The untranslated Hebrew word “selah / סֶלָה” found 71 times in the Psalms, reminds us that the Psalms are poetry and were often accompanied by musical instruments.
This summer I am preaching from the Psalms. The Psalms are precious to Christians. They teach us to pray, how to lead our emotions, how to express ourselves to God. If you are looking for help understanding the Psalms, you cannot go wrong beginning with Derek Kidner’s wonderfully concise two volume commentary: Psalms 1-72 (Kidner Classic Commentaries). For a series of short devotions on the Psalms, Tim Keller’s recent, The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms, is wonderful.
I am preaching Psalm 3 tomorrow and that requires a short explanation of the term “selah.” “Selah” is used three times in Ps (vv 3, 5, and 9); in the Book of Psalms as a whole, it is used a total of seventy-one times and a further three times in the psalm of Habakkuk (Hab 3:3, 9, 13).
Craigie surveys the options for our understanding of “selah” in the Psalms:
- A pause or musical interlude or even “louder”
- It means “for ever” . . . The implication would be that a benediction or chorus was to be sung at this point in the psalm.
- Points at which the congregation prostrated itself
The final analysis is that we do not know for certain which option is best. However, it seems best to accept the traditional view that “selah” references a musical pause or rest. Craigie (Psalms 1-50, Volume 19: Second Edition (Word Biblical Commentary) writes:
With respect to the interpretation of psalms in which the word is used, it must be admitted that in the light of current knowledge no precise significance can be attributed . . . However, it may serve as a useful reminder to the modern reader of the Psalms that many psalms were initially sung with musical accompaniment. And in terms of probabilities, the tradition [of understanding “selah” to be a pause or musical interlude] should probably be considered as providing the most likely significance of the term. (Craigie, 76-77)
Kidner (36-37) agrees that the first option is the best.