Troublesome Topic: “Selah” Deserves Special Consideration

The usage of selah is found in 39 psalms, mostly those of David. Its meaning or intent has long been disputed. The NIV Study Bible says, “suggestions as to its meaning abound, but honesty must confess ignorance.”

Having said that it is difficult to deduce its meaning and intent, I must press on a little further because there is more that can be learned about this term.

Those at say Selah almost invariably marks the end of a strophe.  (But this does not seem to fit well with all the uses – see Ps 32) Others seem to think it means “pause.” But that is refuted by the placement of Selah in the middle of a stanza in several psalms, e.g. 55, 61.

According to Strong’s Concordance, “Selah” is from a word which meant “to lift up, to build up, or extol.”

BDB says the same as above plus “to highly esteem.”

TWOT agrees that Selah is from a word meaning “to lift up, cast up, or exalt.” However, it then has a note indicating that the use of Selah in the psalms is unknown and there has been much conjecture about it.

Since the word means “lift it up,” its use could be one of the following:

1)  the writer of the song getting blessed and saying amen to his own words of praise – “lifting up his gratitude for the way these words of praise have blessed his heart.” (This fits well with many of the times it is used at the end of a verse.)

2) an encouragement to those singing it based on what was just said, similar to saying “come on” “that’s it.” It served like the encouragement of a cheerleader.

3) a signal based on what he is about to say, to sing the following section louder than the rest, like a crescendo sign. (This fits well with the instances in which what he just said is a question, or something negative -see Ps 3:2 – but what follows is worth emphasizing by singing it louder.)

In my mind all three of these are related to each other. Sometimes this is a signal that what is about to be sung is worthy of special note so, “come on, lift it up!” At other times the writer is including an “amen” to his own words to help get his singers blessed by what blessed him. This in turn should result in them singing a little louder.

Did Selah relate to what precedes it or what follows it? Did the writer place the Selah where he did because of what he had just written, or in preparation for what he was about to write? If my hunch is correct, it would sometimes come before and sometimes come after.

The Hebrew Scriptures are full of examples of this type of flexibility which gives modern, western translators fits because we don’t like communication to be fluid and open ended; we want things to be firm and rigid. We want to be able to nail things down and be clear from the outset, but they liked things loose, fluid, and open, which requires careful consideration of each time it is used.

I envision “selah” as instruction to the music leader granting him the flexibility to choose an expression that will be appropriate for the situation. He can be expressing his own sense of getting blessed, or he can direct everyone to shout an affirmation, such as Amen. In other cases it serves as a sign to sing the next part a little louder.

How well do the Psalms that use Selah fit the idea of “lift it up”? I have gone through all the psalms that use Selah and I believe all of them fit the idea of “lift it up.”

If you are interested, here is the list of all of them.

3 – (x3)  yes

4 (2)  – yes

7  – Yes – The first 5 verses are sung softly, the Selah at the end of v. 5 indicates that the choirs should increase the volume for what follows.

9 (2) – yes 

20 – yes

21 – yes

24 (2)  yes

32 (3) – Yes =  vv 1-2  normal volume,  vv 3-4 softly & mournfully, Selah at the end of v. 4 tells the choir to start building, so v. 5 is a bit louder. The Selah at the end of v. 5 tells the choir to build it a bit louder still, and the Selah at the end of 6 tells the choir that the entire last section of the song should be full volume. Vv 8-9 are the voice of God, and vv 10-11 are the summary statement.

39 (2)  –  yes

44 – yes

46 (x3)  – it fits pretty well (it ends with a Selah, which could be a shout of “amen” from leader and both choirs.)

47 – yes

48 – yes

49 (2)  – yes

50 – yes

52 – (2) yes

54 – yes, probably for what follows.

55 (x2) – pretty well.

57 – (2) – (once before and once after what is emphasized)

59 – (2)  yes

60 – yes

61-  Yes, it fits well as a leader’s interjection.

62  (x2)– yes they both fit

66 (3)  yes

67 (2)  yes

68 (3)  yes

75 – yes

76 (2)  – yes

77 (x3)  – yes all three

81 – yes

82 – yes

83 – yes

84 – (2)  yes

85 – yes

87 – (2)  yes Both following what blessed him.

88 (x2) yes

89 – (4) comes before, either place, before, either place.

140 – (3)  yes

143 – yes

The exact intent of the use of Selah is debatable, but it seems to have the meaning of “lift it up,” and its usage seems to be varied and flexible within the confines of “lift it up.”