Because much of 1 Corinthians focuses on correcting specific problems in the first-century Corinthian church, it is vital that we seek to identify these problems as specifically as possible. Sometimes this is difficult, as Paul does not always directly name the problem he addresses. Nevertheless, paying close attention to his line of argument helps us understand what was going on in Corinth. For instance, the amount of space in 1 Corinthians 14 that he devotes to extolling prophecy and pointing out the weaknesses of the gift of tongues in the corporate setting indicates that in corporate worship, the Corinthian Christians were unduly emphasizing tongues and using the gift improperly.
In verses 1–5, the Apostle said that the gift of tongues is inferior to prophecy in the corporate setting because tongues do not have the same capacity to build up the congregation in Christ that prophecy does. Verses 6–12 make it clear that Paul has uninterpreted tongues specifically in view, for the weakness of uninterpreted tongues in corporate worship has to do with their unintelligibility. He makes this point with the use of several analogies to musical instruments. One cannot distinguish a flute from a harp unless each has a distinct sound (v. 7). Unless a bugle can be heard and understood as a call announcing a battle, one cannot know that it is time to prepare to fight (v. 8). So it is with tongues—when speech is unintelligible, it is impossible to appreciate, let alone understand and apply, what is being spoken (v. 9).
The reason that tongues, at least when uninterpreted, cannot benefit a congregation is that not everyone understands the language being spoken. Paul notes that there are many languages in the world, each of which is intelligible—but only to those who speak it. If a person hears a language that he does not speak, he is a foreigner and unable to understand what is being said (vv. 10–11). The Apostle’s argument supports the definition of tongues or glossolalia as actual human languages, and it emphasizes the fact that understanding what is spoken is required for comprehension and edification. When tongues are used without interpretation, the only people in the congregation who benefit are those who know the language, which may very well be no one. Matthew Henry comments that speaking in unintelligible languages is “altogether unedifying and unprofitable.”