The Meaning of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”

Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is about the story of King David and Bathsheba, a love story with a twisted nature and biblical reference. The song shows the many sides of love, as well as the shaking faith in God. Many of the ‘Hallelujahs’ in the song are with different connotations showcasing this.

“Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen is one of the most popular songs in the world. Many artists have covered the song and it has appeared in films and television shows. However, very few know the actual meaning behind the song.

Before releasing “Hallelujah”, Leonard Cohen had been away from the spotlight for some time, with his previous album and releases failing to reach commercial success. It was his release of “Various Positions” which featured “Hallelujah” as the opening track on Side Two that brought him back to the spotlight.

Nowadays, almost everyone knows the song quite well and can instantly recognize it, especially after it was featured in the animated movie “Shrek” as the soundtrack. However, very few know the actual meaning behind the song and its lyrics.

The story behind “Hallelujah”

“Hallelujah” has a religious theme with Biblical references, telling the story of King David, the second king of The United Kingdom of Israel and Judah. Many may not know this story but it is incredibly interesting.

The story has a dark tone and depicts the tragic love story of King David and Bathsheba (wife of a soldier named Uriah) (2 Samuel 11 v 2), similar to the Samson and Delilah story from the bible. King David sees Bathsheba bathing on a rooftop and requests to see her, knowing that Uriah is at war, providing the foundation of the story.

Their relationship results in a pregnancy to which David has a plan of returning Uriah in hopes that he lies with his wife, covering the fact that the pregnancy was an act of unfaithful love. Refusing to return just yet as war still rages, David orders Uriah to be sent into the frontlines to die, which indeed does happen.

This narrates the nature of love and the indecency that lies beneath it sometimes. Also foreshadowing the wins and losses that love endures.

David then marries the recently-widowed Bathsheba and then they lose their first child, believing it was a punishment for committing adultery and murder. Later, Bathsheba gave birth to Solomon, who will later become king.

The story comes to an end with the death of David and Bathsheba’s successful overthrowing of his heir Adonijah, allowing for her son Solomon to become King and her Queen Mother. A few twists and turns result in a captivating and interesting story, filled with crimes of passion.

The meaning behind the lyrics of “Hallelujah”

Let’s take a more in-depth look at each verse and the meaning behind it.

First Verse

The first verse that Cohen sings: “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?” – Introduces the character King David, credited with writing the Psalms, mentioning the harp chord as the sacred chord. As a boy, David was summoned to play for King Saul, repelling the evil spirits away from him.

The following: “It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, The minor fall, the major lift, The baffled king composing Hallelujah” – Lines up with the chords and thus displays the pleasing melody. The term ‘baffled’ is controversial, as many believe that ‘battled’ suits the story of King David more, still, the correct lyric is ‘baffled’.

‘Baffled’ symbolizes that David is the protagonist of the story and his human nature falls short of the title ‘chosen by god’, as he is the King, committing adultery and murder. ‘Hallelujah’ is a Hebrew word, meaning ‘Glory to the Lord’. It is divided into two words: ‘Hallelu’, meaning ‘to praise joyously’, and the word ‘Yah’, meaning the bespoke name of god.

Second Verse

The second verse: “Your faith was strong but you needed proof, You saw her bathing on the roof, Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya” – Depicts the moment when David first laid eyes on Bathsheba and her beauty mesmerizing him. Also, testing his faith in God.

The following lyrics: “She tied you to a kitchen chair, She broke your throne, and she cut your hair, And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah” – The kitchen chair symbolizes the fall of a King as it is a low position compared to a throne which she takes (breaks) in a way. Cutting the hair represents the loss of power/losing strength that she gains by appointing Solomon King.

Third Verse

The third verse goes: “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 ya?” – Possibly symbolizing that he took the Lord’s name in vain but denying he ever was that faithful in the first place. And, in the end, the choices were still made so it doesn’t matter.

The following: “There’s a blaze of light in every word, It doesn’t matter which you heard, The holy or the broken Hallelujah” – This shows the glimmer of hope behind each action and word. The holy or the broken signifies the true or broken faith in god.

Fourth Verse

The fourth verse: “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 ya” – Losing the feeling of love and resorting to touch, which probably means a more shallow relationship.

Followed by: “And even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the lord of song, With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah” – Standing behind his choices with no regret, even though it ended badly, and falling before the Lord with praise.

Additional Verses

The verse: “Baby, I’ve been here before, I know this room, I’ve walked this floor, I used to live alone before I knew you” – Reverting back to a loveless life and the familiarity of it, saying that this is nothing new.

Followed by the lyrics: “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” – Again, depicting that love is not always pure and good, but that it can sometimes be wrong, unfaithful, and misleading.

The verse: “There was a time you let me know, What’s really going on below, But now you never show it to me, do you?” – Represents the start and blossom of a fresh relationship with honesty as opposed to not showing or hiding true feelings below.

This is followed by: “And remember when I moved in you, The holy dove was moving too, And every breath we drew was Hallelujah” – Their faith was strong as their love as well, and each moment was good in the beginning.

The verse: “Well, maybe there’s a God above, As for me, all I’ve ever learned from love, Is how to shoot somebody who outdrew you” – Represents the shaking faith in God, and the only thing learned was how to get back at somebody for hurting you.

Followed by: “And it’s not a cry that you hear at night (tonight), It’s not somebody who’s seen the light, It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah” – Representing that love is not all sunshine and rainbows, but sometimes a broken faith in god and wrong choices.

More about Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”

Leonard Cohen supposedly wrote about 80 verses for the song before narrowing it down to the seven he used. He was known to incorporate some unused verses in his live performances and concerts from time to time.

The many kinds of Hallelujahs in the song are quite fascinating when one takes into consideration the meaning behind each. While some are praising and good, others are broken and beaten down.

It is also worth noting that the song was not very well received in the first years until it started to gain popularity, with artists like Bob Dylan and Rufus Wainwright praising and covering the song. Also worth noting is John Cale’s version.

The song has over 200 covers but there are a few that really stand out, like the ones mentioned, as well as Jeff Buckley’s version.

Of all who covered the song, and granted, propelled it to a different level of popularity, Jeff Buckley’s cover truly sky-rocketed the hit and made it one of the best songs in the world as we know it today.

Summary

Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is a beautiful song with profound lyrics that explore the many aspects of love. The song paints a picture of love in all its glory and sadness, depicting both the good and bad that can come with it. The song has religious imagery and depicts a broken but true love story.

The verses are full of raw emotion and thought-provoking lyrics that make one contemplate the meaning behind love. The song is truly a masterpiece and has been covered by many artists who have given it their unique spin.

Featured Image by: Stefan Karpiniec, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Milan Trajkovikj is a touring and recording bass guitarist who loves to share his passion for all things music.

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