While the Hebrew word selah has never been adequately translated, scholars now concede that it was some kind of ancient musical direction. In the days before tones and rhythms were written down, selah is a clue that something more than spoken words were happening as the psalms were prayed. There was music that existed off the page - and it was as important to the Jewish prayers as the texts. Yet as the psalms were published in subsequent editions of the Bible, they became texts that lost their tunes.
In the generations that followed, the faithful created tunes to accompany the psalms. While the original tunes of ancient Israel are lost to us, their musical descendants are not. We have Sephardic Jewish tones, Orthodox Christian settings, and Gregorian chants. The Protestant Reformers bequeathed us with the publications of their musical settings of these prayers. Countless composers have constructed music to accompany the prayers of Israel for the assembly of faithful believers. Psalmody is alive and well, and growing in some corners of the ecumenical church.
Yet my hunch is that selah has remained a marginal word. Instrumental music has never been valued by the church and temple as much as the holy script. Music was not originally deemed important enough to be notated along with the texts of the psalms. Or if it was, the clergy decided very early that the music was secondary to the Word – thus establishing a paradigm that still gets played out among the professional staffs of countless churches.
What’s more, there are many psalms that are never sung, much less prayed or read. Perhaps they are too honest for most North American churchgoers. Not feeling welcome in the church, the Bible’s laments slipped out the back door of the sanctuary unnoticed, and wandered into the roadhouses of blues bands and early folk musicians. Meanwhile, back in the pastor’s office, if an occasional unpleasant verse appeared (say, like Psalm 104:35a), it was expelled from the lectionary as if it were a pebble in the oatmeal. Downstairs in the choir room, somebody sanded the splinters out of the unfinished prayers of the Psalter (“how long, O Lord?”), leaving behind smooth petitions that resolve in pleasant tonalities. The passion of most psalms was domesticated, lest the Psalmist hurl a rock through the stained glass of a cautious church.
All of this was playing in my imagination as I began a pastoral sabbatical in the summer of 2006. I was hungry to explore the psalms as the primary resource for praying with God. I began to listen anew to the texts - and behind them - to hear what musical sounds might once again lift them off the page. In my imagination, I was specifically listening for instrumental music that would resonate most closely with the psalm texts, without harnessing it as mere “accompaniment.” Selah! Let the music speak to God in its own tongue! The notated sounds in this musical collection are the result of what I heard during that time. They are truly “Psalms Without Words,” and are offered as a model of instrumental music as a form of biblically-shaped prayer.
Thanks to a generous sabbatical grant from the Louisville Institute, I was able to visit two psalm-shaped communities – a Benedictine community in New Mexico and a Reformed congregation in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. These are thriving communities in barren landscapes. Their geographical settings were as instructive as their devotional practices. I kept asking two questions: How does it sound to praise and lament in places of sparseness and extremity? How does one pray in the full range of human expression, with honesty and passion, without any need to play it safe in God’s presence?