The generic genius of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

John J. Thompson

David De Boer
January 23, 2013

I'm wondering what you are trying to say here, is it that you don't like the song because of it's incomplete gospel. If so what did you expect? Are you saddened by the popular adoption of the song with little to no regard for it's meaning? Welcome to America. The song is beautiful in a tragic way. It paints a picture of flawed humans crying out for something more than broken human love, and using "Praise the Lord" to make that cry. It's a very emotion filled song (as the best songs are) and as such makes great fodder for competition shows where feeling sometimes trumps quality. I think we need to see this song as what it is, evidence of the need for the "most excellent way." (1 Cor. 13) I guess my question here is: What did you hope to find in this song? Because, it sounds like you didn't find it.

January 23, 2013

"a sort of spiritual Rorschach test. Listeners tend to hear the theology they bring to it"

Thank you for getting down in words what has been niggling at me about this song, John. Like other attempts to mean something to everyone, it ends up being about nothing. Hey, it's just like Seinfeld!


Joshua Pease
January 23, 2013

First, love the fact that you're drawing attention to that book - I thought it was a great, fascinating read as well.

Second, it seems to me like Cohen's original arrangement has some specifically Christian value to it, if for no other reason but it charts the search for the spiritual in love and sex and comes up empty and hurting. That's what makes Cohen's last line "and even though it all went wrong, I'll stand before the Lord of Song, with nothing on my lips but hallelujah" very beautiful to me. I feel like in there is something very close to "blessed are the poor in spirit ..."

Third, you're right to note that the following versions (especially Buckley's) remove almost all of the spiritual resonance in favor of something far more sensual. Although even there I find it interesting that a human's need to worship SOMETHING is so profound that just the chanting of "hallelujah" is attractive to people.

Maybe it's just my "us against the world" Baptist upbringing, but I always get encouraged by reminders that humanity is spiritually thirsty and looking for answers.

January 23, 2013

Good points, JP. The second one in particular has a very Ecclesiastes inclination to it!


Brett Ramey
January 23, 2013

I have not read the new book, but I have heard and read quite a bit about it. The song itself has always resonated with me. First, being familiar with the biblical references, something very poignant and moving in the imagery delivery of these lines. Yes, the more I heard the song, the more I realized the other things included. If sexual imagery has no place next to theological references, then perhaps we should remove The Song Of Solomon from The Bible.
I've heard many different versions of the song now and they pretty much all get to me. With one exception, I thought Adam Sandler butchered it at the 121212 concert. I know that was supposed to be funny, but I like this song too much to hear what he did to it.
The biblical points touched on deal with great charactors in Bible history who suffered when enticed by their own lusts. This is still the downfall of many today, both great and small. Perhaps that's why it resonates so well. Perhaps that's why it's melancholy delivery seeps into the hearer. Do we see ourselves in moments of potential downfall, perhaps knowing, and yet unable to resist. I don't know, I just like the song.

January 24, 2013

This is a challenging and beautiful post, I think. As a musician, I find myself strongly pulled in both directions, but I share your bewilderment with this particular Cohen song. The first time I heard it, I could sense that there was something elusively beautiful about it...but the more I studied the lyrics, the more convinced I became that I was simply entranced by the melodic contours and hints of something profound that, alas, I couldn't seem to grasp.

This song has been on my mind a lot since Christmastime, when KLOVE was playing a rather refreshing (and explicitly, unapologetically, and inescapably plain Christian) cover on the piece based loosely on the Gospel of Luke. If Cohen's song was designed to be a catalyst for religious meditation, regardless of the theology one brings to it, then I'd say it's a success in its own way...and this Christian radio appropriation of Cohen's work proves its enduring power.

February 4, 2013

Yes, the population is ignorant of theology. Is that any reason to condemn them? Or an opportunity to evangelize?

