Prior to the birth of Jesus Christ, angels spoke to Zechariah, to Joseph and to Mary. After his birth, angels spoke to shepherds, then to Joseph and Mary together, and then to Joseph again (four times).

Yet again, an angel spoke to Peter who released Peter from the prison. John the Apostle also received multiple communications from angels in the visions which form the Apocalypse.

Yet in none of these cases did any interpretation have to occur. Indeed, in almost all of these occasions, interpretation (by a human interpreter) was impossible, due to circumstances (dreaming, solitude, imprisonment, personal vision).

The particular occasion of note is the herald by angels to shepherds in the fields. An angel communicated a message and then the entire host of heaven gave utterance and eleven Greek words are reported :

δοξα εν υψιστοις θεω και επι γης ειρηνη εν ανθρωποις ευδοκια [Luke 2:14 TR],

which can be translated into eleven English words 'Glory in highest God-ward, and on earth peace, among humanity goodwill' (which requires but the hearer to add an 'Amen' to make twelve).

Yet, though many shepherds were present, none was required to interpret to the others.

On all these occasions there was no interpretation recorded.

The angelic communication was in language which the hearers were able to understand.

So it would appear that when angels have a message to utter, they speak in a language which the hearers can appreciate and understand without intervention or assistance.

Why, then, do some persons nowadays communicate in languages (apparently and reportedly) which do not exist anywhere on earth and thus the communication has to be 'interpreted' by another human person, by (one understands) a form of 'revelation' ?

What do those who support and participate in this activity have to say in answer to this question ?

  • 2
    @Lucian Yes indeed. I fully agree. Why do so ?
    – Nigel J
    Commented Aug 13, 2021 at 9:15
  • 2
    +1 A perplexing puzzle that is interestingly posed in search of authentic angelic knowledge.
    – Ken Graham
    Commented Aug 13, 2021 at 16:22
  • 2
    @NigelJ This article argues that what Paul meant by "tongues of angels" in 1 Cor 13:1 is hyperbole. The article agrees with you that angelic communication is always understandable without interpretation. Commented Aug 13, 2021 at 22:59
  • 2
    @AlanFuller Angels spoke to Zechariah, to Mary, to Peter. They communicated words. And those words were understood. In vision, angels spoke to John. They uttered words (in a vision) and John understood those words. There was no need of intervention or interpretation : the words communicated were understood. Likewise Joseph's dreams.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Aug 14, 2021 at 14:06
  • 2
    Sadly, I am unable to upvote this question more than +1,
    – Ken Graham
    Commented Aug 16, 2021 at 21:22

4 Answers 4


Short Answer

Among those who practice "speaking in tongues" they would have understood the activity as something other than angelic speech in heaven (no one has heard it) and also something other than angelic speech to humans on earth (intelligible).

Long Answer

Anthony C. Thiselton's NIGT Commentary on 1 Corinthians (2013) provides extensive discussion of possible meanings of the "various kinds of tongues" in 1 Cor 12:10 along with pros and cons of each meaning:

  • i. Tongues as Angelic Speech (emphasis mine)

    Ellis and Dautzenberg argue for this view, and Witherington and Barrett express sympathy with it. ... We may also add that the notion of angels' speech as being among that which passes away at the parousia (13:8) would be most curious. This is one of the least plausible proposals. Other reasons for the unintelligibility and transcendent, God-directed nature of tongues more readily suggest themselves, especially on the analogy of “sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26).

  • ii. Tongues as the Miraculous Power to Speak Other Languages

  • iii. Tongues as Liturgical, Archaic, or Rhythmic Phrases

  • iv. Tongues as “Ecstatic” Speech

  • v. Proposed Modification from Theissen: Conscious, Unconscious, and a Release (Cf. Rom 8:26)

