What does Paul mean in Ephesians 5:19 when he writes of “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (NASB)? If that is one of the ways that Christians are to keep on walking under the influence of the Spirit (Eph. 5:18), does it mean that we are to go around serenading each other with Great Is Thy Faithfulness or quoting Psalm 119 in every conversation? Regardless of how you might distinguish between psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, what in the world does it mean to speak to one another in this way?
The New American Standard version has a footnote on the words “one another,” which says “Or yourselves“. And when I looked it up, the Greek word is not the usual one that is translated “one another,” but is a different word that is translated in either singular or plural as “himself” or “oneself” or “yourselves” or “themselves” (among others). On the surface that doesn’t seem like a huge difference from “one another,” but as I thought about it, it could actually be very different.
The implied subject in that paragraph of Ephesians 5 is a plural “you.” Paul is writing to the Christians in Ephesus, not just to an individual. So if he’s saying to a group of believers, “Speak to yourselves…” it could be understood in two different ways. It could be understood as speaking to one another (You speak to me and I speak to you). But it could also be understood as each of us speaking to ourselves (You speak to yourself and I speak to myself). And that would be a very different understanding.
Certainly we know from other Scriptures that we are to “encourage one another” (I Thes. 5:11) and “speak truth to one another” (Eph. 4:25), so speaking to one another in psalms and hymns could definitely be another way in which we show that kind of love to one another. But is it possible that Paul is also saying here that we need to speak those things to our own hearts?
Perhaps what this verse is telling us is that we are to do like the psalmist himself does–remind our own heart of what is true. Do I ever say to my own soul “Why are you cast down, O my soul? Hope in God…” (Ps. 42 & 43) or “Bless the Lord, O my soul” (Ps. 103 & 104) or “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence…” (Ps. 62)? My heart needs those reminders, and maybe those are some of the very psalms that Paul had in mind that we are to speak to our hearts.
So rather than thinking of this verse as a call to sing all our conversations with one another–as if in a musical–maybe we need to see it as an invitation to speak to our own hearts the truths that we so easily forget. And because we forget so easily, the words of songs and psalms help those truths stick a little better. So in the words of Kari Jobe (in a “spiritual song” called Love Came Down):
If the storms of life they come
And the road ahead gets steep
I will lift these hands in faith
I will believeI’ll remind myself
Of all that you’ve done
And the life I have
Because of your sonLove came down and rescued me
Love came down and set me free
I am yours
Lord I’m forever yours
Mountains high or valley low
I sing out and remind my soul
I am yours
I am forever yours