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. [1 Corinthians 13:1 (KJV)]
1 Corinthians is actually Paul’s second letter to the young church at Corinth; the first letter does not remain. What we consider the first letter is actually Paul’s reply to the Corinthians’ response to his first one. While much of his letter is spent confronting the Corinthians about their sins and correcting their behavior, this rebuke to a troubled church has one of the most beautiful chapters in the Bible: 1 Corinthians 13. Paul, however, is actually writing about the Corinthians’ abuse of their spiritual gifts. By only associating this chapter with weddings and anniversaries, we may miss some of its original meaning.
The “tongues of men” probably refers to the Sanhedrin, the supreme judicial and administrative council of the Jews. Having jurisdiction over religious matters, the high priest acted as its president and its members consisted of the chief priests, scribes and elders. They were to be men of distinction and wisdom conversant in all seventy languages of mankind so interpreters weren’t needed in court. It’s likely that the tongues of men to which Paul referred were the supposedly wise and multilingual tongues of the Sanhedrin. Being ministering spirits, angels have no need for tongues. Nevertheless, there were times they took on flesh and appeared to man and, when acting as God’s messengers, they were inspiring and eloquent in their speech.
Personally, I like brass quartets and the sound of those tinkling cymbals worn on the fingers of Middle Eastern dancers, but those are not what Paul meant. Paul actually was referring to sounding (or echoing) brass which were large cast urns placed around the back of a theater. This primitive sound system served to amplify the actors’ voices and Corinth had a famed set of them. The “sounding brass” could no more create their own sound than could a Bose speaker; having no voice of their own, they only could reproduce sound. As for tinkling cymbals, the two kinds of cymbals used during Jewish worship were percussion instruments. Only played during interludes in the vocal music, they didn’t produce a light tinkle. One was more of a shaker with small cymbals attached to a handle that was shaken. The other cymbals were smaller and heavier than today’s orchestral ones. Rather than the pleasant ringing of wind chimes, they were said to penetrate “as far as Jericho.”
In their cultural context, Paul’s words make far more sense. Even if he could speak with great wisdom, in every language known to man and as magnificently and eloquently as an angel, if his words didn’t come from his heart, they would have no meaning. If he just thoughtlessly echoed words, his voice simply would be an irritating loud sound.
We worry so much about what to say and how to say it when an opportunity to share our faith arises that we usually fail to share God’s message at all. Paul’s words should reassure us that it’s not the words or eloquence that matter; it’s the love behind those words. If we love God and love people, then the words we speak will be filled with love. Without love, however, no matter how articulate, self-assured and knowledgeable we are, our message will be meaningless noise.