliction, hope upon hope, yet a little, yet a little” (θλῖψιν ἐπὶ θλῖψιν προσδέχου, ἐλπίδα ἐπ᾿ ἐλπίδι, ἔτι μικρὸν ἔτι μικρόν) as the LXX? The apparent consensus of English versions should not be taken as proof that the issue is settled. The rendering of the LXX is witness of the difficulty of taking these verses as meaning “precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little.”8

That the common rendering is not altogether obvious is also supported by the lack of consensus of other early texts. The Peshitta translates the cryptic saying, “Filth upon filth, filth upon filth; vomit upon vomit, vomit upon vomit, a little here, a little there,” thus departing entirely from both the LXX and the MT.9 The Qumran text of Isaiah (1QIsaa) replaces each ו (waw) with י (yod), which for Grudem indicates that “the scribe apparently had no idea what the phrase meant.”10 Finally, the Isaiah Targum is marked by more than usual paraphrasing. The hard line of Isaiah 28:10 and 13 reads, “They were commanded to perform the law, and what they were commanded they did not wish to do … they went in their own pleasure and did not desire to perform my pleasure … my sanctuary was as little in their eyes, to serve there; my Shekinah was as little in their eyes to serve there.”11 The interspersed explanations (not included here due to space limitation), as well as the interpretive expansions of the cryptic line show that this line needed to be interpreted to make sense. In any case, the Isaiah Targum is far from the traditional English rendering “precept upon precept … line upon line.”

2. The Meaning of the Unit: Isaiah 28:7–13

A common view is that Isaiah 28:7–13 represents an exchange between the drunk religious leaders of Israel and the prophet Isaiah.12 Following this view, the words of verse 9 are put into the mouth of the drunk leaders who would be saying, “Whom will he teach knowledge, and to whom will he explain the message? Those who are weaned from milk, those taken from the breast?” Under this view the leaders of Israel are mocking sarcastically Isaiah as if he were teaching them basic obedience (“precept upon precept…line upon line,” 28:10). There is, however, no clear indication in the text that verse 9 records the scoffing of the religious leaders of Israel.13 Although as a prophet Isaiah would surely urge the people to obey God’s commands, maintaining that the leaders of Israel respond to his exhortations in a scoffing and boiled-down imitation “precept upon precept … line upon line” is quite subjective. In fact, the context seems to plead against this possibility. The hard saying (commonly translated “precept upon precept…”) is indeed repeated in Isaiah 28:13, and there, it is placed in the mouth of the foreign invaders—not the leaders of Israel. Coherence demands that if we take the hard line as being an imitation of Isaiah’s call to obedience in Isaiah 28:10 (with the translation, “precept upon precept…”), then the foreign invaders are prophesied to imitate Isaiah’s call to obedience to the drunk leaders of Israel in Isaiah 28:13. This fanciful yet necessary corollary shows that this interpretation is unlikely.

Another interpretation is that the words of verse 9 come from Isaiah. In this case, verse 9 would record a rhetorical question that the prophet asks: “Whom will [God] teach knowledge…?” This is the view that the NET Bible made clear with its rendering, “Who is the Lord trying to teach? To whom is he explaining a message?” Such a rhetorical question makes good sense given the intoxicated state of the leaders of Israel (Isa 28:1, 3, 7–8). By asking this question Isaiah would be drawing the attention to the pitiful state of the leaders who could literally be compared to babes (28:9).

Concerning Isaiah 28:10, 13 (צַ֤ו לָצָו֙ צַ֣ו לָצָ֔ו קַ֥ו לָקָ֖ו קַ֣ו לָקָ֑ו זְעֵ֥יר שָׁ֖ם זְעֵ֥יר שָֽׁם), the assumption followed by most English Bibles is that the word צַו is a derivative of צָוָה and thus means “command/precept.” This assumption, however, should not remain unchallenged. The only other time this word occurs in the OT is in Hosea 5:11, where its meaning is no clearer than in Isaiah 28:10 and 13, as can be seen by comparing different versions—some have “command” (NASB), others “filth,” (ESV), “vanity” (NRSV), or “what is worthless” (HCSB).14 Many versions in fact recognize the uncertainty of the meaning of this word in a footnote. Concerning קַו, the meaning “line” (usually “measuring line”) is attested with thirteen occurrences in the OT.15 HALOT, however, remarks that in Isaiah 28:10, 13 the meaning is disputed.16 Grudem adds that קַו “is never used to speak specifically of a standard by which men should guide their conduct.”17 This is, however, the meaning this word would convey if placed beside “precept” as in the common interpretation followed by most translations. Because the common rendering does not make much sense of Isaiah 28:7–13 anyway, others have looked for a different solution.

Another possibility is that צַו and קַו are unintelligible words.18 In this case, Isaiah 28:10 and 13 would be a record of sounds. A strong argument for this view is the fact that the next verse (Isa 28:11) connects the cryptic sequence to “stammering lip” and “alien tongue,” something likely to be unintelligible. Under this view, God would be inflicting judgment over the religious leaders of Israel by the unintelligible speech of the foreign invader—presumably, the Assyrians—and verse 13 would give an audible representation of it. This interpretation is favored by a minority of versions, of which the NET Bible reads, “Indeed, they will hear incomprehensible gibberish, senseless babbling, a syllable here, a syllable there.”

