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Leonard Cohen - Hallelujah (Live In London)
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Holy or Broken?

Peter Jelleyman —

I admit it, I have a love/hate relationship with Leonard Cohen’s popular song Hallelujah.

My favourite version, excusing its concluding Christmas marketing pitch, would be that of the acapella group Pentatonix.[1] Their foot-stamping rendition, set in a barren landscape, adds just a little testosterone to a pitch-perfect presentation of the song, just as it seems to amplify the singers’ passion.

Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord ...[2]

Quite conceivably, Cohen’s mysterious chord is linked to other musical puzzles like Richard Strauss’ famous “World Riddle”[3] because “secret” infers esoteric or arcane. Knowing Cohen dabbled in religions such as Christianity, Zen Buddhism, and Scientology (beyond his own Judaism) gives reason to believe the poet had plenty of material upon which to draw.

As great poets do, Cohen wove ideas through words with tremendous economy:

It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing …

By naming the song’s chord progression, he exposes its scaffolding and the writing process in which his “baffled king” shares the frustration common to composers as they lay out their inspired ideas. Although the music is straightforward enough, its lyrics are multi-layered. Many phrases are ambiguous and cause us to encounter simplicity and complexity together in paradox.

To note the confluence of Hallelujah[4] with stories and psalms of ancient Israel is to begin to understand Cohen’s Jewish heritage.[5] Could it be that Cohen saw himself as working in the same inspirational stream as David, Israel’s famed poet-king?[6]

You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to the kitchen chair …

The more one considers it, the more autobiographical Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah appears. Cohen, once described as “rock’s most sensual man,”[7] might be telling his own story. Then Samson is introduced, and his life and loves are conflated with those of King David. Both are men of strength and valour, both poets, and both demonstrate all too human weaknesses.[8] Just beneath this song’s surface lie the politics of power and love. But at quite another level, sexual metaphor is used to express the mysterious interaction of the human with the divine.

I have often wanted to escape the vulgarity of such metaphor because of the particular holiness I associate with “Hallelujah.” Placing love, lust, triumph, tragedy, strength, and weakness, all together with an ancient exclamation of holy praise seems to muddy things, yet it was typical of Cohen to contrast light with darkness. Apparently, he set out to write a “secular hallelujah,”[9] in part, because hate and death were frequently dealt out in the name of a God of love, and this bothered him greatly. Overall, these lyrics indicate to me that “conquest” in love leads to the death of something else.

I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch[10]
Love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.

Brokenness was an ongoing theme for Cohen and the way he connected so deeply with his many listeners. Like Job, he never seemed to get straight answers from God, nevertheless, Cohen has been admired for the strength he showed as he continued to sing and affirm life. Shortly before his own death in November 2016 he released an album titled You Want it Darker.

A million candles burning
For the love that never came[11]

It is a single line however – “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”[12] – that Cohen is best known for. This remark is informed by Jewish mystical doctrine that describes the world’s creation in which the vessels God had placed his light in were not strong enough to contain the light and broke. That light escaped into the world through the cracks. “Cohen,” says Rabbi Jonathon Sacks, “was a very Jewish figure despite his obvious flirtations with other faiths and his obvious dissident view of religion and of life. A real inhabitant of the darkness.”[13] We have to understand Hallelujah then in the context of Cohen’s attempts to reconcile the problem of human brokenness with the presence of divine love.

John’s gospel also uses light and darkness thematically. For example, as John concludes his presentation of the “true light, which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9 NRSV), we find Jesus’ disciples located with their risen Lord at daybreak (John 21:4) after the deep darkness of the crucifixion. A new era dawns as a fitting conclusion to John’s account of the light entering a darkened world.

Writing, as I am, around Eastertime, the words of the Prophet Isaiah (Isa 52–53) become especially poignant; the Suffering Servant, “the Christ,” enters into human brokenness by being broken for them! I am impressed by the regularity at which Hallelujah is sung after tragic events where this song has been a container for public grief. Singing it may be seen as confronting, as in the words of Alan Watts, “the illusion that good may exist without evil, light without darkness, and pleasure without pain.”[14] “Hallelujah” is the word people will sing when all other words fail them.

