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?