A Baffled King Composing Hallelujah

HallelujahIn preparation for my latest installment of The Word in Song, I asked friends for suggestions for songs. One that came up was one I expected to have pop up. It was “Hallelujah”, written by Leonard Cohen and performed by many different artists. Though I love the song, I wasn’t sure I could do it justice in my sermon series. Why? Because this song that has made it into kid’s movies and Christmas playlists had such a deep undertone that I didn’t know that quoting sections of it would work with where I was headed. What undertones? What verses might I have issue with? Well, it all depends on how closely you’ve listened to the song.

This is something that happens to me a lot. I actively listen to the lyrics of music, and often much more than the people around me. It might be because I am a writer myself. It might be because of the great love of music that was instilled in me at an early age. To not only hear it, but to feel it and understand it. It is the reason that certain love songs weird me out (I’m looking at you Heart). This focus on the words and the references being made have certainly come in handy with studying the Bible.

So, what is it about a song that that proudly proclaims “hallelujah” that makes it a difficult song to dissect? What about this song from children’s movies and Christmas playlists is so challenging? Well, it would probably be the sex and the doubts about God. I’m sure there are some people who just perked up and are now trying to figure out what I’m talking about.

There’s a handful of different versions, but they all go back to Leonard Cohen’s original versions. I say versions because Cohen recorded a few different versions of the song. He performed some lyrics in live performances, and this later would lead to the versions most people are familiar with. Most begin with the secret chord played by David. This reference is clear enough, as David was known as a king and composer. He’s a rather well-known figure from the Bible. And it is David that first introduces us to the sexual aspect of the song. See, the following verse is often that “you saw her bathing on the roof; her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya” and this is a direct reference to David and Bathsheba. This is a relationship that begins with adultery and leads to murder. This line is followed by “She tied you to a kitchen chair; she broke your throne, and she cut your hair” and is a reference to the doomed relationship of Samson and Delilah. One might see this as the extasy of the pain that love can be as this is followed by “and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.” Some might see it as ode to the joys of physical pleasure, despite everything else. I’m not sure that any of it is really an uplifting Christmas song. That doesn’t mean we can’t find the song to be a beautiful song.

In the later verses, depending on who is singing, it covers some doubts and some other aspects of love. In one we get that “and even though it all went wrong; I’ll stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah” which to me says that he is thankful for the experience, even if it all went wrong. There’s some more religious language with “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?” Love plays a significant role with other lines like “love is not a victory march; it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah” which speaks of the pain that love can be. This is also recognized in a verse that calls God into question with “maybe there’s a God above; but all I ever learned from love; was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you.” Perhaps the most explicit line is “and remember when I moved in you; the holy dove was moving too; and every breath we drew was Hallelujah” which very much sounds like a verse that follows physical extasy of love making.

There’s around 7 verses total that have been used in recordings and live performances. The song is very moving, very beautiful, and a very interesting picture of love, longing, and heartache. But that isn’t always enough to inspire me the way I’m looking to be inspired. Yes, it references the Bible, and yes it has some interesting points. But sometimes a song’s feel just doesn’t inspire one in a manner that translates into a sermon. I know quite a few songs about biblical subjects that might not translate into a good sermon. At least not for me right now. I might change my mind about this one, but I still won’t be adding it into my Christmas playlist anytime soon. But I will leave you with k.d. lang, because she might have the best rendition ever. Hope I didn’t ruin this for anyone!

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