Selah: The Unknown Musical Word

SELAH: Verb (Strong’s 5542)

Root: סֶלָה

Sounds like: say-lah

There’s a new little human on this planet, born on July 9th, and her name is Selah Grace. In these days of uncertainty and fear, her birth has brought immeasurable joy to her parents, family and friends. Selah’s birth is a reminder that YHWH is gracious and loving and that, within humanity, there is beauty worth celebrating. In honour of Selah Grace I thought I’d tackle the puzzling Hebrew word, selah.

Selah Grace

There are a few Hebrew words in the Bible that have no translation, they are just place in the English text with a transliterated word. Selah fits into that category. What selah means is something of a mystery. There are a lot of theories, but nothing irrefutable.

Selah shows up in the Psalms of David, Korah, Asaph, Heman the Ezrahite, Ethan the Ezrahite, and two unidentified authors… so the practice appears to be wide-spread and not unique to the writing of a single individual. 

Selah appears to have something to do with musical notation. It quite possibly has a connection to the word salal (5549), which means to lift up or to build up. Every Psalm that has selah in it, starts (as most Psalms do) with some sort of instruction:

Psalm 47:1-8

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.

If selah means to build up the music, then in this instance it is perfectly situated before the phrase God has ascended with a shout. 

Can you imagine this as a song? The choir sings:

He chooses our inheritance for us, the glory of Jacob whom He loves.

Then there is a pause [selah], a chance to reflect on the words as the music builds up, ascends, and swells until the choir comes back in singing:

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

If selah is a build up in the music, then in Psalm 47 the music builds up to an ascending God… it’s a clever way to assimilate music and lyrics.

Selah & Musical Notation

Selah only shows up in two books of the Bible, the Psalms (71 times) and Habakkuk. In Habakkuk, selah appears three times, all in the third chapter, known as the Prayer of Habakkuk. 

Habakkuk 3

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.

His splendour covers the heavens, and the earth is full of His praise. His radiance is like the sunlight; He has rays flashing from His hand, and there is the hiding of His power. Before Him goes pestilence, and plague comes after Him.

He stood and surveyed the earth; He looked and startled the nations. Yes, the perpetual mountains were shattered, the ancient hills collapsed. His ways are everlasting. I saw the tents of Cushan under distress, the tent curtains of the land of Midian were trembling.

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

You cleaved the earth with rivers. The mountains saw You and quaked; the downpour of waters swept by. The deep uttered forth its voice, it lifted high its hands. Sun and moon stood in their places; they went away at the light of Your arrows, at the radiance of Your gleaming spear.

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.

You pierced with his own spears the head of his throngs. They stormed in to scatter us; their exultation was like those who devour the oppressed in secret. You trampled on the sea with Your horses, on the surge of many waters.

I heard and my inward parts trembled, at the sound my lips quivered. Decay enters my bones, and in my place I tremble. Because I must wait quietly for the day of distress, for the people to arise who will invade us.

Though the fig tree should not blossom and there be no fruit on the vines, though the yield of the olive should fail and the fields produce no food, though the flock should be cut off from the fold and there be no cattle in the stalls, yet I will exult in YHWH, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.

The Lord YHWH is my strength, and He has made my feet like hinds’ feet, and makes me walk on my high places.

For the choir director, on my stringed instruments.

Habakkuk’s prayer is a rich tapestry of emotions and it also lets us know that music is an integral part of scripture, even beyond the Psalms.

At the end of Habakkuk’s prayer there is musical instruction: For the choir director, on my stringed instruments. This is not typical. Most Psalms give musical instruction at the beginning only. In fact there may be only one Psalm that has musical instruction at the end (as well as the beginning).

Although some see the final line of Psalm 87 as part of the poem, it might also be musical instruction:

Psalm 87

A Psalm of the sons of Korah. A Song.

His foundation is in the holy mountains. YHWH loves the gates of Zion more than all the other dwelling places of Jacob. Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of God. Selah.

