The sun had not yet peeked over the horizon, and I was trying to tether thoughts and words together for an upcoming talk. I had left my Bible and tablet upstairs, and decided not to risk waking my sleeping loved ones by braving the creaking floor boards to get them. Instead, I found my newly-minted seven year old’s bible and flipped it open to Psalm 84.
The Psalm looked different.
I had been working from two translations in preparing, and now sat with the text of the New International Version; my favorite for decades, but now feeling a little strange after years of using others. I scanned the text; some words and phrases differently expressed (but still so beautiful). But something was missing.
I paused a moment, wondering whether this would be a proverbial rabbit worth chasing. A quick survey of my surroundings revealed that the house was still quiet and the sun still not up. I clicked open my computer and pulled up a few other versions of Psalm 84: the aching poetry of The Message, the stately King James Version, and finally The Amplified Bible.
Then, I noticed it. The phrase leapt from the page.
Blessed (happy, fortunate, to be envied) are those who dwell in Your house and Your presence; they will be singing Your praises all the day long. Selah [pause, and calmly think of that]! (Psalm 84:4, AMP)
Pause, and calmly think of that.
Scholars are not sure of the exact meaning of Selah, a word used 74 times in the Hebrew Bible. Most agree it indicated a musical interlude; a pause of some kind. The Amplified Bible took it a step further, seeing it as a pause which invited reflection. Perhaps it was the uncertainty which led the translators of the NIV to move it into a footnote, rather than keeping it in the main body of the Psalm. But it was the selah that was missing, and which the Amplified Bible had helped me to notice.
The Psalms were meant to be sung, but I grew up reading them more than singing them. As such, I skipped over the selah parts, seeing them as a musical notation to people with obsolete instruments like lyres. If melodies and lyres weren’t part of my Psalms experience, then musical notations like selahs didn’t need to be either.
But music needs both notes and silence. As a budding young pianist, I remember my frustration at coming across a cheap kids’ keyboard at a friends’ house. At first, I had been excited about the record function on the little red keyboard. Look! We could record our own tunes and play them back! I pressed “record” and carefully picked out the tune I had been learning: a simplified Bach minuet (right hand only; the keyboard was short). I managed to play the whole thing without fumbling, and excitedly pressed “play” to hear how it sounded.
I was crushed. The early 80’s technology blared note by note out of its tinny speakers. Each note exactly right, but played one after each other like a robotic march. All the pauses and rests and cadences of the music had been eliminated in the recording … and the result wasn’t music.
Music needs rests; spaces between the notes for breath, for poignancy, for power.
Looking down at the Psalm I had only ever read, but not sung, I wondered whether my reading of the Psalms — and perhaps too much of Scripture — has been a little like listening to it on a junky red keyboard: all words, with no spacing between for breath, for poignancy, for power.
Soon, the day will begin and our family orchestra will begin its daily rhythms. In the midst of the pressures of deadlines and to-do lists, and of stories of heartbreak and hurt, I need the truths of the Psalms to be the lamp to our feet and the light to our path. But those words of hope and courage will remain little more than a pithy fridge magnet if I don’t leave a little space for the selah; a pause to let the words echo in my soul.
In the midst of a day with many notes to be played, there are these words for me to consider:
“Blessed are those who dwell in your presence, ever singing your praise.”
And then there is a Selah. An invitation to take a moment. To pause, keep calm, and think of that.