Last Sunday, I inhaled the powerful words of worship that we sang together; God’s children with one voice singing “Hallelujah, Holy God”.
The lyrics took me back to a morning not so long ago when I stood with my husband in the hallway of a skilled nursing facility where my sister had, moments before, taken her last breath. She had bravely fought a long battle with throat cancer, but in the end the dreaded disease was just too strong an opponent.
I had seen my sister nearly every day of her last three months, watching her fight for every breath, neither of us able to speak toward the end, she too weak and me unable to find the words to comfort her.
As I stood there in the hallway thinking about my sister and the last months we’d spent together — hard months, but precious, too– my ears picked up the first few notes of Leonard Cohen’s classic song Hallelujah.
Written by Cohen in 1984, Hallelujah has been performed by hundreds of professional artists and countless amateurs, the lyrics rewritten numerous times by various artists to suite different audiences.
One of the most beautiful renditions of Hallelujah that I have heard is Cloverton’s version, which tells the story of Jesus, our Savior. I cry every time I hear it.
I know You came to rescue me
This baby boy would grow to be
A man and one day die for me and you
My sins would drive the nails in You
That rugged cross was my cross, too
Still every breath You drew was Hallelujah
Cloverton’s lyrics remind us that throughout his incomprehensibly difficult ministry and even as he bore the weight of the world’s sins on the cross, Jesus worshiped God the Father with his every breath.
Back in the hallway on that morning, I sang along to Cohen’s Hallelujah, tears streaming down my face. I had traced the song to the day-room where a big screen TV played to a small group of residents seated in their wheelchairs, all quietly watching a man at his piano playing Cohen’s masterpiece.
I had prayed for a peaceful passing. My sister had accepted the Lord as her Savior only months before and I was comforted by the thought that she had finally been able to drop-kick the body that had given her so much trouble toward the end. The hard part was over for her. She was with Jesus.
Still, I grieved, selfishly wanting her to be alive and healthy again, if even for just a short time so we could talk and laugh together, like sisters do. I wanted to erase all of the suffering that had led up to her death. I worried that there might have been something more I could or should have done for her. Time slowed down as my grief played itself out there in the hallway.
And Hallelujah played in the background.
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?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, and the major lift
A baffled King composing Hallelujah
The story goes that Cohen originally wrote as many as 80 verses to Hallelujah before settling on the few that were to be included in his original recorded version. Those that made the final cut have been interpreted in many different ways, but it is clear to me that Cohen’s lyrics speak of the power of God and His gracious promise of redemption.
The word “hallelujah” comes from the Hebrew words halal and Ya –one a verb, the other a proper name. They appear in the Old Testament joined together. The Hebrew word halal means to praise and when combined with the Hebrew word Ya, which represents the proper name of the God of Israel, hallelujah is a call to worship God.
Make no mistake. This hallelujah call is not simply a “Hey everybody, let’s gather around the piano and worship”. It is a mighty petition to praise God. Halal connotes boastful praise, reckless and unrestrained, and Ya refers to YHWH, “the absolute and unchangeable one”, the “ever-living Lord”, the “One Who Is”.
We’re talking about profuse, wild adoration –devotion that is impossible to control or hide; the kind that says “I don’t care what you think of me, I’m going to worship my God and you should too!”.
We find this call to worship in the Psalms (106,111-113,135,146-150) and not again until we find the Greek transliteration of hallelujah within the final pages of the Bible.
Remember King David, the shepherd boy anointed King, dancing as he returned the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, bringing the Holy presence of God home to His people?
“…David danced before the LORD with all his might, wearing a priestly garment.”
2 Samuel 6:14
When David’s wife Michal chastised him for looking foolish as he danced, David replied “I was dancing before the Lord, who chose me above your father and all his family! He appointed me as the leader of Israel, the people of the Lord, so I celebrate before the Lord. Yes, and I am willing to look even more foolish than this, even to be humiliated in my own eyes…” (2 Sam 6: 21-22).
In his song, Cohen writes of King David –lover of God, shepherd, warrior, poet, and King. He was set apart for God’s service, enabled by His power to do great things. Scripture details how David fell to sin and the painful consequences he suffered as a result. Scripture also reveals that, humbled by his own sin in the midst of God’s power and mercy, David began to understand the true meaning of hallelujah.
Cohen captures it perfectly in the song’s lyrics,
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
Here we see the truth played out in David’s life, that hallelujah is not only a call to praise, it is a call to surrender; a call to throw off restraints and inhibitions not only when we are dancing in the midst of our achievement, but also when we are broken and lost. Hallelujah is a call to trust, not only when the stakes are low and the living is easy, but also when we can’t know what lies ahead, when we have no choice but to rely on God’s promises; to trust when we cannot see.
I saw my sister one last time on that morning, God’s promises and presence moderating the loss. And, in that moment, with Cohen’s song ringing in my ears, I found my hallelujah. Not when all was well, but when, with my eyes full of tears, I listened to a beautiful song that God provided when and where I most needed and least expected it.
And, so I will sing hallelujah, always. God expects nothing less and is worthy of so much more.
There’s a blaze of light
in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah