Leonard Cohen was a Canadian poet and song writer. His songs focus on life, love, religion, sex, politics, and isolation. He had a very long career and, a couple of years before his death, he did a world tour and Ian and I were lucky to see him in Manchester. He was raised as an observant Jew and he practised his faith all his life but was also interested in other religions – he spent five years in a Buddhist monastery and was ordained as a monk but saw no conflict between that and the practice of his Judaism – he was very struck by the person of Jesus too and this comes out in some of his songs. In an interview he said, of Jesus: I’m very fond of Jesus Christ. He may be the most beautiful guy who walked the face of this earth. Any guy who says ‘Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek’ has got to be a figure of unparalleled generosity and insight and madness…A man who declared himself to stand among the thieves, the prostitutes and the homeless. His position cannot be comprehended. It is an inhuman generosity. A generosity that would overthrow the world if it was embraced because nothing would weather that compassion. I’m not trying to alter the Jewish view of Jesus Christ. But to me, in spite of what I know about the history of legal Christianity, the figure of the man has touched me. He clearly gets Jesus’ message – perhaps more than many in the Church.
His most famous song is, probably, Hallelujah. It wasn’t that much of a hit when it was first released but was covered by other singers and, in Britain became very popular when Alexandra Burke sang it to win the X Factor in 2008 – introducing it to a whole new generation.
The song is an interesting conundrum. We like it, we think it’s a happy song – because our association with the word Hallelujah as meaning “praise God” and our hymns with the word hallelujah in it are joyful. The word is a command to praise God – and I think Cohen uses it as a command to praise God even in troubled circumstances.
The words of Hallelujah continue from the theme of David and Bathsheba from last week’s service but mix up images of David playing the secret chord that both pleased the Lord and calmed Saul in his mental instability. Cohen names David as the “baffled king” who, in the lyrics, seems to have been undone by Bathsheba – he also mixes in images of Samson and Delilah – showing his intimate knowledge of the Bible but it does get a tad confusing! It could be read as Bathsheba seducing David which I think isn’t what happened. He does, however, muse that she broke his throne – certainly David lost the respect of the religious establishment over his behaviour and, after Solomon’s death, the Kingdom broke in two.
Cohen’s life, and loves, were not what one would expect from an Orthodox Jew. In the song Cohen answers critics who think he’s taken the Lord’s Holy Name in vain –
You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, well really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken hallelujah
Jews don’t speak the Name of the Lord – writing it in the Bible as YHWH – without the vowels. Older translators thought the name was Jehovah but now it is generally thought to be Yahweh. Most English versions have The Lord instead of this name – only a few use the name. An observant Jew would never say the name of the Lord, and get troubled that Christians do. So Cohen, in this verse, answers his critic by saying he doesn’t know the Name – it is something of a mystery but sees a blaze of God’s inspiration in every word he writes and then has this intriguing line about it doesn’t matter if we heard the holy or the broken hallelujah. This idea of the holy and broken hallelujah is, for me, the key to his song and today’s reading – don’t worry I’ve not forgotten the reading!
Everything we know about King David seems to me, at least, to indicate brokenness. Plucked from obscurity he fells the Philistine giant, Goliath, and then is taken into the king’s service and calms Saul’s moods with his music. He inveigles his way into the Royal Family with a close relationship with Jonathan, the crown prince, which makes Saul very angry so he’s married off to Saul’s younger daughter, Michal. This marriage doesn’t seem happy. David is anointed, secretly, as king by Samuel who interferes in politics and David wages a civil war against Saul, even taking refuge with the hated Philistines. After Saul and Jonathan are killed in battle, David seizes the throne. He sees Bathsheba, rapes and gets her pregnant and then has her husband killed and marries her. This is a broken man – whose behaviour breaks others.
But, and there’s a huge but, David is anointed by God and sees himself as a devout follower of the Lord. He repents of his murder and rape when the prophet Nathan confronts him and, eventually, Bathsheba’s son, Solomon, ascends the throne. Many of the Psalms are said to be written by David. This is a holy man – whose holiness and poetry inspires others.
Cohen, it seems to me, was also both a broken and a holy man. The character of David provided him with a way in to exploring his own relationship with God. The last verse of the song seems to be a very fitting epitaph for Cohen – and for us – if I end up having a tomb stone I wouldn’t mind this being on it:
I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah
Cohen could be writing about David or about himself – or perhaps any of us. In his brokenness he recognises his failure but, at one and the same time, he knows he will stand before God praising Him.
In our Psalm, traditionally thought to be written by David, we see a cry of despair coupled with words of praise. We know the opening words of the Psalm and read them every Holy Week as they are the last words of Jesus from the Cross. A cry of despair? Or echoes of praise and despair fighting through together?
It seems to me that we all live lives of holy and broken hallelujahs. We all have ups and downs in life. Illness, aging, loneliness, are things common to us all. Many of us know what it is to battle with depression, bereavement, disappointment and pain in life. Many of us are all too aware of our own brokenness, our own struggles with what we know is wrong; yet we still seek to praise God. Like David of old we know our brokenness, we know the troubles in life that plague us but, at the same time, we know we are commanded to praise God – not just in the good times but in the bad. We come to God with our holy and our broken hallelujahs.
God uses all types of people – even us. If God could use the scheming, manipulative, murdering rapist that was King David when there is hope for you and me! If David, despite his past, and despite the pain in his life – later in the story his son rebels against him trying to oust him from the throne and rapes his concubines – David still seeks to praise God. Sometimes we think we can only praise God, only come to church, when we are happy, when we feel like it. One of the points of Cohen’s song is that we praise God in all things – an idea informed by his close reading and knowledge of the Bible. Hallelujah is a command to praise God not just an expression of joy.
Finally, it seems from Cohen’s life, David’s millennia before him, and from our own lives that faith doesn’t insulate us from life’s problems. Sometimes people think that if they are good Christians God will stop bad things happening to us. Now, of course, I hope that nothing bad happens to any of us, but life doesn’t seem to be like that. We all have to deal with the pain, disappointments and problems of life. Faith doesn’t make any of that go away – but it does give us the resources to cope. We will struggle like everyone else but our faith in God gives us strength, a different perspective and the power to endure until better times come.
The key, as in Cohen’s Psalm like song and in Psalm 22 is to offer our praises even when things are awful, even when we don’t like feeling like doing it. Mother Theresa is now known to have gone through a profound period of doubt and darkness – what got her through was acting as if she believed, because in doing that the faith came back. Sometimes it’s like we’re being tested, asked to rely on God more completely than we’re comfortable with so that, at the end, we come before him with our holy and our broken hallelujahs on our lips.
Will you pray with me?
Lord, our God,
we often act as if we don’t know your Name,
don’t praise you as we should, and forget all we know.
At other times we do our best,
but realise it isn’t always much.
We don’t want to fool you, or ourselves,
but we hope that, at the end,
we will stand before you, the Lord of Song,
with our holy, and broken, hallelujahs on our lips. Amen.