“I shall mention Rahab and Babylon among those who know Me; behold, Philistia and Tyre with Ethiopia: ‘This one was born there.’”

But of Zion it shall be said, “This one and that one were born in her”; and the Most High Himself will establish her. YHWH will count when He registers the peoples, “This one was born there.” Selah.

[Instruction?] Then those who sing as well as those who play the flutes shall say, “All my springs of joy are in you.”

If this last line is instruction, then at the end the instrumentalists stop playing and join the singers saying, “All my springs of joy are in you,” making it a unique and triumphal ending to a song.

At the beginning of Habakkuk’s prayer we are told that this prayer is according to Shigionoth. The only other place this occurs is in the 7th Psalm:

Psalm 7:1-6

A Shiggaion of David, which he sang to YHWH concerning Cush, a Benjamite.

O YHWH my God, in You I have taken refuge; save me from all those who pursue me, and deliver me, or he will tear my soul like a lion, dragging me away, while there is none to deliver.

O YHWH my God, if I have done this, if there is injustice in my hands, if I have rewarded evil to my friend, or have plundered him who without cause was my adversary, let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it; and let him trample my life down to the ground and lay my glory in the dust. Selah.

Arise, O YHWH, in Your anger; lift up Yourself against the rage of my adversaries, and arouse Yourself for me; You have appointed judgment.

Psalm 7 also supports the idea of selah being a build up in the music. After the the builds up, David uses words like arise, lift up, and arouse… words perfectly placed after a crescendo of sorts. 

Although no one is certain of what Shiggaion/Shigionoth means in Psalm 7 and Habakkuk 3, it is likely some sort of musical direction, much like the word Higgaion, found attached to selah in the 9th Psalm:

Psalm 9:16-20

For the choir director; on Muth-labben. A Psalm of David.

YHWH has made Himself known; He has executed judgment. In the work of his own hands the wicked is snared. Higgaion Selah.

The wicked will return to Sheol, even all the nations who forget God. For the needy will not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the afflicted perish forever.

Arise, O YHWH, do not let man prevail; let the nations be judged before You. Put them in fear, O YHWH; let the nations know that they are but men. Selah.

Higgaion likely comes from the root hagah (1897) meaning muttering, moaning, meditation. This is the only example of a word added directly to selah. This may help support the theory that selah is a musical shift or interlude between vocalizations… in this case, a meditative build up to the next verse. 

If selah is connected to the concept of lifting or building up the anticipation towards the next vocalization, then it should not be surprising to hear that it’s very rare for a psalm/prayer/song to end with the word selah. In fact it only happens three times, in Psalm 9 (which we just read), Psalm 24 (see below), and Psalm 46

The rarity of ending with selah also gives support to the idea that selah is a moment to pause and reflect on the words before crescendoing to the next section of the song.

Selah: Changing the Voice and the Tone

Selah, may also have been used to change the mood or direction of the song. In the case of Psalm 89, selah offers a break between voice changes:

Psalm 89:3-4, 34-39, 44-52 

A Maskil of Ethan the Ezrahite.

“I have made a covenant with My chosen; I have sworn to David My servant, I will establish your seed forever and build up your throne to all generations. Selah.

My covenant I will not violate, nor will I alter the utterance of My lips. Once I have sworn by My holiness; I will not lie to David. His descendants shall endure forever and his throne as the sun before Me. It shall be established forever like the moon, and the witness in the sky is faithful. Selah. [voice change]

But You have cast off and rejected, You have been full of wrath against Your anointed. You have spurned the covenant of Your servant; You have profaned his crown in the dust…

…You have made his splendour to cease and cast his throne to the ground. You have shortened the days of his youth; You have covered him with shame. Selah.

How long, O YHWH? Will You hide Yourself forever? Will Your wrath burn like fire? Remember what my span of life is; for what vanity You have created all the sons of men! What man can live and not see death? Can he deliver his soul from the power of Sheol? Selah.

