Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Stammering Lips and Other Tongues

Here's an old item that used to surface from time to time. Remember how we used to emphasize the phrase "stammering lips" from Isaiah 28:11 (KJV)? In those marathon seekers services at campmeeting, chronic seekers were said to have "come close"--they had stammering lips--but they didn't speak in tongues clearly (which is an odd conclusion, when you stop to think about it, for folks who didn't even speak English all that well, let alone some other language in the world).

In any case, here's perhaps a better alternative understanding of that enigmatic phrase.

It really starts in the Deuteronomic code of blessings and curses for covenant obedience and disobedience. One of the curses for covenant violation was eventual invasion by a foreign army (Deut. 28:49). "Yahweh will bring a nation against you from far away...a nation whose language you will not understand." Isaiah then picks up this theme of judgment (and virtually all the prophets were Deuteronomic in one sense or another). The context of the oracle in Isaiah 28 is clearly a judgment within history. The spiritual leaders of the nation were so befuddled that their teaching role to the people was nearly nonsensical. Those who should have been spiritual leaders, the priests and prophets, were drunk like everyone else.  They had visions, but their visions were the hallucinations of alcohol (28:7-8, 1, 3).  Prophetic communication was no more than gibberish (28:9-10). It was like baby-talk (28:10). The Hebrew tsaw latsaw tsaw latsaw qaw laqaw qaw laqaw is virtually nonsensical.  Most scholars take the words to be a mockery against the gibberish of either the wine-sodden prophets described in Isa. 28:7 or the drunken people trying to mimic Isaiah's words.  A number of suggestions for translation have been made, including the ideas that 1) the words are a type of onomatopoeia, 2) that they are the meaningless words with which children are taught to walk, 3) that they are the babyish teaching of the Hebrew alphabet, or 4) that they are a string of nonsensical verbiage approximating the English, "Burble, burble."  The NEB offers the dynamic equivalence, "It is all harsh cries and raucous shouts," which strictly is no translation at all.  Some scholars only transliterate the words without attempting any English equivalents.  The NIV footnote is quite appropriate when it says the sounds are "probably meaningless sounds; perhaps a mimicking of the prophet's words."

Therefore, since the people could not (or would not) understand God's message, God now would speak to them more plainly in the savage language of the Assyrians (28:11)!  The foreign tongue of invaders, in fact, was precisely what the Deuteronomic code had threatened (cf. Deut. 28:49). The very people who had been promised the land of Canaan as a resting place (cf. Deut. 12:9-10; cf. 25:19) had refused to listen to God.  They had allowed his word to become nothing but gibberish (Deut. 28:12-13a).  Consequently, their future was a judgment within history (Deut. 28:13b), and the tool of that judgment would be the Assyrian foreigners.

The Pentecostal-Charismatic interpretation that Isa. 28:11 is a prediction of tongues-speaking in the New Testament, therefore, can only be regarded as a mistake.  To be sure, St. Paul quotes this passage in the New Testament (cf. 1 Co. 14:21), but he mentions it in order to caution the Corinthians that foreign tongues, as for ancient Israel, are not necessarily a sign of God's approving presence. Sometimes, and this time in particular, tongues-speaking can be a sign of God's judgment to those who refuse to believe (1 Cor. 14:22a). Tongues-speaking has no congregational value in and of itself, but only consists of unintelligible sounds (1 Cor. 14:6-12). Hence, edification requires understandable content, which tongues does not offer (1 Cor. 14:13-14).
Consequently, Paul appeals to the Torah and the Prophets. Strange languages were a sign of judgment upon the ancient Israelites. Even though God had promised them the land of Canaan as a place of rest, they would be injured, snared and captured by foreign invaders as a divine discipline for their covenant disobedience (Isa. 28:12-13). Hence, tongues-speaking, in itself, was not necessarily a sign of blessing. In the case of ancient Israel, it served as an indication of God's displeasure, a negative sign pointing to the unbelieving hearts of the people (1 Cor. 14:21-22a). Paul does not seem to intend that tongues-speaking is always a sing of divine displeasure, but he does wish to point out that tongues-speaking should not automatically be taken as a sign of God's approval.

Hence, If unbelievers attend a Christian worship service, tongues-speaking will not encourage them to confess their sins, but will prompt them to dismiss Christians as insane (1 Cor. 14:23). Only a clearly worded and understandable message would serve to bring an unbeliever to repentance and the knowledge that God was truly at work among Christians (1 Co. 14:24-25).

OK, that that slant out for size and see what you think!


  1. Dan:

    I am in complete agreement with your exegesis of Isaiah 28:11 – Yahweh raises up a new “prophetic voice” – that of the foreign invader – when Israel rejects his own voice by rejecting the prophets.

    But I am left a little queasy about your passing comment that “virtually all of the prophets were Deuteronomic in one sense or the other.” If by this you mean that there has been a deuteronomic editing of the various collections of prophetic oracles that shape their final canonical form, I am in total agreement. (This is especially true of the book of Jeremiah.)

    But if you mean that the majority of the prophets reiterated the very specific themes of the Deuteronomic school, I am not so sure. Clearly, the deuteronomic theology of the exile prevailed to become a cornerstone – along with the exodus and Sinai traditions – of Hebrew biblical thought. But in post-exilic Israel, the voice of priestly interests in distinction from, and sometimes in opposition to, the Deuteronomic school is clearly seen in the Psalter, the writings of the Chronicler, and probably most clearly in the final composition of the canonical Pentateuch – if we are to take seriously Rentdorf’s and E. Blum’s rejection of the Yahwist and Elohist documents. After the exile, there were prophetic voices of both priestly and deuteronomic casts. Even during the exile (and its immediate aftermath), I find it hard to classify Ezekiel or third Isaiah as “deuteronomic.”

    I guess even more importantly, isn’t it a bit anachronistic to read the 8th century prophets (especially Amos and Hosea) in light of the 7th century Deuteronomic school? Certainly, the long influence of Hosea and his disciples and the long arch of Hezekiah’s reform were major influences on the rise of the Deuteronomic school in the mid and late 600’s. But the specific themes of the Deuteronomic school and the “absoluteness” of their proclamation – the centralization of the cult, the elimination of all local cult expressions, and the condemnation of family cultic practices – all clearly reflect a post-Assyrian (or at least, declining Assyrian) period and the vacuum left by the collapse of the northern state.

    In clear fear of beating the dead horse here, if by “deuteronomic” you mean the broad themes of covenant obedience/retain the land and covenant disobedience/lose the land, then certainly all the prophets speak these themes. But if you mean the very specific practical agenda of action promoted first in the Josiah reform, the “theology of failure” that offered the widely accepted explanation for the exile, and the ongoing reediting of earlier traditions and texts around specific deuteronomic themes which leads to a very specific deuteronomic flavor to most of the canonical Hebrew scriptures, then I would be a little reticent to call all of the prophetic tradition “deuteronomic.”

    Of course, I said all of this to agree with you. Can you imagine what I would have done if I had disagreed?

  2. Joe,

    I had to chuckle at your final comment--that you said all this to agree, but what would you have done if you disagreed?

    Actually, I would imagine we are on the same page with respect to the differences between the Deuteronomic school and the priestly perspective. All I meant by my aside that "all the prophets were Deuteronomic in one sense or the other" was that some of the broad themes from Deuteronomy, which in fact can be found elsewhere in the Torah as well, show up in the prophets (i.e., the prophets did not speak out of a vacuum). It often is the case that popular approaches to the prophets see little more in them than predictions about the future with only a nod (and sometimes not even a nod) at the Torah. This was especially the case among the theologians of our upbringing, who could take a passage like Isaiah 28 and be totally unaware of any links to the Torah. They simply jerked the "stammering lips" passage out of its context and plugged it into their own predigested theological position. In the context of what I was talking about in my email, the covenant obedience/disobedience theme was important. I was not referring to the Josianic reform movement or other more specific aspects of Deuteronomistic theology.

  3. I am not much of a theologian these days--heck, I was NEVER much of one but I'm a heckuva lot less of one now.

    So rather than try and be pretentious with nuts-and-bolts exegesis of which I am not capable, let me just skim the surface with some concrete memories of what is, to me, an interesting subject.

    A note to you folks on the list who accept the validity of contemporary glossolalia: I'm not trying to be offensive. I hope the critical thinkers will examine this with the attitude that if something is indeed truth, it can stand up to close scrutiny and questioning.

