Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” by Michael J. Chan

Leonard Cohen’s famous song “Hallelujah” makes many references to the biblical King David. The opening line evokes the tradition of David as a musician and composer “Now I heard there was a secret chord that David played and it pleased the Lord.” But throughout Cohen’s song, David the musician shares the stage with David the lover/adulterer as in this retelling of 2Sam 11-12: “Your faith was strong but you needed proof. You saw her bathing roof. Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew ya,”

Cohen freely and creatively peppers his retelling of David’s life with motifs from other biblical stories. Samson’s relationship with Delilah, for instance, exercises a profound influence on Cohen’s song. When it comes to David’s encounter with Bathsheba, Cohen’s David is not the initiator of wrongdoing; he is a victim of forces beyond his own control:

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.

In these stunning lines (italics added for emphasis), the roles have been reversed and Bathsheba is the main actor, while everything happens to a passive David. These descriptions of Bathsheba are more characteristic of Delilah, who ties down Samson, cuts his hair, and steals his power (see Judg 16); Bathsheba is hardly so aggressive in 2Sam 11-12

David’s experiences, according to Cohen’s song, were marked by various kinds of “hallelujahs”—some cold, some broken, some holy—a nontraditional way of understanding praise (hallelujah means “praise Yah” or Yahweh).

These nuanced hallelujahs reflect the kaleidoscopic picture of David we have both in the Bible and in popular art and culture. They may also reflect Cohen’s life. The song’s switch to first-person speech (“I did my best, it wasn’t much. I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch”) makes the song feel more like a personal confession wrapped in a powerful narrative than a simple retelling of the famous king’s life. 

Michael J. Chan, "Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”", n.p. [cited 20 Aug 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/people/related-articles/leonard-cohens-hallelujah

Contributors

Michael J. Chan

Michael J. Chan
Assistant Professor, Luther Seminary

Michael J. Chan is assistant professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary (St. Paul, Minnesota). He is especially interested in iconography, or the study of images as they relate to the Bible and its broader cultural context. His has published numerous journal articles and authored “A Biblical Lexicon of Happiness,” in The Bible and the Pursuit of Happiness: What the Old and New Testaments Teach Us about the Good Life (Oxford University Press, 2012). Currently, Chan is coediting a volume of essays entitled God, World, and Suffering: Collected Essays of Terence Fretheim (Eerdmans, forthcoming).

Associated with a deity; exhibiting religious importance; set apart from ordinary (i.e. "profane") things.

A recurring element or symbolism in artwork, literature, and other forms of expression.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

2Sam 11-12

David Commits Adultery with Bathsheba
1In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with hi ... View more

Judg 16

Samson and Delilah
1Once Samson went to Gaza, where he saw a prostitute and went in to her.2The Gazites were told, “Samson has come here.” So they circled aroun ... View more

2Sam 11-12

David Commits Adultery with Bathsheba
1In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with hi ... View more

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