Grace Point Church Northwest is currently in the midst of our summer sermon series Psalms: Vintage Songs, Modern Message in which we are looking at eight selected Psalms.
Over the past couple of weeks, you may have noticed the word, selah in the text. Despite the lack of attention this word has received, in the past few sermons, this is truly an important word with extraordinary implications for our lives as followers of Jesus. Selah is a beautiful and thoughtful, yet mysterious word.
The meaning of selah has been debated for centuries. Many have suggested that it means stop, dwell, think, or consider. This explanation makes sense based on the context.
Selah matters simply because it’s in the Bible. It is a Hebrew word that occurs 71 times in 39 of the Psalms and three times in Habakkuk 3. Altogether, that’s 74 times. But why is it there?
Based on the context, it is generally accepted that it is a musical term of some sort, and is there to provide musical direction.
31 of the 39 psalms that include the word selah are titled, “to the choirmaster.” The prophetic book of Habakkuk, like the Psalms, is a book of poetry, and the third chapter is a prayer in the form of a song. It is in this musical chapter that we find the word selah. This certainly reinforces the idea that selah is a kind of musical notation or expression, and that it was known and understood by musicians and even those who were just singing along.
The fact that selah is often found at the end of a verse or chapter also supports the idea that it suggests a pause since it shows up in places where we would normally put a period or a new paragraph.
Psalm 3 contains the words selah three times, at the end of sections of thought, and at the very end of the Psalm:O
O LORD, how many are my foes!
Many are rising against me;
many are saying of my soul,
“There is no salvation for him in God.” Selah
But you, O LORD, are a shield about me,
my glory, and the lifter of my head.
I cried aloud to the LORD,
and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah
I lay down and slept;
I woke again, for the LORD sustained me.
I will not be afraid of many thousands of people
who have set themselves against me all around.
Arise, O LORD!
Save me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
you break the teeth of the wicked.
Salvation belongs to the LORD;
your blessing be on your people! Selah
You and I have Bibles written in English because the overwhelming majority of the original Hebrew and Greek words can be translated into English. However, there are a handful of words in the Bible that are not, or cannot, be translated. When this happens, what we read is not a translation, but a transliteration.
A translation is when a Hebrew word is translated into an English word that means the same thing. For example, the Hebrew word erets is translated to earth, because they have the same meaning, so we English speakers just read ‘earth’.
A transliteration is when a Hebrew word is simply sounded out to English so we can read and pronounce it. An example is Hallelujah. Hallelujah is a transliteration of a Hebrew word that literally means, Praise God (Hallel=praise, Jah =God). Instead of being translated as “Praise God,” this word has been left for us to sound out as it would be in the original Hebrew and continues to be a powerful expression of praise.
Like hallelujah, the fact that selah is transliterated and not translated signifies that when we read selah, we are pronouncing the word generally the same way it would have been pronounced thousands of years ago by those who originally wrote and read it.
Selah is important because it encourages and instructs us to pause and reflect. This could have been a request for the reader or listener to pause and think about what has just been said, or it could have been a space for voices to pause and for instruments play alone. We don’t really know for certain.
Regardless, the word selah itself indeed causes us to pause and consider what God may be saying even when we don’t fully understand. It gives us an opportunity to take a moment away from this crazy, busy, non-stop life we all tend to live and consider the immense mysteries and wonders of God. Paul speaks to this in Colossians 2:2-3
I want them to be encouraged and knit together by strong ties of love. I want them to have complete confidence that they understand God’s mysterious plan, which is Christ himself. In him lie hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (NLT)
Ultimately, selah is the text to remind us all to stop, to pause and to reflect on Christ, in whom we find all treasure and knowledge. We can’t ever truly hope to understand all that God is, and all that Christ does for us daily. Knowing that, it is fitting that this beautiful word selah should be, like our faith, just beyond our full understanding.
Take some time to stop this week and pause and reflect on the beautiful mysteries of Jesus and His saving grace and mercy.