    Gerd Theissen has produced one of the most incisive and innovative treatments of tongues available in any language in his major study Psychological Aspects of Pauline Theology. He argues that tongues are “the language of the unconscious which becomes capable of consciousness through interpretation.”282 In his chapter “Tradition Analysis” relevant to 1 Corinthians 12-14, however, he does defend certain specific ways tongues relate to ecstatic states. It is extremely disappointing that neither Forbes nor Turner sees fit to address this very important work with seriousness since Theissen also works firsthand not only with Euripides, Virgil, Plato, and Philo but also with apocalyptic and Paul as well as social psychology. Turner has pleaded for such skills.283 In Euripides, The Bacchae, e.g., “unconscious aggressive impulses develop in the ecstatic state and overcome deeply rooted moral inhibitions” which result in the death of Pentheus at the hands of his mother.284 Theissen discusses the classic work of E. R. Dodds on this subject. Similarly, in Plato, Phaedrus 265A, ecstasy entails “divine release from the customary habits,” while in Ion 533D-535A inspiration entails “being put out of one’s senses.”285 To be filled by God (enthusiasm) entails relinquishing one’s own thoughts to make room for God (Plato, Ion 534E). Philo takes up this “ecstatic filling” from Plato. “The light of God shines when human light sets” and thus “divine possession and madness fall upon us” (Philo, Quis Rerum Divinarum Heres 263-65).

    Although he notes Origen’s insistence that this view is not “Christian,” Theissen traces themes in 1 Corinthians 12-14 which allow him to see elements of both angelic tongues (Testament of Job 48:1-3; 49:2; and 50:2) and ecstatic utterance as aspects included in various species of tongues.286 Nevertheless, he agrees with those who regard this as no more than a starting point for further inquiry, in which radical differences between the three respective stances of Paul, Corinth, and the hellenistic world clearly emerge.

  • vi. Tongues as Language of the Unconscious Released in “Sighs Too Deep for Words” (from the Depths of the Heart)

    We have already established with detailed argument on 4:3-5 (above) that the secrets of the heart (4:5) and inarticulate groans associated with longings of heart or our inmost being (Rom 8:26, Gk. heart, and REB, inmost being) relate to Bultmann’s observation that often Paul uses heart for that which “need not penetrate into the field of consciousness at all, but may designate the hidden tendency of the self.”287 The specific work of the Holy Spirit in actualizing inarticulate yearnings directed toward God from the depths of the heart of the believer in Rom 8:26-27 forms a retrospective summary from Paul’s point of view of the phenomenon which occupies many verses in 1 Cor 12:10-14:40 but very few elsewhere in the NT. It is in no way anachronistic to associate Paul’s language about the heart or what transcends cognitive consciousness (the mind) with modern notions of the preconscious, subconscious, or unconscious. Paul simply used available terminology for depths of the human self which may now be described in the more developed language of modern psychology. The conclusions of Bultmann, Jewett, Stendahl, Theissen, and others establish this claim beyond all reasonable doubt. The one proviso is, once again, to heed our own warning that of various species of tongues, in principle some manifestations may fall outside this category.

    Stendahl also begins his essay on “Glossolalia” in the NT in the same place as that which is emphasized by a more “Pentecostalist” writer, F. D. Macchia. Both focus on a study of “unspeakable groanings” or “Sighs Too Deep for Words” and “he who searches the hearts ... the Spirit” in Rom 8:26 and 27.288 The “groaning” is a longing for the eschatological completion of redemption to take place, prompted by the Spirit through Christ to God, like all authentic Christian prayer. This befits the believer’s experience of weakness. ...

    It is striking to find Stendahl and Kasemann, who differ so radically on some fundamental issues in Paul, agreeing that “the gift of glossolalia is not a sign of spiritual accomplishment” which is “not suited for evangelism or for publicity. It can become divisive... ”292 It may be “wise to let glossolalia gush forth ... so that those who are not professional in the shaping of words are free to express freely their overwhelmed praise to the Lord.”293 On the other hand, “few human beings can live healthily with high-voltage religious experience over a long period of time.”294 Stendahl attempts not only to show the nature of the contrast between articulate and inarticulate expression, but also to show how this coheres with the theme of the body and limbs in 1 Cor 12:12-31. He writes, “Thus we need them” [Stendahl means that the literate and articulate need warmly committed charismatic enthusiasts] and they need us [enthusiasts need the literate and articulate for growth and development; Stendahl’s italics].” “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you ...’” (12:21; cf. 12:29-31). While we cannot be certain that this is the precise application of 12:21, in a broad sense the principle constitutes a coherent whole, in Stendahl’s account of the issues.

    Without doubt, however, Theissen’s treatment is the most detailed, incisive, and innovative, and sheds much light on the issues. He shows beyond doubt that Paul, glossolaliasts at Corinth, and inspired speech in the external Graeco-Roman world are all to be viewed and understood differently, but with points of overlap.

