Of all the versions available to us in English, it would seem that Beck's speaks more clearly in this chapter than do the others. Forms of the word for "prophesy" or "prophesy" appear 13 times in this section. Beck translates "speak God's Word" which brings out the meaning much better than to leave it at "prophecy" or "prophesy". In addition Beck translates the Greek word "glossa" with "language."
On the entire chapter Bruner says:
Edification becomes the theme of this chapter, verses 3,4,5,12,17,26. As the undivided Godhead is the source of the graces, chapter 12, and as love is their manner, chapter 13, so upbuilding is their goal, chapter 14. In Paul's thought the ultimate criterion for a gift of the Spirit is this: Does it upbuild the church?
The old Concordia Bible With Notes (1946) says:
It is plain from the present chapter that the Corinthians measured the worth of the several spiritual gifts not so much from their power to edify the church, as from their adaptedness to strike the beholders with wonder. For this reason they were ready to put the gift of speaking tongues above that of prophecy. This erroneous judgment the apostle now proceeds to correct.
Morris: Paul is at pains to make clear that the exercise of this gift (tongues) is legitimate. But at the same time he curbs the exaggerated respect the Corinthians paid to it. Throughout this passage he steadily insists that the gift of prophecy is much to be preferred to it. 'Tongues' should not be exercised in public unless there is an interpreter. Edification must be the prime consideration.
Kretzmann: The fruit of the speaker is found in the profit of the hearer.
Then the second analogy. People who cannot understand each others' languages are foreigners to each other. Likewise, the most important purpose in desiring spiritual gifts is "for the purpose of edifying the church."
Morris: Paul does not censure their desire, but takes it as the basis for urging them to see to excel to the edifying of the church. The great thing for the Christian is that he may be able to edify others.
Grosheide: Paul urges them to do increasingly what they were doing already. He has a higher regard for that which proceeds with regularity than for the sudden outbursts which could occur with glossolalia. The goal is always the edifying of the church. The church must understand what is spoken in tongues, otherwise there is no edification.
"Therefore" or "for this reason." For what reason? Because edification is the prime purpose of spiritual gifts.
Rienecker-Rogers: The one who spoke in tongues evidently knew when he was going to use the gift for he is to pray that he may interpret so that the whole church may be edified.
Morris: The man or woman who has the gift of 'tongues' should not rest content with the gift.
Grosheide: We should pray only that God may perfect His own work. It appears evident that usually he who spoke in tongues did not possess the gift of interpretation.
Evidently "pray" in this verse has a meaning different from that in verse 13. Here it denotes the actual activity of the spiritual gift.
Grosheide: Paul sets forth the abuses which arise when one speaks in a tongue without being able to interpret what he has said. That was the evil which actually prevailed at Corinth, as appears from the admonition of verse 13. Since the thing Paul is going to say is not agreeable to the Corinthians, Paul uses the first person singular. Verse 19 bears out that the apostle himself is not in the habit of doing that which he say about himself in this verse. 'Spirit' and 'understanding' look at man from two different angles. 'Spirit' denotes the acting subject in the center of his life. The one 'understanding' has contact with the other, but the one 'spirit' may not touch the other 'spirit' at all, if the 'understanding' does not cooperate. 'Spirit' views man as a personality, 'understanding' as a knowing and thinking being.
Bengel: The spirit is the power of the soul, when it sweetly suffers the Holy Spirit's operations; but the understanding is the power of the soul, when it goes abroad, and acts with our neighbor.
Lenski: My spirit is my own spirit, the immaterial part of my being, which is able to receive impressions from God. The 'knowledge' is the power to perform all mental operations, up to the including discursive thinking. My 'understanding' is inactive and thus 'barren' or 'unfruitful' producing no distinct thoughts and thus producing no reception of thoughts in others who hear my utterance, verse 2.
Do any of us really understand what this verse is saying? Very likely not. The meaning becomes a bit clearer in the next verse, but the psychology escapes us and we should admit that.
In verse 13 we had "speaking in a language." In verse 14 Paul added "praying in a language." Now he adds: "singing in a language." This gift exercised itself in three different ways.
Grosheide: The preceding verses make abundantly clear that Paul wishes to indicate that where there is no interpretation, glossolalia should not be used in the congregations.
Kretzmann: The wonderful utterances which were given to the apostle to articulate he wanted to make accessible also to his hearers, whether they were in the form of prayer of in that of chants.
The most difficult item in this verse is the meaning of the expression, literally, "the one who occupies the place of the private person."
Bengel: This expression is not a mere paraphrase of the word 'unlearned,' but comprehends all, who, however they excelled in gifts, did not at least understand the tongue in which one spoke any more than an unlearned man.
Beck renders it "ordinary person." RSV has "Anyone in the position of an outsider." NASB has "one who fills the place of the ungifted." TEV: "an ordinary man taking part in the meeting." Rienecker-Rogers: "a layman in contrast to an expert."
Morris: They would be 'inquirers', but who were interested. They had ceased to be simply outsiders, but were not yet Christians.
Grosheide: An unlearned man, i.e., the man who has no knowledge of a certain thing or question.
Beck reads the entire verse thus: "Otherwise, if you praise God only with your spirit, how can an ordinary person who is there say 'Amen' to your prayer of thanks? He doesn't know what you mean. (He could not express agreement and concurrence with the prayer by responding with 'Amen.')"
Lenski: As did the first person in verses 14-15, so now the second person in verses 16-17 merely exemplifies. As if Paul would say: 'Take me, for instance!' and then 'Take yourself, for instance!'In verse 16 we have another type of utterance, that of blessing and thanksgiving. Verses 13-17 give us the various ways in which this spiritual gift evidenced itself.
Paul is saying: "Your exercising your spiritual gift in thanksgiving is a good thing but the other man (already mentioned in verse 16) is not benefited."
Morris: Paul insists that there may be nothing at all wrong with the prayer, but unintelligibility results in there being no edification. And that, as he has been saying throughout this whole discussion, is the condemnation of 'tongues.'
Kretzmann: The speaker's praise may be beyond reproach, as a product of the Spirit it is bound to be excellent, but it is wasted so far as edification of the congregation is concerned.
The Nestle Greek text begins a subparagraph at this point. Paul is using "thank God" in the ordinary sense. In verse 17 it denoted the exercise of a spiritual gift. Beck translates: "I thank God I talk more in other languages than any of you." RSV: "I thank God that I speak in tongues more than you all." Paul is obviously speaking about speaking in the gift of languages which God granted to certain persons in the Apostolic age. But this verse can hardly be used to claim that these gifts were ecstatic speech.
Morris: It is not something that Paul regards with indifference. He thanks God for it.
Grosheide: Other considerations make us think that Paul did have a gift of interpretation, otherwise he could not have written about glossolalia as he does.
Lenski: While Paul greatly reduces the value of speaking with tongues, he by no means despises the gift. 'More than you all' refers to a higher degree of endowment by the Spirit.
"In the church" is placed prominently forward. Paul is speaking of a religious assembly. "To be understood" proves that Paul always interpreted immediately.
Bruner: We have no record of Paul's ever speaking to his church except with mind-words, that is, with considerable sense.
Lenski: 'Five words' are enough to construct one pithy sentence. "Ten thousand" is a word that means a countless number. It was the highest number known to Greek.
For the second time in this chapter Paul calls them brothers. See verse 6. Paul used the opportunity to tell the Corinthians that there is a sense in which they ought to be babies. In what sense? In respect to evil.
Morris: It is indeed the characteristic of the child to prefer the amusing to the useful, the brilliant to the solid. And this is what the Corinthians did by their marked taste for glossolalia.
Paul is saying: "Quit being a child. Do be an infant." The first is qualified by "in your thinking" and the second with "in respect to evil." Contextually Paul means the evil of the misuse of the pride over the gift of tongues.
Grosheide: The Corinthians behaved like children by placing a one sided emphasis on glossolalia and by speaking in tongues where there was no interpreter. Children usually look at the outside and boast to each other of things external. An adult Christian must not do that. He must not live in a childish naivete. If he wants to be childishly naive, let him be a babe in malice.
Lenski: With a quick turn of thought, suggested by the idea of being children in a certain respect, Paul is reminded of a field in which it would be creditable to the Corinthians to be children, year babes: 'on the contrary, in baseness be babes.' A babe can do nothing at all. It is 'baby-like' to use a gift (here that of tongues) so that it does not serve its true purpose. To use it with a display of vanity is childish; to ignore its purpose by disregarding edification is wrong.
Kretzmann: To plant childlike innocence and maturity of understanding in the heart together: that is the great problem of sanctification.
True. And that brings us to the final clause in verse 20. We are to determine the true value of anything from its use. Just because something is a gift of the Triune God does not mean that it can be used without discretion. Its use may become sinful, offensive and cause deterioration in a congregation rather than edification.
Hebrews 2:4 informs us that the Holy Spirit granted signs, portents and miracles to witness the preaching of the Gospel in the early church. The verse leaves one with the impression that these unusual gifts were limited to the Apostolic times. We are not saying that God cannot cause people to do such things today. But even if and when He does grant them, the overriding principle must be love for fellow-man. Furthermore, Matthew 7:21-23 is a stern warning to all of us.
Mat 7:21 'Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' 23 Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'