Realizations

Philosophy in the Middle of the Desert

“Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen: Following The Life of David December 9, 2019

If all the known verses of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” were to continue the story of King David as overtly as the first verse, the song could be interpreted as something like the following verses. Compare them with the original lyrics I put at the bottom of this post. Each verse gets closer inside the life of David as it goes from third person to second person to first person narrative.

VERSE 1: King David played his lyre and composed music for the LORD in a way that pleased Him so greatly that, in a mysterious way, his angelic-sounding music moved the supernatural realm and moved God to suppress demons. David tapped into the beautiful, angelic patterns God created within music theory of the fourth, the fifth, and the beauties of major and minor, dark and light, reminiscent of the joyous and sad seasons in life, but God is glorified and can be worshiped in it all (which foreshadows the ups and downs of his life explained in the coming verses). This mysterious, worshipful experience of music transcends David into the spirit realm to connect with God, leaving him in a state of baffled euphoria in His presence.

VERSE 2: But when God gave him rest on all sides, he started to become complacent and the impenetrable faith of his youth developed holes and he became more casual about his relationship with God and keeping His Law and became prideful, which always comes before a fall. In this state of disconnect from God he wasn’t strong enough to withstand the temptation of moonlight lust on his rooftop which resulted in adultery with Bathsheba,  David’s “great sin.” Because of this great evil, God cursed David so that his royal throne was broken, he lost his power and had to flee for his life from his son Absalom, all for a lustful night of euphoric indulgence. He traded the euphoric “Hallelujah” of worshiping God for a euphoric “Hallelujah” of selfish, carnal indulgence.

VERSE 3: When confronted about it by his first wife Michal, David recounts how their childless marriage had been threatened from the beginning and their love quickly turned cold and distant, and certainly wasn’t any warmer now that they were finally back together in safety, albeit through David’s force. This coldness and lack of love incited David’s lustful eyes to look for something more. And whether leading the triumphant troops home in a victory march under the royal banner of Saul’s house on the marble arch or leading the ark of the covenant triumphantly back home under the scathing eyes of Michal, Saul’s daughter, the joy of those victories was always tainted by the lingering curse of the royal family of Saul overlooking and antagonizing all that David did. Instead of David’s home life being as joyous as his victories, it was cold and broken and marked by the pain of obedience to God to do the right thing toward Saul’s family.

VERSE 4: David is broken in repentance and sings to God in Psalm 51 begging Him to not take away His holy spirit from him and restore their relationship to the way it used to be when God’s spirit was moving in him, showing him what to do, and God was with him in everything he did, glorifying Himself through David.

VERSE 5: It’s ironic that the third of the Ten Commandments is to not take the name of the Lord in vain, but it’s a name that isn’t even spoken and modern Jews don’t even know how to pronounce it; perhaps it was so even in David’s time, and they didn’t know exactly what God’s name was that was revealed to Moses.  With David’s pride resulting in his backsliding, he became lax concerning the Law of God (as evidenced in the mishandling of the ark) and perhaps this included the third of the Ten Commandments, to the point that the holiness of God’s name was forgotten, maybe even influenced by the rough-around-the-edges military companions he surrounded himself with (Joab seems to loosely use the LORD’s name in vain in 2 Sam. 19:7), which certainly wasn’t helped by the doubts and disconnect he felt from God in fleeing for his life — unlike his previous fleeing from Saul, this time fleeing because of his great sins. But even in David’s sins, he still had a core, loving relationship and understanding of God’s grace and heart that overshadowed the Law and his sins (as mentioned in Psalm 51). Saul was instantly removed from being king for not following a specific military command of God, while David did far graver sins and God instantly forgave him (notwithstanding consequences) and He continued orchestrating things to establish David’s legacy for centuries, because David was after God’s heart. It’s this understanding of the heart of God and the Law that allowed David to see the bigger picture and get away with breaking other holy laws like lying to eat the holy, consecrated bread. He understood that God wanted more than just specific rules followed, God wants to be in everything we do and are. More than revering specific laws or a specific name for God as holy, God’s blazing light is in every single word, the holy and the broken words, indeed He is not just in the holy sacrifices and rituals, but in everything in life, the happy and sad things. (“For you do not desire sacrifice or I would give it… My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit,” Ps. 51) “I broke a rule, so what? God is bigger than the rules, he wants our hearts.”

VERSE 6: Even after David’s repentance, God fulfills His prophecy by Nathan the prophet of “the sword never departing from David’s house” when Absalom rises against him. David doubts God’s promises to him and even if God is with him or there at all. He laments that all he’s known from his loved ones (family, friends, in-laws, children) is strife and having to watch his back and literally be prepared to defend his life from someone who suddenly rises up against him. But even in the midst of his life’s tragedies, he was still singing his psalms to the Lord, finding a way to praise Him for His providence and trusting Him to fulfill His promises. Albeit, his Hallelujahs are sung from a sorrowful state of humble, faithful obedience, rather than from joyful exultation, in the midst of external pain and somber repentance.

VERSE 7: Yet at the end of his life, a life of unimaginable conflict, he’s able to say, “As the Lord lives, who has redeemed my life from all distress (1 Kings 1:29)” and in his final words he recounts, “The Spirit of the Lord spoke through me; His word was on my tongue (2 Samuel 23:2).” He dies without feeling regrets, thankful to God for forgiving him of his sins in His grace and for the promise He upheld to establish his throne forever. “Is not my house firm before God? He has made an eternal covenant with me, set forth in detail and secured. Will he not bring to fruition all my salvation and my every desire? (2 Sam. 23:5)”  Again, David is seeing the bigger picture: God is the Lord of Song, creator and sustainer of all music, and so David finally finds himself back in the spiritual state of Verse 1 and uses God’s creation to connect with Him, moving in Him, and once again “Hallelujah” being in every breath he draws. 



 

ORIGINAL LYRICS OF “HALLELUJAH” BY LEONARD COHEN:

[Verse 1]
Now 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”
[Chorus]
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

[Verse 2]
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
[Chorus] Hallelujah, Hallelujah

[Verse 3]
Baby I’ve been here beforeI know this room, I’ve walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you
And 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
[Chorus] Hallelujah, Hallelujah

[Verse 4]
There was a time you let me know
What’s really going on below
But now you never show it to me, do you?
And remember when I moved in you
The holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah
[Chorus] Hallelujah, Hallelujah

[Verse 5]
You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, well really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah
[Chorus] Hallelujah, Hallelujah

[Verse 6]
Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone 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
[Chorus] Hallelujah, Hallelujah

[Verse 7]
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
[Chorus] Hallelujah, Hallelujah

 

**Author’s note: I don’t actually think this song is intended to be interpreted as one continuous story about the David narrative (or any other continuous story for that matter), as Leonard Cohen wrote 80 verses for it and whittled it down to the above verses. It’s abstract and he probably just picked the most interesting verses, although I do think that observing the song exclusively from the David context is a very moving perspective and more captivating than the more likely interpretation of a modern relationship struggle that just invokes Biblical metaphors. Regardless of the different interpretations, I’d say this is easily among the top ten most intriguing songs ever written by human beings.

 

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