The surname of this famous Canadian singer-songwriter – Cohen – actually means “priest” in Hebrew. His favourite book was the Bible. And the word with which he’ll always be associated is “Hallelujah”, a truly wonderful word, combining two Hebrew words, “hallelu” (= praise ye), and “Yah” (= the Lord). Hallelujah appears repeatedly in the Psalms and pops up again in the Book of Revelation. Despite only appearing in these two books of the Bible, it’s a word that has touched countless people.
Leonard Cohen was never a happy-clappy type of singer. With deadpan humour he made fun of his own reputation as “the godfather of gloom” during a concert in London in July 2008: “It’s been a long time since I stood on the stage in London. It was about 14 or 15 years ago. I was 60 years old, just a kid with a crazy dream. Since then I’ve taken a lot of Prozac, Paxil, Welbutrin, Effexor, Ritalin, Focalin. I’ve also studied deeply in the philosophies and religions, but cheerfulness kept breaking through.”
Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” stands out from a lot of contemporary pop: there is no aggressive drum beat or loud bass guitar to be heard. It sounds more like a waltz. And the message is not a lovey-dovey one. It’s real, it’s gritty, and it’s ultimately about surrender, about letting go and letting God. Before we’re willing to surrender, we need to admit that we cannot do things on our own. Just like King David, the protagonist of the song “Hallelujah”, who despite finding a hidden chord that pleased God, soon found his life going desperately out of tune, after he saw Bathsheba bathing on the roof, took her to himself, made her pregnant, and killed her husband, thus committing a much worse sin to hide his initial one.
Cohen’s song quickly moves from King David to the legendary warrior Samson. His power left him when Delilah cut his long mane of hair. Two powerful men found their power and prestige unravelling at lightning speed. It’s only when you fall into the dust and discover your brokenness that you’re ready to see you’ve next to nothing to offer to God. But God can do everything with nothing, and that’s why it’s worth daring to stand before God “with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah”.
Even our holiest ideas can be mistaken: it’s not the amount of money we give away, or the hours we spend in prayer that stand to us in the long run. What really makes the difference is love, and our loving and confident surrender to God’s dream for our lives. It’s that marvelous moment of surrender that Cohen is hinting at when he explains the song Hallelujah with these tremendous words: “regardless of what the impossibility of the situation is, there is a moment when you open your mouth and you throw open your arms and you embrace the thing and you just say ‘Hallelujah! Blessed is the name.’ And you can’t reconcile it in any other way except in that position of total surrender, total affirmation.”
May Leonard Cohen rest in peace, and rise with a resounding Hallelujah.