Did you know that the Hebrew word “selah” occurs seventy times in thirty-nine of the psalms? While we don’t know for certain what it means, many biblical scholars believe that selah was a musical term used to indicate a pause in a song, whether for emphasis or for reflection.
A selah in the middle of a psalm, then, would be an opportunity for whoever is praying it to pause and reflect on what the psalm was saying. Who knows? Maybe Pope John Paul II was thinking of these selahs when he asked lectors to pause for a moment of reflection after each reading at Mass.
When we read the psalms, it is easy to see why it would be helpful to pause and reflect at different points. Take Psalm 3, which has three selahs. The first one encourages us to consider the challenges and trials we are facing (Psalm 3:3). The second one urges us to trust in God, who has always taken care of his people (3:5). And the final one calls us to take courage because God is with us today to help us overcome any trouble we may face (3:9).
Pauses like these can help bring the psalms to life for us. What’s more, praying the psalms this way can also give us deeper insights into our own lives. St. Athanasius spoke about this when he said that the Book of Psalms depicts “all the movements” of our souls: our ups and downs, our failures and recoveries, our hopes and dreams. Because all the psalms are filled with the breath of the Holy Spirit, they have heavenly power to help us place our lives in a godly, spiritual perspective.
It is also amazing that a number of the psalms seem to point to Jesus with great clarity and insight. These psalms may have originally been written about a particular person or about some important event in Israel’s history, but with the help of Spirit-inspired hindsight, we can also see in them revelations of God’s plan of salvation in Christ. And that, probably more than anything else, is what helps the psalms give us a spiritual perspective to our lives.
Why not try to take some time each day to meditate on one of the psalms—maybe the psalm used in daily Mass. Take a selah—not a nap! Stop for a moment and let these wonderful prayers from ages past comfort you and lift your heart to the Lord. In my life, especially when I face a difficult moment, I find myself going to my favorite psalm, which is Psalm 23. I read the words slowly and carefully, even though I have memorized them by now. And as I do, I am amazed at how this one short prayer helps me put my hope in Jesus, fills me with courage, and tells me that my Good Shepherd has his hand on my life.
I hope these thoughts help you to appreciate the psalms and—even more importantly—pray them.
Joe Difato is the founder and publisher of The Word Among Us magazine.