    (a) Paul and the Corinthians agree that tongues have “a personal value for the individual. One who speaks in tongues edifies oneself (1 Cor. 14:4).”295 “Feelings of happiness” or of release, intimacy with God, or other “positive inner consequences are then a motive for repetition of the behavior”296 But here Paul, unlike many at Corinth, feels unease. For the main need is the common good, and tongues, at least in public, can become divisive.

    (b) Tongues can become divisive for at least three reasons. ... ...

Thiselton argues for meaning vi :

Tongues may then be viewed as “the language of the unconscious” because it is unintelligible (unless it is “interpreted”) not only to others but also to the speaker.³⁰⁴ In 14:11 “foreign language” is unintelligible to the listener but intelligible to the speaker. But this represents “a logical jump.” Paul prepares to urge “the speaker, not the listener” (my italics) “to pray for the power to interpret,” i.e., to articulate what he or she utters, bringing it up from levels of unconscious depths to those of cognitive consciousness.³⁰⁵ This is precisely the understanding of 14:13 which I proposed in 1979, drawing both on exegesis and on lexicographical explorations of διερμηνεύειν in Philo and in Josephus.³⁰⁶ Paul does not say that the glossolalist does understand his or her utterances, but that he wishes that they would, and urges them to pray for this further gift.³⁰⁷ Usually the gift of tongues is given “to one,” and intelligible articulation of tongues-speech “to another” (12:10). But ideally “one and the same person can possess both gifts,” as 14:27-28 probably presupposes, and as I argued in my 1979 article.³⁰⁸ Theissen convincingly concludes that “glossolalia is language of the unconscious — language capable of consciousness.”³⁰⁹

Glossolalia, therefore, makes “unconscious depth dimensions of life accessible,” which may involve “reassumption of a more primitive level of speaking” to which many at times regress as “a return to egocentric use of language” and is likely to constitute “socially learned behavior.”³¹⁰ Theissen appeals to 14:4, 20 (cf. 13:11; 14:21). We must postpone further comments until our exegesis of 14:2-38. However, we shall see that it lends further plausibility, over against a publicly reinforced, learned behavior which becomes a socially public habit, to Paul’s triple strategy: first, to establish a hierarchy of gifts based on Christomorphic service to others and love for others; second, to “privatize” glossolalia in the home (as both Theissen and Wire stress); and, third, to encourage prayer for the gift of articulating buried longings, yearning, and emotions. Paul does not appear to endorse a view found in some modern churches that public tongues-speech is attractive and melodious; again, assumptions of a one-to-one match between ancient and modern phenomena remain speculative. Meanwhile, Paul see tongues as a genuine gift of the Spirit which can help the individual, but subject to the three factors outlined above. Rom 8:26-27 should be kept in mind.

On 1 Cor 13:1 where "tongues of angels" appear, Thiselton comments:


The dative is a straightforward instrumental use: to speak with human or angelic tongues. The distinction between human and angelic could either (i) reflect a difference of view at Corinth as to whether speaking in or with tongues signified inspired human utterances or a “language of heaven”; or ... ... Here in our view Paul begins with the notion of tongues as that which gives expression to the secret yearnings and praise of the depths of the human heart, and escalates to a hypothesis considered at Corinth but not necessarily endorsed by Paul, that tongues is the angelic language of heaven.

CONCLUSION: Those who practice "speaking in tongues" today would have understood "tongues of angels" in 1 Cor 13:1 as a completely different species, the kind that angels do in heaven (i.e. not when angels have a message for humans). Paul's use of it in 1 Cor 13:1 was to correct a misunderstanding by some in the Corinthian church who thought that what they were doing was angelic speech, when it was merely human (albeit its being a spiritual gift). Thus, there is no contradiction between instances of an angel delivering a message to human (no word-level interpretation needed) and instances of a human "speaking in tongues" (which DO need interpretation).

In cases like in Daniel 8:19-26 where Daniel still "did not understand it" (v. 27), the natural sense of the Bible narration of the story is that Daniel DID understand at word-level what the sentences mean, but because the message is symbolic & prophetic it requires further interpretation which God did NOT give to Daniel at the time, similar to how many prophecies given to Isaiah, Ezekiel and John remain opaque even to us, although we understand them at word level.

