Selah

Here’s the situation:  You’ve been asked to read Psalm 75 in a worship service and you’re doing fine until you get to verse three which is printed like this in your (ESV) Bible:

When the earth totters, and all its inhabitants,
it is I who keep steady its pillars.  Selah”

Oh no!  What do I do with that strange word Selah?  Do I say it aloud or skip over it?  And if I do say it, how do I pronounce it?  (And what does it even mean anyway?)  Well, be cool!  There is really no consensus on any of those questions, so pretty much anything you do is OK!

Actually, there is rather complete agreement on one fact: no one really knows for sure how this word got into the text or exactly what it is supposed to mean.  It’s a mystery with many theories.  In Hebrew the word is סֶלָה which is phonetically transliterated into English as selah.  (You’ll hear it pronounced as SEE-luh, SAY-la,  su-LAH, seh-lah, and everything in between.)  The mystery is that it’s not a known Hebrew word which makes some think it was borrowed from another ancient language or that it could be an acronym (the way AKA means ‘Also Known As’).  It also sort of looks like the Hebrew word for ‘rock’ (but it takes considerable imagination to see how that makes sense in most of its contexts).  As we said, it’s a puzzle.

One indication of the uncertainty is the diversity of ways Selah is handled in various Bible translations.  In the King James Version (KJV) it appears like the rest of the text, in the English Standard Version (ESV) it’s italicized (as above).   In the New International Version (NIV) it’s in a footnote, in the Good News Translation (GNT) it’s omitted entirely (as it also is in our hymnal when annotated for singing).  A very few Bibles will go ahead and try to translate the word, such as the Amplified Bible, Classic Edition (AMPC) which renders it as “Pause, and calmly think of that!” (Which is actually pretty good advice!)

A further indication of the obscurity of this word is that ancient Jewish translators of the Psalms into other languages don’t seem to know what it meant either.   For example, in the Septuagint, which is the 3rd century BC authorized Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, the word is rendered as diapsalma, which means ‘apart from Psalm’ (which says nothing helpful about its meaning).

The word appears from one to four times in 39 of the Psalms for 71 times in total (as well as three appearances in the third chapter of Habakkuk).  One clue to its origin is that every one of the Psalms in which it appears also has a superscription, which is the heading that appears before the first verse.  For example, Psalm 75 has the superscription:

“To the choirmaster: according to Do Not Destroy. A Psalm of Asaph. A Song.”

Though 116 of the 150 Psalms have superscriptions, the probability is only about 1 in 20,000 that all of the 39 Psalms with selah would also have a superscription if those were completely unrelated.  Since it’s generally assumed that the superscriptions were edited-in later (not the work of the Psalm’s original author) it seems likely that the selah annotations were too.

Psalms and Habakkuk are books of poems that were typically sung in worship, and since 72% of the superscriptions in the Psalms with selah mention the ‘choirmaster’ (like the above), it’s widely assumed that the word is intended as a musical direction: perhaps an emphatic crash of cymbals, an increase in volume, a pause, or an instrumental interlude.  (If selah is an acronym, one of the possibilities is “change the voice.”)

But there is also ancient tradition and practice of treating the word as a liturgical exclamation, much like we use Amen or Halleluiah.  In the Amidah (the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy that probably predates the birth of Christ) the final benediction includes the word selah, which is taken to mean ‘always’ or ‘forever.’  That was also the understanding of Jerome, the translator of the Latin Vulgate in the 4rd century AD.   Martin Luther called it: “… a punctuation mark of the Holy Spirit.  Whenever we find it in the Psalter, the Holy Spirit wants us to pause and ponder; there he wants to touch and enkindle our heart for particularly deep meditation.”  So, there is good precedent for both saying it aloud, not saying it, and/or pausing.  Our advice:  do what you feel best honors God and leads His people.

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