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Selah [1]

(Heb. id. סֶלָה ). This word, which is only found in the poetical books of the Old Test., occurs seventy-one times in the Psalms, and three times in Habakkuk. In sixteen psalms it is found once, in fifteen twice, in seven three times, and in one four times always at the end of a verse, except in  Psalms 55:19 [20];  Psalms 57:3 [4], and  Habakkuk 3:3;  Habakkuk 3:9, where it is in the middle of a verse, though at the end of a clause. All the psalms in which it occurs, except eleven (3, 7, 24, 32, 48, 1, 82, 83, 87, 89, 143), have also the musical direction "to the Chief Musician" (comp. also  Habakkuk 3:19); and in these exceptions we find the words מַזְמֹר , Mizmor (A.T. "Psalm"), Shiggaion, or Maschil, which sufficiently indicate that they were intended for music. Besides these, in the titles of the psalms in which Selah occurs, we meet with the musical terms Alamoth (46), Altaschith (57, 59, 75), Gittith (81, 84), Mahalath Leannoth (88), Michtam (57, 59, 60), Neginah (61), Neginoth (4, 54, 55, 67, 76; comp.  Habakkuk 3:19), and Shushan-eduth (60); and on this association alone might be formed a strong presumption that, like these, Selah itself is a term which had a meaning in the musical nomenclature of the Hebrews. What that meaning may have been is now a matter of pure conjecture. Of the many theories which have been framed, it is easier to say what is not likely to be the true one than to pronounce certainly upon what is.

1. The Versions . In the far greater number of instances the Targum renders the word by לְעִלְמַין , "forever;" four times ( Psalms 32:4;  Psalms 32:7;  Psalms 39:11 [12]; 4 [6]) לְעִלְמָא ; once ( Psalms 44:8 [9]) לְעִלְמֵי עִלְמַין ; and ( Psalms 48:8 [9])

עִד עִלְמֵי עִלְמַין , with the same meaning, "forever and ever." In  Psalms 49:13 [14] it has לְעִלְמָא דְאָתֵי , "for the world to come;" in  Psalms 39:5 [6] לְחִיֵּי עִלְמָא , "for the life everlasting;" and in  Psalms 140:5 [6] תְּדַירָא , "continually." This interpretation, which is the one adopted by the majority of Rabbinical writers, is purely traditional, and based upon no etymology whatever. It is followed by Aquila, who renders "Selah" Ἀεί ; by the Editio Quinta and Editio Sexta, which usually give respectively Διαπαντός and Εἰς Τέλος ; by Symmachus ( Εἰς Τὸν Αἰῶνα ) and Theodotion ( Εἰς Τέλος ), in Habakkuk; by the reading of the Alex. MS. ( Είς Τέλος ) in  Habakkuk 3:13; by the Peshito-Syriac in  Psalms 3:8 [9],  Psalms 4:2 [3];  Psalms 24:10, and  Habakkuk 3:13; and by Jerome, who has semper. In  Psalms 55:19 [20] קֶדֶם סֶלָה , Kedem Selah, is rendered in the Peshito "from before the world." That this rendering is manifestly inappropriate in some passages, as, for instance,  Psalms 21:2 [3];  Psalms 32:4;  Psalms 81:7 [8], and  Habakkuk 3:3, and superfluous in others, as  Psalms 44:8 [9];  Psalms 84:4 [5];  Psalms 89:4 [5], was pointed out long since by Aben-Ezra. In the Psalms the uniform rendering of the Sept. is Διάψαλμα . Symmachus and Theodotion give the same, except in  Psalms 9:16 [17], where Theodotion has Ἀεί , and  Psalms 52:5 [7], where Symmachus has Εἰς Ἀεί . In  Habakkuk 3:13 the Alex. MS. gives Εἰς Τέλος . In Psalms 38 (in the Sept.), 7; 80, 7 [8], Διάψαλμα is added in the Sept., and in  Habakkuk 3:7 in the Alex. MS. In Psalms 57 it is put at the end of  Psalms 57:2; and in  Psalms 3:8 [9];  Psalms 24:10;  Psalms 88:10-11], it is omitted altogether. In all passages except those already referred to, in which it follows the Targum, the Peshito-Syriac has dips, an abbreviation for Διάψαλμα . This abbreviation is added in  Psalms 48:13 [14]; 1, 15 [16];  Psalms 68:13 [14];  Psalms 57:2;  Psalms 80:7 [8], at the end of the verse; and in  Psalms 52:3 in the middle of the verse after מַטּוֹב ; in Psalms 49 it is put after כִּצּאֹן . in  Psalms 49:14 [15], and in Psalms 68, after רָעָשָׁה in  Psalms 68:8 [9], and after לֵאלֹהַים in  Psalms 68:32 [33]. The Vulgate omits it entirely, while in  Habakkuk 3:3 the Editio Sexta and others give Μεταβολὴ Διαψάλματος .