Whether the spiritual gift of the "interpretation of tongues" (1 Cor 12:10) enables us to understand these prophecies is beyond the scope of this question. Personally I don't think there is any Biblical basis to conflate speaking in tongues with uttering prophecies, as most Pentecostal theologies I read associate speaking in tongues with praising God or with groaning longings of the heart.

  • Appreciated. Thank you. Well researched. Up-voted and accepted.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Aug 17, 2021 at 6:05
  • 1
    @NigelJ Thanks. I learn a lot myself. Still reviewing a lot of literature connected with spiritual gifts so form my own position when talking with Pentecostals. Commented Aug 17, 2021 at 6:11
  • If angels delivering a message to a human doesn't need interpretation, then why couldn't Daniel understand the message at the end of Daniel 8? This was after Daniel had interpreted a similar dream in Daniel 2 and Gabriel had called for the vision to be explained. (8:16). I think it is better to interpret these things in context. Paul explains in verse 2 that he is talking about the gift of prophecy, understanding mysteries, and knowledge. All are less than charity (love). Angels don't need physical tongues and don't need to make audible sounds in heaven. Commented Aug 18, 2021 at 14:59
  • @AlanFuller I agree that angels don't need physical tongues and don't need to make audible sounds in heaven. But when the Bible records an angelic appearance (such as Luke 1:11-20), don't you think what the humans perceive is a phenomena indistinguishable from a physical (albeit glorious) manifestation of the angels that the human (Zechariah in this case) can "see" and "hear" with regular eyes and ears? So while the angels remain spirit, it's God who sent the angel & made Zechariah to perceive the angel speaking words in Aramaic. Isn't that the natural sense of what the Bible records? Commented Aug 18, 2021 at 16:18
  • @AlanFuller Similarly, when the angel appears to Daniel in the vision (vision as an event that God also caused to happen in a human perception), isn't it more natural to understand the Bible account as Daniel perceiving the angel speaking verbally in Daniel's own language (so Daniel understood at word-level), but whose message-level content requires further interpretation just like we need interpretation for the Book of Revelation? Commented Aug 18, 2021 at 16:26

γλώσσαις (glōssais) Noun - Dative Feminine Plural Strong's 1100: The tongue; by implication, a language.

A language is a structured system of communication used by humans, based on speech and gesture (spoken language), sign, or often writing. The structure of language is its grammar and the free components are its vocabulary. Many languages, including the most widely-spoken ones, have writing systems that enable sounds or signs to be recorded for later reactivation. Wikipedia on language

There isn’t any question that sometimes angels communicate messages to people in the Bible. Can the communications be considered language or “tongues?” Since prophecy is often presented in signs or symbols I think it can be considered a “tongue.” That would work for apocalyptic books like Revelation and Daniel.

Are angels always understood? Of course not. Several examples are given where angels spoke and were understood. Is this always the case? Daniel had a hard time understanding the angels.

Dan 8:19 And he said, Behold, I will make thee know what shall be in the last end of the indignation: for at the time appointed the end shall be.

Dan 8:27 And I Daniel fainted, and was sick certain days; afterward I rose up, and did the king's business; and I was astonished at the vision, but none understood it.

There are different opinions about Revelation and how it could be understood. I think Paul leads us to understand this conundrum.

1 Cor 13:1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

What does Paul mean by the tongues angels? I think he explains.

14:1 Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy. 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. 3 But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort. 4 He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church. 5 I would that ye all spake with tongues but rather that ye prophesied: for greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying.

The difference between an unknown tongue and a prophecy is that the prophecy is for understanding by the church. The unknown tongue should be interpreted.

1 Cor 14:27 If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret. 28 But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God. 29 Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge.

Instead of thinking of the angelic tongues as phonetics, think of it as the spiritual message of the angels. It seems a bit absurd to think angels need phonetic language. They are spiritual beings that can communicate in different ways. Note that when one prays in an unknown tongue it is the spirit that prays (1 Cor 14:14-15). The unknown tongue isn't determined by one's nationality. Neither is the interpretation. An unknown tongue is different than the earthly languages in Acts 2. It is a spiritual gift. This is what Paul is talking about in 1 Cor 13 & 14.