Some have argued that צַו and קַו are old names for successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet and that the cryptic line, therefore, pictures a child with his schoolmaster teaching him the basics of a language.19 Under this view, God would be prophesying that the religious leaders of Israel would be, in front of their invaders, like infants who do not yet understand the words of their schoolmaster. Because this interpretation departs substantially from the rendering “precept upon precept … line upon line,” and because the sound of the letters would constitute syllables that are not intelligible to the child, this interpretation coheres with the idea that Isaiah 28:10, 13 is basically incomprehensible.

As is now becoming clear, the rendering “precept upon precept … line upon line” is not necessarily the best. Early versions reveal a difficulty of interpretation, lexical analysis suggests that “command” and “line” might not be the meanings intended in verses 10 and 13, and this understanding does not bring clarity to Isaiah 28:7–13. On the contrary, a sequence of incomprehensible sounds makes sense in the context of drunk leaders and foreign invaders.

A resolution is now possible. Isaiah 28:7–13 announces an incoming judgment over the people of Israel and especially its religious leadership. The latter indulges in drinking to the point of tottering (28:7) and their tables are full of vomit (28:8). Seeing this scene, Isaiah asks the sarcastic and sad question: “To whom will God teach knowledge…?” (28:9). Intoxicated by wine and strong drinks the leaders’ speech is unintelligible. They sound like babes learning how to speak so that Isaiah continues his sarcasm, “To those who are weaned from milk, those taken from the breast?” (28:9). As a punishment, God, who previously warned the leaders of Israel about what they should do—give rest to the weary (28:12)—will bring invaders whose speech will be incomprehensible to them (28:11). It will sound like the senseless babbling of drunkards (28:13), and the result for the leaders of Israel will be their doom.20

3. The New Testament Context of Paul’s Quotation

First Corinthians 14:20–25 is Paul’s final argument for persuading the Corinthians to desire prophecy more than tongues. In the previous two chapters (chs. 12–14), Paul expounds on the topic of spiritual gifts and on the superiority of prophecy over tongues-speaking. The main difference between these two gifts is that glossolalia, if not interpreted, is self-centered while prophecy is benevolent; if not interpreted, tongues do not benefit the other while prophecies always do because they build up believers (1 Cor 14:4). Throughout the whole letter Paul has pointed to a lack of unity, maturity, and love in the Corinthian believers that led to various problems in their assembly. Lack of maturity was causing disunion (ch. 3), and lack of love was causing some to sin against their conscience (ch. 8) or elevate tongues-speaking above prophecy (chs. 12, 14). Paul thus sees fit to include a pericope on love—commonly called the “love chapter”—in the middle of his argument on the superiority of prophecy (ch. 13). After his appeal to the heart, Paul appeals to the mind in chapter 14 so that the Corinthians would not only do what is most loving (ch. 13) but also what is most reasonable (ch. 14). It is at this final junction in the argument that Paul introduces the Isaiah 28:11–12 quotation (1 Cor 14:21). First Corinthians 14:20–25 reads,

Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking; rather, be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults. In the law it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people; yet even then they will not listen to me,” says the Lord. Tongues, then, are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is not [a sign] for unbelievers but for believers. If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if all prophesy, an unbeliever or outsider who enters is reproved by all and called to account by all. After the secrets of the unbeliever’s heart are disclosed, that person will bow down before God and worship him, declaring, “God is really among you.”

Ἀδελφοί, μὴ παιδία γίνεσθε ταῖς φρεσὶν ἀλλὰ τῇ κακίᾳ νηπιάζετε, ταῖς δὲ φρεσὶν τέλειοι γίνεσθε. ἐν τῷ νόμῳ γέγραπται ὅτι ἐν ἑτερογλώσσοις καὶ ἐν χείλεσιν ἑτέρων λαλήσω τῷ λαῷ τούτῳ καὶ οὐδʼ οὕτως εἰσακούσονταί μου, λέγει κύριος. ὥστε αἱ γλῶσσαι εἰς σημεῖόν εἰσιν οὐ τοῖς πιστεύουσιν ἀλλὰ τοῖς ἀπίστοις, ἡ δὲ προφητεία οὐ τοῖς ἀπίστοις ἀλλὰ τοῖς πιστεύουσιν. Ἐὰν οὖν συνέλθῃ ἡ ἐκκλησία ὅλη ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτὸ καὶ πάντες λαλῶσιν γλώσσαις, εἰσέλθωσιν δὲ ἰδιῶται ἢ ἄπιστοι, οὐκ ἐροῦσιν ὅτι μαίνεσθε; ἐὰν δὲ πάντες προφητεύωσιν, εἰσέλθῃ δέ τις ἄπιστος ἢ ἰδιώτης, ἐλέγχεται ὑπὸ πάντων, ἀνακρίνεται ὑπὸ πάντων, τὰ κρυπτὰ τῆς καρδίας αὐτοῦ φανερὰ γίνεται, καὶ οὕτως πεσὼν ἐπὶ πρόσωπον προσκυνήσει τῷ θεῷ ἀπαγγέλλων ὅτι ὄντως ὁ θεὸς ἐν ὑμῖν ἐστιν.

Paul makes extensive use to the OT in his letter,21 so the appeal to the law in 1 Corinthians 14:21 comes with no surprise.22 Various parallels in the situation of Corinth and in the situation of ancient Israel might have triggered Paul to use Isaiah 28:11–12. No doubt, “weaned from milk” and “taken from breast” (Isa 28:9) are phrases that could characterize the lack of maturity of the Corinthians. As early as 1 Corinthians 3:1–2, Paul tells the Corinthians that he speaks to them as “infants,” and that they are at the “milk” level. Just before introducing the quotation of Isaiah 28:11–12, Paul in fact explicitly warns the Corinthians not to be “children” in their thinking (1 Cor 14:20). The drunkenness of the leaders of Israel (Isa 28:7) might also have come to Paul’s mind when he heard that some of the wealthy Corinthians were drunk at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:21). If the interpretation above is correct—that is, the cryptic line records unintelligible speech—then there is yet another resemblance between the two settings. The unintelligible speech of the drunkards (Isa 28:10)—auguring the unintelligible speech of the invaders (28:13)—parallels the tongues-speaking of Corinth that was unintelligible to people unacquainted with a tongue (1 Cor 14:5).23 If left uninterpreted, glossolalia in Corinth was incomprehensible in the same way that the language of the Assyrians was for Israel.24

4. The Interpretation of 1 Corinthians 14:20–25

The text of 1 Corinthians 14:20–25 contains some challenges of which the first is the wording of the quotation. Christopher Stanley once said, “Determining the precise relationship between the wording of 1 Cor 14:21 and the text of the Septuagint is one of the greatest challenges in the entire corpus of Pauline citations.”25 Although in general Paul tends to follow the LXX rather than the MT, in 1 Corinthians 14:21 he sides with the MT.26 His quotation, however, is not verbatim. Whereas Paul writes, “with other tongues and with lips of others” (ἐν ἑτερογλώσσοις καὶ ἐν χείλεσιν ἑτέρων), the MT reads, “with stammering lip and with alien tongue” (בְּלַעֲגֵ֣י שָׂפָ֔ה וּבְלָשׁ֖וֹן אַחֶ֑רֶת).27 While it is possible that Paul had a source no longer extant or that the orality of transmission may account for his version of the Isaiah quotation, given its adequacy in addressing the Corinthian situation, it is more likely that he altered the LXX (or MT) to fit his context and make his specific point.28

The second and greater problem is the relationship between the point Paul makes based on his quotation (v. 22) and the illustrations that follow (vv. 23–25). The problem is best stated by Theophilos and Smith:

The explanation of the quote in verse 22 seems antithetical to the illustration provided in verse 23–25. The test seems to contradict itself: for in verse 22 Paul explains that tongues are a sign for unbelievers and prophecy for believers, whereas in verse 23–25 he demonstrates both the negative effects of tongues and the positive effect of prophecy on unbelievers!29

While it is commonplace to bypass this difficulty by using much freedom in the interpretation and/or translation of 1 Corinthians 14:22,30 this section will analyze Paul’s argument to explain how his illustrations (14:23–25), as they are, support his point (v. 22).

As is apparent, to properly understand Paul’s use of Isaiah 28:11–12 readers must ascertain the meaning of σημεῖον (“sign”) in verse 22. Usually, in the NT and LXX this word denotes divine intervention or activity. Although some construe the word “sign” as conveying the idea of divine judgment, occurrences of this word in Scripture show that it is a neutral term.31 It is possible that Paul uses “sign” in a negative way—that is to mean “judgment”—in 1 Corinthians 14:22a (“Tongues, then, are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers”), because the rejection of the gospel by the unbelieving visitor (v. 23) can be construed as a judgment. However, this reading is problematic in light of verse 22b, where Paul implies that prophecy is a sign for believers.32 How could Paul mean that prophecy is “judgment” for believers when he has praised prophecy during the last two chapters and encouraged the Corinthians to eagerly desire it (1 Cor 14:1, 39)? 33 In fact, given the different contexts in which σημεῖον is used in the Bible, Lanier’s view seems best: “Perhaps the best way to view the concept of ‘sign’ is to take it as a neutral term connoting evidence of divine activity whether for judgment or blessing.”34