Where are Your former lovingkindnesses, O Lord, which You swore to David in Your faithfulness? Remember, O Lord, the reproach of Your servants; how I bear in my bosom the reproach of all the many peoples, with which Your enemies have reproached, O YHWH, with which they have reproached the footsteps of Your anointed. Blessed be YHWH forever! Amen and Amen.

Psalm 89 (the only Psalm to have four selah’s within it) starts out in YHWH’s voice, My chosen”, “My servant”, “My covenant”, “My lips”, “My holiness”… but after the second selah, the voice changes… “But you have cast off and rejected… How long, O YHWH? Will You hide Yourself forever?”

Selah also works as a break that changes the tone of the poem:

Psalm 54:1-5

For the choir director; on stringed instruments. A Maskil of David, when the Ziphites came and said to Saul, “Is not David hiding himself among us?”

Save me, O God, by Your name, and vindicate me by Your power. Hear my prayer, O God; give ear to the words of my mouth. For strangers have risen against me and violent men have sought my life; they have not set God before them. Selah.

Behold, God is my helper; the Lord is the sustainer of my soul. He will recompense the evil to my foes; destroy them in Your faithfulness.

Selah, here, is a transition in tone of words. David cries out to God: “Save me, vindicate me, hear me”. After selah, David makes a statement of faith: God is his help, He will destroy David’s enemies; God will sustain his soul.

Notice that David begins the poem by outlining his troubles: strangers have risen against him and violent men, who do not have God in mind, have sought to end his life. For these things David asks for action from God. After selah, David shifts gear with positivity, and claims that God will take action. Even though these terrible things are happening, behold God will help and God will sustain.

In the instance of Psalm 44, selah also helps make a shift in the tone of the poem, in an opposing way to the 54th Psalm:

Psalm 44:6-14

For the choir director. A Maskil of the sons of Korah.

…For I will not trust in my bow, nor will my sword save me. But You [YHWH] have saved us from our adversaries, and You have put to shame those who hate us. In God we have boasted all day long, and we will give thanks to Your name forever. Selah.

Yet You have rejected us and brought us to dishonour, and do not go out with our armies. You cause us to turn back from the adversary; and those who hate us have taken spoil for themselves. You give us as sheep to be eaten and have scattered us among the nations. You sell Your people cheaply, and have not profited by their sale.

You make us a reproach to our neighbours, a scoffing and a derision to those around us. You make us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples.

This Psalm starts with a positive statement about how God has saved them from their enemies, but the mood changes after selah. However/but/yet, things are different now. God has saved them in the past, but now they are rejected, dishonoured, scoffed at, like sheep to be slaughtered.

Selah, mid-Sentence

Sometime selah appears awkwardly in mid-sentence:

Psalm 67:1-5

For the choir director; with stringed instruments. A Psalm. A Song.

God be gracious to us and bless us, and cause His face to shine upon usSelah —that Your way may be known on the earth, Your salvation [yeshuateka] among all nations.

Let the peoples praise You, O God; let all the peoples praise You. 

Let the nations be glad and sing for joy; for You will judge the peoples with uprightness and guide the nations on the earth. Selah.

Let the peoples praise You, O God; let all the peoples praise You.

If selah is meant to be a stop, take a pause, and reflect on what has been said/sung, then mid-sentence seems like an odd place for the word. However, “His face to shine upon us” points back to a very celebrated verse in the Torah… The Blessing of Aaron:

Numbers 6:24-26

“YHWH bless you, and keep you; YHWH make His face shine on you, and be gracious to you; YHWH lift up His countenance on you, and give you peace.”

The unnamed author of Psalm 67 may have been using selah to say, “Take a quick pause. Do you see what I’m pointing to? Can you hear the blessing of Aaron in this song?” And then the music builds up to the results of the blessing: there will be salvation for ALL nations.

Psalm 68, in which selah can be found three times, also uses the word mid-sentence:

Psalm 68:7-8, 19-20, 32-35

For the choir director. A Psalm of David. A Song.

