The term “selah” occurs frequently in Hebrew poetry. It is found 71 times in the book of Psalms, and 3 times in the third chapter of Habakkuk which is also writ-ten in the form of a psalm (c.f. 3:19). Yet, many tend not to pay attention to this word when they read the Bible. Some Bible translations such as the NIV 2011 remove this word from the main text and relegate it to the footnotes. Other Bible versions such as the NET and CUV place this word in the brackets, which may result in readers doubting its validity and function.

As Bible-believing Christians, we believe that every word of God is inspired and preserved through the ages. The term “selah” is part of inspired Scripture and thus should not be removed. Christians should also have a proper understanding of selah.

The Function of Selah

Most scholars agree that selah comes from one of two verbal roots; from salah meaning “to pause”; or from salal meaning “to lift up”. It functions as a thought-link, pointing us to reflect and meditate on what has been said before and its implications to what will be found after. When found at the end of a division or psalm, it can also take on the meaning that is equivalent to “amen” and “shalom”. Those singing, listening or reading the psalms are to contemplate deeply and praise the Lord. Thus, the importance of selah lies not so much in its musical and liturgical functions, but how out attitude should be towards God’s Word. It is a call for us to consider deeply what has been written.

Due to its unique function, selah is often used to break up psalms into different sections and stanzas. One example is Psalm 3. Selah is found at the end of verses 2, 4 and 9. A person reading the psalm can thus break it easily into three different sections. The first section (Psalm 3:1-2) deals with how a Christian may find himself in desperate situations where there appears to be no help from anyone. The second section (Psalm 3:3-4) teaches us that God will help His saints. Finally, the third section (3:5-9) discusses the peace and assurance a believer can have in God for He will surely help in times of trouble. This serves as a valuable help for Bible teachers and students in understanding the text.

However, selah can sometimes be found connecting two clauses within a sentence. One example is Psalm 55:19 – “God shall hear, and afflict them, even he that abideth of old. Selah. Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God.” In this verse, selah draws attention to the basis of God’s judgement and the irony of the situation. God is the one who sits enthroned from the very beginning. He is sovereign from eternity past and will continue to be sovereign in eternity future. On the other hand, those who afflict David are unchanging in their rebellion towards God. Whereas, this contrasted with the unchanging God who will vindicate His servant and judge them. The reader is thus to ponder on this teaching and respond accordingly in their conduct.

The Public Reading of Selah

Another point of contention lies in the public reading of Selah. Some teach that selah ought not to be read aloud in public. For example, Roger Ellsworth in his book “Opening up Psalms” contend that the best way to honour each selah is not by actually saying the word, but rather by pausing. This also seems to be the view of Vine in his Expository Dictionary, where he says that “the voice is silent” when reading selah.

Should we then forbid the reading of selah aloud in public? Firstly, we need to understand that such a practice is based upon pure conjecture that the ancient Hebrews kept silence when they come to the term selah. Some researchers, however, contend that the singers would in fact raise their tone and sing louder when they encounter selah. Others opine that selah is a key for the instrumentalists to play an interlude or to play louder so that the previous contents of the psalm are emphasised. There is simply no consensus on this matter. For churches to build a practice based upon conjecture, rather than the evidence of Scripture, is simply not wise.

How then did such a practice arise? The origins of this argument actually came from textual critics who assume that selah is but a musical notation and is not part of inspired Scripture. For example, James Limburg in his commentary on Psalms claim that “it is the work of the editors who put the Psalms together.” He then assumes that the word “most likely” indicates a pause for a musical interlude and thus “should be omitted when reading the psalm aloud”. Such a think-ing is nothing but an attack on the inspired Word of God. It is with this thinking in mind that the NIV 2011 removes selah from the main text and relegates it to the footnotes. This is also the reason why many translations place selah in brackets to cast doubt on the veracity of the term. Why then should Bible-believing churches support such an attack by keeping silent when reading selah?

Moreover, the practice of the religious Jews today contradicts the practice of not reading selah aloud. In many synagogues, selah is read with the heightening of the tone. For some, selah is an indication to read the preceding verses again so that they can meditate further on their content. The Hebrews also have many prayers that contain the term selah. For example, selah is used in the Amidah prayer, which is the central prayer of Jewish liturgy. In the recital of these pray-ers, the Jews would read the term selah out loud, for it is often taken to be the equivalent of “amen” or “forever”.

Additional proof that selah should be read aloud can be seen from the Hebrew Masoretic text. Every occurrence of selah in the Bible comes with accent marks, indicating how the term should be read. If we are meant to keep silent, why then are the accent marks provided for selah?

In 1 Timothy 4:13, Paul exhorts Timothy that he ought to give attendance to “reading”. This reading (avagnōsis) refers to the public reading of Scripture. Since selah is part of God-breathed Scripture, it should thus be read aloud in public. As discussed earlier, the term selah affects the interpretation of passages. To keep silent for selah does not do justice to the richness of Scripture and is a disservice to the congregation hearing or participating in the public reading of the Scriptures.


A pastor once heard a young man preach from the Psalms. At the end of the sermon, the pastor left with much sadness in his heart. The young man had read the Psalms ignoring the term selah. This resulted in the young preacher dividing the text wrongly in the sermon. The young man would have preached much better if he had paid attention to the term.

Selah is a biblical term that carries a distinctive and important hermeneutical function in Hebrew Poetry. To discard the term is to miss out the great richness of the message of the Scriptures. The diligent Bible student must ponder over the significance of this term. It is also the conviction of this writer that selah should be read aloud during the public reading of the Scriptures. May the Lord grant readers good understanding and discernment concerning this matter.


Lovingly in Christ,
Preacher Clement Chew