What does the word “selah” (Hebrew: סלה) as found in the Psalms and the book of Habakkuk really mean? There have been numerous studies and articles on the meaning of “Selah”–and not a whole lot of agreement.
Selah is found in two books of the Bible, but is most prevalent in the Psalms, where it appears 71 times. It also appears three times in the third chapter of the prophet Habakkuk (3:3, 9,13) .
There is a great deal of confusion about the meaning of “selah,” primarily because the Hebrew root word from which it is translated is uncertain. As such, “selah” may be the most difficult word in the Hebrew Bible to translate concisely.
The Psalms were written as songs and accompanied by musical instruments and there are references to this in many chapters. Thirty-one of the thirty-nine psalms with the caption “To the choir-master” include “Selah” so the musical context of selah is said to be obvious. Many scholars believe that it was a direction for the musicians to repeat verses, play interludes, tune the instruments, and so on.
Some render “selah” from two Hebrew words: s_lah, to praise; and s_lal, to lift up, or even salah, to pause. From these words comes the belief that “selah” is a musical direction in the Psalms. This would encompass all the meanings—praise, lift up, and pause.
The Septuagint translates Selah into Greek as Äéáøáëìá diapsalma, which may mean interlude. And Strong’s Dictionary gives the meaning under number H5542 as; “suspension (of music), that is pause: Selah.”
However, where it is mentioned again in Habakkuk 3:13, we realize this passage was not written to be sung, though Habakkuk’s prayer could inspire the reader to praise God for His mercy, power, and grace.
Interestingly, Holman’s Bible Dictionary says many of the musical theories proposed by scholars (the 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) are unproveable.
A more plausible meaning?
Another plausible meaning translated “selah” is from the primary Hebrew root word [calah] which literally means “to hang” or “to measure or weigh in the balances.” An example of this word [calah] as it is literally translated ‘valued,’ is in the book of Job, indicating that which is measured.
- “It cannot be gotten for gold, neither shall silver be weighed for the price thereof.
- It cannot be valued with the gold of Ophir, with the precious onyx, or the sapphire.”
These verses use the same Hebrew word [calah], showing the context of “measuring against.” The translation ‘valued’ illustrates the measuring of something for an exchange. In this case, it shows us that wisdom cannot be measured against gold, as it is obviously is beyond monetary value.
In verse nineteen we see this very same illustration again. Referring to wisdom, Job says, “The topaz of Ethiopia shall not equal it, neither shall it be valued with pure gold.” Again, the word translated “valued” in this verse is the same Hebrew calah. Job repeats that wisdom is beyond comparing against even jewels, and when weighed in the balance against wisdom, the finest jewels cannot equal its value.
In the French book “The Music of the Bible Revealed,” by Suzanne Haik-Vantoura, we find the same explanation which seems to fit every use of the word in the Bible. The author, who is a Jewish music student, concludes that “selah” was part of the sung text and not an instruction to the players. While she does not define the word itself, her work does suggest that “selah” is similar to the word amen at the end of a prayer, an exclamation of confidence or and certainty of what has been said.
John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible agrees, stating that it is added “as a mark of attention, something of moment and importance being observed.” The purpose would be to emphasize the truth or seriousness of a passage, and that we should measure and reflect upon what has been said.
And the Adam Clark Commentary says it may come from äìñ salah, meaning 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. This may be confirmed by by Psalm 9:16, where the word “higgaion’ (signifying meditation), is put before selah at the end of the verse.” So it is a fit subject for meditation; and shows selah to be really a nota bene; attend to or mind this.”
Vine’s Expository offers another similar explanation: “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.”
From all facts presented, we can easily see there is a lot of disagreement as to what various experts think is meant by the word and what is conveyed in the use of it. Logically, God knew that the Psalms would be read and not sung over many years of their use, and that there would be confusion about a musical term put into them. He also knew they would be printed in a book to teach His people spiritual concepts of His word of truth in the end time. As such, it seems highly likely that He would put in a word to call special attention to exhort us to ‘weigh’ these things thoughtfully, and to reflect and consider in good sense judgment what is ‘really’ being said, whether we read or sing the psalms.