Selah is a term often used in the Psalms (and also in the psalm-like third chapter of Habakkuk). Despite its frequent occurrence, its meaning remains a mystery. Many commentators think it meant ‘to pause’ or ‘to reflect’.
Still yourself: can you hear the beating of God’s heart?
Even Jesus cherished time to be apart;
Learning to press life’s pause button is a vital art
As when Martha’s sister chose the better part.
Heaven’s symphonies are pianissimo when they start.
Most of the Psalms that include the word Selah contain a heading, “to the choirmaster,” which has led some scholars to conclude it was a kind of musical notation or expression. The general belief is that Selah meant “pause” or “silence”, although it is sometimes translated as “interlude”, suggesting that the singers were silent while the instruments performed alone. All of these would have provided an opportunity for singers and worshippers to reflect.
As a member of our church praise band, I find these suggestions very interesting – making a joyful noise is important, but so are moments of silence and wonder when we can listen attentively for God. Perhaps Selah was a pause to “be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) – an opportunity to listen out for the “still, small voice”/”thin silence” (1 Kings 19:11-13).
One of my main pastimes is classical guitar and one of my favourite pieces to play is Bach’s lute suite in E♭ (mercifully tranposed into D for the modern guitar). At the end, the final note is sustained, then followed by a rest (dotted, to increase its length by half), followed by a double-note rest (again dotted). In other words, Bach is letting the music gradually fade away and then asking that we observe a period of silence to reflect and hold on to the final strains as they drift heavenwards. Perhaps this is when we can hear angels singing?
At the time Bach was composing, most instruments were quite quiet and the listener would have had to concentrate and filter out background distractions in order to fully appreciate the music. I once heard a harpsichordist say we should “listen with 18th century ears”.
If we have been praying and praising, we shouldn’t be too quick to rush on. Pausing, whilst listening with 18th century ears, can help us remain in that thin silence, to reflect, absorb and refresh.
(The Selah acrostic appears on my Old Testament: History, Law and Poetry page).