I recently listened to this rendition of Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah”, performed by opera singer Andre Bocelli and his 8 year old daughter. You can watch it here.
This Leonard Cohen song, released in 1984, rose in popularity in the last few years. Have you listened to the lyrics? I have found them somewhat confusing.
Cohen seems to be talking about King David, the ancient king of Israel during their golden age. About the king’s sense of emptiness and in desiring to feel again, touching someone else’s wife, bringing chaos, pain, loss.
Cohen intersperses his verses with repeated singing of “Hallelujah”. Now the word “hallelujah”, according to the online dictionary, is “an expression of worship or rejoicing.” Hallelujah originates from the Hebrew hallĕlūyāh meaning ‘praise ye the Lord’. King David was known as a godly king for the most part, a king who was also a poet and wrote many songs of worship and praise to God. The dissonance is strong as David acknowledges in Cohen’s lyrics the baffling love for God and God’s ways, yet straying from that love and experiencing how his life “all went wrong” after that. Here are the song lyrics.
Now, I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, well really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah
I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
What is Coehan trying to say? At first glance, I was not sure.
But upon a closer reading of the lyrics, what comes to me is that the “cold and lonely”, and “broken” condition Cohen describes brings one face to face with loss, grief. Perhaps this is a lament of King David’s – listing off of what is wrong with his life.
And then “Hallelujah.” Singing praises to God. Is that Cohen’s intent? I am not sure. I don’t know enough about him or the writing of his song. Upon doing a little internet research, I found that Cohen, who faced a “tragic early death” had a Jewish background, and there is speculation that “the song reflects both Cohen’s struggles with faith and tests of faith inflicted upon the Jewish people. However, it’s unknown whether or not this was intentional on Cohen’s part. Most music theorists presume that the lyrics are meant to be more open-ended.” https://spinditty.com/genres/The-Origin-and-History-of-the-Song-Hallelujah
Upon reflecting further, I am reminded that there is a cycle of life from birth, growth, flourishing, fruitfulness, withering and death we see in nature, as well as in the human experience. When we are growing and fruitful and flourishing, it is easy to sing “Hallelujah” and praise God. But when one gets to withering aspects of life and facing the death of dreams, relationships, or even self, one has the opportunity to take stock, and look up, and we can then see that God has been there all along. But we haven’t been paying attention.
Perhaps we are able to say “Hallelujah” before God even when brokenness is all we have. We are bringing our broken selves before God as King David did, and looking for something….something only God can do. We hope this is not the end of the story. The remains of plants, leaves, creatures, slowly, over time and in the right conditions reform to create rich soil in which new life can begin. Can we also experience new life after brokenness?
We as human beings are collectively, some more than others, going through a period of loss and grief as we are continuing to experience, on some level, a world-wide, unprecedented in our lifetimes, pandemic. What might we be invited to let go of, to shed, to surrender? When might we experience new life; the new thing we can’t do on our own; the new things we look to God for? Can we look up and say “Hallelujah, God is with us?” Even during this time? Even now when our lived experience is uncertain as the pandemic seems to be abating in some places in the world, but not in others?