Day 209: How a Panic Attack Taught Me the Meaning of Selah (Psalm 46)

The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah (Psalm 46:7,11)

Read Through the Bible: 2 Kings 19,  Psalm 46, 80,  135

The Hebrew word selah appears 74 times in the Old Testament, and all but three are in the Psalms. It appears three times in Psalm 46:

  • Once at the end of verse 3, after the Psalmist reminds us that even when the waters roar and foam; even when the earth is moved and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, we will not be moved. Selah.
  • Twice more, in the repeated refrain , “the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.” Selah.

The precise meaning of selah is one of the enduring mysteries of the Bible. Some think it is related to a Hebrew word meaning to weigh or measure something in a balance. Others suggest it is related to Hebrew words meaning to praise or to lift up. Since it figures so prominently in the Psalms, most commentators believe it is some kind musical direction— a note to the musicians to pause or rest.

I’m grateful for the wisdom of translators who leave the word untranslated. That way, it gives us the freedom to make a mash-up definition with all three meanings. Here’s may attempt to get all three concepts into one definition:

Selah: a pause or a rest, during which one carefully considers the weight of what he just read or sang. Selah is a vital component of our praise and worship of God.

We all need selah as part of our regular routine. The kids’ camp I preach every summer has rotating nights off for its staff. One or two staffers each night are excused from afternoon and evening activities so they can rest and recharge. They refer to this as being “on Selah.”

Sometimes, God makes us take selah, even when we don’t want it or don’t think we need it. That happened to me a couple of years ago. Bear with me, because it’s a long story of how I got to that selah moment in the first place.

It was a Saturday night. My wife and younger son and I were driving home from Atlanta, after spending the day with my Mom, who was in hospice care at the time. We had just gotten to our exit when our daughter in law called saying she was taking our older son to the emergency room. He had been grilling burgers that afternoon when the flames flared up, burning his face, arm, and neck. 

I dropped off the rest of the family and headed back to Opelika. I called a minister friend and asked him to fill in for me in the pulpit Sunday morning.

All this was happening as we observed the one year anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic. It had been a year of learning how to livestream funerals that family members couldn’t go to. Of walking a tightrope between church members who were leaving our church because they thought we were overreacting to the mask mandate, and church members who wouldn’t come back because we weren’t taking masks seriously enough. Of seeing giving decline by more than 30% from the previous year. Of wondering if I was the right leader for this church at the time.

I stayed with Caleb until late Saturday night, and got back home to Prattville a little before 1 in the morning. Then on Monday, I drove back to Opelika to stay with him during the day while his wife went to work (her first day at a new job). After taking him back to the hospital for a follow up appointment, I drove back home.

I thought I was fine on the way home. I had a slight headache, but I figured once I got home I could eat, get ready for bed, and the headache would go away.

Instead, the headache got worse. I started breathing deep, trying to will more oxygen into my brain so the headache would go away. I tried to focus on nothing other than keeping my car between the white lines.

I felt myself getting flushed. I knew my breathing was getting more and more rapid, but I couldn’t slow it down. As I got to the exit for Prattville, my hands and feet started tingling.

I pulled into a parking lot a few miles from home and called Trish. She came and got me and took me to the emergency room. They did a CT scan of my brain and chest to look for a blood clots, signs of stroke, heart issues, etc. They ruled out all the big stuff, and concluded that it was an anxiety attack.

But I wasn’t all that anxious! my mind protested. I was just listening to an audiobook. It had been a good day with Caleb. Sunday morning, I felt nothing but affirmation and love from my church family. It was a good visit with my mom.

But as I look back on this episode, I realized that I wasn’t just dealing with anxiety about Caleb, or my mom, or our church. I was dealing with the cumulative effect of the last twelve months. My panic attack was brought on by the sum total of twelve months of anxiety and doubt and fear.

So what does all this have to do with Psalms? Well, it “just so happened” that Psalm 46 was part of my daily Bible reading the day after this episode. And the thrice-repeated selah in jumped out to me as never before.

  • Selah: weigh this carefully: Even when the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, we will not fear.
  • Selah: lift up your voice and praise that the Lord of hosts is with you.
  • Selah: pause. Be still and know that I am the Lord. The God of Jacob is your fortress.

My body, mind, and spirit were crying out for a Selah. I had spent more than a year in fear; watching mountains crumble and fall into the heart of the sea. I had forgotten how to lift my voice in praise. I wasn’t acting as though the God of Jacob was my fortress. I was acting like it was all up to me, and so of course I had not taken time to pause and be still.

And so, when I wouldn’t Selah for myself, God graciously selah’d me. I had an anxiety attack. It wasn’t easy admitting that to my church family, because I didn’t want them to lose confidence in who I am as a leader. But then again, I follow Jesus who allowed His most skeptical disciple to touch the scars in His hands and side. So maybe it’s such a bad thing to let your church family know you are struggling. And God bless them, they loved me through it. It has been nearly two years now, and I haven’t had another episode like that. But I learned a crucial lesson: If you don’t take time regularly to pause, praise, and reflect, your body may very well force you to take that time whether you want to or not.


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