🔼The name Selah: Summary
- Take It Away, Y'All! All Together Now!
- From the verb סלל (salal), to cast or heap up.
🔼The word Selah in the Bible
The mysterious word Selah is an expletive of similar gist as the familiar words Amen and Hallelujah, with as main distinction that we don't really know what Selah means or what function it might have had.
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 heap up or toss together, apparently to compare the heap with a standard of some sort. But commonly our word is thought to derive from the verb סלל (salal), and assumed to be parallel with the use of this verb in Psalm 68:4, which speaks of "lifting up" a song to YHWH:
The verb סלל (salal) primarily means to cast or heap up, and is mostly used in relation to building highways. Highways, of course, come to pass when first a heap of individuals individually choose to take the same route, thus creating a natural path, after which a government of sorts piles rocks upon the path and tops it off with pavement.
In much the same way, collective handiness evolves into a natural or spontaneous cultural quality, and finally a formal technology from which even foreigners may benefit. Likewise the command to create a highway for the Lord in the desert has nothing to do with Jeeps and Land Rovers and everything with growing smarter as a natural people and finally bringing forth formal science (or language or technology). Likewise "lifting up the Lord" has nothing to do with howling inane homages toward the church ceiling, but rather with achieving responsible mastery of created nature.
Noun סללה (solela) describes a piled up mound or wall. Noun סלם (sullam) describes Jacob's ladder, which obviously wasn't actually a ladder but rather a reference to cognition. Nouns מסלה (mesilla) and מסלול (maslul) mean highway. The verb סלה (sela) is only used in the imperative form, and as a musical term that commands people not simply to rise up but to settle their verbal expressions into a harmonious whole.
Verb סלה (sala) also means to pile up but emphasizes the tossing and particularly the tossing aside of elements that won't fit a standard. This verb (or an identical other) is also used to describe the heaping up of gold bits in order to weigh them against a standard weight.
Noun סל (sal) probably derives from סלל (salal) and describes a kind of basket, obviously one used to pile stuff into. A most obvious discussion of this root and its methods and effects is found in the New Testament, as the various accounts of the miraculous "feeding of the multitude."
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). But the key feature remains the achievement of a kind of mass-harmony. It seems to us that those Jewish communities enjoyed an ability to sing the way a flock of starlings may dance and pump: without central direction or plan but without anyone bumping into their neighbor.