Question Box: What does the word "Selah" mean?

Question or Topic Scripture
What does the word "Selah" mean and why is it used in so many verses in Psalms and Habbakuk? Is it supposed to be read aloud or left silent? Psa. 3: 2-3

Answer


The Word Selah

Strong's Dictionary gives the meaning under number H5542 as follows; "suspension (of music), that is pause: Selah." After further examination the writer thinks that the word has a meaning that has nothing to do with the music involved.

To begin with this consideration, I will give some explanations and comments from other dictionaries and commentaries to which I referred. First I will refer to Adam Clarke's Commentary of the Old Testament referring to Psa. 3: 2-3, which is the first occurrence of the word Selah.

Adam Clarke

"Much has been said on the meaning of this word; and we have nothing but conjecture to guide us. The Septuagint always translate it by Äéáøáëìá diapsalma, "a pause in the Psalm." The Chaldee sometimes translates it by ïéîìòì lealmin, "for ever." The rest of the versions leave it unnoticed. It either comes from ìñ sal, to raise or elevate, and may denote a particular elevation in the voices of the performers, which is very observable in the Jewish singing to the present day; or it may come from äìñ salah, to strew or spread out intimating that the subject to which the word is attached should be spreadout, meditated on, and attentively considered by the reader. (underlining and bold added by CTK for emphasis) Fenwick, Parkhurst, and Dodd, contend for this meaning; and think "it confirmed by Psalm 9:16, where the word higgaion is put before selah at the end of the verse." Now higgaion certainly signifies meditation, or a fit subject for meditation; and so shows selah to be really a nota bene, attend to or mind this."

Easton's Bible Dictionary

The next reference is to Easton's Bible Dictionary; "A word frequently found in the Book of Psalms, and also in Hab. 3:9, 13, about seventy-four times in all in Scripture. Its meaning is doubtful. Some interpret it as meaning "silence" or "pause;" others, "end," "a louder strain," "piano," etc. The LXX. render the word by daplasma i.e., a division."

Holman's Bible Dictionary

Holman's Bible Dictionary gives the following: ; SELAH (see' luh) Term of unknown meaning appearing in psalms, outside Psalms only in Habakkuk 3. Scholars have advanced various unproveable theories: a pause either for silence or musical interlude, a signal for the congregation to sing, recite, or fall prostrate on the ground, a cue for the cymbals to crash, a word to be shouted by the congregation, a sign to the choir to sing a higher pitch or louder. The earliest Jewish traditions thought it meant "for ever."

Vine's Expository

Vine's Expository Dictionary has the following comments; "It is probably connected with salal, to lift up, said of the instruments, to increase the voice to sound), while the voice is silent (or perhaps a call to the voice to sound), or (less probably), with shalah to rest, indicating either the pause of the voice in singing or that only instruments were heard, or a break in the psalm where there is a call to rest and reflect on the preceding words. In Psalms 9:16 it follows the higgaion, which means meditations, as in its use in Psalms 19:14. The word is never used at the beginning of a psalm, nor has it any grammatical connection with the context. Its usual position is either at the end of a strophe or at the end of a psalm. It often connects what precedes with what follows (sometimes by way of contrast, as if to stress both, as if saying, "This being so, give heed to what is now to be said." (bold and underlining added by CTK) Its connecting significance may be seen in linking one psalm with another, as in Psalms 3 and 4."

Bullinger's Companion Bible says Selah is a connecting word that connects what has just been said with what is spoken next. They refer to the connection between Psa. 3:2 to vs. 3. They then move on to vs. 4 with vs. 5, showing the close connection there.

The Amplified Bible has this phrase after each use of Selah, "Pause, and calmly think of that." This seems a very plausible use of the word.

One can see there is a lot of disagreement as to what various ones think is meant by the word and what is conveyed in the use of it. Some think it is merely a musical term to direct the instruments and singers.

Others think that there was more intended, that of directing attention to the contents of the psalm and this is what I feel is most likely. Why would God who knew that the Psalms would be read and not sung over many years of their use put a meaningless musical term into them. He knew they would be printed in a book to encourage the readers thereof over a long period of history and to teach them many of the basics of the Gospel. This being the case it seems more likely that He would put in a word to call special attention to certain thoughts expressed by the writers of the Psalms.

Examples of Usage

Let us now look at a few examples of how Selah is used.

Psa. 3: 2-3 will be the first one we look at. "Many there be which say of my soul, There is no help for him in God. Selah But thou, O LORD, art a shield for me; my glory, and the lifter up of mine head." We see the connection between the first statement and the second one and we also see the contrast of that spoken by David's enemies with the comfort God gave to David. What a comfort for any of the followers of God in the face of the doubts of those around them. What an incentive to put our trust in God in our times of trouble! Selah seems to emphasize this by calling special attention to it.

Psa. 3:4-5 Let us look at a similar use of the word Selah in verses 4-5 of the same Psalm, let us look. "I cried unto the LORD with my voice, and he heard me out of his holy hill. Selah 5I laid me down and slept; I awaked; for the LORD sustained me." This contrasts the dependence and faith in God by David when under duress with the result of his cry to God. As a result he was able to sleep and rest, thus was sustained by God in his time of trial. Again this is an inspirational illustration for anyone seeking comfort in reading the Psalm.

I want to refer to two more Psalms before we end this along with a passage from Habbakkuk . The word is used 71 times in the Psalms and 3 times in Habakkuk.

Psalm is 49:13-14 "This their way is their folly: yet their posterity approve their sayings Selah 14Like sheep they are laid in the grave; death shall feed on them; and the upright shall have dominion over them in the morning; and their beauty shall consume in the grave from their dwelling." This is spoken of unbelievers, happy in their ignorance and approved by their fellows but Selah connects this with the thoughts of the reality of their destiny to perish in the grave. Again it is a connection between two important statements of God's word and seems to draw special attention to the warning involved of the destiny of continued unbelief in God.

Psa. 85: 2-3 The next Psalm under consideration is "Thou hast forgiven the iniquity of thy people, thou hast covered all their sin. Selah 3Thou hast taken away all thy wrath: thou hast turned thyself from the fierceness of thine anger. Notice the connection between God's forgiveness in vs. 2 resulting in the removing of God's wrath and anger from the sinner. What a comfort to know that prayer can bring us forgiveness and favor with God rather than his anger and punishment. Selah again draws our attention to the contrast.

Now to

Habakkuk 3: 3 "God came from Teman, and the Holy One from mount Paran. Selah His glory covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise. Notice in this verse Selah comes in the middle of a verse but still connects two distinct parts. The first thought is that God came from Teman the second tells us what resulted from His coming. There is some reason to believe that this verse has a future application to Christ's second coming but how inspiring to know that no matter the time His coming will generate glory and praise to Him from the heaven and earth (the rulers and the people).

Conclusions

On the strength of what we have covered in this study I would say that Selah is not just a musical term to be left silent in our reading but a word we should read to draw our attention and contemplation of the words spoken before and after it. The word is used consistently in this manner throughout the Psalms and in the three usages in Habakkuk.

I hope that this study has clarified the use of Selah somewhat and will help us in our reading to draw attention to special thoughts that God wanted to understand. I do not know if I have solved the questions about Selah but it has quickened my interest in a word that I had always passed over lightly in my reading. Hopefully from now on we will examine more closely the surrounding words and look for special meaning.


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