Another issue in the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 14:20–25 is the identity of the unbelievers mentioned in 1 Corinthians 14:22. Who are these ἄπιστοι? Is the referent the same in verse 22 as in verses 23–25? These questions are raised by the point Paul makes in verse 22b: prophecy is not [a sign] for unbelievers but for believers (ἡ δὲ προφητεία οὐ τοῖς ἀπίστοις ἀλλὰ τοῖς πιστεύουσιν). This point seems to contradict the illustrations of verses 23–25. There, an unbeliever is repelled at a church meeting where everybody speaks in tongues, yet, if at a church meeting the Corinthians speak in prophecy rather than in tongues, the unbeliever gives glory to God and is won to his cause (v. 25). Consistency in construing the ἄπιστοι of verse 22 and the ἄπιστοι of Paul’s hypothetical scenarios (vv. 23–25) does not appear to make sense. In Paul’s illustration divine activity (σημεῖον) in the life of the unbeliever is seen with prophecy, not tongues; the “sign” seems thus to be prophecy rather than tongues. This leads to the possibility that Paul uses ἄπιστοι with no single referent in mind.35 The ἄπιστοι of verse 22 are unmistakably those of the quotation of Isaiah 28:11–12 in verse 21. These are the unrepentant unbelievers of Israel who were babbling under the influence. The ἄπιστοι of verses 23–25 are not the same; they are hypothetical first century unbelievers that apparently never heard the words of God. They are visitors to a church meeting possibly after someone invited them or out of their own curiosity. This understanding explains away the apparent contradiction between Paul’s point in verse 22 and the two hypothetical scenarios he presents in verses 23–25. In his illustrations Paul would be talking about another kind of unbeliever, so the statement “prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers” (v. 22b) is not directed to the unbelievers of the city of Corinth.

Because this understanding contradicts what Paul says at a prima facie level, Bruce C. Johanson proposed the view that verse 22 should not be read as a proposition but as a question.36 Paul would be asking, “Tongues, then, are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers?”37 He would be asking this rhetorical question only to refute such misunderstanding, which was presumably in the air in Corinth. Though an interesting possibility, the context gives no indication that Paul is asking a rhetorical question.38

Working under the assumption that glossolalia was common among pagans during the first century, Joop Smit proposed the view that Paul uses σημεῖον to mean distinguishing sign.39 He notes that in verse 23 Paul says that if the church speaks in tongues, visitors will say “μαίνεσθε” (“you are out of your mind”). He then associates this word with mystery rites among pagans and suggests that tongues are not a sign for Christian believers because it does not identify them as such.40 In other words, if the Corinthians speak in tongues, visitors will recognize the μανία of pagan religions, not the God of Israel.41 Because μαίνομαι can be used to describe pagan ecstatic speech but does not have to,42 and because Smit’s view is based on a particular interpretation of σημεῖον, other views should be considered.43

While most commentators agree that “sign” must be supplied in the second line of verse 22 (“And the prophecy not for unbelievers, but for believers” [author’s translation]),44 Theophilos and Smith suggest that σημεῖον should not be supplied.45 They argue that Paul’s omission of the word σημεῖον is actually the key to make sense of his argument. They construe tongues as a sign of judgment upon unbelievers, but prophecy not as a sign at all, only an activity for believers to participate in. Paul then proves the truth of what he says by his illustrations. The fact that prophecy is for believers (not a sign for believers) is seen in the conversion of unbelievers who visit the church when the church is prophesying. Not supplying σημεῖον, however, is problematic to the thought structure of Paul’s argument. The repetition of words (οὐἀλλά, πιστεύουσιν, ἀπίστοις) indicates a parallelism that breaks if the idea of “sign” is missing in the second line of verse 22.46 Grudem rightly remarks, “It is necessary to import some idea into the second half of the verse on any reading, but the most natural one, and the one which provides the most clear contrast, is the idea of ‘sign’ which lies so close at hand in the first half of the verse.”47

While Theophilos and Smith’s view depends on an unnatural reading of the Greek text, it rightly emphasizes that the focus of Paul’s illustration is not on visitors but on the Corinthian church members. This is the key that makes sense of Paul’s argument. There is no need to see a contradiction when an unbelieving visitor gets saved upon the hearing of prophecy (v. 25)—although prophecy is a sign for believers, not for unbelievers (v. 22)—because the focus is not on the unbelieving visitor but on the Corinthians. Paul is continuing to exhort the Corinthians to prefer prophecy over tongues, so the argument revolves around them. The illustrations of verses 23–25 simply serve to make the point that God’s activity (σημεῖον) will be seen among the Corinthians when they prophesy, not when they speak in tongues.48 Visitors will not recognize God’s activity among the Corinthians if they all speak in tongues; on the contrary, they will say “you are out of your mind” (v. 23). But if all speak prophecy, God’s activity and presence will be visible in the church through the effect that prophecy has on unbelievers.49 Visitors will not only bow down but also recognize that God is at work within them; they will say, “God is really among you” (v. 25).

This interpretation is consistent with the flexible meaning of σημεῖον, which connotes evidence of divine activity (whether for good or bad), and it also fits well in the context of chapters 12–14. Paul has been arguing that prophecy is better than tongues unless tongues are interpreted (1 Cor 14:5), and with the quotation of Isaiah 28:11–12 he gives a final proof: prophecy—not tongues—is the hallmark of God’s activity, for which the Corinthians were eager (1 Cor 14:12).

5. The Hermeneutical Use of Isaiah’s Quotation

Can we speak about typology in Paul’s use of Isaiah 28:11–12? Are the drunkards of Israel and their babbling a type of the Corinthian believers and their speaking in tongues? While answering this question is left to further study, there is surely a strong analogy between the two situations that Paul exploits to create powerful rhetorical effects.50

The first effect of the quotation is straightforward: it proves that tongues-speaking per se should be devalued by the Corinthians when they worship together as an assembly.51 Unless interpreted, tongues are of no profit, even for evangelism. Just as the unbelievers of Israel would not be led to repentance by hearing the language of the invaders—God said, “They will not hear” (Isa 28:12)52—so tongues, unless interpreted, would not achieve anything in Corinth.

