light shining on Bible open to Psalms

Selah – A Biblical Mystery

 March 17, 2021

Who doesn’t love a mystery? I know I do. I enjoy pondering questions, seeking answers. The Biblical word, Selah, is one such mystery. What does it mean? And why is it in the Bible?

Selah in the Old Testament

Selah is found 74 times in the Bible, 71 times in the Psalms and three times in Habbakuk. It occurs once in Psalm 7, 20, 21, 44, 47, 48, 50, 54, 60, 61, 75, 81, 82, 83, 85 and 143, twice in Psalm 4, 9, 24, 39, 49, 52, 55, 57, 59, 62, 67, 76, 84, 87 and 88, three times in Psalm 3, 32, 46, 66, 68, 77 and 140, and four times in Psalm 89.

Translations of Selah

The word has no translation into English, though some versions of the Bible translate it as “forever” others as “a division.” Most transliterate the word from Hebrew, where you use the letter most closely corresponding to the original.

Some say the word comes from “s lah” which means to praise. Others “salal” – to lift up. And others “salah” – to pause. Each fits to a certain extent. Some interpret its meaning as “silence” or “pause,” as in a musical mark and interlude where you stop to take a breath. Others interpret it as “end,” or “a louder strain.” Another commentator makes the case that it is a call to clap your hands and praise God.

Yet others say it means “stop and listen,” alerting the reader to the importance of reflecting on what has just been said. But then, if that is the case, why are these verses set apart from other verses? Aren’t all Scripture verses worthy of reflection, since they are God’s word?

Perhaps the word encompasses all of these definitions.

Given that it is only found in the Psalms and in Habbakuk’s prayer (3:9-3:13) it makes sense to believe it has to deal with prayer, whether sung or spoken, private or communal. I like all of the suggestions. There are times when we are called to sit in silence and listen while in prayer, other times we are called to loudly praise our God with others.

A Lovely Non-Necessity

Some translations of the Bible eliminate the word entirely, saying it as unnecessary. I don’t know about you, but I have found that sometimes that which seems most unnecessary can be the most essential. They are gifts of gratuitous grace, like a beautiful sunset or an inspiring work of art. They are meant to be enjoyed.

It’s good to have a little mystery in our lives. Why does everything have to be neatly tied up with a bow? Selah reminds us of this. Whether sitting quietly in contemplation of God’s beauty in creation, or praying with others in the church, temple or synagogue. Selah.

 


This post is part of a series of blog posts on the Psalms. Sign up to follow this blog and and receive a free copy of  Still Dancing the second book in my Dancing through Life Series.      click here to sign up

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