In this series on Key Words – the words we use in worship, in sacred actions and responses – we have seen that Amen is a one word covenant affirmation, “let it be so.” Jesus is God’s Amen (2Co. 1:20). Also, Hallelujah is a call to the congregation to overflow with praise to the Covenant Lord because of the victory of the Lamb of God (Rev. 19:1, 3, 4, 6). Last week we considered the word “Holy” which connotes separation and brightness. When we say “Holy, Holy, Holy” in The Sanctus in the Lord’s Supper we participate in the heavenly liturgy (Rev. 4:8) since we have access to the Most Holy Place through Christ (Heb. 10:19ff).
Concluding our series on Key Words, this week we will consider a word that is found about 74 times in the OT, “Selah.” It is used 71 times in the Psalms. This is a word that is transliterated like “Amen” – meaning that it sounds the same in Hebrew as well as English. It is found in passages like Psalm 3: “Many are saying of my soul, ‘There is no deliverance for him in God.’ Selah.” (3:2) “I was crying to the LORD with my voice, And He answered me from His holy mountain. Selah” (3:4). Or Psalm 89:4 – “Thy seed will I establish for ever, and build up thy throne to all generations. Selah.”
Though this word is found many times in the pages of our Bibles, the precise meaning is unclear. It is generally agreed that Selah must be a musical or liturgical sign, basically signaling for some kind of action such as 1) to lift up the voice or the hands in prayer, or 2) implying “forever” so that it is a cry of worship like Amen or Hallelujah (Ps. 46:3) punctuating the liturgy (Ps. 3:2, 4, etc.), or 3) just a musical crescendo – “louder” or “forte.” However, there is good reason to think it signals “the lifting up of instrumental music in an interlude or postlude.” This seems clear in passages such as Psalm 87: “The Lord shall count when He registers the peoples, ‘This one was born there.’ Selah. Then those who sing as well as those who play the flutes shall say, ‘All my springs of joy are in you’” (Ps. 87:6-7). Like 2 Chr. 5 at the dedication of the temple, the Talmud (a record of Judaism’s oral teachings) says, “…when they reached a break in the singing they blew upon the trumpet.”
Selah indicates such musical “breaks” or punctuations in the verbal praise. It is an opportunity to reflect on the truths just uttered when the musical interlude begins. It is no accident that all Christian worship with the use of instruments follows this pattern. The instruments introduce and signal our singing. Musical “selahs” provide for a break within worship for both cuing new verses and new events in the liturgy. God’s liturgy of the Psalms provides a basis for this pattern. Several implications flow from this: 1) The value of instrumental music in worship; 2) the necessity of sequences of events in worship; 3) the recognition of different roles for groups, leaders, and congregation in worship.