Through his quotation, Paul also implicitly adds strength to his exhortation to speak less in tongues and favor prophecy instead. Since in Isaiah the babbling came from the intoxicated religious leaders, Paul indirectly compares the Corinthians’ unregulated speaking in tongues to the scene of drunkards babbling under the influence. We can almost hear him say, “Stop this charismatic madness, you sound like drunkards!”53

Finally, through the quotation, Paul implicitly rebukes the Corinthians for their lack of love. The Corinthians are being unloving not only towards their brothers/sisters in Christ, but also towards outsiders because they do not transmit to them a clear message from God. Instead, they speak to them in unintelligible speech, thus reinforcing their alienation from God. While this was appropriate for the unrepentant unbelievers of Israel, it is not for the unbelievers of Corinth. The latter have not been rejecting God as the former had; they are not under a curse like the religious leaders were. By speaking to them in tongues, however, the Corinthian believers execute judgment on them—like the Assyrian invaders of Isaiah 28:13.

Can the modern interpreter “use” Paul’s use of Isaiah 28:11–12 in 1 Corinthians 14:21 to discern the most likely interpretation of Isaiah 28:10 and 13? Yes, provided we presuppose that Paul draws from the context of Isaiah 28:11–12 as much as can give a satisfactory explanation for his use in 1 Corinthians. As I have highlighted in this study, if Paul draws from the immediate context of his quotation, the incomprehensible-sequence-of-syllables interpretation of Isaiah 28:10 and 13 is much more likely than the majority interpretation followed by most English versions (“precept upon precept…line upon line…”). While a relationship between the Corinthians’ speaking in tongues and the “precept upon precept…” interpretation awaits a demonstration, the Corinthians’ speaking in tongues resonates both with the Assyrian foreign tongue (Isa 28:13) and the unintelligible speech of the drunkards of Israel (Isa 28:10).

6. Conclusion

In this article I have argued that Paul’s appeal to Isaiah 28:11–12 in 1 Corinthians 14:21 is even more appropriate if Isaiah 28:10 and 13 is construed as an audible representation of unintelligible speech. Not only the lack of maturity and drunkenness of some Corinthian believers but also their speaking in unintelligible tongues correspond with the Isaianic context. While degrees of correspondence between contexts is not something that is generally used in adjudicating between interpretations, because Paul elsewhere takes into consideration the near context of his quotations, the greater degree of correspondence of the minority view of Isaiah 28:10, 13 might tip the scales of Bible translators towards what is still today a minority rendering of the Hebrew text.

Besides having a direct impact on translation, the study of Paul’s use of Isaiah 28:11–12 also sheds light on the much-debated question of the nature of tongues in the Corinthian church and whether it consists of real human languages or “angelic” ones. If it is true that for Paul the tongue-speaking of Corinth echoes the Isaianic context, then it seems more likely that the tongue-speaking of Corinth was speaking real languages (like in Acts 2). Neither the drunken religious leader of Israel nor the foreign Assyrian invaders spoke an angelic language. Both spoke real languages yet unintelligible in both cases.

Finally, lest we become so focused on the brushstrokes that we miss the big picture, let us not forget Paul’s point: the hallmark of God’s activity is prophecy, not tongues. It is when Christians proclaim the words of God that unbelievers have an encounter with God. It is not sensationalism but enlightened forth-telling of God’s truth that saves people. To our modern church context this implies that we cannot look for something more efficient than preaching to bring people to God. No program, event, or activity will ever beat the faithful exposition of God’s word in evangelism. Let us not make the same error as the Corinthians who failed to understand that God meets people in the intelligible proclamation of his word, not in the show.

[1] All quotations are taken from the NRSV, unless indicated otherwise.

[2] The NET Bible also understands the Hebrew as expressing only syllables, as shown by its editorial rendering: “They will hear meaningless gibberish, senseless babbling, a syllable here, a syllable there (Isa 28:10, 13). Other English versions that follow the minority view include: CJB, CEB, GW, LEB, REB. Spanish versions following the minority view include: DHH, BDT, BLP. The French NBS follows the minority view as well with, “B. a.-ba, b.a.-ba, d.a.-da, d.a.-da, un peu par-ci, un peu par-là.” More on this issue below.

[3] That NT authors generally respect the OT contexts of their quotations is contended by several scholars. A non-exhaustive list of them is found in G. K. Beale, Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 4 n. 9, 5 n. 14, and 7 n. 18.

[4] This is, to be sure, assuming that Paul is more authoritative than other interpreters.

[5] It is well possible that no single Vorlage existed and that early versions differences (see below) come from variations in Hebrew texts. All the same, these variations in Hebrew texts reveal a difficulty in the interpretation of their own source for Isaiah 28:9–13 (see discussion hereafter).

