Have you ever seen something so beautiful, so awe-inspiring, that it left you breathless? Today, Barry Cooper ponders the meaning and significance of the Hebrew word “selah.”
Have you ever seen something so beautiful it left you breathless?
We’re going to talk about the Hebrew word “Selah”. Thankfully, there is a short answer to “what does ‘Selah’ mean?” Unfortunately, it is this: “We don’t really know.”
But there are clues.
The word “selah” in our English Bibles is a transliteration of a Hebrew word. As we saw in the Simply Put episodes about “Hallelujah” and “Amen”, we sometimes use transliterations when there’s no equivalent word in the English language. Write down the sound of the Hebrew word סֶֽלָה [“selah”] using the closest equivalent letters we have in the English alphabet, and that’s how you end up with s.e.l.a.h. Selah.
The word appears no fewer than seventy-one times in thirty-nine of the Old Testament psalms. It also appears three times in Habbakuk chapter 3.
The book of Psalms, of course, is the Bible’s songbook - these are words which are intended to be set to music, and then sung or recited, which is why many scholars have speculated that “Selah” is some kind of musical notation or direction.
Some have argued that the word appears to mark a change or interruption of some kind in the singing or reciting of the psalms. And this, perhaps, is where we approach the most likely meaning of the word.
Look up “selah” in a Hebrew dictionary, and it’ll likely say the word means “to lift up or exalt”. So the speculation is that “Selah” is the moment when the musicians, singers, and assembled crowd would respond to what they’ve been singing with praise and exaltation. As it says in Psalm 66 verse 4:
“...All the earth worships you
and sings praises to you;
they sing praises to your name.” Selah
Which, surely, ought to be the inevitable outworking of all our reflection on who God is and what he has done: praise and exaltation. Are we really glimpsing God as He is, if it doesn’t produce in us wonder and praise? In the same way as when we look up at the stars we’re similarly filled with a sense of wonder and praise. It’s not a considered response, it’s instinctive: wonder, praise, exaltation. If there are any words at all, they’re likely to be something along the lines of, “Wow.”
Some study theology simply to get a degree, or to be published in theological journals. Some study it because if they don’t, they’ll have nothing to say to the congregation on Sunday. Some study it because they like the feeling of being very knowledgeable, and being the smartest person in the room on any given theological subject. But if those are the only reasons for studying theology, we’re doing it all wrong.
The study of God ought to lead us to wonder. If our contemplation of God leaves us talking as if we were a walking wikipedia entry, have we really learned anything about Him? If gazing over the lip of the Grand Canyon leaves us feeling stunned and breathless, how much more astonished ought we to be when we catch a glimpse of the triune God in Scripture?
Some commentators argue that the word “selah” comes from “salah”, meaning “to pause.” Was this a moment when people paused to take a breath, to wordlessly praise the God about whom they’d been singing?
In 1 Kings chapter 10, you can read about the time the Queen of Sheba came to visit King Solomon, one of Israel’s greatest kings. Now as you can imagine, being a Queen herself, the Queen of Sheba was very well acquainted with power and wealth and majesty. In fact, she arrived with a huge entourage of servants and officials, together with a train of camels laden with gold and precious stones. She’d be a very hard woman to impress. And yet, the text says that when the Queen saw King Solomon’s house, the lavish food, his immaculately dressed court officials, the burnt offerings he offered at the temple, and saw for herself the wisdom for which Solomon had become legendary, the text says “there was no more breath in her”. She was left literally breathless. How awe-inspiring must Solomon have been to leave royalty breathless?
And yet, when Jesus speaks of that moment, he says this: “The queen of Sheba… came… to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. ”
If Solomon left a Queen breathless, what kind of response ought we to have at beholding the King of Kings, Jesus Christ?
That, perhaps, is the meaning of “Selah”. A silence as the words fall away, and we’re astounded at the ineffable majesty in front of us.