The word Selah appears in two books of the Old Testament – Psalms and Habakkuk. It appears 71 times in the book of Psalms and 3 times in the book of Habakkuk making a total of 74 times in the Bible. Selah was not translated but was transliterated. To translate means to use a word that has a similar meaning in the second language. To transliterate means sounding the word to retain the original pronunciation of the word in the new language. Selah is one of the words that was transliterated as opposed to translated and part of the reason was Bible scholars were unable to agree on its meaning.
The word Selah has been used extensively in Psalms but it was not used by one author. We find in the Psalms of David, Asaph, Korah, Heman, and Ethan the Ezrahites, and two unknown authors. Prophet Habakkuk also used it. The extensive list of authors who used it reveals that Selah was a common terminology during Bible time.
The earliest Greek translation of the Old Testament (Septuagint LXX) translates teh word Selah as intermission. As such, we can infer the word selah means to pause (e.g. of vocals to allow for instrumental music to play) or to remain silent (in meditation of contemplation).
There are other possible meanings of Selah but all relate to the notion of pausing the vocal music. Let us look at some of the examples in the scripture below:
Selah means to build up
Selah might be linked to the Hebrew word salal (Strong’s 5549) which translates to “lift up” or “build up.” Almost all the Psalms that mention the word Selah start with an instruction which then builds up to something else. Psalms 47 gives a good example of this:
For the choir director. A Psalm of the sons of Korah.
O clap your hands, all peoples; shout to God with the voice of joy. For YHWH Most High is to be feared, a great King over all the earth. He subdues peoples under us and nations under our feet. He chooses our inheritance for us, the glory of Jacob whom He loves. Selah.
God has ascended with a shout, YHWH, with the sound of a trumpet. Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises. For God is the King of all the earth; sing praises with a skillful psalm. God reigns over the nations, God sits on His holy throne. (Psalm 47:1-8)
The transition between the first half (verses 1-4) and the last half of the chapter (verses 5-9) demonstrates the meaning of Selah. If we take selah to mean build-up music, then verse 5 which comes immediately after Selah intentionally uses the word “God has ascended.” This illustrates the building up of the music.
But even as the music builds up, the word Selah doesn’t lose the other meaning of pausing. The whole idea of the pause was a signal to the musicians to stop singing and allow the band to play the instruments. This gives a moment of silence (from vocals) to allow for contemplation. In the context of Psalms 41, the people are invited to reflect on the instruction give from verse one as teh music ascends and before the choir rejoins the instrumentals in singing.
Selah as an interlude
Selah is often used as a musical notion that could mean pause, silence, end, louder strain, etc. The word Selah is used three times in the book of Habakkuk and all appear in chapter three.
In Habakkuk, selah appears three times, all in the third chapter, known as the Prayer of Habakkuk.
A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, according to Shigionoth.
YHWH, I have heard the report about You and I fear. O YHWH, revive Your work in the midst of the years, in the midst of the years make it known; in wrath remember mercy. God comes from Teman, and the Holy One from Mount Paran. Selah. Habakkuk 3:1-3
Did YHWH rage against the rivers, or was Your anger against the rivers, or was Your wrath against the sea, that You rode on Your horses, on Your chariots of salvation? Your bow was made bare, the rods of chastisement were sworn. Selah. Habakkuk 3:9
In indignation You marched through the earth; in anger You trampled the nations. You went forth for the salvation of Your people, for the salvation of Your anointed. You struck the head of the house of the evil to lay him open from thigh to neck. Selah. Habakkuk 3:13
For the choir director, on my stringed instruments.
Unlike the Pslams, this is more of a prayer than a song. However, the way directions at the end of the chapter “for the director on my stringed instruments” indicate that it was more than just a prayer – it was also a song.
Whether you view it as a prayer or as a song, the interpretation of the word Selah will still hold true – it is used in this passage to illustrate a pause. It indicates a transition in music where people are invited to pause and reflect on the lines they have just sung.
For the most part, Selah is used at the end of a sentence or paragraph. However, there are some occasions where it is used mid-sentence. Here is an example:
May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine on us—Selah— so that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations. Psalms 67:1-2
The midsentence Selah may appear to make no sense as it is meant to denote a moment of pausing and reflecting. But how can one pause to consider a thought that hasn’t been fully developed (because the sentence is incomplete)? A closer look at the words before it reveal the answer – the first phrase before Selah is a reference to the blessing of Aaron recorded in Numbers.
“The Lord bless you, and keep you; The Lord make His face shine on you, and be gracious to you; The Lord lift up His countenance on you, and give you peace.” Numbers 6:24-26
With this in mind, the Selah in Psalms 67:2 is meant to draw the reader’s attention to the first mention of the priestly blessing. Unlike the other Selahs where you are called to reflect on the verses before, a midsentence selah calls you to reflect on the context (e.g. the quoted scripture)
So, in summary, Selah is a musical term that is meant to draw your attention to a certain truth in the verses just read (or sang) before moving ahead to the next sections. The musical arrangement was such that the moment of Selah was also where music would build up in a crescendo.