Question: "What does selah mean?"
Answer: The word selah is found in two books of the Bible, but is most prevalent in the Psalms, where it appears 71 times. It also appears three times in the third chapter of the minor prophet Habakkuk.
There is a great deal of uncertainty about the meaning of selah. Most versions of the Bible do not attempt to translate selah but simply transliterate the word straight from the Hebrew. The Septuagint translated the word as “daplasma” (“a division”). Well-meaning Bible scholars disagree on the definition of selah and on its root word, but since God has ordained that it be included in His Word, we should make an effort to find out, as best we can, the meaning.
One possible Hebrew word related to selah is calah, which means “to hang” or “to measure or weigh in the balances.” Referring to wisdom, Job says, “The topaz of Ethiopia shall not equal it, neither shall it be valued with pure gold” (Job 28:19). The word translated “valued” in this verse is the Hebrew calah. Here Job is saying that wisdom is beyond comparing against even jewels, and when weighed in the balance against wisdom, the finest jewels cannot equal its value.
Selah is also thought to be rendered from two Hebrew words: s_lah, “to praise”; and s_lal, “to lift up.” Another commentator believes it comes from salah, “to pause.” From salah comes the belief that selah is a musical notation signifying a rest to the singers and/or instrumentalists who performed the psalms. If this is true, then each time selah appears in a psalm, the musicians paused, perhaps to take a breath, to sing a cappella, or to let the instruments play alone. Perhaps they were pausing to praise the One about whom the song was speaking, perhaps even lifting their hands in worship. This theory would encompass all these meanings—“praise,” “lift up,” and “pause.” When we consider the three verses in Habakkuk, we also see how selah could mean “to pause and praise.” Habakkuk’s prayer in chapter 3 inspires the reader to pause and praise God for His mercy, power, sustaining grace, and sufficiency.
Perhaps the best way to think of selah is a combination of all these meanings. The Amplified Bible adds “pause and calmly think about that” to each verse where selah appears. When we see the word selah in a psalm or in Habakkuk 3, we should pause to carefully weigh the meaning of what we have just read or heard, lifting up our hearts in praise to God for His great truths. “All the earth bows down to you; they sing praise to you, they sing the praises of your name. Selah!” (Psalm 66:4).