2. The Church Fathers . These generally adopt the rendering Διάψαλμα of the Sept. and other translators, although it is in every way as traditional as that of the Targum "forever," and has no foundation in any known etymology. With regard to the meaning of Διάψαλμα itself, there are many opinions. Both Origen ( Comm. Ad Psalm, Opp. ed. Delarue, 2, 516) and Athanasius (Synops. Script. Sacr. 13) are silent upon this point. Eusebius of Caesarea (Proef. in Psalm) says it marked those passages in which the Holy Spirit ceased for a time to work upon the choir. Gregory of Nyssa (Tract. 2 in Psalm cap. 10) interprets it as a sudden lull in the midst of the psalmody, in order to receive anew the divine inspiration. Chrysostom (Opp. ed. Montfaucon, 5, 540) takes it to indicate the portion of the psalm which was given to another choir. Augustine (On Psalms 4) regards it as an interval of silence in the psalmody. Jerome (Ep. ad Marcellam) enumerates the various opinions which have been held upon the subject; that diapsalma denotes a change of meter, a cessation of the Spirit's influence, or the beginning of another sense. Others, he says, regard it as indicating a difference of rhythm, and the silence of some kind of music in the choir; but for himself he falls back upon the version of Aquila, and renders Selah by semper, with a reference to the custom of the Jews to put at the end of their writings Amen, Selah, or Shalom. In his Commentary on Psalms 3 he is doubtful whether to regard it as simply a musical sign, or as indicating the perpetuity of the truth contained in the passage after which it is placed; so that, he says, "wheresoever Selah (that is, diapsalma or semper) is put, there we may know that what follows, as well as what precedes, belongs not only to the present time, but to eternity." Theodoret (Proef. in Psalm) explains diapsalma by Μέλους Μεταβολή or Ἐναλλαγή (as Suidas), "a change of the melody." On the whole, the rendering Διάψαλμα rather increases the difficulty, for it does not appear to be the true meaning of Selah, and its own signification is obscure.

3. Rabbinical Writers . The majority of these follow the Targum and the dictum of R. Eliezer (Talm. Babyl. Erubin, 5, 54) in rendering Selah "forever;" but Aben-Ezra (On  Psalms 3:3) showed that in some passages this rendering was inappropriate, and expressed his own opinion that Selah was a word of emphasis, used to give weight and importance to what was said, and to indicate its truth "but the right explanation is that the meaning of Selah is like so it is,' or thus,' and the matter is true and right.'" Kimchi ( Lex. s.v.) doubted whether it had any special meaning at all in connection with the sense of the passage in which it was found, and explained it as a musical term. He derives it from סָלִל , To Raise, elevate, with ה paragogic, and interprets it as signifying a raising or elevating the voice, as much as to say in this place there was an elevation of the voice in song.

4. Modern Writers . Among these there is the same diversity of opinion. Gesenius ( Thesaur. s.v.) derives Selah from סָלָה , Salah, To Suspend, of which he thinks it is the imperative Kal, with ה paragogic, סְלָה , in pause סֶלָה . But this form is supported by no parallel instance. In accordance with his derivation, which is harsh, he interprets Selah to mean either "suspend the voice," that is, "be silent," a hint to the singers, or "raise, elevate the stringed instruments." In either case he regards it as denoting a pause in the song, which was filled up by an interlude played by the choir of Levites. Ewald (Die Dichter des A.B. 1, 179) arrives at substantially the same result by a different process. He derives Selah from סָלִל , salal, to rise, whence the substantive סִל , which with ה paragogic becomes in pause סֶלָה (comp. הֶרָה , from הִר root הָרִר ,  Genesis 14:10). So far as the form of the word is concerned, this derivation is more tenable than the former. Ewald regards the phrase "Higgaion, Selah," in  Psalms 9:16 [17], as the full form, signifying "music, strike up!" an indication that the voices of the choir were to cease while the instruments alone came in. Hengstenberg follows Gesenius, De Wette, and others, in the rendering Pause! but refers it to the contents of the psalm, and understands it of the silence of the music in order to give room for quiet reflection. If this were the case, Selah at the end of a psalm would be superfluous. The same meaning of pause or end is arrived at by F Ü rst (Handw. s.v.), who derives Selah from a root סָלָה , Salah, To Cut Off (a meaning which is perfectly arbitrary), whence the substantive סֵל , Sel, which with ה paragogic becomes in pause סֶלָה , a form which is without parallel. While etymologists have recourse to such shifts as these, it can scarcely be expected that the true meaning of the word will be evolved by their investigations. Indeed, the question is as far from solution as ever. Beyond the fact that Selah is a musical term, we know absolutely nothing about it, and are entirely in the dark as to its meaning. Sommer ( Bibl. Abhandl. 1, 1-84) has devoted an elaborate discourse to its explanation (translated in the Bibliotheca Sacra, 1848, p. 66 sq.). After observing that Selah everywhere appears to mark critical moments in the religious consciousness of the Israelites, and that the music was employed to give expression to the energy of the poet's sentiments on these occasions, he (p. 40) arrives at the conclusion that the word is used "in those passages where, in the Temple Song, the choir of priests who stood opposite to the stage occupied by the Levites were to raise their trumpets ( סלל ), and with the strong tones of this instrument mark the words just spoken, and bear them upwards to the hearing of Jehovah. Probably the Levitical minstrels supported this priestly intercessory music by vigorously striking their harps and psalteries; whence the Greek expression Διάψαλμα .