[6] The LXX puts the words of Isaiah 28:11 in the mouth of the future invaders—presumably, the Assyrians—rather than in the mouth of God (MT). The verb “to speak” varies in person and number; the MT has יְדַבֵּ֖ר אֶל־הָעָ֥ם הַזֶּֽה (“he will speak to this people”) while the LXX has λαλήσουσιν τῷ λαῷ τούτῳ (“they will speak to this people”). Consequently, while the MT emphasizes the guilt of Israel, “the Septuagint pictures these verses as an example of Israel’s valiant endurance against the Assyrians’ accusations” (Michael P. Theophilos and A. M. Smith, “The Use of Isaiah 28:11–12 in 1 Corinthians 14:21,” in Religious Conflict from Early Christianity to the Rise of Islam, ed. Wendy Mayer and Bronwen Neil, Arbeiten zur Kirchengeschichte 121 [Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013], 60). Because Isaiah 28:7–13 announces an incoming judgment upon Israel, the LXX reading that apparently construes judgment as coming upon the invader rather than Israel has less contextual grounding than the MT and thus seems inferior. Interestingly, for the Isaiah Targum the speaker is neither God (MT) nor the future invaders (LXX), but the people of Israel who did not listen to the prophets God sent (Bruce D. Chilton, The Isaiah Targum, Introduction, Translation, Apparatus and Notes, ArBib [Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1987], 55).

[7] There are other differences between the MT and the LXX. Isaiah 28:9a, for example, has יוֹרֶה (he will teach) in the MT and ἀνηγγείλαμεν (we announced) in the LXX.

[8] As mentioned above (note 5), the possibility that there was no standard version of scriptural texts and therefore that variations come from different sources is irrelevant to the point made here. In any case, the differences in the sources reveal a difficulty in interpreting the one original Isaianic source.

[9] Here the Peshitta probably follows the Greek translation of Theodotion (AD 150), which reads, δεισαλία εἰς δεισαλία … ἐμετὸς εἰς ἐματόν (“filth upon filth… vomit upon vomit”) (Frederick Field, Origensis Hexaplorum, Tomus II [Reinheim: Druckerei, 1964], 479–80).

[10] Wayne A. Grudem, “1 Corinthians 14:20–25: Prophecy and Tongues as Signs of God’s Attitude,” WTJ 41 (1979): 384.

[11] Chilton, The Isaiah Targum, 55.

[12] Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah, OTL (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 206–7; Paul R. House, Isaiah, Mentor (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2019), 2:34–36; Alec J. Motyer, Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary, TOTC 20 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 209; John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 509–13; and J. P. M. Sweet, “A Sign for Unbelievers: Paul’s Attitude to Glossolalia,” NTS 13 (1967): 242.

[13] That the leaders are called “scoffers” in Isaiah 28:14, 22 does not indicate that Isaiah 28:9 records their scoffing.

[14] The meaning is disputed in Hosea 5:11, according to HALOT 3:1009.

[15] 1 Kgs 7:23; 2 Kgs 21:13; Isa 28:17; 34:11, 17; 44:13; Jer 31:39; Ezek 47:3; Zech 1:16; Ps 19:5; Job 38:5; Lam 2:8; 2 Chr 4:2.

[16] HALOT 3:1009.

[17] Grudem, “Prophecy and Tongues,” 383.

[18] Motyer remarks that it is possible that these words are “intentionally meaningless” (The Prophecy of Isaiah, 210). Isaiah 28:10 and 28:13 “may be nothing more than a string of nonsense syllables” according to Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997), 240.

[19] William W. Hallo, “Isaiah 28:9–13 and the Ugaritic Abecedaries,” JBL 77 (1958): 337–38. Grudem, “Prophecy and Tongues,” 382–83, favors this view as well. Working backwards by starting with Isaiah 28:13, where the cryptic line occurs for the second time, Grudem remarks that this line is a cause of judgment. He then suggests that קַו לָקָו… צַו לָצָו “must be a set of sounds which give no coherent meaning to the hearers” because the phrase “precept upon precept…” is not something that would have caused the people of Israel “to fall backward, be broken, snared and taken captive (cf. Is. 28:13).”

[20] In other words, God punishes the leaders of Israel by returning to them their unintelligible speech. The difference is that their unintelligible speech is due to their being under the influence and the unintelligible speech of the invaders is due to the fact that they speak a foreign language.

[21] In ch. 1 alone, Paul quotes Isaiah 29:14 (1 Cor 1:18) and Jeremiah 9:22 (1 Cor 1:31). The high frequency of quotations continues throughout the letter.

[22] Although Paul seems imprecise in using the word νόμος for something that does not come from the Pentateuch but from Isaiah, we should be reminded that it was not uncommon to refer to any part of the Tanakh as the law; the word νόμος can refer to Scripture in general, as evidenced by John 10:34; 12:34; 15:25; and Romans 3:19. It is also worth mentioning that by using the term “law” Paul may be wanting to englobe other passages such as Deuteronomy 28:45–49 and Jeremiah 5:13–15. This is argued quite persuasively by John Paul Heil, The Rhetorical Role of Scripture in 1 Corinthians, SBLMS (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005), 192–94.