Cohen’s conclusion too, captures a moment of naked honesty:

And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue, but Hallelujah.

To dwell on the ambiguity and sexuality in Cohen’s Hallelujah is to view right versus wrong, sacred versus profane, and yours versus mine. If one must choose between binary opposites, then it is likely one would seek to only plumb the depths of carnality in Hallelujah, or to only treat it as praise. But the word proves not to be the exclusive possession of one group or another; it stands apart, announcing God’s character and infinite resources. I am especially fond of the Newsboys’ alternative rendering, “A love song born of a grateful choir,”[15] in a song which sums up an adoring humanity, singing, “glory, glory, hallelujah, He reigns!”

I wish to be clear that the holy does not accommodate sin, and I believe there is much to be learned from Moses’ Tabernacle furniture (Exod 25-30.) The New Testament, on the other hand, declares that Jesus overcame sin without becoming sinful; that he took brokenness upon himself; and that “The Light” that came into the world was not overcome. This little word “Hallelujah,” it appears, is undiminished by sin.

There is the danger that by promoting such poetry, licence is tacitly given to irresponsible living in the face of God’s grace. The gospel of a transformed life was simply not one that Cohen, to my knowledge, preached. Any smugness, however, with regards to living righteously must also reckon with the Davids and Samsons who, after a manner of speaking, were “anointed” and “Spirit-filled” respectively. Their serious flaws have been recorded for everyone’s benefit.

That strange work of grace continues in each new generation. A gathering of modern concertgoers all singing along with “Hallelujah” is special, even when different motivations may be present. Grace still performs its powerful work! A Christian worldview will naturally differ with Cohen at various points, but common ground is found in trusting and hoping upon the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

In conclusion, I turn to Paul the Apostle who told us that we have this holy treasure in (brittle/cracked) earthenware vessels. For he adds that they contain “the glory of God in the face of Christ” and that “this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Cor 4:7). Hallelujah irritates me when I hear it too often or if it feels insincere. On the other hand, I appreciate Leonard Cohen’s skill with words. I am uneasy about some of his allusions, but then I really do “get” how he represents brokenness. I trust he found rest for his soul in the end. And if I find the song Hallelujah seems to smudge the word which it seeks to liberate, then I rejoice that the word “Hallelujah” declares unending hope of glory with enduring authority.

Peter Jelleyman graduated from Laidlaw College in 2012 with a BTheol. He currently works as a Data Analyst for Rhema Media in Auckland. Peter enjoys poetry and music, and is particularly interested in what musicians are saying and how they are saying it. Peter blogs in his spare time and relishes any occasion in which he can explore the sonic world of musical synthesizers.

[1] Mix - [Official Video] Hallelujah from the album ‘The Best of Penatatonix Christmas.’ https://youtu.be/LRP8d7hhpoQ

[2] Lyrics: Hallelujah at GENIUS. https://genius.com/Leonard-cohen-hallelujah-lyrics. Hallelujah, began in relative obscurity on an album Various Positions (under the Columbia label, 1984.) It was not really until 1994 when Jeff Buckley performed his cover that it received wide recognition. Further popularised by inclusion in the movie Shrek (2001),it went on to being covered hundreds of times by other artists. Hallelujah is one of the most successful singles of modern times.

[3] The World riddle theme is a chord consisting of a fifth and an octave sometimes played with additional notes representing unresolved harmonic progression which gives the impression of being unfinished or unresolved, like the universe. Richard Strauss’ tone poem entitled Also Sprach Zarathustra contains this musical riddle. A small section contains a fanfare called Sunrise which Stanley Kubrick adopted for his movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Tenuous connections like this, therefore, do occur in music. If any riddle like this was in Cohen’s mind, then the implication would be that his song looks beyond itself towards more obscure source. Lumen Music Appreciation, Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra. https://courses.lumenlearning.com/musicapp_historical/chapter/strausss-also-sprach-zarathustra/.

