Selah in NIV-11

October 25, 2011

I just noticed something in the NIV-11 that hadn’t registered before. In the Psalms, the word selah is not printed in the text. Instead there is a footnote marking the places where it occurs. This may make some traditionalists unhappy (and ruin a few sermons that hinge on that word! πŸ™‚ ), but I think this is a very good move (no pun intended). Selah is a bit mysterious, but probably is a musical notation that may have indicated a rest/pause. When reading Scripture orally, it should never be read and it should certainly not be made into a matter of exegetical or homiletical significance. (I’ve often heard it used as an indication that some statement is particularly significant: “think of that!” is the usual idea that I’ve heard.) To do so would be a bit like singing these actual words in the Hallelujah Chorus: “Hallelujah! rest Hallelujah! rest Hallelujah! rest Hallelujah! rest Hallelujah! rest.” I doubt Handel would be pleased! (with your singing—and the NIV-11 would probably sound strange to him also, but then the 18th C. didn’t speak 21st C. English, which is the whole point of the NIV-11).

12 responses to Selah in NIV-11

  1. So you think the word is not canonical? [unhappy traditionalist]

  2. Oh no! It is definitely in the canonical text. I’m not questioning that at all. But what is its function? If it functioned as a musical notation in Hebrew, but does not in English, then it will avoid mistakes by poorly informed people who create far-fetched interpretations if the term is retained, but moved to a note. The NIV-11 note clearly says, “The Hebrew has Selah (a word of uncertain meaning) here.” That’s not intended as a text critical note giving a reading in variance from the text printed, but an explanation of a formal feature of the Hebrew text which cannot easily be conveyed in English. (I.e., it is different from the type of text crit note that is found, e.g., at Gen 4:8.)

  3. Thanks for the clarification Rod. I have always taught that it should be said, as part of the text (along with the first verses or psalm titles), and followed by a quiet pause.

  4. Rod,

    Actually, the TNIV didn’t have them in the text either.

    • Now that I hadn’t realized, but then I didn’t use the TNIV much. I caught it in NIV-11 as I followed the Scripture reading from Psalm 54 in chapel the other day.

  5. Many thanks for this post – very helpful, and I agree. However, it’s raised a couple of problems for me with regard to the public reading of the text.

    If you were reading a translation that does put Selahs in the text, would you omit them? My practice thus far has been to read them (along with the Psalm headings), out of concern that people take care to notice every word that is in the text and not think they can skip “unimportant” bits.

    I still feel the weight of this concern, even though it means I’m reading something that isn’t really very sensible to read out loud. Which factor is more important? Read them? Skip them? Skip them, but preface your reading each time with “Selah is a musical indicator not intended to be read aloud, which is why I’m going to skip it, but it’s the only word in God’s Word that I skip when reading out loud”? Would be an awful lot quicker just to read the Selah πŸ™‚

    And having mentioned the Psalm headings: In some cases (e.g. Psalm 51), I would be horrified if they weren’t read. However, were they intended for reading/singing out loud? What about “For the choir director: according to The Lilies”, etc.? That’s just as much of a musical direction as Selah, surely? Do we pick and choose which headings – or which bits of headings – we read, according to what they contribute to understanding the Psalm?? That seems fraught with danger.


    • > If you were reading a translation that does put Selahs in the text, would you omit them?

      Yes. I appreciate the concern for all the text, but from a pastoral perspective (and I pastored for a dozen years before moving to the classroom, and am still involved in ministry in my church, so I understand these concerns) this is not something that needs to be dealt with every time a Selah passage is read. A pastor ought to explain what Selah is all about to his congregation, but having done that, he can assume that most people understand and should only need to reinforce/remind/review from time to time. Now if he is preaching through a psalm with a Selah (or Hab 3), then it’s appropriate to comment once again. Generally, however, it gets pedantic to explain it every time in the context of a Scripture reading—and probably detracts from the meaning and message of the text. As for psalm headings, I’d likely not read them if they were strictly presentation notes. If they provide specific context setting, then I’d more likely read them. I see no danger in that. We always pick and choose where we begin and stop reading since there is always something before our starting point (unless, of course, you’re reading Gen 1:1!) and after it—and the context is relevant, yet we have to assume it many times. Consistent, systematic reading through large chunks of text is, I think, important in a church setting and helps compensate for such decisions. That combined with faithful exposition of Scripture week after week handles all the concerns I’ve heard raised.

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