Get your hallelujahs out while you can, folks: Lent is almost upon us.
In the Anglican Church, and probably in some other liturgical denominations, we conclude many of our services with the phrase, ‘Thanks be to God. Alleluia!’ But for the six Sundays of Lent, we refrain from saying the final word in that phrase – because alleluia/hallelujah smacks a little too much of celebration for the sombre and reflective season of Lent.
Speaking of ‘Hallelujah’, have you listened lately to the classic Leonard Cohen song by that name? Chances are the answer is ‘yes’, because the track is probably one of the most covered tunes of the 20th Century. Everyone from k.d. lang and Rufus Wainwright to Bob Dylan and Susan Boyle has sung the song at one time or another. It’s almost become a cliche.
My church music team has sung the Christmas version of the song popularized on YouTube by Christian music group Cloverton a few times, and who can forget the video of an Irish priest singing an adapted version of the song during a wedding a few years back?
I thought the song had lost all its power to move me, but a few months ago, a preacher named Travis Eades took me to church, once again, on the power of Cohen’s Hallelujah.
Eades is one of the pastors at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas, and he was preaching on November 26/27 as part of a year-long journey his church is taking through The Story – a chronological Bible of sorts, adapted by his more famous Oak Hills colleagues, Max Lucado and Randy Frazee.
His topic that week was King David, in the sermon called Trials of the King and he kept cleverly dropping words from the song into the sermon – I thought he was merely doing subtle shout-outs as Easter eggs for fellow Cohen fans to find. But at the apex of the talk, he switched seamlessly from preacher to singer and belted out a gorgeous version of Cohen’s Hallelujah.
Goosebumps-arooni-dooni for Baldy. (The song is no longer part of the sermon recording, but trust me, it was great.)
Since then, I’ve wanted to share similar insights from the song into the life of David – the King, the sinner, the man after God’s own heart – in my blog, and I figure the pre-Lent period (our last kick at the H-word for a while) is as good a time as any.
So here goes:
If you’ve ever compared different artists’ recordings of Cohen’s Hallelujah, you might have noticed that they don’t all contain the same verses. My good friend Mr. Google tells me that seven verses have been recorded over the years, and that it’s unusual that all seven verses appear in the same rendition of the tune.
Since it seems to be kosher for artists to choose their favorite Hallelujah stanzas when they perform or record the song, and in keeping with Eades’ approach, I’ve chosen four verses for this blog post that I think shed interesting light on Israel’s shining king – and can be helpful for us as well.
Let’s begin with the traditional first verse:
(Is it possible to finish a banjo song without that cornball ending? I don’t know; I’ve never tried.)
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
David in this verse is writing Psalms to the Lord. So far, so good. But what leaps out to me is the word ‘baffled’.
It’s as if David doesn’t even really understanding where these songs are coming from – probably because this work is divinely inspired.
(There’s no such thing as a sad song if it’s played on a ukulele.)
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 a kitchen chair, She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
This is the verse where David really starts to get into trouble. He’s tempted when he sees Bathsheba bathing on the roof and her beauty and the moonlight overthrow his better judgment and he falls from grace.
Now, the second half of the verse seems to be about Samson and Delilah, rather than David and Bathsheba, but a similar ‘He’s God’s anointed doing God’s will, until he lets his hormones run his life, and then his conduct with a woman is his undoing’ vibe, so I like how the stories of David and Samson intertwine here – it underscores the universality of the human condition, and reminds us that in a sense, David’s story is our story, too.
(This thing is harder to play than it looks.)
Maybe there’s a God above, But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you
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
This one is a bit more abstract, but I like how even when he’s not somebody who’s seen the light, he still offers a hallelujah – cold and broken though it is – because that’s all he knows how to do. Even when we’re far from God, the ‘motions‘ of our faith linger, and it’s sometimes by ‘going through the motions’ even when we don’t feel it that our faith is reignited and we return.
(Cheer up, Baldy!)
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!
This verse feels to me like a poetic exploration of David’s repentance – not only about about his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah, but also about the totality of his life, in which he often missed the mark – even when he was trying to be righteous. Here we have David standing before the Lord of Song, knowing that it all went wrong, confessing that although he did his best, it wasn’t much – but also knowing that God’s grace is always bigger than man’s failure. God still loves and forgives and accepts him.
In the face of that, knowing that God will still have him, he’s so humbled and ashamed and grateful that he’s got no words to offer – there’s nothing on my tongue but hallelujah.
Peace be with you.