What is the original meaning of the Hebrew word “Selah”?

We are not exactly sure! But, most likely, the word “Selah” originally had multiple meanings depending on the context. The Hebrew word “Selah” is used over 70 times in the Old Testament (approximately 71 times in 39/150 Psalms of the Hebrew Bible and three times in Habakkuk) and is also used in early Jewish liturgical documents. The Hebrew word “Selah” is a relic of the days when Psalms were often sung in sections as a part of the liturgy of the Church. The initial insertion of the word into various Psalms dates from around the beginning of the 4th century BCE. Selah is most likely derived from the Hebrew word Salal, which means to lift up (a benediction or doxology), and most modern translators see it as a verb (qal, cohortative imperative). Most generally, “Selah” was originally a command to the reader! “Selah” signaled the place for the listener/reader to respond to the text in a particular way – based on the context.

“Selah” In a Bit More Context (Simple and Beautiful Nuance):

  • The majority of modern scholars regard Selah as a liturgical “note,” or “direction.” Within this broad category – some say it is a musical note, others say it is a summons to prayer, and others stress the fact that it indicates a stop, or an end to a particular section. Many scholars believe the word “Selah” indicates the place where the choir/congregation sang (or had the option to sing for particular liturgical purposes) the couplet “Give thanks unto the Lord for He is good, For His mercy endures forever.” So Selah as “direction” encouraged people to lift up of their voices in a doxology at the close of a liturgical section, and also indicated the proper division of a psalm or prayer in liturgical usage.
  • Additionally, the early Christian tradition seems to show that this “note” or “direction” was inherently musical. This makes sense in the presence of musical terms in the titles and text of many of the Selah psalms. In fact, the presence of “Selah” in a particular Psalm may have even affected the musical rendering of the Psalms themselves.
  • More generally, some have interpreted “Selah” as originally a sign for the instruments to “strike up,” or to come into prominence. Perhaps where Selah was placed a crescendo of some sorts would follow… This would correspond with the understanding of some scholars who say “Selah” is from the substantive “Sal” referring to the musical meaning of “loud” or “forte.” Complicating this even a bit more is a similar derivation which means “silent” or “pause.” Other scholars believe “Selah” simply means “prayer.” So most generally Selah was a signal to show that “this here is a proper place for the listener to respond.” And depending on the context – these responses could and probably did include variations such as loud music; soft music; the people responding in doxology or benediction; people singing loudly or quietly; a time of silence, etc.

The Translation of “Selah” Based on Different Traditions Include:

Jewish tradition often translates “Selah” into English as “forever.” It is in accordance

with this tradition that Selah has been translated at times by “forever” in the Authorised Jewish Prayer Book. This Palestinian tradition indicates Selah was where the “Blessing of God forever” or the benediction should come in, in connection with the recitation of the Psalms. In this tradition Selah most likely speaks to the place where people would specifically respond with their voices a particular formula of benediction or doxology, ending in “forever” or ” forever and ever.”

Similarly, another considerable body of literature associates “Selah” with the English words “always” or “everlasting.” Notable authors/texts include Aquila, Jerome, Targum le’alemin, Quinta, Theodotion, etc. These writers refer to a custom whereby the people sang a doxology at the ends of the paragraphs of the Psalms. These traditions and other modern scholars who follow their logic believe that when the word Selah appears, the choir would sing as a response the words equivalent to, “Give thanks unto the Lord, for/because his mercy endures forever.”

Hellenistic tradition stresses the musicality of the word. The Greek renditions (Septuagint, Symmachus and Theodotion) indicate Selah was a place for some kind of change especially in the musical rendering of the Psalm and also provided music interludes for the responses of the people. The Greek Septuagint text (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) varies from the Masoretic text in some places and actually includes more “Selahs” than does the Hebrew Bible. The Septuagint translates “Selah” with the Greek word “diaphalma” which is also a word scholars are not 100% sure of the original meaning. We have good reason to believe that the meaning of Selah seems to have been well known to the Greek translators and so some scholars have devoted some of their time to understand what “diaphalma” means. We know that the diaphalmon was an air played on the flute in the interval of a choral song. On the basis of this, most scholars believe “diaphalmos” seems to mark in the text an interlude of some kind in which something else was sung (or said, or played) other than the Psalm itself. This is in accordance with all that we know about the traditions and possible meanings of the word.

Why Name THIS baby “Selah”?:

First of all, both Kaylyn and I really like the Hebrew language – we think it is beautiful. So many Hebrew words are filled with meaning from Scripture… Thus the trend continues. As well, when Kaylyn and I were dating in college, I had prepared a devotional on a Psalm where I pointed out to Kaylyn that “Selah” was a place to stop, pause, or reflect on the Psalm. This has always stuck with her.

As well, unlike Navia, we noticed right away that this baby #2 was a wild one! Throughout Kaylyn’s pregnancy this baby has been a mover… constantly reorienting herself in the womb… It is as if she is already responding… Almost any time I put my hand on Kaylyn’s belly I could feel baby #2 kicking or moving… It was a constant crescendo which only increased our excitement for meeting her. We like how this is a partial reflection of the meaning of Selah itself. We also love the fact that there are liturgical aspects and connotations to this word. Both Kaylyn and I have spent the last year in a liturgical church and have been struck by its beauty and depth. Our recent experience of Anglican liturgy in worship services has opened up new avenues for us to worship God. So giving our daughter a liturgical name is at the least, timely, and also reflects an aspect of life that we had not prepared for, and we are surprised by the great joy it has brought to our lives. Just like our baby girls. Our prayer for Selah Kay is that she will be a woman who loves the Word of God, will meditate on it deeply, and will then respond appropriately.  As Psalms 1 declares, “Blessed is the person…whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law they meditate day and night.”

Selah’s middle name will be “Kay” after my mom who is known by her unassuming demeanor; her gentle spirit; her love for the Lord, and her relentless reliance on the Word of God!

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