BY BESORAH WON
Homer once sang that “words empty as the wind are best left unsaid.” Simply put, empty words reflect their lack of value in the speaker’s heart. If these words hold no value to the speaker, then they will have no value for the listener. Homer’s wise words, however, should hold significance for his audience—especially the Christian listener.
Among the most commonly heard Christian words, “Amen,” in Hebrew, is an assertion of confidence and faith in God. With Amen, we declare, “Truly, Let it be” at the end of each prayer. Other basic biblical terms include Emmanuel, Hallelujah, Hosanna, and Selah. But what do these words mean? What do we mean when we sing “Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest” in the Hillsong United chorus, and why do we express excitement with “Hallelujah!”? If these words are meaningless, why utter them at all? Again, we’re prompted to return to Homer’s reminder that empty words are indeed better left unsaid. Therefore, the call to refresh and restore the meanings of rudimentary Christian words stands as an imperative for our faith.
One such fundamental biblical term is the word “Emmanuel,” also spelled “Immanuel.” Most importantly, Emmanuel functions as a promise pervasive in the entire text of the Bible. Scripture reveals that Emmanuel is essentially the fulfillment of God’s promise to his people: Jesus. From the Evangelists, we learn that “they will call him Immanuel,” which means “God with us.” In Hebrew, the word breaks down to el, meaning “God,” emma, meaning “with me,” and nu, “us”: “God with us.” This promise is present in the Old Testament, too. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” In Psalm 23, David acknowledges God’s promise that He will be with His people from the beginning to the end of time. Praise God!
Or, in other words, “Hallelujah!” The term Hallelujah specifically addresses our call to praise God and His goodness. The etymology of Hallelujah in Hebrew consists of two major parts. Hallelu is an imperative, meaning “praise!” in the second-person plural form. Jah or Yah is a shortened form of “YHWH” or “Jehovah.” Hence Hallelujah as a whole means “Praise ye the Lord!” The book of Psalms best embodies the word Hallelujah, as it is after all, an entire book of songs dedicated to exalting God’s glory. The very last verse (150:6) beautifully captures the essence of Hallelujah: “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord!”
“Hosanna” also refers to our call to praise God. Hosanna, however, has two meanings: one referring to praise, and the other a cry for God to save His people. In Hebrew, the word can be broken into hosa, referring to hoshi’ah, which means “save” or “deliver,” and na, prayer. Combined, Hosanna means, “Lord, save us now, we beseech thee.” Psalm 118:25 reflects mankind’s cry for a redeemer: “O Lord, save us.” Interestingly, Hosanna’s double meaning can be traced to the beginning of the term’s Christian usage. Through the shift from a Hebrew to Greek interpretation of the word, and with the beginnings of Christian practice, Hosanna became a declaration of praise. For most Christians today, the word is best recognized as a shout of praise in the context of of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The crowds, at Jesus’ arrival, declare, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
Lastly, “Selah” is one of the most important, common, and yet ambiguous words in the Bible. Generally found in poetic or musical contexts, it appears about seventy-four times in Scripture—seventy-one times in the book of Psalms and three times in the book Habakkuk. Selah is not a word meant to be spoken or read aloud. It is thought to be a notation inserted by scribes to indicate a musical or poetic halt. Though its exact etymology and definition is unclear, some believe that Selah can be derived from the Hebrew word calah, which means “to hang” or “to measure”: particularly, to measure the value of what has just been read or spoken. Selah is believed to mark a pause for the reader to stop and meditate on the meanings of God’s words.
Selah, then, best encapsulates the purpose of this article. Words without meaning are meaningless. This seemingly obvious statement underscores Christians’ responsibility to know the basic terms of their faith, the very words that embody the fundamental truths and expectations of Christian belief.
In all that we do and say, whether it be in praise, prayer, or meditation, may our thoughts always submit to God. We remember Solomon’s warnings in Ecclesiastes: “Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God.” Selah.