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Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”

Leonard Cohen

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

    Michael Chan is Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, MN. He is a graduate of Pacific Lutheran University (BA), Luther Seminary (MA in Old Testament), and Emory University (PhD). In addition to many articles and essays, Chan is also the author of The Wealth of Nations: A Tradition-Historical Study (2017) and coauthor of Exploring the Bible (2016).