O God, when You went forth before Your people, when You marched through the wilderness, Selah, the earth quaked; the heavens also dropped rain at the presence of God; Sinai itself quaked at the presence of God, the God of Israel…

Blessed be the Lord, who daily bears our burden, the God who is our salvation [yeshuatenu]. Selah. God is to us a God of deliverances; and to YHWH the Lord belong escapes from death…

…Sing to God, O kingdoms of the earth, sing praises to the Lord, Selah, to Him who rides upon the highest heavens, which are from ancient times; behold, He speaks forth with His voice, a mighty voice.

Ascribe strength to God; His majesty is over Israel and His strength is in the skies. O God, You are awesome from Your sanctuary. The God of Israel Himself gives strength and power to the people. Blessed be God!

Two of these are strange spots for selah to be in:

  • You marched through the wilderness,- selah -the earth quaked
  • Sing praises to the Lord,- selah -to Him who rides upon the highest heavens

If these two selah’s are meant to be musical breaks, they may have been short ones. A small musical interlude, building up to the earth quaked and to Him who rides upon the highest heavens would still be an effective addition to the musical narrative.

The middle selah in Psalm 68 is more typical: Blessed be… the God who is our salvation. Selah. God is to us a God of deliverances; and to YHWH the Lord belong escapes from death.

Psalm 68 reflects a common refrain in the Psalms: God saves, God redeems, God delivers us from death. A great many of the Psalms highlight YHWH’s plan to save us from the great human error that occurred in Eden… and they drop hints of His plan to bring us back home, with the help of His Anointed One.

Selah and Salvation

In Simon Peter’s sermon, near the beginning of Acts, he expresses that God is our redeemer, and that through the name of His Son (“Salvation”) we are free:

Acts 4:10-12

Peter: “…let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus the Messiah, the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by this name this man stands here before you in good health. He [Jesus] is the stone which was rejected by you, the builders, but which became the chief corner stone. And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.”

Yeshua, as the Messiah, fulfills His commission set out in the Torah, the Prophets, and the Psalms: redeem, save, and deliver the people from death. Although the Psalms consistently announce that God saves, God redeems, and God delivers, even from the burden of death, Heman the Ezrahite was not feeling so free when he wrote Psalm 88:

Psalm 88:6-14

A Song. A Psalm of the sons of Korah. For the choir director; according to Mahalath Leannoth. A Maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.

You have put me in the lowest pit, in dark places, in the depths. Your wrath has rested upon me, and You have afflicted me with all Your waves. Selah.

You have removed my acquaintances far from me; You have made me an object of loathing to them; I am shut up and cannot go out.

My eye has wasted away because of affliction; I have called upon You every day, O YHWH; I have spread out my hands to You. Will You perform wonders for the dead? Will the departed spirits rise and praise You? Selah.

Will Your lovingkindness be declared in the grave, Your faithfulness in Abaddon? Will Your wonders be made known in the darkness? And Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness? 

But I, O YHWH, have cried out to You for help, and in the morning my prayer comes before You. O YHWH, why do You reject my soul? Why do You hide Your face from me?

How many of us have felt like God has rejected us, and is hiding where we cannot find Him? Sometimes we feel terribly alone in this universe, and even when we cry out to God, it feels as if He’s hidden away, out of earshot. But truth be told, YHWH sees everything and hears everything. It’s us who have a hard time seeing Him… and that feeling goes all the way back to moment when humans were exiled out of the Garden of Eden.

Seeing YHWH’s face is a key element in the Biblical narrative. It is the focus the whole epic adventure of humanity. We fell in Eden, made a terrible mistake, and exiled ourselves out of the Garden, losing our ability to see YHWH face to face. But YHWH never wanted that to happen. He wanted to reconnect, personally, with His creation. And so He put a plan into action to reunite humanity with Himself, the God who made them and loved them.

