Selah! (ESV vs NIV Volume 3)

January 27, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Posted in Devotional thoughts, English Bible Translations | 3 Comments

When I studied Psalms in graduate school, my professor was Robert Alden, who had been on the original NIV translation team.  He told us that we don’t know for sure the meaning of that funny word in Psalms, “selah.”  (Not funny in a comical way, but funny in the sense that it is not a recognizable English word; translators use the actual Hebrew instead.)  He said the most popular idea among scholars is that this marks a musical interlude, and that a musical interlude is a time to reflect on what was said before it.  He always used the word as a pause, and exclamation point – a reminder to go back and think about what was just read.  I have tried to use that word as such a reminder ever since.  Even if that was not the original meaning of “selah,” it is a good exercise for readers today.

Psalm 39 is a great example.  Twice the text says “Each man’s life is but a breath. Selah” (5, 11)  This is a point that should be pondered, for it will bring forth prayers like the ones in this poem.  “Show me, O LORD, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life.” (4)  And it will force us to the same commitment David makes in the midst of this pondering, “Now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you.” (7)  Another great example is found in Psalm 49 – one of my all-time favorites.  Here we are reminded again that people are temporal; despite their wealth or fame they perish. Selah! (See verse 12-13)  But the good news is “God will redeem my life from the grave; he will surely take me to himself.”  Think about that! (15)  Both places where our word appears in this chapter are great points to ponder.  All of us are temporal, and our only hope is God’s redemption.

But I wonder if Dr. Alden isn’t rolling over in his grave, for the NIV2011 has left that word out of its translation. (Selah!)  The translation committee, who claim the very words of scripture are inspired by God, totally ignored this word, seventy-one times!  I’m not one to say that every word has to correspond to something in English; that would be naïve.  When the original meaning can be conveyed in fewer English words than Hebrew or Greek, then the translators have the option of using fewer words.  In such a case the words are not ignored; they are taken seriously and their meaning is considered.  However, this matter of “selah” is something entirely different.  This word is simply ignored in the text – a point that, in my mind, goes against their own stated translation theory.  Since I have tried to use “selah” as a reminder to slow down and ponder, I have already missed it terribly in my reading of various psalms this year.  I’ve started going through and writing it in by hand a few pages ahead of where I’m reading, so I will be reminded to meditate on the Word.  If my readers can’t tell from my tone, this point is a huge negative on the NIV2011, and will weigh heavily in my decision of which translation to preach out of in the future.

For my conclusions on NIV vs ESV check out my post called Grieving the NIV


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  1. Thank you for your posts. I read the ESV . The amplified Bible says stop /pause and think calmly about that.I have also tound that so illuminating .V.May. (England)

  2. Vanessa, Thank you for reading and for you kind comment. I’d never seen that in the Amplified before. I appreciate the insight. GG

  3. Well that is just scary …

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