The Meaning of “Selah”
By Bob Burridge ©2010
When you read the book of Psalms you come across the term “selah” 71 times. Few who read the Bible have any meaningful idea about what that means. There are different views about the exact purpose of the word in the Psalms.
The first place you find it is in Psalm Three where it occurs in verses two, four, and eight. The word always stands alone at the end of a sentence. This makes us believe that it is a musical instruction rather than a word to be translated literally as part of the message of the Psalm.
The word “selah” appears to be related to the Hebrew word “salal” which is used in sentences where it means to lift up, or to exalt (for example Proverbs 4:8). If this word is a musical direction in the Psalms it probably means a lifting up of the voices or instruments either in pitch or in volume.
The ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) uses the word “diapsalma” to translate “selah”. This combines the word “psalm” (a song sung to musical accompaniment) with the prefix “dia” which is a preposition primarily meaning, “through”. Literally it simply means “through the Psalm”. This does not give us much help, and probably indicates that the Septuagint writers were not sure what to do with this expression.
Technical musical instructions are there for a purpose. Arrangers, composers, and lyricists try to use the elements of music to create an emotional setting for the words and message of the song. There must be some reason why this word is included in the inspired text of the Book of Psalms.
If this word is inserted in the Psalm where pitch or volume is increased, it must mark a moment where special attention is to be drawn to what has just been said or sung. Probably we are wise to pause for a moment when we come to the word selah, and focus on what we just read before moving on. We lift up our thoughts to the Lord in consideration of the point made in the words leading up to it.
When reading Psalms out loud to others at home or in worship many prefer to not say the word “selah”, but to pause a moment instead. When Psalms are set to music it is wise to highlight the music for the words leading up to this musical instruction by raising the pitch of the melody, or by increasing the intensity of the arrangement in some way.
In Psalm Three, David uses this word to mark an end to a special point he was making. In verse two he had just explained the trouble he was facing from his enemies who mocked him saying there was no help for him in God. Then in verse four he uses this word after he cried out to Jehovah and was heard by him. Finally in verse eight he concludes the Psalm attributing his salvation and blessing to God.
God’s word has a lot that impresses us. Every thought is amazing when we consider that it is God himself communicating to us. At times the Bible crystallizes a particular idea for us to consider. That appears to be the purpose of the word “selah” in the Psalms. When you come across that word, take a moment to consider the weight of what has just been said, and lift your thoughts to exalt our God as the sovereign, and gracious Redeemer of his people.