You can’t read through many of the psalms (three, to be exact) without encountering an odd little Hebrew term that might catch you off-guard: selah. Growing up in church, I was taught it meant to stop and ponder, but the Sunday School teacher was brief in her description and didn’t really appreciate my incessant questions.*
Curious, I recently pulled up some study software and did a bit of digging. I was surprised to find that nobody actually knows what it means. Nine different sources concocted different ways of stating, “We don’t know.” With thousands of years of study and research, this word has eluded us. Sure, we can guess. But it’s apparently a difficult concept to nail down. Here’s what the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary says:
Term of unknown meaning … Scholars have advanced various unprovable theories: a pause either for silence or musical interlude; a signal for the congregation to sing, recite, or fall prostrate on the ground; a cue for the cymbals to crash; a word to be shouted by the congregation; or a sign to the choir to sing a higher pitch or louder.
I’m not a religious scholar, but that’s quite the spread of interpretations. A pause for silence or a word to be shouted? A signal to fall prostrate or a cue for crashing cymbals? What in the world?
Despite my deep love of understanding things to their core, this is one of the aspects of the Christian life I enjoy most—the fact that no matter how much I read or study or take notes or meditate, I will never grasp everything there is to know about it all. There’s massive relief for me here.
The truth is, I need selah in my life: all of it. I need moments of paused silence and some intentional musical interludes. I need to worship with the people God moved me across the country to be with, whether singing, reciting, or falling face-down. I need a little celebratory crashing of loud happy. I need us to shout together in victory and praise. And I need signals to raise our voices higher, higher, higher, up through the roof and into the halls of heaven.
What if God has allowed selah to remain mysterious so it can look different in different seasons? What if this confusion is really a deep mercy? Maybe you’re in the middle of a pause for musical interlude, bathing your home in hymns that give voice to your soul. Or perhaps you’ve entered a space in your life where being facedown is the only posture that makes sense. Or the crashing of cymbals literally wakes you up as your two-year-old begins his morning banging on his new set from Christmas.
Can you taste the freedom here? The release from doing everything the “right” way?
Selah might lose something if you forced a different translation than what your season calls forth. When I’m drowning and desperate for a silent pause, clanging percussion sounds like death (and might result in it if it continues long enough). And goodness knows I don’t want to scream my lungs out if all I can do is recite truth in a whisper with a gospel friend.
I love the Bible. Great beauty exists between the table of contents and the maps in the back, and I can’t wrap my mind around all of the bits and pieces of glory. I’m not even called to. I can sing or make noise or find stillness and wait on the God who isn’t always clear. There’s a Spirit who loves it all, who moves to His own rhythm and sways us along with Him.
It’s the perfect mystery, and we can enjoy it if we’ll pause long enough to notice.
*Actually, my incessant questions gave every adult in the sweet church of my childhood adequate cause to literally run the other way. Which only a few of them did.