Rod Decker has drawn attention to the fact that the NIV 2011 puts the term Selah in the footnotes rather than in the text of the Psalms, and he suggests that the word should never be verbalized by those who read Scripture aloud. I like Rod Decker, but I think his post may be self-contradictory and seems to assume its conclusion. In my view, every word of the canonical form of the Psalter should be presented in the text of translations of the Psalter, factored into our interpretations of the Psalms, and verbalized by those who read the Psalms aloud. Far worse than Decker’s post is the NIV’s decision to remove something from the text of Scripture and place it instead in the footnotes.
Decker writes, “Selah is a bit mysterious, but probably is a musical notation that may have indicated a rest/pause.” What may be self-contradictory about this is the way that Decker first acknowledges that the term is mysterious (and see BDB 699–700 and HALOT 756) and then assumes the conclusion that it’s actually a musical term. [update: I made an honest mistake when I originally typed the next sentence. I did not mean to refer to translations but to those who read the text aloud and factor Selah into their interpretation.] He then
pillories translations that keep it with employs a false analogy, suggesting that reading selah aloud or allowing it to inform our exegesis would be
‘a bit like singing these actual words in the Hallelujah Chorus: “Hallelujah! rest Hallelujah! rest Hallelujah! rest Hallelujah! rest Hallelujah! rest.” I doubt Handel would be pleased!’
The truth is that we don’t ultimately know what this word means, and its use is not uniform. It may be a musical notation, or it may signify something else entirely. Our ignorance and uncertainty, however, does not give us warrant for removing from the text something that is in all the textual evidence in our possession.
For reasons textual, structural, intertextual, cultural, and theological the NIV 2011 should reverse itself on this point and put the word Selah back where it belongs: in the text.
Textual: If the NIV 2011 were following a Hebrew text that lacked Selah in the Psalms, you could make a text-critical argument that the term might have been added to the Psalter after the canonical form of the Psalter was fixed. If, however, the canonical form of the Psalter employs this term, and all the evidence in our possession indicates that it does, can we conclude anything other than that it belongs to the text inspired by the Holy Spirit? In other words, the term Selah does not appear to be some later notation added by the Masoretes. If it’s part of the canonical form of the text, the final edition of the book of Psalms which the Spirit inspired, then those who read translations of the Psalms ought to find that word represented in the translation–in the text, not in a footnote.
Structural: The use of Selah is not uniform in the Psalter, but in some cases it marks out the structure of the Psalm. For instance, the Selah’s in Psalm 84 seem to divide the Psalm into three sections: verses 1–4, verses 5–8, and verses 9–12. If the Sons of Korah put the word Selah into this Psalm to mark out its structure, what right do we have to remove it from the text and put it in a footnote? Are we helping those who would interpret Psalm 84 by doing this? Admittedly not every instance of Selah in the Psalms gives us a clear structure–in some cases it falls in the middle of a modern verse division (see, e.g., 55:20 [ET 19] and 57:4 [ET 3]). Even in these cases, though, this word is part of the evidence that needs to be factored into our interpretation. Does the fact that we don’t understand a bit of textual evidence, or worse, does our conclusion that it’s an irrelevant musical notation (which it might or might not be) give us warrant to remove it from consideration and place it in a footnote?
Intertextual: Selah also occurs in Habakkuk 3:3, 9, and 13. At the very least, keeping Selah in the text alerts someone who has read Psalms and then reads Habakkuk that Habakkuk 3 is written in the form of a Psalm. Would this help someone interpret Habakkuk 3? It should. This concern raises again the way that some translation philosophies are better than others at preserving connections between earlier and later Scripture. Not only does the NIV 2011 suffer from a translation philosophy that is inclined away from preserving such connections, evidently it isn’t even concerned to present the totality of the textual evidence.
Cultural: Which culture will determine how the Bible is understood? Better: which culture will determine how translations of the Bible are presented? Will the ancient culture in which the Bible was written be accurately represented by the texts that come down to us from it, or will our culture be allowed to emasculate those texts and reshape them into our own cultural image? Are those ancient texts allowed to say anything that seems foreign to modern readers, or are they only allowed to say things that we already know from our own culture? If they are allowed to say things that we don’t understand from our own culture, if they are allowed to be ancient and foreign to us, why the need to remove Selah from the text and place it instead in footnotes?
Our culture has been enriched by the presence of the word Selah in the text of the Psalter. We have something from the ancient world to examine, to ponder, and if we feel we’ve come to understand it, to adopt in our own usage. Selah
Theological: If the NIV 2011 does not reverse itself on this issue, can we say that it faithfully presents the text of Psalms as it has come down to us? If it does not, can we regard it as the word of God? Article X of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy states: “We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.”
When I read an ancient text from a different culture, I don’t want to look into a linguistic mirror. I would like for that text to feel a little foreign, to feel a little ancient. I don’t want it only telling me what I already know. This word Selah occurs over and over all across the Psalter and into Habakkuk 3. One of the challenges of reading and understanding the Bible is paying attention to all the things the Bible says that we don’t understand, studying those things, and trying to come to a place where we begin to learn what the biblical authors were talking about and how they talked about it.
On the other hand, you could adopt the NIV 2011 as your Bible and it will lessen those unpleasant confrontations with things you don’t recognize from your own culture. After all, your culture is determinative, right?