[A Maskil of Asaph.] O God, why do you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture? [Psalm 74:1 (ESV)]
[A Miktam of David, when the Philistines seized him in Gath.] Be gracious to me, O God, for man tramples on me; all day long an attacker oppresses me. [Psalm 56:1 (ESV)]
[To the choirmaster: according to The Gittith. Of Asaph.] Sing aloud to God our strength; shout for joy to the God of Jacob! [Psalm 81:1 (ESV)]
Depending on the Bible translation used, there are five strange words we might encounter when reading the Psalms: maskil, miktam, shigionoth, gittith and selah. Maskil is seen in the titles of thirteen psalms and once in a psalm’s text (47:7). Believed to be derived from the Hebrew word sakal, meaning to be prudent, understand or ponder, maskil may indicate a psalm of wisdom with instructions for godliness. It’s sometimes translated as a “contemplative poem,” “instruction,” or “skillful psalm.” It also could refer to the skillful construction of the psalm (like a sonnet with its 14 lines and fixed rhyme scheme). The Amplified Bible covers both bases by calling a maskil “a skillful song, or a didactic or reflective poem.” Since the maskil psalms don’t share a common theme or a unique form, maskil could just be a musical term relating to its performance and its exact meaning remains a mystery in the Psalter.
The six miktam psalms are another mystery. Miktam may be from the Hebrew word katham, meaning to carve, engrave, or inscribe indelibly. Some scholars believe these psalms were valued so much that they were engraved upon tablets. Other scholars believe miktam is from the Hebrew word kethem, meaning “fine or stamped gold” and indicate the psalm was “as precious as stamped gold.” Along that line, the Amplified Bible calls the miktam psalms “a record of memorable thoughts.” While the designation may indicate the importance of the psalm, like maskil, miktam could just be a musical term. We don’t know.
Found only in the title of Psalm 7 and in Habakkuk 3:1, shigionoth usually is translated as prayer. Because its root word could be shagah, meaning reeling or going astray, it’s thought to indicate a wild passionate song with rapid changes of rhythm. In Psalm 7, the Amplified Bible translates shigionoth as an “ode of David…in a wild, irregular, enthusiastic strain.”
Three psalms have the strange heading of gittith. Associating it with the city of Gath where a harp was made, scholars assume the heading meant it was accompanied by a Gittite harp or sung to a Gittite tune. Gittith also could refer to a wine press, indicating the psalms were sung during wine production. As with maskil, miktam, and shigionoth, its exact meaning remains a mystery.
Because those enigmatic terms typically are found only in a psalm’s title, their ambiguity doesn’t affect our appreciation of the psalm; selah, however, is different. Found within the text of 39 psalms and Habakkuk 3, selah bears notice. It may be from the Hebrew word salal, meaning lift up or exalt, which could be an indication for the choir to lift their voices higher and louder in praise. Many scholars, however, believe selah comes from the Hebrew salah, meaning “to pause” and signifies a pause in the music or recitation. Perhaps, selah means both: to praise and to pause.
Thinking of selah as less important than a quarter rest on a music score, I used to skip by it. Like a musical rest, however, selah, shouldn’t be ignored. While we don’t know its exact meaning, the Psalmists thought selah important enough to place it 71 times in Psalms and it should cause us to stop and reflect on the psalm’s previous words. Whenever selah occurs in the Amplified Bible, these words follow: “pause, and calmly think of that!” Regardless of the Bible translation we use, that’s wise advice!