What does the song Hallelujah mean ? Whose version is best Jeff Buckley or Alexandra?

jeffbuckley

Well it looks like for the first time in UK Chart history the same song is going to be number one and the number two . And it will be a christmas number one and two at that! The song in question was a work of art and a labour of love from Leonard Cohen who apparently made dozens of attempts over the course of a year to write this song. Whether you love the Alexandra version straight from her X factor winning performance or if it’s the connoiseur’s choice Jeff Buckley version that you tip for the top spot – the song’s lyrics are worth a second look.

alexandra

I thought I’d do a bit of commentary on the song and would love your comments too… there are a number of Old Testament links that are worth picking up…

Well I heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do ya?
Well it goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall and the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
Hallelujah

As you may well know the first King of Israel was called Saul, he was disobedient to God and so the Bible records that the Spirit of God left him. So Samuel God’s prophet secretly crowned as the rightful King over Israel the shepherd boy son of a farmer. The boy was called David and before he had his famous victory over Golliath he was called into King Saul’s service as he was a gifted musician. Saul did not know that the boy he was employing was his successor. Saul was being tormented by evil spirits and to help him through these times David was called upon to help the King. The Bible records the story in the book of Samuel:

Whenever the spirit from God came upon Saul, David would take his harp and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.

So hence the lyric: I heard there was a secret chord that david played before the lord.

David is the author of many of the Bible’s worship songs – Psalms. They often include the word “Hallelujah” which literally means Praise the Lord.

Many have remarked about Cohen’s song’s incredibly melancholic tune and the secret is explained in the words of the first verse where the actual chord progression used in the song is described. Some music commentators have explained that it is the deliberate alternating of major and minor chords which give the song its haunting nature.

Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah

Well Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
she tied you to her kitchen chair
And she broke your throne and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah

Hallelujah
Hallelujah

Now the song merges two other Old Testament stories. The woman bathing on the roof is ofcourse Bathsheba with whom King David committed adultery and then had her husband Uriah murdered. So King David betrays one of his citizens and his God. But then the song seems to switch to a reference to Samson who was God’s chosen rescuer of his people (hundreds of years before King David). Samson had super human strength but the secret to his strength was a vow to keep his Nazarite promises – not to drink alcohol and not to have his hair cut. Samson uses his immense strength for his own ends and disobeys God on many an occassion. Meanwhile Samson’s girlfriend is approached by her compatriots who were tired of being defeated by Samson to find out his secret so that they can disempower him. She does discover Samson’s secret and betrays him to her people and they tie him up, cut his hair, gouge out his eyes and take him into custody. But in his weakness, Samson does cry out a prayer to God and asks for one last chance to be God’s rescuer and he is given one last victory over his enemies which results in his own death.

I guess these stories teach something of God’s generousity to broken people. Both David and Samson find forgiveness from God despite turning their backs on him.

Well baby I’ve been here before
I’ve seen this room and I’ve walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew ya
I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
Love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah

Well there was a time when you let me know
What’s really going on below
But now you never show that to me do you?
And remember when I moved in you?
And the holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah

I had a really helpful post challenging me on the sexual language in this song, so here are my initial thoughts.

It seems Cohen is talking about human sexuality in this verse. “remember how I moved in you…”

In one sense Cohen is right to link sex and hallelujah – making love and the priase of God. Sex is a spiritual act – not just a physical one and the God that invented sex is no prude – see the biblical book the Song of Songs and its very explicit and very positive language about human sexuality.

On the other hand there is more to worship than sex. Not all sex is worship, for that would mean rape and abuse. Good sex according to the Bible is more than just consensual sex, it is committed sex where both recreation and procreation can potentially take place. So the Bible is strongly for sex within the context of marriage and strongly against sex outside of marriage. Even within marriage there can be bad sex, where one person seeks to use or abuse the other, so the Bible talks about the need for mutual submission, where each partner seeks the best for the other.
Well maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who’d OUT DREW YA
And it’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah

Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah

Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah <<(held for a long time)
Hallelujah

Leonard Cohen the composer reflects on the fact that love and life most often does not have the fairy tale ending we’d all hope for. (which is ironic as Rufus Wainwright’s version of this song was one of the highlight’s of the Shrek soundtrack). I wonder if the song’s finale hints at the fact that despite the cold reality of life – there is still something transcendent that we seek to reach out to, that we still seek to worship and offer hallelujah – Praise to the Lord?


About the author: Krish Kandiah

Founding Director: Home for Good Executive Producer: Books for Life Vice President: Tearfund Tutor: Regents Park College, Oxford University

10 comments to “What does the song Hallelujah mean ? Whose version is best Jeff Buckley or Alexandra?”

