#13 Hallellujah Leonard Cohen
David is the great King of ancient Israel, from about 1000 B. C. He was expert in both music and gymnastics, and his victories in war led to the flourish of civilization and luxury in the ancient Israeli kingships of David and Solomon. David set the site of the first temple at Jerusalem the, and brought the Ark, which had been kept in a tent in Gibeon. David wrote many of the Psalms. Ruth, the Song of Solomon and the Proverbs seem also to have been written near to the undivided monarchy. The songs of praise sung in our churches today, that is, the hymn tradition, has its roots in the Psalms of David and the music of the Jerusalem temple. Many of his Psalms are likely among the best lyrics of all time. It is in his time that seers come to be called prophets, and many lines of the Psalms appear again in the particulars of the crucifixion. He is the source of the direction of the wisdom of the Proverbs and much of the New testament teaching, such as that the meek will inherit the earth and the teaching regarding repentance and forgiveness. He seems to have developed the harp or lyre (which leads us to wonder what would happen if one electrified the harp. The violin has only recently gone electric, with the result like light streaming from the instrument). David would play the lyre to make Saul well when the evil spirit from the Lord was on Saul (1 Samuel 18:10), and this might be the first recorded instance of what we call art therapy or music therapy.
The song Hallelujah claims that there is a secret chord that David played and it pleased the Lord…
I ‘v heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do ya?
It goes like this, the fourth the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
It is said, as on Songmeanings.com, that the music here is an example of the fourth the fifth the minor fall the major lift. Musicians, especially guitar players, may understand. The opposite is the diabolic chord, said in the commentaries on Shakespeare’s King Lear to be Fa So La Mi. The diabolic chord has something to do with what makes eerie music sound eerie. We can see, too how an ascending series of notes evokes or communicates or articulates an ascending spirit, and how “upbeat” music is related to happiness, etc. These seem to be the very few windows into the relation of music to the soul, and this the window to the relation of physics to the human things: the true terms of a unified field theory.
Kingship is ambiguous in the Bible, as Tom Paine indicates: Israel was not supposed to have a king like the idolatrous nations because god was to be their king. Moses and Abraham do not establish a kingship. The Bible does not support the divine right of Kings, though the king is anointed, and David will not put forth his hand against the Lord’s anointed, Saul. David, the greatest king, is also a great sinner and repenter, and even Moses was censored. The Bible does not set up humans whose actions are to be imitated like texts. To be royal does not mean to be without sin or to never repent, but to be subject to God. David steals the wife of Uriah, and worse, abuses his authority as commander to have Uriah murdered, by being exposed in battle. He is tempted by the beauty of Bathsheba to abuse his power:
Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the hallelujah
Nathan the prophet then comes to David and tells him of the case to be judged of a rich man who took the pet lamb of his poor neighbor to feed a guest rather than take from his own flocks. Leo Strauss prefaces his Natural Right and History with this example. David is then made to judge himself. The song of praise is elicited when David is subjected through the beauty of Bathsheba as Samson was through Delilah when she cut his hair.
Hallelujah means “praise Jah” or “Praise Ye Jah,” I. e. praise the Lord. Jah or Ya is the name of God I am. Ya, a slang term for you, may be repeated throughout in an intentional allusion to the divine name. This is the first phrase of the four letter name of God given to Moses when he asked God, “Who shall I say sent me?” “Tell them I am has sent you,” God says to Moses. YHWH is translated “I am who I am,” and the Hebrew is also identical to I a who I will be, as the Hebrew does not distinguish the tenses. One meaning is that he presently is the end that will be fulfilled through time, actualized being as the Medieval might say. There are said to be 32 names of God in the Hebrew scripture, such as Lord and everlasting and Most High, the almighty and the creator. Maimonides writes that the tetragrammaton is special among these in that it does not predicate an attribute. Where an attribute would be mentioned, the sentence restates the subject, surrounding not a what but a who. God is definitely “personal” rather than impersonal, though it may not be right to call him a person. What it means for us to be persons may be to be limited mortal beings who somehow get their life from Him.
From the ancient example of David, the poet returns to his own circumstance:
You say I took the name in vain
But I don’t even know the name
And if I did, well, really, what’s it to ya?
There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah.
Cohen is said to mean priest or to be the surname of a branch of the Levites, the descendants of Aaron who were the priests in Israel. The Levitical priests are said to be the only ones to speak the name with the proper pronounciation, at certain times in the temple. The vowels are not there yet in Exodus. “Jahovah” is just a guess, and likely wrong. I had to be taught, by a Jewish scholar, that it is much worse to say the swear word that involve the name. The cursing of the broken lover is the blaze of light in a word, the broken Hallelujah. One is reminded of the explicative in communication Breakdown, at the point of accepting the loss of sanity.
I did my best, but it wasn’t much
I couldn’t fell so I tried to touch
I ‘ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool ya.
And even though it all went wrong,
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.
The failed lover recognizes his own licensiousness, from a spiritual numbness, and his part in the wrong way things have gone. But inb the lyric tradition of David, he stands before the Lord of Song – a name similar tho “Lord of Spitits,” known to the Dramatists- with nothing on hios tongue, no word of complaint for his misfortune, but only Praise of God. And then the final lines:
Maybe there’s a God above
But all I ever learned from love
Is how to shoot at someone who outdrew ya
And its no complaint you hear tonight
It’s not some Pilgrim whose seen the light
Its a cold and its a broken Hallelujah
He has not seen God from love Rather, what he has found is that the aim of the lover at the beloved is inherently the aim of an emptiness at a fullness, of an inferior at a superior, who in turn aims at one superior to the lover. Love is inherently impossible or essentially frustrated, rather than the aim of the soul at bliss or the vision that is the highest happiness. In the tradition of the sweet psalmist of Israel, what the lover finds in love is not a vision of the light, but cold and broken word of humiliated praise of God.
This song might well be ranked higher, for what we can see. It is difficult to read the agnostic spirituality of Leonard Cohen, and meaning pours out of his words as do pulses from a quasar.
We have updated the ninth chapter of the Rock Commentaries with a reading of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. He has me reading the Psalms, and trying to place the Psalms in the history of David. Will no one invent the electric harp, to go with the electric violin? Where is Townshend?
To access the Rock Commentaries on Hallelujah, click on the title in the menu at the top of the page, then scroll down to Chapter IX and click on this. At the end of Chapter Nine, there is an attempt to list forty or so candidates for the ten best lyrics of all time. Hallelujah is presently #13, but rising. The Psalms themselves might take twenty of the top places, if we could hear them and they had the original music.