Hallelujah, Thank You Jesus… Or Maybe Not

Hallelujah, Thank You Jesus… Or Maybe Not March 29, 2012

[Editor’s Note: Okay, so it’s been… let’s say a few years since I first wrote this one, and it seems to have gotten a lot of views since. I seem to have cranked up my rhetoric to an 11 out of 10 that day, so this is just a note to say I don’t write like this any more. Though “Hallelujah” is still totally not a worship song. For everyone’s info. ;-)]
A while ago, some young, female, Christian vocalists got together on a multi-artist tour, gathered around a guitar, and did a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Since then, the video has been circulating around the CCM community, been featured on Godtube, etc., etc. You’ll hear words like “amazing,” “powerful” and “beautiful” used to describe it, but… well, you be the judge. I believe “bedroom vocals” may be a more accurate description:

So, okay, if you managed to make it through the whole thing… I hope you weren’t too distracted by the performance to pay attention to what’s actually the most problematic thing about this video—the song itself. You see,  these lovely, earnest but apparently not very bright young ladies seem to think this is a worship song. Or at least that it can be easily claimed as one.
Now, to clarify, there is more than one version of the lyrics floating around out there. Some, including the original, make it more explicit what meaning its author  intended to communicate. Other versions, including this one, are still strange, but not so clear. However, the original version is popular enough that I can’t believe none of these girls have never heard it. And ultimately, all of the verses all fit together in a cohesive pattern, and the message they send is decidedly non-Christian.
I decided not to quote the two omitted verses because they are so objectionable (though readers are welcome to use google to confirm what I’m saying), but essentially, this is what they are about: First of all, verse two fleshes out the reference to David, this time focusing on his sin with Bathsheba. It describes his temptation, then uses the word “Hallelujah” to refer to the act itself. Needless to say, this is not worshipful in the least. But it gets even worse in the other explicit verse, which is borderline pornographic and contains a blasphemous reference to “the holy dove” descending on the couple in sin. (Of course this fit right in with the “make love not war” sentiment of the times when the song was written.)
Yet people will still try to argue that really, this song is all about repentance and brokenness, and the “cold and broken Hallelujah” in the most famous verse is a reference to our desperate need for God because we’ve screwed up, just like David did. But when we return to the final verse and put it into context along with the omitted verses I’ve just described, a very different meaning emerges:
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 ya
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
Clearly, the girls view this verse as the most worshipful of them all. What could be more worshipful than standing before God with “Hallelujah” on your lips? Insert closed eyes and raised hands here… yes? No. Look again. It’s a song of defiance, not worship. “Hallelujah” has already been established as having a sexual meaning. Yes, it was sinful, and yes, it all came crashing down. But the singer is proclaiming that he would do it all again, that it was worth it. This is really the opposite of worship. In fact, it’s blasphemous. And who is the “Lord of Song” anyway? Is it the true God? Or is it really a false god of carnal love?
Here’s what really scares me: the thought that those girls probably aren’t alone. What do you wanna bet you can find a church that uses this in its worship set today? I think it’s overwhelmingly likely. I would be interested if anyone could find a set list or video to confirm that.
What is the Church coming to? I declare, every time I think Christians can’t get any more blind and ignorant… they find a new low. How terrifying.

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  • JB

    Immediately tweeted. Thanks for the heads-up.

  • steven

    Myself and a friend of mine were actually discussing this song the other day: I know that there are many different theories on what the song represents and to be honest i’m not 100% convinced on any one of them. I do believe it is describing sin, failure, the “pleasure” of sin, POSSIBLY redemption, and judgement (whether for the good or the bad).
    I do not in any way consider this to be a “Christian” song. It does not clearly worship God, clearly relate a gospel message, ect. Watching the video of the gospel artists covering the song reminds me much of what I’ve seen growing up in church (especially in the south). Many people hear a word in the song that is a “churchy” word – Amen, Angel, God, Jesus, Hallelujah, Church, Sunday (et al) and automatically decide it is now a christian song and even now appropriate to sing in a worship setting or concert. I can’t recall how many open mic sings where i’ve heard songs like “I’m gonna love you forever, amen”, “Mommas teaching angels how to sing” (that song is about as theologically accurate as a blue sued shoes), “God bless the broken road” or some other country song that refers to a “christianese” word. Before I sound harsh or fundamentalistic (which i am neither – furthest thing from it), there is nothing inherently wrong with the songs but they aren’t really hymns or spiritual songs. I love all genres of music and listen to a wide range!
    Looking at it from another angel, I know many christians are judgmental about every song they hear. Maybe these ladies just wanted to cover it, knew the meaning, knew they would be critizied….so they spiritualized it too much maybe?
    For what its worth: I’ve heard the song covered much better with just a guitar and one singer. The last verse chorus was a vocal trainwreck haha.
    Maybe we can get the collinsworth family or booth brothers to record it on their next album – i think the vocals and harmony would amazing. So maybe not

  • Lydia

    If you google & read the two verses that YGG left out, I think you’ll _double_ that “maybe not.”
    On the main post, I wd. say, the evangelical church is pretty good with the part of Jesus’ advice about being harmless as doves. The “wise as serpents” part, not so much, I’m afraid.