    As per the "stammering lips" thingie--yes Dan, I have to agree that this is a case where we used to take a convenient verse and use it as a square peg proof-text to fit the round hole of our preconceived notions and theology. If someone was going "wuh-wuh-wuh-wuh" or some such throughout an hour of seeking, we'd tell them "Hey, you got stammering lips!" And of course, if they were that close, some of us would grab their chin and try to manually give them the "baptism" by giving them a good jaw-jacking shaking. I remember one altar worker in a revival in Burr Ferry, Louisiana telling a seeker to just "let your tongue mess all up!" Even as a young, fiery evangelist who drank the Koolaid at that time, that kinda repulsed me.

    We in "ole time pentecost" seemed to make "stammering lips" a badge of merit, a consolation prize, one step below the actual tongue-talking. I suppose that was natural since we preached a merit-based salvation from stem to stern. But it's interesting how we could make a whole theology and subculture out of a wild interpretation of one relatively obscure verse. Dan, it's not quite as bad as the guy who took the scripture about "let he who is on the houseTOP NOT come down" to preach on "Topknot Come Down" (preaching against women wearing their hair up)--but it's pretty darn close. And I know whereof I speak here. I evangelized eight-and-one-half-years in the UPC from Florida to Washington state--different cultures, different mindsets but basically the same screwed-up and skewed-up mindsets regarding tongues speaking as "salvation."

    And of course we were told in awestruck voices that all this was our "heritage" as if calling it that excuses the foolishness and absurdity. I'm reminded of "A Raisin in the Sun" when Beneatha's boyfriend replies to her going on about her wonderful African heritage: "Face it baby, your 'heritage' is nothing but straw huts and raggedy-ass grass skirts!" Now he was a little cynical. But I think I'm more realistic when I reply in the same context to those who go on about the wonderful "heritage of ole time pentecost."

  4. I think we also used convenient square-peg-round-hole theology when it came to actual tongues-speaking. Now another thing I noticed from preaching revivals in virtually every district and region of the UPC was that tongues-speaking pretty much sounded alike. It was usually some monosyllabic chant something like: "Ha-ta-bo-shon-da-bo-hiyah" or some such. Now I think God gave us enough common sense that we KNOW that is not some foreign language. I think it is as misguided as the woman at Topeka, Kansas who said God taught her "the language of Africa" so she could be a missionary there--as if Africa had one continental language. lol. Uh oh, I'm digressing again---but isn't it amazing that NOWHERE CLOSE in the birth records of 20th century pentecostalism do you find tongues-speaking looked at as essential for salvation. But that's another subject for another day.

    Now most modern day ole-time pentecostals just ignore any supposed anomalies in their tongues-speaking. Oh yes, we heard--and still hear--the apocryphal stories of someone who couldn't speak a word of English speaking perfect English or other known languages being spoken. But this was always anecdotal--happened to someone way overseas and never in the US. Of course the rationale was the US didn't have the "faith" that they did in the Philippines, etc.

    I have to admire Marvin Hicks because he was the only one to recognize the difficulties with this anomaly of tongues-speaking being mostly nonsensical gibberish and NOT the real languages which the Topeka Bible school students were seeking. Now Hicks was considered a scholar but even as a younger evangelist and debater, I recognized his "scholarship" was surface and superficial. But he did some bootstrap extrapolation which I must admit was a good rationale. He used the normally devotional verse of I Corinthians 13:1 to make a theological linchpin for oneness pentecostal tongues-speaking. "Though I speak with the tongues of men AND OF ANGELS" was exegeted to mean that there were "tongues of men" (English, Japanese, etc) AND "tongues of angels" (the gibberish that we couldn't pin down as a human language).

  5. That of course begs the next question--why in the world do the "tongues of angels" all sound alike?

    But hey, Marvin gave it the old college try here which is worlds more than most folks who simply ignored it or said "Well, David Bernard knows what's going on so that's enough for me."

    But step one: sloppy theology regarding "almost getting the Holy Ghost" i.e.--stammering lips AND sloppy theology regarding tongues-speaking itself--"tongues of men and of angels."

    When you consider this on top of the "because of the angels" nonsense about why women should have uncut hair--it's amazing the twisting and turning we gave to scripture.

    I will refrain from articulating my personal beliefs on modern day tongues-speaking but I WILL say that if one wants to be biblically straight on it--then he must accept that the only tongues-speaking recorded in the Bible is an earthly, definite language never learned by the speaker. No more, no less.

    Anyway, I've rambled enough. Do any of you heavyweights have thoughts on the "tongues of men and of angels" or anything else I've touched on?