To this points, moreover, the fuller direction, Higgaion, Selah' ( Psalms 9:16); the first word of which denotes the whirr of the stringed instruments ( Psalms 92:4), the other the raising of the trumpets, both of which were here to sound together. The less important Higgaion fell away, when the expression was abbreviated, and Selah alone remained." Dr. Davidson (Introd. to the Old Test. 2, 248) with good reason rejects this explanation as labored and artificial, though it is adopted by Keil in H Ä vernick's Einleitung (3, 120-129). He shows that in some passages (as  Psalms 32:4-5;  Psalms 52:3;  Psalms 55:7-8) the playing of the priests on the trumpets would be unsuitable, and proposes the following as his own solution of the difficulty: "The word denotes elevations or ascent, i.e. loud, clear. The music which commonly accompanied the singing was soft and feeble. In cases where it was to burst in more strongly during the silence of the song, Selah was the sign. At the end of a verse or strophe, where it commonly stands, the music may have readily been strongest and loudest." It may be remarked of this, as of all the other explanations which have been given, that it is mere conjecture, based on an etymology which, in any other language than Hebrew, would at once be rejected as unsound. A few other opinions may be noticed as belonging to the history of the subject. Michaelis, in despair at being unable to assign any meaning to the word, regarded it as an abbreviation, formed by taking the first or other letters of three other words (Suppl. ad Lex. Hebr.), though he declines to conjecture what these may have been, and rejects at once the guess of Meibomius, who extracts the meaning da capo from the three words which he suggests.

For other conjectures of this kind, see Eichhorn, Bibliothek, 5, 545. Mattheson was of opinion that the passages where Selah occurred were repeated either by the instruments or by another choir: hence he took it as equal to ritornello. Herder regarded it as marking a change of key, while Paulus Burgensis and Schindler assigned to it no meaning, but looked upon it as an enclitic word used to fill up the verse. Buxtorf (Lex. Hebr.) derived it from סָלָה , Salah, To Spread , lay low; hence used as a sign to lower the voice, like Piano. In Eichhorn's Bibliothek ( 5, 550) it is suggested that Selah may perhaps signify a scale in music, or indicate a rising or falling in the tone. Koster ( Stud. U. Krit. 1831) saw in it only a mark to indicate the strophical divisions of the Psalms, but its position in the middle of verses is against this theory. Augusti (Pract. Einl. in d. Psalm p. 125) thought it was an exclamation, like Hallelujah! and the same view was taken by the late Prof. Lee (Heb. Gr. § 243, 2), who classes it among the interjections, and renders it Praise! "For my own part," he says, "I believe it to be descended from the Arabic root salah, he blessed,' etc., and used not unlike the word Amen, or the doxology, among ourselves." Delitzsch thinks that the instrumental accompaniment, while the psalm was sung, was soft, and that the Selah indicated loud playing when the singing ceased (Psalmen, 1, 19). Hupfeld, the other most distinguished scholar among recent commentators on the Psalms, agrees with Delitzsch in general that the Selah was the signal for the singing to cease and the instrumental music to be performed alone; and he takes "an interlude" to be the meaning of the obscure word Διάψαλμα , by which Selah has been rendered in the Sept. We conclude, therefore, as the general drift of modern interpretation, that Selah denotes a pause in the vocal performance at certain emphatic points, while the single accompanying instrument carried on the music. If any further information be sought on this subject, it may be found in the treatises contained in Ugolilo (vol. 22), in Noldius ( Concord. Part. Ann. Et Vind. No. 1877), in Saalsch Ü tz (Hebr. Poes. p. 346), and in the essay of Sommer quoted above. See also Stolle, Selah Philologioe Enucleatum (Wittenb. 1685); Peucer, De סלה Ebroeorum (Naumb. 1739); Danville Review, 1864. (See Book Of Psalms).