YHWH’s Anointed (Messiah) would be the one to free them from the burden of death, and allow them to re-enter the Garden and see YHWH face to face. But to free us from the burden of death, He would have to die, Himself, and make the ultimate sacrifice to break the chains that bound us to the grave and to death.

Yeshua (Jesus) whose name literally means “Salvation” bought our freedom with His sacrifice. He took us from death and delivered us to life everlasting.

But Yeshua wasn’t just a quick fix to everlasting life. He wandered amongst humanity for 33 years, looking them in the face as He went. And He gravitated towards those who, generally, no one wanted to look at: lepers, prostitutes, the morally questionable (such as tax collectors), the lame, the blind, the foreigner, the orphaned, the widowed, the bleeding, and the poor. Yeshua came and looked into the faces of those in need of compassion. He looked at them, face to face, and He healed them and He blessed them.

Through Yeshua we are all anointed… daughters and sons of the Most High, with a ticket, bought and paid for, into the Kingdom of God.

Psalm 84:4-5, 8-12

For the choir director; on the Gittith. A Psalm of the sons of Korah.

How blessed are those who dwell in Your house! They are ever praising You. Selah. How blessed is the man whose strength is in You, in whose heart are the highways to Zion!

…O YHWH God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah.

Behold our shield, O God, and look upon the face of Your Anointed. For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand outside. I would rather stand at the threshold of the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.

For YHWH God is a sun and shield; YHWH gives grace and glory; no good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly. O YHWH of hosts, how blessed is the man who trusts in You!

Yeshua was like selah in the symphonic narrative of the Bible. He was like a pause in the epic tale, a moment of reflection, and a building up to the apex of the Biblical story. The music peaked the moment He was lifted up onto the cross.

Yeshua, Himself, predicted that He would be lifted up to save humanity:

John 12:31-36

Jesus: “Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.”  But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die.

The crowd then answered Him, “We have heard out of the Law that the Messiah is to remain forever; and how can You say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up’? Who is this Son of Man?

So Jesus said to them,For a little while longer the Light is among you. Walk while you have the Light, so that darkness will not overtake you; he who walks in the darkness does not know where he goes. While you have the Light, believe in the Light, so that you may become sons of Light.” These things Jesus spoke, and He went away and hid Himself from them.

Yeshua knew everything that was about to happen to Him… the music would swell and He would come crashing down:

John 19:16-22

So he [Pilate] then handed Him [Jesus] over to them to be crucified.

They took Jesus, therefore, and He went out, bearing His own cross, to the place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha. There they crucified Him, and with Him two other men, one on either side, and Jesus in between. Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It was written, “JESUS THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS.” 

Therefore many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, Latin and in Greek. So the chief priests of the Jews were saying to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews’; but that He said, ‘I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”

Yeshua’s was the Anointed King, from the line of David, who had come to save us. With His sacrificial death, the chains fell off and we were set free. It was the climax of the Symphony known as Human History, and it was the moment that would change that history forever.

Yeshua paid the entrance fee so that we could go back to Eden and face our Creator. He did all the gut-wrenching hard work, and all we have to do is choose to seek His face:

Psalm 24:6-10

A Psalm of David.

This is the generation of those who seek Him, who seek Your face—even Jacob. Selah.

Lift up your heads, O gates, and be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in! Who is the King of glory? YHWH strong and mighty, YHWH mighty in battle.

Lift up your heads, O gates, and lift them up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in! Who is this King of glory? YHWH of hosts, He is the King of glory. Selah.

This song is not over. Yeshua’s time on earth may have been the climax of the song, but there’s a whole other movement being played out as we wait for His return.

So, to Miss Selah Grace Hunt (and all who seek the Face of YHWH): You are part of the symphony of human history. May you take long pauses to contemplate, learn, understand, and grow in God’s wisdom. I pray that you build up your life so that you are always facing the Creator who made you and loves you, for you are favoured in His sight. Shalom, little Selah! Shalom, one and all!

Next week: Favour/Grace

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