  6. Tim, nice to have you "weigh in" on this august subject!

    Tongues of angels? That one's right up there with baptism for dead with respect to its obscurity. I'm inclined to agree with you that tongues-speaking in the New Testaments seems intended to refer to actual languages. Indeed, the earliest Pentecostals thought so, too, by all accounts. Grant Wacker in his book Heaven Below (Harvard University Press) offers several anecdotes about early Pentecostal missionaries who fully believed they could step off the boat and simply speak the native language. A. G. Garr, for instance, felt that God had called him and his wife to India, certain that the Holy Spirit would miraculously enable him to speak Bengali and Hindustani. The Azuza Street mission raised money to send them, and they arrived in Calcutta in 1907. After several tries to preach to nationals in "tongues"--and for the nationals Garr's sermons were totally unintelligible--he and his wife relocated to Hong Kong, where they buckled down to the serious task of learning language the old-fashioned way. It is probably fair to say that at the beginning, most of the early Pentecostals assumed tongues-speaking was in known languages of the world, and it was only after this theory was debunked by the hard edge of reality that the "tongues of angels" theology started up in earnest.

    The implications of this "tongues of angels" interpretation have sharpened with the more recent criticism that, in spite of numerous tape recordings of glossolalia, linguists to date have found none that can be identified as known human languages. Linguists who analyze tongues-speaking say that it is not a real human language, since it reveals no grammar or syntax, no means for distinguishing verb-like actions from noun-like entities, and no ability to specify singular versus plural agents and objects. Instead, while modern tongues-speaking seems to bear phonological characteristics of ordinary language, it lacks the structure, intricacy and nuance of ordinary language. Supporters of the "tongues of angels" theology, on the other hand, argue that "tongues of angels" would not approximate a human language in any case. Hence, the debate stands at an impasse with unfavorable empirical evidence, on the one hand, being pitted against the ivory tower of theological impassibility on the other.

    All that discussion aside, what the heck did Paul mean when he used the phrase "tongues of angels"? One possibility is linked to an ecstatic branch of Judaism sometimes called the merkovah cult (merkovah, incidentally, means "chariot" in Hebrew). Among the Jews, the merkovah sect claimed transcendental experiences in which they believed they were caught up into the fiery chariot of Elijah where they associated with angels and sang with them. You can find references to this cult if you have access to P. Alexander, "3 (Hebrew Apocalypse of) Enoch: A New Translation and Introduction," The Old Testament Pseudepigraph, ed., J. Charlesworth (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983), I.223ff. As such, Paul may have derived the idea of "angels' tongues" from this sect. Even if he did, however, he hardly recommended the practice. His argument is one of those "even if this were the case" arguments, i.e., even if I spoke in the tongues of angels, this fact would be worthless if I did not have love. Such an argument is not much different than saying (by way of analogy), "Even if I built a bridge across the Atlantic Ocean, it would not prove that I am a chemical engineer."

    Someone once said that the obscurities of the Bible are the king-pins in all cultic machines. One thing for certain: building a major block of theology on a phrase that is patently obscure is dangerous business and should be avoided.

  7. Hi Dan. Interesting slant. I'd tend to believe these days that the commonsense, historical-context interpretation is the way to go with these obscure and mysterious passages.

    I forgot to mention that another proof text of the "tongues of angels" position was I Corinthians 14: 2, "For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries." (KJV)

    The idea here is that since "no man understandeth him," the speaker cannot be speaking any earthly language that can be understood by men so it must be a "heavenly" language that was never spoken on earth.

    Once again, I have to credit Hicks and the others with a good ole college try here. This was back in the days when prominent UPC ministers still attempted to exegete this stuff scripturally--though no one except maybe Marvin Treece attempted to thoroughly tackle the uncut hair on women question.

    I've been out of the loop for almost 20 years now but it seems like stuff like this now is relegated to Osborn's exhortation at the Michigan conference: "don't analyze, just preach it" or, for example, these legalistic "holiness standards" are defended as "our heritage" and it is never good to let your heritage go. Of course, my heritage is Acadian farmers but I don't want to live in a thatched-roof cottage and plow with a scythe.

    But to actually step to the plate and scripturally defend this stuff? While the concession is certainly unarticulated, it is nonetheless real that in the 21st century UPC, no one seriously attempts to step up to the plate and use scriptural exegesis to try and make this stuff stand up.

  8. You guys are way too funny. Letterman pales in comparison. Joe to Dan: "Of course, I said all of this to agree with you. Can you imagine what I would have done if I had disagreed?"

    I'm late into the game here, but wanted to ask a couple of silly questions.

    1. Are these two references more or less one and the same practice?

    >>Joe on the Israelites: "the ongoing reediting of earlier traditions and texts around specific deuteronomic themes which leads to a very specific deuteronomic flavor ..."

    >>Dan on our Pentecostal forebears: "They simply jerked the "stammering lips" passage out of its context and plugged it into their own predigested theological position."

    If so, then perhaps my Pentecostal teachers were more closely following Biblical practice than I previously credited them.

    2. How do I reconcile the OT thinking Dan so eloquently captures with Jesus' teaching of "... for He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain an the just and on the unjust"???

    >> Dan: "Therefore, since the people could not (or would not) understand God's message, God now would speak to them more plainly in the savage language of the Assyrians (28:11)! The foreign tongue of invaders, in fact, was precisely what the Deuteronomic code had threatened (cf. Deut. 28:49). The very people who had been promised the land of Canaan as a resting place (cf. Deut. 12:9-10; cf. 25:19) had refused to listen to God. They had allowed his word to become nothing but gibberish (Deut. 28:12-13a). Consequently, their future was a judgment within history (Deut. 28:13b), and the tool of that judgment would be the Assyrian foreigners."

    This line of thought (Joe on OT: "covenant obedience/retain the land and covenant disobedience/lose the land") scares the hell into me ... along the lines of NT works/righteousness. I never have quite understood this.

    Thoughts, insights???

  9. So Joe and I are in the same class as that great theologian, David Letterman? We are flattered!

    Seriously, all these questions are interesting ones. The first one concerning the Deuteronomic shaping of such historical narratives as the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings) and some of the prophets, especially Jeremiah, is a rather more complicated than can conveniently be addressed in an email. However, I would suggest that this textual process in the composition of these areas of the Hebrew Bible, at least in my view, is very different than what was happening in the theology of the UPC. The Deuteronomic Historian(s) and the prophets were operating out of an ancient covenantal context, and whatever shaping they did to the traditions handed down to them followed a trajectory that was already present. The theologians in the UPC (and I use this term with some reserve), when they offered interpretations like their take on "stammering lips", were not working out of any sense of contextual exegesis. Rather, they were looking for brief phrases that suited their purposes, and whenever they found those phrases--context notwithstanding--they used them for their own ends. The problem with such a method is, as someone aptly put it, a text without a context is a pretext. Theirs was definitely a pretext. The Deuteronomic Historian(s) and the prophets, I would argue, were not doing that at all. They DID have a context, and that context was the covenant. What they said was consonant with the major trajectories already embedded in that covenant.

    As an aside, Joe, I don't know how you understand these things, so feel free to jump in and set me straight as you see fit.

    The second question concerns what I would loosely call "old covenant" versus "new covenant" tensions. The Mosaic covenant was definitely along the lines of retributive justice (i.e., you get what you deserve--blessing for obedience, and curses for disobedience). The new covenant, by contrast (and to use the words of Jeremiah), would NOT be like the old one (Je. 31:32). In the new covenant, justice would come in the form of forgiveness, not retribution. This tension between the old and the new forms one of the keystones of St. Paul's theology, for the question you asked is almost certainly the same kind of question that must have arisen for 1st century people who knew their Hebrew Bible but were confronted with the story of Jesus. The cross is the demarcation between the old and the new.

    If my standing with God depended upon a system of retributive justice, as was true for the old covenant, it would "scare the hell out of (or into) me" also. Indeed, it was just this understanding of the grace of God that led me out of the UPC, which, although probably well-intentioned, was strangled with a theology that did not understand the cross and defined grace as something we could produce for ourselves. In fact, the UPC Manual captured their redefinition of grace along lines that show an abysmal ignorance of most of the New Testament:

    A Christian, to keep saved, must walk with God and keep himself in the love of God (Jude 21) and in the grace of God. The word "grace" means "favor." When a person transgresses and sins against God, he loses his favor. If he continues to commit sin and does not repent, he will eventually be lost and cast into the lake of fire. (UPC Manual)

    Hence, it is my understanding that the "good news" is very, very good indeed! "What the law could not do"...Christ did!