[23] I concur with Peter Nagel (“1 Corinthians 14:21: Paul’s Reflection on Γλῶσσα,” JECS 3 [2013]: 33–49), that the OT context of Paul’s quotation pleads for real languages in Corinth, not a language uniquely divine.

[24] Paul might also find a parallel between the context of judgment present in Isaiah 28:7–13 and the judgment implicit in the rejection of the gospel of the unbelieving visitor introduced in 1 Corinthians 14:23.

[25] Christopher D. Stanley, Paul and the Language of Scripture: Citation Technique in the Pauline Epistles and Contemporary Literature, SNTSMS 74 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 197.

[26] So, Theophilos and Smith, “The Use of Isaiah 28:11–12,” 65; David E. Lanier, “With Stammering Lips and Another Tongue: 1 Cor 14:20–22 and Isa 28:11–12,” CTR 5 (1991): 268; and Grudem, “Prophecy and Tongues,” 386–87. Paul affirms that the Lord, not “they” (LXX), will speak to the people of Israel. This is made clear by the addition of λέγει κύριος at the end of the quotation in 1 Corinthians 14:21. While the LXX says, “They did not want to obey” (οὐκ ἠθέλησαν ἀκούειν), Paul specifies that God is the object by adding the pronoun μου. Also, Paul’s “with other tongues and with lips of others” (ἐν ἑτερογλώσσοις καὶ ἐν χείλεσιν ἑτέρων) shows some distancing from the LXX which reads, “through contempt of lips through another language” (διὰ φαυλισμὸν χειλέων διὰ γλώσσης ἑτέρας).

[27] Paul also substitutes the third person “he will speak” (יְדַבֵּ֖ר, Isa 28:11) with “I will speak” (λαλήσω, 1 Cor 14:21).

[28] Thus, Anthony C. Thiselton rejects an explanation based on “the use of memory or version no longer extant” and argues that “Paul combines exegesis and application” (The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary On the Greek Text, NIGTC [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000], 1120, 1122). Similarly, David E. Garland says that “The nine differences from the LXX and the MT fit Paul’s purposes so well, however, that it seems more likely that 14:21 represents an interpretive paraphrase of the text that he adapts to this context” (1 Corinthians, BECNT [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003], 647). For Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “More than likely it is an instance of Paul’s free use of the words of Isaiah, or less likely a quotation from memory, which is not verbatim” (First Corinthians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, AB 32 [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008], 520).

[29] Theophilos and Smith, “The Use of Isaiah 28:11–12,” 54. Similarly, for Hays, “This comment seems to stand in direct contradiction to the explanation that follows in verses 23–25, in which unbelievers are turned away by tongues and converted by prophecy” (First Corinthians, 239). “The main difficulties lie with v. 22 and its relationship to the illustrations drawn in vv. 23–25,” according to Karl Olav Sanders, “Prophecy—A Sign for Believers (1 Cor 14,20–25),” Bib 77 (1996): 1. “The assertion, that prophecy is not destined for the unbelievers, but for the believers (v. 22b) is incompatible with the example, which shows how prophets irresistibly bring unbelievers to faith (vv. 24–25),” according to Joop Smit, “Tongues and Prophecy: Deciphering 1 Cor 14, 22,” Bib 75 (1994): 176.

[30] Interpreters often claim that prophecy is for believers (as Paul asserts in 1 Cor 14:22) in the sense that it makes believers of unbelievers. Making this clear, Robert J. Gladstone adds the word “resulting” in his translation of 1 Corinthians 14:22: “Therefore tongues are a sign not resulting in believers but resulting in unbelievers; whereas prophecy [is a sign] not resulting in unbelievers but resulting in believers (italics mine)” (“Sign Language in the Assembly: How Are Tongues a Sign to the Unbeliever in 1 Cor 14:20–25?” Asian Journal of Pentecostal Studies 2 [1999]: 185. Heil follows Gladstone’s translation in his study (“The Rhetorical Role,” 200). Hays remarks that “perhaps we should interpret [Paul] to mean ‘prophecy is not [primarily] for unbelievers but for believers’” (First Corinthians, 240).

[31] Σημεῖον can convey the idea of divine judgment but does not necessitate it. Sometimes it conveys the idea of blessing (it is both used to refer to the ten plagues of Egypt [Exod 7:9; 8:19; 10:1–2; 11:9–10] and to the birth of Immanuel [Isa 7:14]).

[32] Whether or not σημεῖον must be supplied in 1 Corinthians 14:22b will be discussed hereafter.

[33] Σημεῖον is “a sign of judgment for believers in the positive sense that it creates Christians by convincing unbelievers of their sins and bringing them to repentance,” according to Craig L. Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, NIVAC (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 271. It goes without saying that this understanding seems farfetched.

[34] Lanier, “With Stammering Lips,” 273. The following interpreters concur that σημεῖον is not negative per se; they understand Paul as speaking of two kinds of sign—tongues being a sign of judgment upon unbelievers while prophecy a sign of grace upon believers: Frédéric Louis Godet, Commentary on First Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1977), 720; R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s First and Second Epistles to the Corinthians (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1961), 601; Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 683; Garland, 1 Corinthians, 650; and Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 702–3.

