Sharp listeners in the congregation have no doubt noticed that since beginning this sermon series on the Psalms, along with my usual “thanks be to God” at the end of the message, I’ve added one other word: Selah. Though it’s not exactly a commonly used biblical term, I’ve always had a certain fondness for it and I’ve enjoyed having the opportunity to incorporate it into my own personal worship liturgy these past couple of Sundays. So in case you’re wondering, I can tell you that Selah is a Hebrew word, that it occurs over 70 times in 39 of the Psalms (also a few times in the in the Old Testament book of Habakkuk), usually at the end of a verse, and generally speaking, in those psalms where the word is used, it’s usually associated with matters of music and instrumentation in worship. I love the word, and I enjoy hearkening back to my seminary training by speaking it aloud (with the proper Hebrew emphasis on the last syllable, of course!). I just can’t tell you – with any exactitude, anyway – what Selah actually means!
Its meaning is, in fact, one of the ongoing controversies that still exist amongst Hebrew scholars and biblical commentators. While most agree that Selah might be a musical marker (and thus fitting for the musical nature of the Psalms themselves), some argue that this was the place where an instrumental interlude, preferably one with great intensity and meaning, was to take place, while others insist that Selah was meant to signal a significant pause amidst the singing of the hymn. In other words, Selah either meant to “lift up and exalt” on the one hand, or to “be silenced” on the other.
For his part, my Hebrew professor at Bangor Seminary, the late Dr. Stephen Szikszai, used to refer to Selah as “a word without translation,” carrying a meaning that we cannot even come close to approximate in English – but that didn’t stop him from literally letting the word burst forth with incredible gusto (and his rich Hungarian accent) as he read the Psalms to us in their original language. Thinking back, that actually was as good a translation as any, because in the end Selah is spoken in the language of the heart; it’s a truly spiritual response to the overwhelming power and love of God!
Consider Psalm 24: “Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory. Selah!” (vss. 9-10)
Or, Psalm 46: “’Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.’ The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah!” (vss. 10-11)
Or, Psalm 62: “Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us. Selah!” (vs. 8)
Within those verses, and so many others, there is found a profound expression of thanksgiving for a God that surpasses all our measurements of greatness and is beyond any human words of praise. In that regard, there’s one other potential, albeit obscure, translation of Selah that some Hebrew scholars put forth as a possibility: that it illustrates the moments in the Psalms when we ought to measure wisely or “weigh solemnly” what has been said, to prayerfully reflect and consider what God would convey to us in this portion of his Word as to the very meaning of our life and faith. That actually makes a great deal of sense to me, for it is in the weighing of God’s word that we discover that its power and truth are beyond our human understanding and expression; it is in the times of prayer and reflection that our hearts turn to God, and true praise, the kind of praise that envelops the whole of our lives, begins.
And when speaking or singing unto the Lord, what else will do but the language of the heart; what else can we really say in response to all this exceeding greatness except “Selah?”
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry