Selah: Insert Guitar Solo Here

David Plays the Harp in Front of the Ark. Jan Debray. 1670. Private Collection.

Selah: Insert Guitar Solo Here
9 of the Psalms plus Habakkuk 3

While reading verse and song from the book of Psalms, you may have observed the occasional insertion of the odd word selah, placed here and there, seemingly arbitrarily, and in the way of the flow of the lyric. Without meaning or explanation.

These English selahs are a transliteration of the Hebrew סֶלֶה.

We’ll show you two examples of what they look like. Psalms 3 and 4 both include multiple placements of selah. We’ve used images from the online website Bible Gateway and its display of the World English Bible translation. Note the line-by-line layout and spacing of this poetry, and the selahs:

See the selahs sticking out?

Nobody knows for sure what the word means or why they have been placed in their particular locations. Many Psalms carry a brief note at the very beginning, in either verse 1 or an unnumbered verse, saying something like “this is a lyric by David or so-and-so” and it is “in the style of bossa-nova” and “the choir director should push the tempo” or some such labelling. The selahs seem to be an extension of this information and musical direction, but anything more specific is lost.

Even the ancient Jewish commentators, for which we have records, did not know the specific meanings of these instructional words. So today we can only speculate as to their meaning.

We like the theory that they mark the place in mid-song where the electric guitar player is to rip off a shredding solo.

Whatever their meaning, most English translations of the Bible include 74 uses of selah in their texts.

The word occurs (in most translations) 71 times in the book of Psalms, three times in Habakkuk’s prophecy, and one time (which doesn’t really count) in 2 Kings. Thirty-nine of the Psalms have one or more selahs.

2 Kings 14:7 contains the word as a place name. In the King James Version, it is spelled “Selah” but other English translations tend to translate this as “Sela.” The Orthodox Jewish Bible notes that Sela is equivalent to the Greek Petra. This 2 Kings place-name hit is however, not of interest here.

The prophet Habakkuk uses this musical/lyrical marker three times in his book, which, by the way, is almost entirely in the form of Hebrew verse, not prose. These occurrences are in close proximity in Habakkuk chapter 3 at verses 3, 9, and 13. (Curiously, the Complete Jewish Bible translation does not include the verse 13 placement.)

By the way, much of our Bible text comes in the form of poetry, which is lost partly in the transition to English but moreso in the tendency of Bible printers to not typeset the lines with the layout, spacing and white space usage of poetic verse. Your personal Bible may not set the type with poetic verse spacing as often as it should.

Here, for example, is David Stern’s translation of Habakkuk, typeset as verse, as it appears in The Complete Jewish Study Bible (Hendrickson):

Stern recognizes Habakkuk’s writing as poetic in form, and the publishers shorten each line and position each line accordingly.

The NASB, NRSV, ESV, and NKJV all include selah 71 times in the book of Psalms, and three times in Habakkuk. Every one of these are as a marker in verse.

The New International Version does not include selah in its translation, but instead uses a footnote to explain that the NIV has dropped the Hebrew word from its text.

The New English Translation includes selah only 68 times, where three of these 68 are in Habakkuk. We did not hunt down the location of the NET’s “missing” selahs.

The public domain World English Bible matches the King James by spelling the place name in 2 Kings 14:7 as Selah. All other English translations we checked spell the place name as “Sela.” And again, these are not of interest. 🙂

The book of Psalms is where we encounter selah most often. Thirty nine of the Psalms include the word. The word never appears twice in a single verse. In fact, the word doesn’t seem to lend itself to be included within a verse at all, but as a marker of something in between two verses, and before or after a section of poetic verse.

The Psalms which have one or more occurrences of selah are:

3, 4, 7, 9, 20, 21, 24, 32, 39, 44, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 52, 54, 55, 57, 59, 60, 61, 62, 66, 67, 68, 75, 76, 77, 81, 82, 83, 84, 85, 87, 88, 89, 140, and 143.

You may have noticed while reading the Psalms, that some Psalms have a label or title or descriptive comment as verse 1 or in an unnumbered verse at the top of the Psalm. Not all Psalms have these heading labels and comments, but every one of our 39 Psalms using selah also have one of these headers/titles.

Curiously, Habakkuk ends with one of these musical/lyrical instructions, at Hab 3:19: “For the leader; with instrumental music.” (JPS Tanakh, 1999)

You may also have discovered that our 150 Psalm Psalter is itself divided into five interior books. Your personal Bible may not indicate these sections, but these divisions and the topical arrangement of our Psalms are a deliberate placement by our Jewish predecessors in the Hebrew. Only four of the five books are represented in the selah collection of 39. Book 4 has no Psalms with the selah.

By the way… The Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, has not 150, but 151 Psalms.

And by the way… The five interior books are:
One: 1-41,
Two: 42-72,
Three: 73-89,
Four: 90-106,
Five: 107-150/151.

As we mentioned earlier, the word selah seems to indicate some sort of break, pause, or interlude during a Psalm. A section is spoken or sung, then voices change, along with a flute interlude, and then another section is performed. However, four Psalms have this mark at the very end of the work. This weighs somewhat, but not entirely, against the break idea.

The four with selah at the very end are 3, 9, 24, and 46.

We note however that Psalm 9 has a selah at its very end, and that Psalms 9 and 10 have a history as a single Psalm. Psalm 10 continues Psalm 9. Therefore, a selah at the end of 9 will provide a typical “break” in a single 9 + 10 work.

The other three selah-at-the-end Psalms do not allow this connect-the-next-Psalm solution.

We have included below a table listing all 39 Psalms which have a selah. We give the number of verses in that Psalm, the number of selahs, whether any of those selahs come at the end, and the title/instruction line. All 39 have one of these introductory lines.

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Whatever the meaning of selah, Bible Bits offers this suggestion for your Psalm reading:

First, sing the Psalm with a little tune of your manufacture, either out loud or in your head. The Psalm is a SONG! Sing it! Slow down the flow of word after word, and give each word its own space in time and tempo and vocal attention.

Second, imagine different male and/or female voices, and a chorus, exchanging back-and-forth lines and sections of the Psalm. Much of Hebrew poetry comes in the form of line A expressing a statement, and next line A’ expressing a reinforcing statement, or next line B expressing a countering statement. Use separate mental voices for these. Then add a chorus where it seems to fit.

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Thanks to the Complete Jewish Study Bible, the World English Bible, and the Bible Gateway website.

God’s blessings to you!

Read the actual Bible, and SING the Psalms, for yourself. 🙂

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Psalm NumberHow Many VersesHow Many SelahsSelah at End?Title/Instructions (NASB)
383yesA Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.
482For the choir director; on stringed instruments. A Psalm of David.
7171A Shiggaion of David, which he sang to the LORD concerning Cush, a Benjamite.
9202yesFor the choir director; on Muth-labben. A Psalm of David.
2091For the choir director. A Psalm of David.
21131For the choir director. A Psalm of David.
24102yesA Psalm of David.
32113[A Psalm] of David. A Maskil.
39132For the choir director, for Jeduthun. A Psalm of David.
44261For the choir director. A Maskil of the sons of Korah.
46113yesFor the choir director. [A Psalm] of the sons of Korah, set to Alamoth. A Song.
4791For the choir director. A Psalm of the sons of Korah.
48141A Song; a Psalm of the sons of Korah.
49202For the choir director. A Psalm of the sons of Korah.
50231A Psalm of Asaph.
5292For the choir director. A Maskil of David, when Doeg the Edomite came and told Saul and said to him, “David has come to the house of Ahimelech.”
5471For the choir director; on stringed instruments. A Maskil of David, when the Ziphites came and said to Saul, “Is not David hiding himself among us?”
55232For the choir director; on stringed instruments. A Maskil of David.
57112For the choir director; [set to] Al-tashheth. A Mikhtam of David, when he fled from Saul in the cave.
59172For the choir director; [set to] Al-tashheth. A Mikhtam of David, when Saul sent [men] and they watched the house in order to kill him.
60121For the choir director; according to Shushan Eduth. A Mikhtam of David, to teach; when he struggled with Aram-naharaim and with Aram-zobah, and Joab returned, and smote twelve thousand of Edom in the Valley of Salt.
6181For the choir director; on a stringed instrument. [A Psalm] of David.
62122For the choir director; according to Jeduthun. A Psalm of David.
66203For the choir director. A Song. A Psalm.
6772For the choir director; with stringed instruments. A Psalm. A Song.
68353For the choir director. A Psalm of David. A Song.
75101For the choir director; [set to] Al-tashheth. A Psalm of Asaph, a Song.
76122For the choir director; on stringed instruments. A Psalm of Asaph, a Song.
77203For the choir director; according to Jeduthun. A Psalm of Asaph.
81161For the choir director; on the Gittith. [A Psalm] of Asaph.
8281A Psalm of Asaph.
83181A Song, a Psalm of Asaph.
84122For the choir director; on the Gittith. A Psalm of the sons of Korah.
85131For the choir director. A Psalm of the sons of Korah.
8772A Psalm of the sons of Korah. A Song.
88182A Song. A Psalm of the sons of Korah. For the choir director; according to Mahalath Leannoth. A Maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.
89524A Maskil of Ethan the Ezrahite.
140133For the choir director. A Psalm of David.
143121A Psalm of David.
Hab 3193Hab 3:19: ….For the choir director, on my stringed instruments. (NASB)

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