The Importance of Selah

As we enter this season of the holiday we call Thanksgiving, we are supposed to prepare our busy hearts and minds to stop for a day and think about what is most important, expressing our worship and gratitude to God for the blessings He has given us. This was the purpose for which the Thanksgiving holiday was created. Wouldn’t it be great if instead of making this time all about food, family gatherings, shopping, and holidays we instead started weeks before the day and took time to pause and put God first in our focus? Then when we came to the day of Thanksgiving God truly would be at the center of our focus. Hopefully, if we do this during this whole quarter of the year, we will realign our priorities in preparation for the New Year to give God first place in all we do.

Over the years studying God’s Word I would often come across an unusual word in the text that wasn’t an English word and yet it was not translated. That word is “Selah.” It is pronounced “Say-law” and means “Suspension of music, that is, a pause”. More specifically, its Bible meaning is to stop and think. Meditate…talk over to yourself for a time about the meaning of what was just said. In many cases it is in Psalms of worship and it is placed where someone, having said something really powerful or profound, would do well to stop and think of what they just said. Some of the Psalms were sang by families as they traveled to worship God and it is possible that each time they came to the word SELAH in the song they may have stopped for a  moment on their walk and meditated or prayed about what they just sang.

God’s people Israel learned to stop and listen intently to His Word if they wanted to truly be blessed and guided for their lives. A perfect example is from Nehemiah:

Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6, 8-12

Now all the people gathered together as one man in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly of men and women and all who could hear with understanding on the first day of the seventh month. Then he read from it in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate from morning until midday, before the men and women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.

And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God. Then all the people answered, “Amen, Amen!” while lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

So they read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn nor weep.” For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the Law. 10 Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” 11 So the Levites quieted all the people, saying, “Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved.” 12 And all the people went their way to eat and drink, to send portions and rejoice greatly, because they understood the words that were declared to them.

In this passage from Nehemiah we see what happens when the people of Israel stopped and began to think about what God’s Word says. This was right at the time God’s people returned from exile to their promised land. Because of ignoring God’s Universal Laws for life, the people of Israel wound up on exile for 70 years. When they returned to the promised lands, God’s Word was restored to its rightful place as guide for life. When someone’s heart is where it should be and not hardened, the Word of God should do three important things:

  1. Convicts of sin. Years ago a young lady named Nicole came to our church and wound up coming to know the LORD. She commented one day after walking with Jesus for a while, “I thought my life was pretty good before.” It really struck her as she paused to think about the reality that without the LORD her life seemed great but she was missing the reality of Eternity and headed to an eternal place separate from God!
  2. Stirs one to seek to serve and please God. I am amazed at folks who claim to know the LORD but take no time to read and meditate on His Word. I know in my life the more I meditate on it the more I want to serve Him!
  3. Fills one’s heart with thanksgiving. As the saying goes, “Gratitude is the memory of the heart”—it is the end of pride and the beginning of grace. When we stop to meditate on God’s Word we can’t help but be humbled and grateful.

We miss so much meaning because we read too fast and don’t listen too closely. Most people I teach ask questions I already answered in my teaching! The three parts of the thought life of our soul (the heart, the mind, and the will) are in constant conversation…except when we are listening. Jesus calls this “ears to hear”.

My wife Donna has been fascinated with the Amish people for a long time. For our 35th wedding anniversary we drove to Etheridge, Tennessee and stayed in a motel nearby for a few days, venturing into the community first on a horse and buggy ride. During a stop we met a man named Dannie Gingerich, one of the elders of the community. We soon found ourselves talking about the things of the LORD and I asked if I could come back the next day and spend some time talking further so as not to hold up our tour guide and he agreed.

The next day I came by and was delighted when he invited me into his home to sit for a time because the Amish consider the rest of us as “English” or outsiders to their community, generally trying to live separate. But soon our mutual faith in the LORD stirred a great conversation. He started showing some things they used in their worship time and one was a song they would sing so I asked him to sing this single page song for me. He told me it usually takes them half an hour to sing it! I could not imagine, it looked as long as a hymn or a praise song we would sing in 3 minutes! Then as he sang just the opening sentence I realized why it takes them so long. They sing each word very slowly, meditating on it and trying to grasp its full meaning in their worship of God! We quickly sing our hymns and spiritual songs, often not even taking note of the words or their meaning. I told Dannie their signing reminded me of Selah and that fascinated him because he had seen the word before but hadn’t understood what it meant. Yet somehow he sensed it had to have some significance. So the Amish elder taught me something of meditating on the words of the songs I sing in praise to my LORD and I taught him a word to express what he already was doing.

King David gives us some great examples in Psalm 32 as he placed the word Selah at key places where he stopped to meditate on what was just said:

Psalm 32:1-2

Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity,
And in whose spirit there is no deceit.

David tells us to stop and think about what wonderful thing it is to be saved.

Psalm 32:3-5

When I kept silent, my bones grew old
Through my groaning all the day long.
For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me;
My vitality was turned into the drought of summer. Selah
I acknowledged my sin to You,
And my iniquity I have not hidden.
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
And You forgave the iniquity of my sin.         Selah 

David encourages us to learn from his example of hiding sin. Stop and think before ignoring God’s conviction. As a child of God, you will not be able to enjoy sin like others who are headed for Eternal Torment. It will gnaw at us until we come clean with our LORD and confess. Also, we don’t want our Heavenly account charged with iniquity either (premeditated, unrepentant sin) because it will cause us to lose some of our rewards.

Psalm 32:6-7

For this cause everyone who is godly shall pray to You
In a time when You may be found;
Surely in a flood of great waters
They shall not come near him.
You are my hiding place;
You shall preserve me from trouble;
You shall surround me with songs of deliverance. Selah

 David encourages us to stop and think of the benefits of abiding in Him!

Psalm 32:8-9

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
I will guide you with My eye.
Do not be like the horse or like the mule,
Which have no understanding,
Which must be harnessed with bit and bridle,
Else they will not come near you.

In verses 6 and 7 David is speaking but then he stops after the word “Selah” and God speaks up in verses 8 and 9. God promises to guide if we and David will stop being like “the horse or like the mule”. I remember seeing a cartoon once where a man was standing there with Jesus looking over his past life He asked Jesus why there was only one set of foot prints in the sand at some points. Jesus explained that was where He had to carry him. The man smiled at that truth, but his smile disappeared as Jesus pointed to another spot and said, “That long groove over there is when I dragged you for a while.” Like David, we need to realize “Who is on the phone” on the other end of the communication line when we pray and who it is guiding and instructing us. If we do so we will pause and take those instructions seriously, unlike a mule or horse that has to be led “with bit and bridle.”

Psalm 32:10-11

Many sorrows shall be to the wicked;
But he who trusts in the Lord, mercy shall surround him.
Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, you righteous;
And shout for joy, all you upright in heart!

Lastly, David encourages us to keep a grateful and thankful heart, and all we do shall be blessed!

So next time you see that little word SELAH in the Bible text, don’t just skip over it, take a moment to pause and meditate on what you just read, turning your focus toward the LORD.

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About Martin Britt

Martin Britt is a licensed, ordained minister, an Internationally Certified Addictions Counselor and an Internationally Certified Clinical Supervisor. Martin serves as pastor at Parkway Baptist Church. He served for more than fifteen years with Home of Grace Addiction Recovery Program in Vancleave, Mississippi and travels around the southeast conducting seminars and training in an effort to encourage discipleship in the local church.

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