[4] Hallelujah – a transliteration of the Hebrew phrase ‘Praise Yah.’”

See William D. Mounce et al. (ed). Mounce’s Expository Dictionary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 316.

[5] Cohen, a Canadian-Jew, learned from his parents that he was a direct descendant of Israel’s first high priest (Aaron). Barry Nicolson, “Leonard Cohen, 1934-2016 – The NME Obituary.” https://www.nme.com/blogs/nme-blogs/leonard-cohen-obituary-1846619.

[6] “As a student of the sound, I understood the resonances of his incantation and invocation of David,” said Bono, who added that he immediately responded to the “vaingloriousness and hubris” of the lyric. “I’ve thought a lot about David in my life. He was a harp player, and the first God heckler – as well as shouting praises to God, he was also shouting admonishment.” Rolling Stone, “How Leonard Cohens’s ‘Hallelujah’ Brilliantly Mingled Sex, Religion,” RollingStone Magazine, 12 Dec 2019. https://www.rollingstone.com/feature/how-leonard-cohens-hallelujah-brilliantly-mingled-sex-religion-194516/. This is excerpted from Alan Light, The Holy or the Broken (New York: Atria Paperback, 2012).

[7] “Sultan of seduction: He was known as the 'Godfather of gloom'. But Leonard Cohen, who's died at 82, was also rock's most sensual ladies' man,” Ray Connolly, Daily Mail. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-3929214/Sultan-seduction-known-Godfather-gloom-Leonard-Cohen-s-died-82-rock-s-sensual-ladies-man.html. See also, an article about Leonard Cohen in Uncut Magazine where Jennifer Warnes claims “He had a wild, roving eye, and he had many, many great loves. So did Picasso.” Graeme Thomson, “Wine, Women and Songs,” in Uncut (2019): 65.

[8] David and Samson both fell for women other than their wives, both endured the consequences of their action, both find themselves in a stark and barren place, and both were penitent. Rolling Stone, “How Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah Brilliantly Mingled Sex, Religion.”

[9] Cohen’s preference for a “secular hallelujah.” Rolling Stone, “How Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah Brilliantly Mingled Sex, Religion.”

[10] Marble Arch refers to a historical site of public execution in London, England. Within the body of these lyrics, it freights images of shame, despair, and death, and also victorious procession after war. This forms a very dark undercurrent to a song about love. David “The History of Marble Arch,” London Attractions. https://www.parkgrandkensington.co.uk/blog/history-marble-arch/

[11] Lyrics: You Want it Darker at GENIUS. https://genius.com/Leonard-cohen-you-want-it-darker-lyrics.

[12] “He sought recognition for his fallenness, not rescue from it. ‘There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.’ He once told an interviewer that those words were the closest he came to a credo. The teaching could not be more plain: fix the crack, lose the light.” Leon Wieseltier, “My Friend Leonard Cohen: Darkness and Praise,” The New York Times (14 Nov 2016). https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/14/opinion/my-friend-leonard-cohen-darkness-and-praise.html.

[13] Rabbi Sacks, “Rabbi Sacks on Leonard Cohen and Parsha Vayera,” YouTube (2016), https://youtu.be/2s3kQSZ_Qxk.

[14] Alan Watts, The Two Hands of God, quoted in Richard Rohr, The Naked Now (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2015), 143.

[15] It might be construed that Taylor/Furler, as well as Cohen, anticipate the countless people gathered from every tribe and nation who form that “grateful choir” of Revelation 19. As almost the last human utterance recorded in Revelation, the word “hallelujah” expresses consummate praise of an entire human creation before the throne of God! Lyrics: He Reigns by Steve Taylor & Peter Furler at GENIUS. https://genius.com/Newsboys-he-reigns-lyrics.

Of all the songs sung from the dawn of creation
Some were meant to persist
Of all the bells rung from a thousand steeples
None rings truer than this.

[15] He Reigns at GENIUS. https://genius.com/Newsboys-he-reigns-lyrics