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Selah March 3, 2012

Posted by TJ Friend in Uncategorized.
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Introduction

I would like to dedicate this post to a great band – Selah. Their music is both uplifting and Christ-centered. In thinking about this group, I was wondering about their name. Why did they choose this specific Hebrew word. What were they trying to convey. I have also come across people who have given this name to their child. I have heard this word used by pastors and lay people all my life. It seems by popular consensus this word is easily defined and a somewhat normal part of everyday “Christian” vocabulary, somewhere along the lines of agape or ekklesia. It’s definition has been over-simplified and assumed as legitimate. As most Christians are unfamiliar with Greek / Hebrew it is easy to see how a popularized definition of a word can become the norm. I would say, for most people who have heard this word they would say it means to pause and reflect on what was just heard. When a pastor says something profound there is a “selah” moment afterward where people meditate on the depth of insight of what was spoken. Although I haven’t asked them, I would assume that the band Selah wants people to have this understanding of the word in mind when they listen to their music. The music then would prompt people to these “selah moments” where they reflect on Christ or whatever the song may be about. As for people who name their child Selah, I am not sure. Assuming they had this understanding of the word in mind, and not simply choosing the name based on how it sounds, they could be saying that the life of their child or their personality will be that of peace, rest and/or reflection.

Definition

From an academic standpoint “selah” is one of the most difficult Hebrew words to define. The way we understand and define words is by reading them in the context of the sentences they appear in. The same word can have different meanings depending on the surrounding context. The word selah however does not occur in any sentences or even phrases. It only occurs by itself in between lines of poetry. It primarily occurs in Psalms, although it also occurs outside of the Psalms (Habakkuk 3). Because this word has virtually no context there are many conjectures as to its meaning.

Here is a list of how some of the translations take the word:

KJV, NKJV, ASV, HCSB – Selah

NASB – Selah may mean: Pause, Crescendo or Musical interlude

Amp – Selah [pause and calmly think of that]

NLT – “Interlude” with footnote:Hebrew Selah. The meaning of this word is uncertain, though it is probably a musical or literary term

ESV – Selah with footnote: It may be a musical or liturgical direction

NIV, TNIV – The Hebrew has Selah (a word of uncertain meaning)

Net Bible –  It may be a musical direction of some kind.

Some of the translations don’t say anything about the word and let the reader figure it out. Most of the other translations give a footnote as to its possible meaning. The New Living Translation actually uses the word “interlude” in place of selah. Even from this short list the definition ranges dramatically. Comparing the NASB and Amp helps us see the diversity. NASB has “pause, crescendo, or musical interlude” while the Amp has “pause and calmly think of that”. Just in these two translations the word can be a calm and supposedly quiet reflection to a loud crescendo in the music. The other translations take the safe route and call it a musical or liturgical term of some sort.

Looking at the other scholarly views there are even more options for defining this word. Without getting into the details or pros and cons of each I will simply give a list of some of the options for this word:

As a sign to the people to prostrate themselves

As a sign for people to lift their hands

It could mean “always”

It could mean “amen” or “peace”

As a note to change the music (as in a crescendo)

As a marker of the breaks in the text

As a benediction (a place for people to recite a certain phrase):

“Blessed be God forever”

“for ever”

“for ever and ever”

“Give thanks to the Lord for He is good, His mercy endures forever”

The variety and number of possible definitions for this word shows its elusiveness to be defined specifically. There is a joke that because of its seemingly random usage, selah is the word used by David when he broke a string. At the very least we need to be cautious when advocating one of these definitions as the “right” one.

Final thoughts

A few final notes on this word.

It is used with Psalms with titles, especially David, Korah, Asaph, and Ethan.

It never occurs at the beginning of a Psalm, and is usually at the end of a stanza.

It could be related to the Hebrew word “salal” – to lift up (Prov 4:8).

The Greek translation of the Old Testament (Septuagint – LXX) translates selah with the word diapsalmos – an interlude in which something was sung or played. Also, the Septuagint uses diapsalmos in more psalms then the Hebrew uses selah. For instance diapsalmos occurs in Psalm 2 where there is no selah.

Even without a proper definition of selah, this word is still valuable. It is in the Bible for a reason. And even if we can’t be sure of what the writer was calling for, we can recognize that there was some sort of change or response called for at different times in these Psalms. For me, when I see the word selah, I take as a call to readjust my focus. In reading I can get caught up in the words or even distracted in my thoughts. These little “selahs” are a reminder to refocus on the God and the ultimate purpose of these Psalms – to worship Him. Whether meditating, raising hands, singing, playing an instrument or just being quiet, the focus should be upward. I see “selah” as a call to worship right in the middle of the text. I would like to think this is how those who name their kids Selah and the band Selah views themselves and their music – as a reminder to look upward and refocus on Christ.

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Comments»

1. Ed - May 29, 2013

I really enjoyed this post! I’ve always wondered about the word selah. You did a great job of unpacking a lot of info about it!


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