Voices
Leonard Cohen
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Leonard Cohen

Take every song captive

Music | Good singers, it's time to capture Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah'

Issue: "2012 News of the Year," Dec. 29, 2012

Atheists don’t exist. Everyone believes in a god of some sort. Atheists even know that God exists. Chapter 1 of Romans tells us that, and so does a piece of lesser evidence: “Hallelujah,” a song written by Canada’s Leonard Cohen, initially released 28 years ago but decade by decade resonating ever more powerfully.

A huge number of singers have covered it: Over 300 versions and counting. Bob Dylan, Jon Bon Jovi, Bono, Jeff Buckley—and those are just the B’s. In 2007, a British music magazine’s survey of songwriters hailed “Hallelujah” as one of the all-time “Top 10 Greatest Tracks.” American television shows like The O.C. and The West Wing, and movies like Watchmen and even Shrek, have used it to set a sober yet soaring mood.

A huge number of listeners revere “Hallelujah.” Versions by two different singers were No. 1 and No. 2 on the British charts in 2008. “Hallelujah” is the fastest selling hit ever in Norway. Australian listeners ranked it third on the “Hottest 100 of All Time.” It highlighted the opening ceremonies of the last Winter Olympics. A good book about the song, Alan Light’s The Holy or the Broken, came out earlier this month.

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Why? Partly the tune. Songwriter Rufus Wainwright says, “It’s an easy song to sing. The music never pummels the words. The melody is almost liturgical and conjures up religious feelings.” Numerous recordings, some just of the music, are on the internet: If you want to hear the best violin rendition I’ve heard, plug into YouTube’s search engine “Manuel Pedro violino Shrek Song.”

You may note that I’ve suggested listening to “Hallelujah” without the lyrics, because those words that the music never pummels are sometimes sacrilegious. Cohen penned a variety of versions, but the central stanzas offer a union of sex and salvation: Jeff Buckley called the version he used “the hallelujah of an orgasm.” Even apart from that, the lyrics form a brooding, angst-filled, lonely ode to failure, “a cold and broken hallelujah.” But that’s not the biblical hallelujah evident in the last of the Psalms, 150, which rightly starts and ends, “Praise the Lord!”

Great tunes should not be wasted. Second Corinthians 10:5 says, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” My corollary: Take every song captive. It’s become a minor hobby for me—I put some words of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” and the Doxology to the stirring music of the former Soviet national anthem, and now I offer to the world some improved lyrics to “Hallelujah”:

I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, it pleased the Lord. 
But You don’t love us for our music, do You?
Sin goes like this: The fourth, the fifth,
Adam’s fall, the major rift,
The baffled king neglecting Hallelujah.
Chorus: Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah.

Nathan said, “I see your lust.
You violate a soldier’s trust.
Your pride, your pomp, at night they overthrew you.
You steal, you kill, you get your way,
But God has said, your child will pay, 
And from your lips He’ll draw the Hallelujah.”
Chorus: 4X Hallelujah

David prayed, “Have mercy, Lord,
You saved me from Goliath’s sword.
Yes, I lived for self before I knew you.
Now, more evil in your sight,
So I give up, I cannot fight. 
Mine’s a cold and broken Hallelujah.”
Chorus: 4X Hallelujah

“Blood your hyssop, I’ll be clean.
Wash me so my sin’s not seen.
Give me of your Holy Spirit, will you? 
Create in me a new, clean heart.
Give me now a strong, fresh start, 
So every breath I draw is Hallelujah.”
Chorus: 4X Hallelujah

“You don’t delight in sacrifice.
You don’t excuse our secret vice.
You want from us a broken spirit, do you?
You’ve shown me what I did was wrong.
I’ll stand before You, Lord of song, 
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”
Chorus: 8X Hallelujah

If you’d like to sing this and put it on YouTube, be my guest: Send me an email with its web address. Merry Christmas! Hallelujah!

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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