In ancient Israel, the word selah was used to indicate places in Psalms where the choir paused to sing a refrain. (It occurs 71 times in Psalms.) Often, selah breaks up stanzas into three sections, sometimes acting as a chorus or a benediction ending the song. One example is Psalms 24.
Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
4 He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up his soul to what is false
and does not swear deceitfully.
5 He will receive blessing from the Lord
and righteousness from the God of his salvation.
6 Such is the generation of those who seek him,
who seek the face of the God of Jacob.
Lift up your heads, O gates!
And be lifted up, O ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
8 Who is this King of glory?
The Lord, strong and mighty,
the Lord, mighty in battle!
9 Lift up your heads, O gates!
And lift them up, O ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
10 Who is this King of glory?
The Lord of hosts,
he is the King of glory!
Significant ancient sources relate the word’s meaning to that of ‘always’ or ‘everlasting,’ much like the way in which we use amen. Many Christian liturgical rituals regularly incorporate amen into the text. Liturgy means a collection of commonly used ideas, phrases, or practices most often associated with worship. For instance, in the Book of Common Prayer (1789/1990), the Eucharist (or Communion) includes periodic singing of short refrains and concludes with the participants echoing “Thanks be to God” five times in response to the leader’s benedictions. This is a liturgical use of that phrase.
But the concept can apply in any social context. As James K.A. Smith observes in his excellent book, Desiring the Kingdom, the sequence of events at a football game — national anthem, flyover, team entrances, introductions, coin toss, kickoff — are a form of cultural liturgy. (And, arguably, its own form of idolatrous worship.)
Significant ancient sources relate the Selah’s meaning to that of ‘always’ or ‘everlasting,’
Liturgical recitation certainly can be (and often is) engaged in with little or no thought as to the meaning of the liturgy or its elements. When participating in such a ritual, we might just sing or say the right words in the right order. And its easy for us to imagine an ancient Israelite worshipper doing the same thing with selah; no thought given to it’s meaning, but just a part of the ritual. In short, we give little attention to the themes and truth contained in the liturgy. The act of saying it replaces, rather than nourishes, the act of living it.
The word selah itself likely means as little to us as amen or any other liturgical phrase. And pondering its significance here might be an exercise in futility.However, there is great worth in rethinking the meaning and usage of liturgical elements, regardless of the tradition or form they may take for us. As a colleague of mine is fond of saying, “Words means things.” Liturgy can add a rich dimension to our lives if we will pay attention to the meaning and find ways of expressing that litrugy in our own context so that it nourishes and feeds our spiritual lives.
Selah occurs in the context of worship which focuses on the nature and activity of God. It calls the reader to stop and carefully consider what is being said about God. Ponder what that means. Think about how significant and consequential these things are for which we ought to worship the Holy One of Israel. The connotation of everlasting-ness emphasizes the weighty importance of these statements about God and beckons the reader to affirm this eternal, transcendent truth, to give this your attention!
The objective, however, is not to merely recognize and consider God, but to respond to His revelation with one’s whole being and life. Selah is not merely a call to stop and think. It is a call to orient one’s whole life around the One who has made Himself known to us.