Peterson on Selah

Eugene Peterson’s interpretation of the meaning of the word selah.

Selah, scattered randomly through the Psalms seventy-one times, is the evidence. The word never occurs within the text itself but alongside as a notation in the margin. No one is sure of the exact meaning; scholars guess “pause for benediction” perhaps, or “louder here – fortissino!” What is beyond guesswork is that it is telltale evidence of liturgy. Like detectives sifting through the clues we find Selah; from it we deduce not a crime but a community. People were gathered together in prayer by and in these psalms. Congregations were assembled in worship. These prayers were not from the pen of solitary mystics; these are the trained voices of choirs lifting their voices in lament and praise, in petition and adoration.

These psalms teach us to pray are, all of them, prayers of a people gathered in community before God in worship. Some of them most certainly originated in solitude, and all of them have been continued in solitude. But in the form in which they come to us, the only form in which they come to us, and therefore in the way they serve as our school of prayer, they are the prayers of a community before God in worship. Prayer is fundamentally liturgical. Selah, untranslated and untranslatable, strewn throughout the Psalms, will not let us forget it. If the meaning is an enigma, its use is clear: Selah directed people who were together in prayer to do something or other together. Our prayer book, by the time we get our hands on it, has all these liturgical scribbles in the margins. Biblically, we are not provided with a single prayer for private devotions. The community in prayer, not the individuals in prayer, is basic and primary. The Americanization of prayer has reveresed this clear biblical (and human!) order. Individuals don’t “make up” the community, they are produced by it. The Psalms return us to the beginning, the original matrix of humanity and spirituality.”

Eugene Peterson,(1989) Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer. HarperSanFransico, p. 83-84.

Some of the most solitary sounding psalms have choir directions in their prologue. Of course some of our hymns sound solitary or like a two-way conversation, but aren’t; ‘Amazing Grace‘ comes to mind, as does ‘Here I am Lord‘.  The hymns of the Hymnal as poems have been printed in Poems of Grace: Texts of the Hymnal 1982. Perhaps these solitary sounding psalms were appropriate for a choir because the choir led the congregation in prayer rather then the choir singing instead of the congregation. Within the Temple, everyone may have been trained to take part in the choir as part of their temple training.

I think its interesting that the Book of Common Prayer strips selah out of the pslams, presumably because its shouldn’t be pronounced. That seems correct for a liturgical book. Yet, the service sheets (fliers) that people are given on Sunday with the collect, readings, and psalm does include selah, and the congregation says it. Why does the service sheet include it?

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