Pain, Worship and “Hallelujah”

Editor’s Note: It was 10 years ago this summer that singer/songwriter Jeff Buckley drowned in a Memphis harbor at the age of 30. His only studio album, Grace, has since become a critical favorite, and his cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” remains his most iconic song. This story, about the spiritual undertones of Cohen’s ballad that Buckley made a classic, originally ran in 2005.

To hear Buckley’s cover of the song, there’s an MP3 being hosted by NPR accompanying this story.

The song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen seems to have had quite an impact on music in the past 20 years. It was originally recorded in 1984 on his album Various Positions, and then by John Cale on Fragments of a Rainy Day (1992). Yet the ballad is perhaps best known as sung by the late Jeff Buckley on his 1994 project Grace
. Included on the list of other covering artists are Bob Dylan, Rufus Wainwright, Allison Crowe, kd lang, Damien Rice, Bono, Sheryl Crow. “Hallelujah” has also appeared on the soundtrack to various movies and TV shows.

Perhaps no other song explores as deeply the relationships between romantic love, pain, music and spirituality. The lyrics use Biblical imagery to show how disappointment in love can steal one’s vitality. This effect is accomplished first by painting a picture of music that it is true and unadulterated. The first verses narrates: Well I heard there was a secret chord / that David played and it pleased the Lord / But you don’t really care for music, do ya? / Well it goes like this: the fourth, the fifth / the minor fall and the major lift / the baffled king composing “Hallelujah."

The next verses call to memory how David and Samson were undone by women, weaving that together with the songwriter’s own experiences. These hurtful encounters all had the same result: and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah. Yet we surmise from the incessant chorus of “Hallelujah”s that this pain does not merely squelch the man’s vitality, but rather forges his song into a deeper, wiser and more subtle chronicle of love. The listener is left with a central message: And Love is not a victory march / It’s a cold and it’s a broken "Hallelujah."

Cohen’s words undoubtedly create a sense of peace in the midst of pain. And while I won’t assume that he intended to discuss any other realm than love, for the sake of this article I would like to consider a broader scope. “Hallelujah” literally means “Glory to the Lord!” It is an utterance communicating worship. The song seems to have drastic implications if we consider the word simply for this meaning, rather than as a complex symbolic expression of fulfillment. What happens to “Hallelujah,” our worship to God, when we are in the midst of pain?

The Bible’s discussion of this question is rich, springing from the lives of men like Job, Moses, David, Elijah, Hezekiah, Habakkuk, Paul and our Lord Jesus Himself. There are all sorts of pain in this world. It can come from the deliberate attacks of others, from our own sin or simply from the fallenness of this world. Yet the end result for the believer should be the same in each instance: His sanctification and God’s glory. Joseph tells his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done” (Genesis 50:20, TNIV). The psalmist writes, “Blessed are those you discipline, Lord” (Psalms 94:12).

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Jesus warned His followers, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). And again, “Everyone will hate you because of me, but those who stand firm to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:21-22). Job observes that we are undone before the Lord: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised" (Job 1:21). Paul said, “For Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). All of these experiences involve deep, deep pain. Yet worship does not halt for pain. Rather, it accepts it, is changed by it, and triumphs through it.

Can we find such hope of fulfillment in the lyrics to “Hallelujah”? On the surface the lyrics simply berate romantic love, heralding it as the widest gateway to pain. Yet underneath, both lyrically and musically, one can perceive the song as an ode to the brokenness that comes through love, rejoicing in the beauty of this paradox. And to say that the pain is beautiful can only suggest that there is something enriching about the experience of it. It is possible that Cohen sets forth this theme in the very first verse, when he is explaining the chord that pleased the Lord: Well it goes like this, the fourth the fifth / the minor fall and the major lift … The fall produces a minor tone, disagreeable to the ear when it stands alone. But together with the major lift, it completes the chord that pleases the Lord. And that ending lift would not be possible without a place from which to rise.

Cohen had at least two versions of the song originally. One alternate ending included these words: And even though it all went wrong / I’ll stand before the Lord of Song / with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah! Over coffee in Paris, Bob Dylan told Cohen that he especially liked this line. It’s implications are huge. The betrayed, hurt, broken lover responds not with anger, hopelessness or jaded indifference, but rather with a simple and honest declaration of “Glory to the Lord!” He is not mindful of what is lost, what could have been, what he would have preferred. Rather the focus is on a hope that will not perish, on a deeper truth than the circumstances that surround our fleeting earthly lives. In the light of more permanent joys, we can find the strength to discover beauty even in the midst of pain.

The dissonant tone that Cohen finds even in love reminds us that the world is not as it should be. Cohen’s groanings about the loneliness that relationships produce remind me of the spiritual sound that all of creation puts forth: “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit groan inwardly” (Romans 8:22-23, ESV). The curse has marred every aspect of human and natural experience. Yet through facing all of the pain, if we can muster up (through the Holy Spirit) the hope to say, “Glory to the Lord!” then we are fulfilling our purpose on this earth—broken “hallelujah” which will someday be transformed into a whole and triumphant declaration. In the meantime, it remains a beautiful and pleasing thing to the Lord of the Song, who has placed us in this world to develop us into more perfect worshipers; this is for His glory and our ultimate joy.

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