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  1. ja1001 - December 19, 2008 at 2:17 am Reply

    Hey Krish,

    Frankly I prefer Buckley, but if the X Factor results in a few more people being introduced to Grace then that’s no bad thing. I think in your post that you spent more time interpretting the easy verses, whereas I feel the last ones are far more lyrically intriguing.

    Congratulations on your award-winning blog. I don’t know if you’ve been reading mine (http://stmarysjubalink.blogspot.com) but I didn’t get an award, although I did get linked to by Ben Goldacre at Bad Science at one stage which was nice.

    I’m back from Southern Sudan now by the way and it would be nice to catch up sometime.

    James (Ayrton)

  2. drayguevara - December 19, 2008 at 4:24 pm Reply

    Interesting read, but you have totally missed out the sexual elements of the song. The song spiritualises a sexual relationship. This is particularly apparent in Cohen’s originals and Jeff Buckley’s rendition (Jeff Buckley called his own rendition of the song an homage to ‘the hallelujah of the orgasm’).

    The song is about Cohen’s adoration of a women who he deifies, describing their relationship in biblical terms. He does the same in the song ‘Suzanne’ where he compares the desire to be with a women to being with Christ (great song btw). This they have love draws numerous ‘hallelujah’s’ but is ulimately desructive and bleak. The sexual themes involved are less apparent in the shorter versions of the songs. Alexandra leaves out the most explicit of the most frequently used verses “Well there was a time when you let me know, What’s really going on below”.

  3. krishk - December 19, 2008 at 8:55 pm Reply

    You are right – I dodged the sex references – I don’t have any authoratitive sources – so didn’t want to read too much in…

    But following your cues i will update the post. thanks for the comments
    blessings
    krish

  4. drayguevara - December 20, 2008 at 12:21 am Reply

    I really enjoyed your modified post and am glad you found my last one interesting 🙂 I think your last sentence is spot on when you say “there is still something transcendent that we seek to reach out to, that we still seek to worship and offer hallelujah – Praise to the Lord?” Cohen’s songs are normally a reflection of his depression, sexual relationships and longing for ‘something more’.

    After reading your first post it I dug out my Cohen cd’s which I really enjoyed. If you haven’t done it already, listen and read the lyrics to ‘Suzanne’ which compares the captivating nature of Christ to a relationship with a woman. I think you will find it interesting. It will be on YouTube. I love lyric (even I don’t agree with the theology…):

    “But he himself was broken
    Long before the sky would open
    Forsaken, almost human
    He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone”

    Anyway, I think you are right to highlight the ‘high view’ of sexual relationships in the song and Cohen’s appreciation of its ‘spirituality’. I understand such relationships to be a echo of what will be fullfilled in the new creation when we dwell in the divine community, glorifying God. Cohen has found that there can be no ultimate fulfilment in human relationships, not least becuase of sin. Hopefully, he will find the lasting fulifilment that we can find in Christ.

  5. road2joy - January 24, 2009 at 2:40 pm Reply

    I’ve heard a Christian say this song is blasphemous and denies the Virgin birth… any clue as to what that’s about?

  6. Lesa LePage - September 21, 2016 at 7:38 pm Reply

    This is a great song. So many people have reproduced it now since YouTube has come along and all of the other apps on the internet. One thing I find interesting is I’ve read several places and in an interview with Cohen where he states that this is not a Christian song or biblical in any way. I find that interesting because it so seems to be to me. Except for one little obvious part where he questions if there is a God. And even that… The fact of the matter is many if not most Christians have questioned if not there really is a God at one time in their life. Perhaps when times has been really tough or some other time.

  7. Liorman - September 27, 2016 at 11:31 am Reply

    I think that Leonard Cohen talks about his personal life and feelings as a boy that always lies about his sexual and life experience that becomes a man and finally understands that life is not so easy when you have a lot of responsibilty on your shoulders and have to tell the truth in order to stop living in lie and you are ready to forgive others after you saw that God forgives you for your mistakes but you have to be honest with yourself and with others and than you finally see who is your friend and who you should love and care for.He uses examples from the Old Testament to describe his psychological state during unpleasant events that took place in his life.

  8. Clay - November 13, 2016 at 1:49 pm Reply

    A great song. I believe Leonard Cohen endorsed KD Lang’s version of the song as his favourite.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P_NpxTWbovE

  9. Jane - May 26, 2017 at 11:43 pm Reply

    Why, or why do you not include the possibility of LEONARD COHEN’s version being the best?!

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