Saturday, August 1, 2009

Selah

Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior, who daily bears our burdens. Selah

                        Psalm 68.19 

What’s in a Name?

A few months back, I met a young man soon to become a father. He and his wife were expecting a daughter and they’d narrowed their name options to three: their mothers’ maiden names and Selah. I’ve always loved surnames for women, but “Selah” intrigued me most. “It’s from The Psalms,” he said. “It means ‘Praise the Lord.’” What a perfect name and inspired choice. I told him, “You may have found the most beautiful name any child received.” The conversation moved on to Lamaze classes and nursery furniture and such. Still, my mind kept leaping back to “Selah.” His translation differed slightly from mine. I’d always read “Selah” as a musical direction to indicate a momentary break to reflect. The English teacher in me wanted to mention this. Suppose they call their little girl Selah and she spends the rest of her life trying to clarify what her name means?

I politely resisted the impulse. But our talk left me wondering if my translation was off. From time to time, I’d Google the word, yet with my searches raising more questions than answers, mild curiosity evolved into manic obsession. So I called a seminarian buddy for a clear explanation. What does Selah mean? “Nobody really knows,” she said. “That’s why it’s transliterated [phonetically spelled] rather than translated. We don’t even know if it’s a noun or a verb, which is why we can't punctuate it.” There must be etymological clues. “Nope,” she answered. “The word has no concrete lineage. It just pops up.” She explained everyone agrees “Selah” is like modern music’s double-slash—a brief, emphatic pause. “But what we’re to do during the break is uncertain,” she said. “Its context suggests various things: praise, reflection, connecting ideas, or my favorite, ‘weighing’”—based on alternate usage of the same word to mean “hanging,” as in a balance. She advised me to thumb through Psalms and observe where and how “Selah” is placed. “All the interpretations work.”

Think

If we can’t say what response “Selah” intends to elicit, we know it wants us to think. The psalmists most often attach it to exclamations of God’s faithfulness. Psalm 61.4: “I long to dwell in your tent forever and take refuge in the shelter of your wings. Selah” Psalm 67.4: “You rule the peoples justly and guide the nations of the earth. Selah” Psalm 49.15: “God will redeem my life from the grave; he will surely take me to himself. Selah” The psalmists insist we internalize these acclamations of mercy, justice, and safekeeping. Selah makes time to think of God’s goodness. He honors His promises, shields His people, judges rightly, redeems, and accepts. It’s good to pause and think about these things.

There’s another side to Selah, though—a time to think through our conflicts with God. He’s not always pleased with us and, frankly, we’re not always pleased with Him. This should give us pause. Psalm 77.9: “Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion? Selah” Psalm 88.7: “Your wrath lies heavily upon me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. Selah” And in Psalm 82.1-2, we find a most curious scenario. God concedes authority to lesser deities that favor the ungodly, raising the psalmist’s complaint: “How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Selah”

Subscribing to my friend’s definition, Selah invites us to weigh our circumstances thoughtfully. We balance joy in God’s faithfulness with sober consideration of conflicts affecting our relationship with Him. In many cases, displeasure causes Him to withhold blessings until we correct our course. In Revelations 3.19, He says, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent.” We must be wise enough to distinguish discipline from punishment. Discipline reinforces; punishment weakens. God lovingly pulls away to strengthen our resolve to please to Him. If we obey because we fear His wrath, our interests supersede His purpose. His is not pleased. But when we respond to correction with loving gratitude, we confirm our commitment to His will. Perfect love bridges our differences. John addresses this beautifully in his first epistle, summing it up in chapter 4, verse 18: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” This statement deserves a “Selah.”

A Holistic Selah

Suppose we combine every passage concluding with Selah. What message does a holistic Selah send? Given our discussion, it’s fairly apparent. Our relationship with God—like any other relationship—depends on successfully balancing what He asks of us with what we ask of Him. “This is my Father’s world,” the great hymn proclaims. He created us to maintain its balance and embody His presence in it. We are charged to care first for the whole—to love others, wage peace, and support justice—before considering ourselves and formulating our own opinions. In turn, we ask Him for guidance, understanding, and fortitude. We obey to bring Him honor and glory, trusting Him for protection and help. When we stray from His purpose we embrace His course correction.

But this world is a crazy place—a shambles of disobedience. It’s out of balance with its Creator’s purpose and will. Every day, we’re challenged to weigh what’s easiest and most pleasing for us against what best pleases God. Choosing Him above others and ourselves often brings trouble. Doing what’s right can be a burden; caring for others can be backbreaking. Yet, when we please God, He’s pleased to shoulder loads we carry. Of all the Psalms, I think 68.19 best captures the holistic Selah’s balance: “Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior, who daily bears our burdens. Selah” We trust His faithfulness. He bears our burdens. We do what He asks of us. He does what we ask of Him. Selah

Selah invites us to pause and weigh God’s goodness against our obedience, to consider the balance in our lives as we strive for balance in the world.

(Tomorrow: Kickfighting)

2 comments:

Cuboid Master said...

Long have I wanted to know the meaning of "selah." I knew it as a slight "bump" pause in music, but I never understood it in terms of the Psalms. Your friend's explanation makes perfect sense. Yes, it must certainly be a call to pause, reflect, and integrate the wisdom of God deep into our hearts.

As you mentioned, there are many moments of "selah" when we must still ourselves and deeply BREATHE in the meaning of an event or passage so as to incorporate it within our being. At the finest moments of my life, I stopped and told myself, "You must never forget this. This is precious."

Hearing my son laugh uproariously at his favorite cat videos; watching my daughter mother her two strong and independent little boys; seeing tenderness in my boyfriend's eyes when he comforts me; all these moments and more are occasions for SELAH. It is a wonderful word.

Please thank your friend for her insight, and thank you for your elucidation!

Tim said...

Thank you, CM, for reminding us how many "Selahs" we're given in life. It took me back to something I often heard people in my faith say: "When I think of the goodness of Jesus and all He's done for me, my soul cries out, 'Hallelujah! Thank God for saving me."

One of the great joys of following Christ is becoming alert to Selah--realizing all He's done for us and having the mind to pause, take a deep breath, and rejoice in it. You're right, we must never forget this.

So good as always to hear from you, CM. When I get a moment to come up for air, I look forward to catching up with you!

Peace and joy always,
Tim