Selah — When David Paused Pausing Amidst Strike Long Enough to Pray


As part of my quiet times through 2015, and now into 2016, I’ve been reading through Psalms, accompanied by James Montgomery Boice’s brilliant Psalms commentary series. It has been a wonderful time to learn more about a book of the Bible that, often, previously, I had relegated to poetry — ie, not very theologically significant. However, Boice “always thought of the psalms as the deepest and most spiritual portion of the Word of God” — and I am beginning to see why.

Beyond the deep spiritual nature of these psalms, however, is a gifted writer writing to God. As a writer myself, I have found myself reading through Psalms with a writers’ eye towards composition, and I have begun to develop a theory about how David wrote several, if not many of his psalms. One example is found in the lament of Psalm 54, and while there are several ways in which commentators have structured this psalm, it can simply be split in two around a Selah.

Translators have never been able to determine exactly what Selah means, but the general consensus is that it is to act as a sort of musical or poetic interlude — a pause to reflect on words which have just been sung or spoken. In Psalm 54, the entire composition hinges on that Selah, or interlude, with translations variously translating the next words as, But God; Surely God; Behold, God.

That interlude changed the whole tone of the psalm, and the more I read David’s psalms, and the more I think I come to know the man behind the writing, I can’t help but wonder whether David simply paused in writing his lament for a moment to walk away, refresh his mind, and turn to God in his anger, sorrow, etc.

Another example of this is inPsalm 13:

O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever?

    How long will you look the other way?

How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul,

    with sorrow in my heart every day?

    How long will my enemy have the upper hand?


Turn and answer me, O Lord my God!

    Restore the sparkle to my eyes, or I will die.

Don’t let my enemies gloat, saying, “We have defeated him!”

    Don’t let them rejoice at my downfall.

These two stanzas form two-thirds of the whole Psalm, and represent the cries of a man in anguish. David is fearful that God has forgotten him, abandoned him, and left him to his enemies. But then, in the third and final stanza, something changes – rather abruptly:

But I trust in your unfailing love.

    I will rejoice because you have rescued me.

I will sing to the Lord

    because he is good to me.

There’s no note for Psalm 13 that would explain exactly when this Psalm was written, and therefore explain this sudden change of mood. David outlined his complaints, prayed for God to return His gaze, and then all of a sudden all is well – “I will rejoice because you have rescued me.” And while there is no Selah in the text, it is not hard to imagine a scene in which David struggled with his thoughts and fears before finding his answer:

There is David, sitting in one of the many upper rooms in his palace, writing implement and parchment on a desk near a window, soft curtains fluttering in the breeze. It is still outside, a bright moon is about to be eclipsed by clouds, and David paces around his room.

If we were to gain a view of his desk, we would see the first two stanzas of Psalm 13 written out, several more lines crossed out, scribbled notes around the edges.

David continues to pace, but then he falls to his knees, facing towards the moon before it falls behind the clouds. “Turn and answer me, O Lord my God!” he cries out.

He kneels there for some time, his mind calming with his breathing, before he finally stands to his feet and returns to his desk. In four simple lines he finishes the psalm.

In one sense, Psalm 13 is the perfect (and succinct) model for how we should react in our own distress: Acknowledge the issue to God, pray for help, and expectantly praise Him. Although, as is likely as not, David found his answer to prayer in praying to God. Maybe there was no pause in David’s writing at all. Eugene Petersen in his book Answering God says that “prayer, pursued far enough, becomes praise. Any prayer, no matter how desperate its origin, no matter how angry and fearful the experiences it traverses, ends up in praise.”[1] Petersen himself notes that sometimes Psalms will, seemingly at random, erupt in praise amidst the most terrible of cries for help.

But as I read this, I can’t help but find parallels to the way that I sometimes write. There are times when I simply need to step away from something to clear my head and refocus my perspective. There are several other Psalms which bear these sudden mood swings:Psalm 6:9; Psalm 22:22-23; Psalm 28:6-7; Psalm 56:11-14. Psalm 22 as a whole represents the longer-form version of these mood swing Psalms, in which David explores each step of his journey from despair to praising God again – moving back and forth from what he is feeling to what he knows he should feel, before finally concluding in praise.

David’s examples in Psalms are worth following for us today: even though we might be in the midst of terrible anguish, sorrow, pain, or hurting, we should kneel before God and ask for help. Maybe then, when God brings us out of our own personal pits, our sudden changes in attitude will be a reminder to others of God’s unfailing love, and a light shining towards the God who is always good to us. (Psalm 13)

[1] Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, Eugene Petersen, p. 128

Image Credit: ‘A Prayer for Those at Sea’, by Frederick Daniel Hardy – 1879, Wolverhampton Art Gallery