See my response at www.pcusa.org/blogs/faith/

Jeff Clester
February 28, 2016

The article's tone (to me) is more of an example of where religion fails, than a critique of where the song Hallelujah has gone wrong. "Religion", once again try's to interpret (in a negative way, as usual) than trust in the power of g-d.

to me, ANY song, poem, painting, etc that can put the name of g-d on people's lips, and connect our feeble attempts at life here with something higher, should be applauded.

g-d can use anything at anytime................

The Jewish term (again, as I understand it), Hallelujah is more of a call to praise/worship (verb).

June 2, 2016

I would choose to defer. I totally believe gospel is as a result of our faith in Christ Who is God, therefore a song that tries to assume the existence of God as in verse 5 line 1, therefore am totally convinced that its not gospel. the use of the word hallelujah might be controversial. The bible records not all who cry "lord lord " shall see heaven

Mike Philips
June 10, 2016

I Think Its A Moral Lesson For Gods People Who Are Tempted To Earthly Love Which Leads To Frustrations

Diane Shepherd
September 30, 2016

I really like the musical score and have heard some beautiful renditions with Christian lyrics. Its popularity (as written)is not surprising given the focus on self vice focus on God and His forgiveness.

Rick Ludwig
September 30, 2016

My suggestion for a "redeemed" version of Cohen's ambiguity is Lincoln Brewster's "Another Hallelujah," preferably from his early live CD. Brewster not only makes the song truly praise to Yahweh, but punctuates the lyrics with his amazing but understated guitar solo. Highly recommended.

Lori Pearson
November 12, 2016

I think that any song that combines my LORD and SAVIOUR JESUS CHRIST with words of this sinful world especially anything sexual is a disgrace and blasphemy!

Bill Schwan
November 12, 2016

As a song I can't help but hear a tortured treatment of love and the misuse of sex. I never looked at the thing as a poem and as such it does take you places uncomfortable intending to bring you into a place of light.

Joe Terrell
November 12, 2016

The word, hallelujah, is a little more specific that "Praise the Lord." It is the Hebrew word for "praise" in the imperative mood (command) followed by the shortened version of Jehovah's name, "Jah." Therefore, to use the word "Hallelujah" in any context other than praise to Jehovah is to use Jehovah's name in a vain way.

It is doubtless a beautiful song and evokes strong emotion. But the name of Jehovah should never be used as a "hook" in a song, much less should it be used as an expression of sexual ecstasy.

Steve Jones
September 19, 2017

Edited for spelling errors.... I think with much music people tend to pull their own meanings from their life's experiences to replace whatever the songs original intent is. This one in particular fits that bill. It originally struck me in its intent to be uplifting... but it's anything but that on close examination. I've heard how this song has been bent to mean very many different things to different people (some religious and some not) ...even so much to say it's the best Thanksgiving song ever (not sure how that came about!?!?!). Despite the biblical references meant as allegorical simile, I don't believe Cohen's view was that of any praise, but instead that he is expressing a wonderment of how powerful and disillusioned a broken love can be. There is a hint that the facts are so often overlooked when someone chooses to hear what they want to hear instead of the truth but I digress... It's no secret Cohen suffered from depression greatly, to the point that perhaps it was something he embraced like a cynical madman. Cohen picked out these verses (apparently from around 80 different ones he wrote) that best suited what he wanted to obviously convey: That "Love" (according to him) has never been chocked up to be such a glorious thing worthy of praise or something blessed, but instead; one of a curse to the point of broken awe and wonder... perhaps even of self-mockery for pursuing it. That it is an illusion masked in the subterfuge of pain and passion in his view. It's the epidome of an old man inviting another's perspective on his unchanging opinion on what "Love" is. To pull another abstract from a different source that to me says much the same thing... a quote from "Anna and the King" strikes the same mind:

“If love was a choice, who would ever choose such exquisite pain?"

To me it's painfully obvious the song is a dark, melancholy, and self-loathing introspective of his view/experiences of love.

Just an opinion for what it's worth, but I think Cohen would wink and nod at that sentiment if he were alive today.

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