Speaking in tongues – a private prayer language?

Is speaking in tongues a special, private prayer language inspired by the Holy Spirit?

No, because on the three occasions in Scripture when the gift of tongues was given – on the day of Pentecost, in the home of Cornelius, and in the synagogue at Ephesus in Acts 19 – the Spirit was NOT inspiring a special, private prayer language. When the apostles “began to speak in other tongues” in Acts 2:4 it was a public outburst of praise to God in languages their audience understood and benefitted from (verse 11), and when the gift of tongues was given to the church later on it was for “the common good,” 1 Corinthians 12:7, “so that the church may be edified,” 1 Corinthians 14:5. There might have been some benefit to oneself in praising God in another language (verse 4), but if the motive wasn’t love for others, 1 Corinthians 14:1, it was merely a pointless noise, 1 Corinthians 13:1.

In Corinth the Spirit inspired much praise to God in other languages (14:15-17), but to Paul it was all just “uttering mysteries” (verse 2) if others weren’t benefitting from it. That’s why Paul insisted on a translation of the tongues, because the purpose of the gift was to benefit others (verses 5, 12, 17, 19, 26, 31).

It’s interesting who these “others” were too, because in verse 21 Paul launches into a prophecy from Isaiah 28:11-12, that one day God would speak to Israel in foreign languages. Paul then connects that prophecy to the gift of tongues in Corinth, and tells the church that their gift is, in fact, a sign fulfilling that prophecy “for unbelievers” in Israel in their day, 1 Corinthians 14:22.

The sign would have the desired effect, too. Unbelieving Jews would drop by the synagogue in Corinth and hear praises to God in their own language or translatable foreign language, and suddenly they’d realize “God is really among you” and their unbelieving hearts would melt, verses 24-25.

Unfortunately, those who had the gift of tongues in Corinth were far more interested in enjoying the sensation of praising God in a foreign language for themselves than they were in benefitting others. That’s why Paul wrote to them in verse 17, “You may be giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified.” What they were saying in other languages was wonderful, it was bursting with thanks to God, but when the whole church was doing it at the same time it was just a noise, and an unbelieving Jew walking in would get no benefit out of it at all. He might even think they were crazy (verse 23). Worse still, it might sound like the gibberish “tongues” commonly practiced by the pagan mystery religions of that day, and, unfortunately, by some Christians today too.