Before I began studying the word “selah,” I would have confidently told you its meaning. Now, I’m not so sure. There’s much debate surrounding the term, but there are a few things we know for certain.
“Selah” appears 74 times in Scripture—71 occurrences in the Psalms and three in Habakkuk. The word is always found within a song, psalm, or prayer. Of the 39 psalms that include it, nearly all have the phrase “to the choirmaster” at the beginning. We can thus conclude “selah” is a musical term of some sort.
Scholars have speculated that it is simply a musical notation such as a signal to change keys, sustain a note, repeat a phrase, or increase volume. It could also be an instruction to the singers or the instrumentalists. However, the most common interpretation (and what I assumed before my study) is that the word indicates a pause—a time of reflection on what was just sung.
No matter the word’s original meaning, it offers a moment for contemplation. When we read a “selah psalm” aloud, we invariably stop the flow of intelligible words to utter this mysterious term. It’s a speed bump along the path of lament, thanksgiving, or celebration that forces us to slow down, rest, and consider.
Think about it. How many times have you sung a song in church or read a familiar passage of Scripture and halfway through forgot what you sang or read? Your mouth can get the words right but your mind and heart are elsewhere. Or, have you ever had a moment in the corporate gathering that you felt a little worn out from all the singing? Maybe you just needed a minute to catch your breath or sit and ponder the words of the song.
From creation to the incarnation, we see a rhythm of work and rest, of doing and ceasing the doing. God created the heavens, the earth, animals, and man in six days but rested on the seventh. He instituted observance of the sabbath day (a day of rest for His people), the sabbath year (a year of rest from agricultural work), and the year of jubilee (a sabbath year every 50 years that included release and liberty). In the New Testament, we see Jesus working and resting: He ministers to His disciples and the people but then pulls away to a secluded place.
Although we don’t know exactly what the writers of the Psalms meant when they placed “selah” in their compositions, we can still see a rhythm that echoes God’s intention for His creation, especially for His people. There’s the steady beat of David’s cries for help: “I will dwell in your tent forever and take refuge under the shelter of your wings” (Psalm 61:4). There’s the cadence of his exhortation to trust: “Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts before him. God is our refuge (Ps. 62:8).” And there’s the pulse of Asaph’s praise: “You are the God who works wonders; you revealed your strength among the peoples. With power you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph (Ps. 77:14-15).” Then there’s the sacred stop—the abrupt interjection of an ambiguous expression that makes us pause and ponder.
My soul longs for “selah” moments, whether I’m aware of it or not. I can find myself restless, over-stimulated, and distracted from the abundance of input in my world. The to-do list hovers, children call, and the smartphone teases. But the Lord’s voice whispers to pull away to a quiet, secluded place, to open the Scriptures (perhaps to a psalm), and be willing to slow down, rest, and consider Him and His Word.
Lauren Chandler is a wife and mother of three. Her husband, Matt Chandler, serves as the lead teaching pastor at The Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas. Lauren is passionate about writing, music, and leading worship, not only at The Village Church, but also for groups across the country. She is the author of Steadfast Love: The Response of God to the Cries of our Heart, the Bible study, Steadfast Love: A Study of Psalm 107, and the recently released children’s book, Goodbye to Goodbyes: A True Story about Jesus, Lazarus, and an Empty Tomb.