Meaning of Selah

As requested and promised, here’s more on Selah. Please forgive the highly technical nature of this post. In the future I hope to flesh this out in more popular language and to suggest some implications for music and song in worship.

A term that occurs often—more than seventy times—in the Book of Psalms, and is particularly relevant to the matter of musical instruments in worship, is the Hebrew word Selah (סֶלָה). It must be acknowledged at the outset that there has been uncertainty about the meaning of this term among lexicographers and commentators. Koehler and Baumgartner call it “obscure” and Holladay calls it “unexplained.” A common thread in the suggestions and explanations offered, however, is that Selah is a “musical or liturgical marker,” in the words of James A. Swanson. Some have suggested that it means “pause,” as translated by the New Jerusalem Bible, or “Silence!” according to the eminent Hebrew scholar, William Gesenius. Old Testament commentator Franz Delitzsch believes that “in a psalm where סֶלָה is appended…the stringed instruments,…and the instruments generally, are to join in in such a way as to give intensity to that which is being sung.”

A closer look at the semantic root of this word supports Delitzsch’s assertion about Selah.  Brown, Driver, and Briggs suggest that the word is, in fact, a verb in the imperative mood, meaning “lift up” or “exalt,” from the Hebrew verb salal (סָלַל). Gesenius connects it to the verb salah (סָלָה), “to be quiet, to be silent,” and to the noun seleh (סֶלֶה), “rest, silence,” and designates its form as Milel. In this same entry, however, where he comments that this word has “been so much discussed and tortured by the conjectures and blunders of interpreters,” Gesenius argues that “it seems to have been used to mark a short pause in singing the words of the psalm, so that the singer would be silent, while the instrumental music continued.” In support of this interpretation, Gesenius mentions firstly, that the Septuagint always renders this Hebrew word diapsalma (διάψαλμα), which means “interlude”; secondly, that its usual position in the middle of the psalms where a section is finished implies that it was used to divide the respective psalms into strophes; and thirdly, that in Psalm 9:17 Higgāyōn Selah (הִגָּיוֹן סֶלָה) is used, “which should apparently be rendered ‘Instrumental music—pause,’ i.e. the instrumental music was to continue while the singer paused.” This explanation seems the most plausible, especially considering the fact that almost all the occurrences of this word are in the Psalms, many of which call for the use of musical instruments.

While the two most likely meanings of Selah, “Silence!” on the one hand and “Strike it up!” on the other, initially seem to contradict each other, the meaning of the related Hebrew words along with the locations and uses of this word in the Psalms strongly suggest that Selah designated an instrumental interlude (in the middle of a psalm) or crescendo (at the end of a psalm) during which the voices went momentarily silent and the musical instruments swelled to punctuate and intensify the words being sung.

One more thing. I have a bit of trouble remaining agnostic about the meaning of this word. To ignore or pass over it, as is often done, on the grounds of its apparent obscurity, is unsatisfactory. That’s why I’m not content, as I mentioned in an earlier post, with the exclusion of this term in the main text of NIV 2011, in which it is relegated to footnote status. I’m also not convinced that lexicographers and commentators should have the final word. Is the Holy Spirit not pleased when we wrestle with what he has revealed to us to reach well-considered, reasonable conclusions? These conclusions must always be open to revision and adjustment, of course, but I don’t believe that, unless we can arrive at absolute certainty and majority consensus, we may not draw such conclusions.

Thanks for bearing with me. More on the practical implications some other time.

Published in: on July 29, 2011 at 6:23 am  Comments (7)  
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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Theo, are you familiar with the theory that it indicates that the first line or phrase should be repeated? That recently came to my attention on another list.

    Best wishes,
    Doug Roorda
    Pella, Iowa

  2. Yes, I’ve heard this theory, Doug. Was this on BH list? Do you mind forwarding the details to me separately?

  3. Theo, you read Dutch, right? Have you ever read “Sela” in “Peper en Zout” by Ds. M.E. Voila? It will leave you with tears streaming.

  4. Where can I find this, George?

  5. Right here, Theo:

  6. Thanks, George. That is funny.

  7. I’m not entirely convinced by this explanation that the NIV2011 got it wrong. Since most translators believe this obscure word to be an ambiguous musical marker, then it makes sense to me to put it as a footnote in the written text. If you believe that it is meant as a pause, then shouldn’t it be translated as “Instrumental Break”, not “Selah”? And if that is the correct translation, then why is it needed in the written text?

    I’ve read elsewhere that “Selah, [celah], is from the primary Hebrew root word [calah] which literally means ‘to hang,’ and by implication to measure (weigh).” The point then is that it is not musical at all, rather “[j]ust as the Hebrew word Amen [amen] is an exclamation of confidence or truth and certainty of what has been said, so Selah [celah], is an exclamation that we should measure and reflect upon what has been said.”

    What do you think of this explanation (especially the Hebrew part)?

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