  • 1
    This is irrelevant. The words of angels were understood. They did not speak in a language that was not an earthly, human, extant language. You seem to be deliberately obfuscating by introducing the lack of understanding the meaning or the interpretation of the content of what was said. Down-voted -1 for not answering the question, sir.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Aug 14, 2021 at 1:50
  • Thank you. I respectfully disagree. I think Paul explains it very well and I have changed the answer to try and emphasize that. Commented Aug 14, 2021 at 13:41
  • Your edit has not altered the fundamentals of your approach and my down-vote is still relevant to the argument presented in the answer.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Aug 14, 2021 at 14:08
  • Thank you for your consideration. I'm not convinced. Commented Aug 14, 2021 at 14:10
  • Yes, agreed. We differ fundamentally on this, particular, subject.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Aug 14, 2021 at 14:12

Let's consider tongues as a cultural phenomenon. The reason people speak in tongues is because within their cultural context tongues is considered to be an expression of devotion to and love for God, and possibly a means of receiving revelation from God. And in some cultural contexts tongues is also considered a sign of salvation which makes it a powerful marker of belonging in that community. Religious communities, like all human communities, have a rich store of tradition, personal testimonies, and relationships that uphold the beliefs of the community.

Whether or not angels choose to speak in their heavenly language, assuming there is such a thing, when communicating with humanity does not directly impact the personal experiences of people in tongues speaking communities. You might say that angels never spoke in such a way, but a person who was prophesied over just last Wednesday night in tongues by a dear friend and received an interpretation they consider impactful is unlikely to care. Their personal experience of the phenomena is going to tend to overrule any merely rational argument.

Regarding the actual argument that an unintelligible language is unlikely to be a gift of God if even the angels do not speak it, I think the strongest counter argument is that in Corinthians Paul appears to say that a person can pray in the spirit while their mind is unfruitful. This would suggest that they are speaking a language that they do not themselves understand. While this may not be an angelic language, it is apparently a language that they don't know and therefore would require interpretation. There are likely other ways to interpret what Paul says here, but I don't think this is an unreasonable view.

1 Cor 14:13-17

For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 15 So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. 16 Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer,[d] say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying? 17 You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified.

  • 1
    I am not looking for matters of 'cultural phenomenon' or what is 'possibly a means' or what may be considered 'in some cultural contexts'. I am looking for what is agreeable to the rule of Christ over the church as made known through his chosen apostles.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Aug 14, 2021 at 2:37
  • The rule of Christ is to love God and love others. Paul himself said that if a brother refuses to eat meat because of his conscience, even though he could eat meat sacrificed to idols if he wanted, for the sake of love we should not eat meat sacrificed to idols around him. If a brother or sisters speaks in tongues and believes it is from God, how do we love them? I think that is the rule of Christ.
    – Zanarkand
    Commented Aug 14, 2021 at 11:15
  • That is, indeed, permitted - as long as there is an interpretation and only two, or at the most three, may do so. These are the rules laid down.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Aug 14, 2021 at 11:37

Presumably (although not specifically stated), the question is based on 1 Cor. 13:1 (KJV) "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal."

This verse (among others) is used by Pentcostals and Charismatics (including myself) to argue for the existence of "unknown tongues" in private prayer or for interpretation during a church service. (Else, why even bother questioning why the messages delivered by angels need no interpretation?)

Based on that presumption, therefore, I have the following to say: Angels are "...all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation" (Heb. 1:14, KJV). As such, they are God's messengers. The Greek word aggelos (angel) means "messenger." Since delivering messages and ministering to God's people is their stated job, it only makes sense that they would speak to us in a way that we can understand, else their mission would be a failure.

Suppose I am a multi-lingual college-educated adult. How would you recommend I communicate a message to a classroom full of pre-school-aged children who only speak English? I certainly would not harness the full breadth of my vocabulary or a foreign language. I would speak to them in terms they could easily understand.

In the same way, simply because angels deliver messages that need no interpretation, it would be illogical to assume that the language they use to communicate with humanity is their only available language. Earthly languages are limited in their ability to express spiritual realities. We can safely assume that angels, who are more powerful than we and who stand in the presence of Almighty God, have available to them languages that are beyond us that they use to express their praise and admiration for God.

Therefore, when I speak of the "tongues of angels," I am referring to those languages that are real and have meaning but are not understood by human ears unless someone interprets the message by revelation.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .