What Does Selah Mean and Why Should it Matter Today?

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(Originally posted at crosswalk.com)

Selah.

This beautiful, thoughtful, yet mysterious word appears in the Bible primarily in the book of Psalms. But what does it mean, and why is it there?

The question of what Selah means has been debated for centuries. Many have suggested that it means, “to pause, or to reflect”, and this explanation makes sense based on the context. However, the uncertainty of what it actually means or why it is there has led some modern Bible translations to take the word Selah completely out of the text and place it in the footnotes. So, if no one really knows what Selah means, and some translations footnote it, why does it matter to us today?

The short answer is that no one really knows. The long answer is that it matters very much for several reasons.

Selah Matters Because of Where it Is Found

The word Selah is a Hebrew word that occurs seventy-one times in the book of Psalms and three times in Habakkuk. The seventy-one appearances in Psalms happen within thirty-nine of the Psalms, as the word Selah is often repeated within the same Psalm. But why is it there?

Based on the context, it is generally accepted that Selah is a musical term of some sort, and is there to provide musical direction.

Thirty-one of the thirty-nine Psalms that include the word Selah are titled, “to the choirmaster.” The prophetic book of Habakkuk, like the Psalms, is a book of poetry, and the third chapter is a prayer in the form of a song. It is in this musical chapter that we find the word Selah. This certainly reinforces the idea that Selah is a kind of musical notation or expression, and that it was known and understood by musicians and even those who were just singing along.

The fact that Selah is often found at the end of a verse or chapter also supports the idea that it suggests a pause since it shows up in places where we would normally put a period or a new paragraph.

Psalm 3 contains the words Selah three times, at the end of sections of thought, and at the very end of the Psalm:

1 O LORD, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me;
2 many are saying of my soul, there is no salvation for him in God. Selah 
3 But you, O LORD, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head.
4 I cried aloud to the LORD, and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah
5 I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the LORD sustained me.
6 I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around.
7 Arise, O LORD! Save me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked.
Salvation belongs to the LORD; your blessing be on your people! Selah

Selah Matters Because it Is a Transliteration

Think about it: we have Bibles written in English because the overwhelming majority of the original Hebrew and Greek words can be translated into English. However, there are a handful of words in the Bible that are not, or cannot, be translated. When this happens, what we read is not a translation, but a transliteration.

translation is when a Hebrew word is translated into an English word that means the same thing. For example, the Hebrew word erets is translated to earth, because they have the same meaning, so we English speakers just read ‘earth’.

transliteration is when a Hebrew word is simply sounded out to English so we can read and pronounce it. An example is Hallelujah. Hallelujah is a transliteration of a Hebrew word that literally means, Praise God (Hallel=praise, Jah =God). Instead of being translated as “Praise God,” this word has been left for us to sound out as it would be in the original Hebrew and continues to be a powerful expression of praise.

Like Hallelujah, the fact that Selah is transliterated and not translated doesn’t diminish its importance. Instead, it signifies that when we read Selah, we are pronouncing the word generally the same way it would have been pronounced thousands of years ago by those who originally wrote and read it.

Selah Matters Simply Because it Is in the Bible

The Bible is truly the words of God given to us, and every one of those words matters, even the words we don’t fully understand and can’t properly translate. After all, we can’t understand all there is to know about God, so it stands to reason that there would be words in Scripture that are beyond our full comprehension. This doesn’t diminish words like Selah, but in some ways can make them a little more meaningful.

Another transliterated word in the Bible that we don’t fully understand is the word shigionoth and its singular form, shiggaion. Each of these words appears in the Bible only once. The important thing for us here is that these two words appear in chapters that are written as music and, you guessed it, also include the word Selah.

Shigionoth is found in Habakkuk 3:1, at the beginning of Habakkuk’s prayer/song which includes three uses of the word Selah, “A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, according to Shigionoth.”

Shiggaion is found in the title of Psalm 7, “A shiggaion of David, which he sang to the Lord”.

Like the word Selah, no one knows the exact meaning of these words, but many scholars feel that shigionoth and shiggaion are clearly related to music. Some believe that it has to do with strong emotion, and the lyrical content of the songs where it is used would certainly support this idea.

Selah Matters Because it Encourages Us to Pause and Reflect

Many commentators think that Selah meant ‘to pause’ or ‘to reflect’. This could have been a request for the reader or listener to pause and think about what has just been said, or it could have been a space for voices to pause and for instruments play alone. We don’t really know for certain.

Regardless, the word Selah itself indeed causes us to pause and consider what God may be saying even when we don’t fully understand. Selah gives us an opportunity to take a moment away from this crazy, busy, non-stop life we all tend to live and consider the immense mysteries and wonders of God. Paul speaks to this in Colossians 2:2-3My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Ultimately, Selah is a word that reminds us all to pause and reflect on Christ, in whom we find all treasure and knowledge. We can’t ever truly hope to understand all that God is, and all that Christ does for us daily. Knowing that . . . it is fitting that this beautiful word Selah should be, like our faith, just beyond our full understanding.

 

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2 thoughts on “What Does Selah Mean and Why Should it Matter Today?

  1. I read your post about the word Selah at crosswalk.com and since you are a musician, I thought you might enjoy this You Tube video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pg2tFM22PSI
    I’m sure you are already familiar with this band but I love sharing it with people. I don’t understand what they are saying, other than the subtitles, but love all songs that are from Jews praising Jesus. I’m still not any clearer on the meaning of Selah, but like it in the song.
    Regards,
    Lee Ford

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