Nobody knows what “selah” means.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 June
SELAH si'lɑ, 'seɪ.lɔ, 'si.lɔ verb. Term occurring 71 times in Psalms and thrice in Habakkuk. Probably a musical direction, but meaning unknown.
2. [excl. in popular Christian culture] Amen; or some form of blessing, greeting, or praise.

There’s a friend of mine who loves to end her emails with “Selah.” Just for fun, I started ending my emails to her with “Callay”—a word from Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” apparently said in celebration, but like selah we don’t precisely know its meaning, ’cause Carroll was deliberately being silly.

Last month she finally asked about it: “What’s ‘callay’ mean?”

“Same as ‘selah,’ ” I replied.

She didn’t inquire further. I’m guessing she thinks she knows what selah means, so she just accepted my explanation. A lot of folks who use selah think they know its meaning. It means amen, right? It’s a declaration of support, agreement, truth, joy… something positive. It’s why they put it in all the reggae songs.

Well, it may mean something positive. We don’t know.

No, seriously. We don’t know. Whatever it means, we lost its definition before the bible was translated into Greek in the second century BC. The Septuagint translates it diá-psalma/“having to do with a psalm.” Yep. Even they didn’t know what it meant—and they knew ancient Hebrew.

Oh, there are theories. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon and Theological Wordbook of the OT (which is based on that lexicon, so don’t think of it as an independent authority) deduce it means “lift up” or “exalt.” They figure this based on the ways Jews and Christians have used it through history. The similar word salá means to make light, toss aside, or balance; so it could mean something we pick up.

But when we come across it in Psalms and Habakkuk, it’s just a musical instruction. Since it’s regularly found in psalms specifically written for a menache’ákh/“choirmaster,” Ps 4, 9, 20, 21, 39, 44, 46, 47, 49, 52, 54, 55, 57, 59-62, 66-68, 75-77, 81, 84, 85, 88, 140, Ha 3 it might be a vocal instruction.

But which instruction? For all we know, “selah” was the cue to blast the trumpets.

If it means “hang,” must we hold the note? If it means “weigh,” does that mean sing it louder, or lower? If it means “reject,” is this a stop, or a pause? If it means “value,” does this mean it’s an extra-important line—so therefore we’re to sing it louder, or more solemn, or with more instruments, or even that we’re to repeat it like a chorus? Or might it have an entirely different meaning, one we’re not aware of, like “chorus” or “refrain” or “forte” or “pause” or any of the other notes we include on sheet music?

You see the problem: We’re guessing.

Fortunately we’re not trying to duplicate the psalms’ musical performances. If we set the psalms to music, we write our own musical pieces, our own choral works; we stick our own pauses and choruses and fortes in there. Not knowing what selah means won’t affect us any. It’s not like the whole theology of a psalm can flip over, depending on how Christians translate selah. It’s a direction for the choirmaster. Not for us.

How popular culture interprets it.

But just because we don’t know what something means, it won’t stop us from still using it, playing with it, greeting people with it, blessing people with it—guessing what it means, and running with those guesses.

My friend obviously thinks selah is a form of farewell. I’ve seen other Christians use it to mean amen, hallelujah, and rejoice. I’ve also seen ’em use it to express frustration: “Well, selah” means much the same as “Oh well”—they can’t change the circumstances, so God grant ’em the serenity to accept it. Kurt Vonnegut used it that way in Slaughterhouse-Five, and various readers and authors have also adopted it that way.

In the New Living Translation it’s rendered “Interlude.” Ps 3.2 NLT The Amplified Bible goes with “Selah [pause, and calmly think of that]!” Ps 3.2 Amplified The Voice goes with “Pause.” Ps 3.2 Voice All of ’em are guesses. And hey, pausing to meditate on this stuff isn’t a bad idea. Most of us recognize the psalms are poetry to meditate upon, not just worship songs to shout from the walls of the temple. They reflect the mindset of God—or they reflect the mindset of psalmists who wanted to praise God, and either way they’re good to know.

The practice I find odd is Christians will name things for it. They’ll name their worship ministries Selah Worship, or the Selah Singers, or Selah Youth Choir. They’ll name their daughters Selah or Sela. Now, if the word does indeed mean “pause”… well, that’s just weird.