[35] So, Lanier, “With Stammering Lips,” 276.

[36] Bruce C. Johanson, “Tongues, a Sign for Unbelievers: A Structural and Exegetical Study of I Corinthians 14:20–25,” NTS 25 (1979): 180–203. Quite surprisingly, Leon Morris favors this view (1 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary, TNTC 7 [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985], 189).

[37] A similar construction appears in Galatians 4:16 where Paul clearly asks a question (ὥστε ἐχθρὸς ὑμῶν γέγονα ἀληθεύων ὑμῖν;)

[38] When Paul asks a rhetorical question—for example in Romans 6:1 with the question, “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?”—his words could lead someone to a wrong conclusion (that we should continue in sin). In 1 Corinthians 12–14, however, nothing in what Paul says would appear to lead someone to the conclusion reflected in Paul’s hypothetical question. Why would the Corinthians have believed that tongues are a sign for unbelievers and not for believers? Chapters 12–14 instead show that the Corinthians overemphasized tongues in the life of believers. For Smit (“Tongues and Prophecy,” 177), the conjunction οὖν in v. 23 constitutes the main difficulty of Johanson’s view. For Florian Wilk, “Since 1 Cor 14:23–25 and 14:22 are connected by the conjunction οὖν, 14:22 cannot be read as a rhetorical question.” (Wilk, “Isaiah in 1 and 2 Corinthians,” in Isaiah in the New Testament, ed. Steve Moyise and Maarten J. J. Menken [London: T&T Clark, 2005] 141 n. 41).

[39] Smit, “Tongues and Prophecy,” 175–90.

[40] Ciampa and Rosner (The First Letter to the Corinthians, 704–5) say that μαίνομαι was a word sometimes used in the context of religious experience to refer to a divinely induced altered mental state, such as was associated with Bacchic possession and inspiration.”

[41] Smit, “Tongues and Prophecy,” 185–89. This is, in substance, also the view of Stephen J. Chester, “Divine Madness? Speaking in Tongues in 1 Corinthians 14.23,” JSNT 27 (2005): 417–46. The difference between the two is that whereas for Smit “μαίνεσθε” (v. 23) represent the negative response of the unbelievers, for Chester it represents their positive reaction. For Chester, “the verb μαίνεσθε would best be translated not as ‘You are mad’, but as ‘You are inspired’” (“Divine Madness?,” 430). Although this understanding naturally removes the apparent incoherence between Paul’s point (v. 22) and the two illustrations (v. 23–25), the interpretation hereafter seems preferrable.

[42] Elsewhere in the NT it does not describe ecstatic speech (John 10:20; Acts 12:15; 26:24–25).

[43] An additional difficulty for many interpreters is that Smit’s view does not take into account the meaning of the quotation in its original context. Paul, however, seems to connect the idea of tongues being a sign (v. 22) with the quotation of verse 21 because verse 22 starts with the inferential conjunction ὥστε.

[44] So, Lanier, “With Stammering Lips,” 274; Sanders, “Prophecy—A Sign for Believers,” 10; Sweet, “A Sign for Unbelievers,” 241; Grudem, “Prophecy and Tongues,” 389; Fitzmyer, First Corinthians, 521; and Heil, “The Rhetorical Role,” 200 n. 19.

[45] Theophilos and Smith, “The Use of Isaiah 28:11–12,” 67–68.

[46] Paul can use an ellipsis when confusion of referents is improbable (i.e., the omission of στέφανος in 1 Cor 9:25).

[47] Grudem, “Prophecy and Tongues,” 389.

[48] For David S. Robinson, that the focus is on the Corinthian believers is supported by Paul’s allusion to Isaiah 45:14 (in 1 Cor 14:25) where outsiders give a sign of recognition to the people of God that God is among them (“‘By the Lips of Foreigners’: Disclosing the Church in 1 Corinthians 14:20–25,” Ecclesiology 14 [2018]: 306–21).

[49] So, Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 683; Sweet, “A Sign for Unbelievers,” 242.

[50] The question of a typology depends on one’s definition of a type. If one follows Beale, Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, 19, because there is no sense of fulfillment between the two situations there is no typology here.

[51] So, Heil, “The Rhetorical Role,” 200, 203.

[52] Although most English versions translate the qal perfect of אבה in Isaiah 28:12b as frequentative (“They would not hear”), the future (“They will not hear”) is probably the best option—Paul clearly reads the future in 1 Corinthians 14:21 when he says, “Even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord,” ESV). Under this reading, the words, “To whom he has said, ‘This is rest; give rest to the weary; and this is repose’” (Isaiah 28:12a) are a parenthetical comment and “they will not hear” (Isa 28:12b) refers back to Isaiah 28:11 which speaks about God’s words uttered through the foreign tongue of the invader.

[53] It would not be the first time that the speech of drunkards and the speech of tongues’ speakers is brought close in human experience. Acts 2:13 records that some were mocking the disciples’ speaking in tongues and saying that they were drunk.

Etienne Jodar

Etienne Jodar is a PhD student in New Testament interpretation at Bob Jones University Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina.

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