🔼The word Selah in the Bible
Selah occurs three times in the Shigionoth-based prayer of the prophet Habakkuk (Habakkuk 3), and seventy-one times in thirty-nine Psalms. It most commonly occurs per Psalm just once (namely in Psalm 7, 20, 21, 44, 47, 48, 50, 54, 60, 61, 75, 81, 82, 83, 85 and 143), or twice (in Psalm 4, 9, 24, 39, 49, 52, 55, 57, 59, 62, 67, 76, 84, 87 and 88) but it also occurs three times (Psalm 3, 32, 46, 66, 68, 77 and 140) and once it occurs four times (in Psalm 89). It occurs three times at the end of a Psalm (3, 24 and 46) and all Psalms that contain Selah, except 61 and 81, have titles that indicate the kind of Psalm.
It appears that the meaning and function of our word Selah have been missing in action since antiquity. The authors of the Septuagint translated this word with διαψαλμα (diapsalma), which means as much as through the psalm, or inter-psalmic. The Vulgate offers the even more enigmatic semper, which means always.
Some scholars have proposed that Selah may have been used to indicate a change in rhythm or theme, but the obvious lack of consistency makes this idea unlikely correct (themes change more often in Psalms than Selahs occur). Others maintain that Selah marked a moment of contemplation, which curiously suggests that the rest of the Psalter required no such regard. Others have forwarded elaborate theories based on grammar derived from Masoretic vowel symbols, but these symbols were added many centuries after the truth behind Selah was lost, and these theories can subsequently be dismissed.
🔼Etymology of the word Selah
Since it's not clear what Selah was supposed to indicate, it's also problematic to establish from which root it came. Our word is spelled the same as the verb סלה (sala), meaning to make light of, but is traditionally derived from the verb סלל (salal I), and assumed to be parallel with the use of this verb in Psalm 68:4, which speaks of lifting up a song to YHWH:
Judging from the meaning of the root, some scholars guess that the word Selah may have incited performers and audiences to throw their hands in the air, or somehow express exaltation, or even sing affrettando. Here at Abarim Publications we commonly try to avoid guessing, but since we're all at it, here's our best:
The word Selah occurs seventy-four times in the Old Testament, which strongly indicates that it represents a fairly common feature of Jewish worship, and particularly worship in the late Persian period. The use of this word was revived in the first century BC (says BDB Theological Dictionary), which makes it highly likely that the Jewish communities of the first century AD knew of it and probably used it, and that means we should expect to see it in the New Testament. An obvious candidate is the equally enigmatic practice of speaking in tongues, which nowadays is commonly interpreted to mean free associative babble, but which an overwhelming majority of early church fathers considered the kind of free vocalization that occurs when emotions rise beyond the reach of willful speech: YOOHOO!! WOW!! WAAHAAA!!!!!
Here at Abarim Publications we're guessing that Selah indicated an interlude of what is called a joyful noise (Psalm 66:1, 81:1, 95:1-2, 98:4-6, 100:1, Isaiah 16:10), which in the New Testament became known as speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14).