Hallelujah, a Spiritual Road to Leonard Cohen's Bitter Counsel

The name of his most famous song, Hallelujah, would seem to stem from his spiritual quest, but its biblical imagery is merely a vehicle for his dark view of love.

This file photo taken on July 20, 2008 shows Canadian singer Leonard Cohen perform during the international Festival of Beincassim.
Diego Tuson, AFP

Leonard Cohen, dark pop icon, died Thursday at age 82, after a life-long search for faith. A rabbi's grandson and notorious ladies' man, Cohen was raised in the Jewish faith but led a secular lifestyle, never marrying but fathering two children. Yet he had a questing spiritual side: His restless search for fulfillment would take him through five years in a Buddhist monastery and through Scientology too, where he saw no contradiction between these and observing Shabbat, for instance.  

The name of his best-known song is ostensibly pure spirit: "Hallelujah," which simply means "Praise God" in Hebrew. Yet the path through the numerous biblical references in the song, and following images from later religious symbolism, leads not to spiritual heights but to Leonard Cohen's shadowy secular side: it is a bitter lament about love. Cohen, adept in scripture, simply taps the human condition described in the bible to provide astringent counsel:

"But all I've ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya."

While some of his references are direct, such as King David, ostensible author of the Psalms – where the word "Hallelujah" appears 24 times, others are more obscure. At least one seems to arise from his period of seeking the meaning he craved in Christianity.

Leonard Cohen performing Hallelujah

King David's burden

The title of the song “Hallelujah” itself is from Psalms, where it appears mostly in Psalms 113 to 118 (according to the Hebrew version of the Bible).

Cohen's song starts by introducing the character of King David, who, according to the Bible, was a gifted musician:

"Well, 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?
Well it goes like this: The fourth, the fifth,
the minor fall and the major lift"

The fourth and fifth chords in Key of C are the actual chords in this part of the song. They are followed by a descending minor scale and an ascending major scale. Needless to say, these chords had nothing to do with King David. We don’t know what ancient Judean music was like, but it certainly didn’t use the chords common today.

In any case, this segue to modernity is a harbinger of Cohen's shift to his real theme: not David lauding God, but the king's prohibited erotic passion:

"The baffled king composing Hallelujah
Well your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya"

This verse draws on 2 Samuel 11:2: “And it came to pass in an eveningtide, that David arose from off his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king's house: and from the roof he saw a woman washing herself; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon.”

She is Bathsheba, a married woman. The smitten king has her husband Uriah the Hittite killed in battle and takes her for his wife. Rebuked for his misconduct by the prophet Nathan, David is punished.

She tied you to her chair

Next Cohen turns to Samson, another biblical love tragedy:

"She tied you to her kitchen chair
And she broke your throne and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah"

"She" is Delilah, treacherous lover: “Delilah therefore took new ropes, and bound him therewith” (Judges 16:12). After Samson divulges the secret to his power, his hair, to his Philistine lover: “she made him sleep upon her knees; and she called for a man, and she caused him to shave off the seven locks of his head; and she began to afflict him, and his strength went from him” (16:19). This ultimately results in his death.

Cohen then apparently segues to ancient Palestine and the Roman triumph over the rebelling Jews in 70 C.E., ending the Great Jewish Revolt:

"But baby I've been here before
I've seen this room and I've walked this floor
You know, I used to live alone before I knew ya
And I've seen your flag on the marble arch
And love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah"

The “marble arch” may allude to Titus’ Victory Arch in Rome, a monument celebrating the Roman final victory over the Jews. If so, Cohen is comparing his lover to the Roman victors and himself to the devastated Jews, who had just lost their Temple. Like the revolt, he is crushed.

The Christian era

"Well there was a time when you let me know
What's really going on below
But now you never show that to me do ya
But remember when I moved in you
And the holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah"

These verses, which clearly refer to the carnal act of love, may include the only reference to the New Testament in the song.

The “holy dove” of which Cohen sings may refer to the Holy Spirit, impregnating the Virgin Mary. Religious art depicting the conception of Jesus often portrays the Holy Spirit as a dove.

"Maybe there's a God above
But all I've ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya
And it's not a cry that you hear at night
It's not somebody who's seen the light
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah"

And thus the song ends by revealing its meaning. It isn’t about God, who may or may not exist, it is about love. The analogy with outdrawing your lover refers to breaking up. That is the “Hallelujah” this song is about. The cold and broken feeling of losing a lover.