  • The music is beautiful, but… and again, don’t take my word for it, go look this up, the verses that begin “Your faith was strong but you needed proof” and “There was a time you let me know” are VERY explicit. Definitely not something I’d want any nice Christian singer to be covering.

  • Riete

    I’ve heard it sing here in the Netherlands by a female singer and she is definitely not a Christian 😉
    To be honest, I had to look it up as I didn’t know the words.
    It’s sad that people don’t read an think before they sing …
    The singing in this video however is – dare I say it – dreadful! Too much false emotion and way too many notes!

  • Part of the reason for different lyrics floating out there is that there are multiple similar, but not exact, versions of the song.
    I’m pretty sure Leonard Cohen’s original version of the song is the one with the explicit material. That could be a reason why the songs popularity didn’t soar until it was covered in the early 90s by John Cale and Jeff Buckley (with the verses edited/removed).
    So basically it seems this is another cover of a secular song that had verses edited or removed to make it into a Christian song. I don’t hate the song, but this revelation about different sets of lyrics definitely gives me a greater understanding about the history of the song.

  • Actually, Buckley’s version contains those verses as well, as do others besides Cohen’s. I’ve heard secular artists do both versions. I don’t think it was edited to become a Christian song—a couple different versions just sort of evolved (though it was obviously no accident that it should have been just THOSE verses that got cut). I’ve only recently seen Christians start trying to claim it.

  • JJ

    This is the mind-boggling adoption of a disturbing mainstream song by Christians who do not pay attention to the words they’re singing.
    Unfortunately, the ignorance has been going on for a while. Those who went to a Christian bookstore to buy the CDs of Jason Castro and Susan Boyle (her Christmas CD, no less) did not care about the details; they just wanted to sing that “Hallelujah song” at church. Deliver us.

  • I heard Castro talk about singing that on Idol by saying that he thought it was cool that he got to “praise his Lord and Savior” on the Idol stage. :facepalm:
    Either they don’t pay attention, or they’re too ignorant and stupid to get how disturbing it is if they did.

  • David Mac

    Good post YGG!
    I feel the “mindlessness” of much that passes as gospel music nowadays is partly to blame. by that I mean an overdependance on the EMOTIONAL response to the mood music – not necessarily wrong – without attention being paid to a) the rock based tempo and, b) the sensual based lyrics.
    Histroically we could probably blame George Harrison and John Lennon for the early syncretism, and on this account, Cohen too.
    The “unlearned and unstable wrestle” with scriptural analogy to their own confusion and destruction; no surprise perhaps.
    That believers do likewise is more shocking.
    Cohen himself recorded widely differing versions of this song, and their are mysterious references to 15 verses in total. When what is available is put together it is clearly blasphemous and appears to be a glorification of illicit sex, outside of marital union. Which sadly concords with Samson and David being alluded to in O.T. anology.
    I seem to feel the ending is – far from the Davidic brokenness – a defiance of the position they are found in.
    A much deeper analysis is possible, but this is no song of a “Christian cover”, God forbid it – yet – gets onto a genuine gospel album.
    A worthy heads up, and a timely warning!

  • Thanks David. I think you nailed it when you talked about how everyone is just reacting to the emotion. People are focused on how it makes them feel without thinking about what the lyrics actually mean.

  • Doug Harrison had an interesting post on how music, on its own, elicits an emotional response, with or without lyrics (which is why movies always have musical scores to help emphasize the moment on screen). Without the music, many gospel songs seem utterly ridiculous on lyrical merit alone.
    Take, for example, “Champion of Love.” The song itself compares Jesus to a heavyweight boxer. If you are reading the verses on their own, they do seem a bit cheesy. I think even Gerald Wolfe once said that he didn’t understand the song at first and hesitated singing it, but when you let Lari Goss produce an orchestral track and soaring vocal arrangement, you have a massive hit and signature song.
    Our pastor did a sermon once on Joan Osborne’s “What If God Was One Of Us,” and we performed the song in the service. I have never felt so uncomfortable singing a song in church as when we did that song. Granted he made some valid points, but I think a sample could’ve been played rather than making it an actual part of the service, and I came very close to changing some of the words.
    One song that surprisingly got some gospel radio airplay (which I think is totally hilarious and very sad at the same time) is the Kendalls’ “Heaven’s Just A Sin Away.” The infectious melody and the smooth harmonizing apparently overruled the fact that the song clearly is about fornication, with “heaven” being the pleasure of sinful sexual activity.

  • Well, I never did like “Champion of Love.” Soaring orchestral arrangement, smash hit or no, it doesn’t belong on any “best of” compilation for the Cathedrals or southern gospel as far as I’m concerned. Ultimately I’m much more inclined to forgive musical failings than lyrical failings (though naturally both music and lyrics are very important to the success of a song).
    I had not come across the Osborne song before. Very, very strange, and yeah, I can totally see why you would think it weird to sing in church. I read all the time about churches that have the band perform some completely secular song with the excuse that “Oh, well this is showing what’s wrong or bad, and then we’ll come along and ‘answer the questions’ in a sermon or another song.” So for example, I’ve seen “Rolling in the Deep” performed in a service with a marriage focus, and I’ve heard about a worship band that did “Highway to Hell” before a sermon about Hell. To me that’s completely tacky and inappropriate. You don’t need to spell out exactly what a broken relationship or a hedonistic lifestyle looks like right there in what should be a holy place of worship. We already know that too well just by living in the world.
    That is indeed sad about “Heaven’s Just a Sin.”

  • I never heard of this song before until I read it on the BBC which is promoting it because Cohen is British (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20778621). I thought it may be similar to Handel’s Hallelujah chorus. When I looked up the lyrics, they seemed overtly sexual and it did not make sense. By the way on the same theme, at a former church in Olathe, KS where I was a member, the worship leader (who was also the senior pastor’s wife), exhorted us during praise and worship, to “make love to Jesus”. I was the only one outraged. I complained, and that earned me a deep seated grudge from the senior pastor.

  • No, heavens, indeed quite different from the Handel tune. This song is a very secular standard. It was sort of an anthem of the sexual revolution. Which you can sort of tell by the lyrics. What’s interesting is that Cohen’s poetic gift is still very apparent. I have to acknowledge the craftsmanship in the rhymes. But the message is unacceptable.
    Make love to Jesus? Gross.

  • oregonsistah

    sounds like a bunch of “cats being hearded”

  • Scott Shockley

    I am reminded of Nadab and Abihu. To put it simply, a large part of the church has lost all understanding of the “fear of the Lord.” This video is a sad example of the type of “profane fire” that is being accepted in one form or another. and i cannot think that it pleases or blesses God in any way.

  • And thanks to my OT reading project of 2012, I was actually able to recognize and appreciate that biblical analogy!
    I am perhaps a bit more charitable (though that may not exactly be the word most people would use). I’m not ready to say these girls are in danger of damnation for making this video. I think if you’re so stupid and/or naive that you literally DON’T KNOW what you’re doing, God will have mercy on you even if you’re making Him do a double face-palm. Kind of like some people who voted for Obama. They should be held accountable to some extent, but again, a staggering percentage of Christians simply don’t have the knowledge or even (it seems) the capability to grasp everything a vote for that man signifies. I like to think God will say to them at the end of time, “Kids, how could you be so dumb?” And then “Come on in, love ya anyway.”

  • Troberson

    WOW..The first time I heard this song..my FIRST reaction was how beautiful it was until I started listening to the lyrics and something just didn’t “sit well with my spirit”..so at Christmas this past year..my mother wanted our family to sing this along with my nephew playing the guitar and I brought up the fact that the “verses” were not Christian based and my nephew goggled another version of the song…the lyrics are BEAUTIFUL!! in fact, there are two more versions of this “melody” that the words are amazingly written and beautifully sang….so what do you think of someone taking this “melody” and changing the words to a TRUE praise and worship song..I am a singer and the version I found..I am actually considering singing at Easter…this is actually the first verse…..
    1. A crown of thorns placed on His head
    2. He knew that He would soon be dead
    3. He said did you forget me Father did you?
    4. They nailed Him to a wooden cross
    5. Soon all the world would feel the loss
    6. Of Christ the King before His Hallelujah….

  • I believe someone else has mentioned and linked to that version. I have mixed feelings about it, because it still evokes the source material. Given how obscene that material is, do we want to even come that close to reminding people of it? It’s cheesy enough when people re-write harmless pop songs (“Meet you on the way/Hosanna, yeah…” — not making that up). Plus, the attempt to mimic certain phrases and motifs from the original results in some aesthetic awkwardness since the writer of the new lyrics isn’t as poetically gifted. That’s a comparatively minor concern though. Regarding appropriateness, I’m kind of in two minds on the re-write for the first reason I gave. I can certainly say for sure that I question the judgement of any church that would do the uncensored original version.

  • @Troberson – what is beautiful about the lyrics? I didn’t see anything good.

  • He’s talking about the alternate version with Christian lyrics.

  • Troberson

    @yankeegospelgirl….Thanks for the response and I certainly agree that the uncensored version is no where near appropriate for any venue..much less a church and to Anil…there is another version and even a you tube CHRISTIAN version that has some pretty amazing verses….I had to search and goggle for them..but once I found them..the verses were very powerful…so in the meantime…praying…and God bless…

  • Student of the Word

    Thank you so much for this. “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” is as true today as ever, yet now the ignorance and lack of attention to detail in both study and speaking which most Christians evince is not only a symptom of their own spiritual dishabille, but also (thanks in no small part to mass media) both an embarrassment to those of us who DO attempt to use the minds God blessed us with, and also a stumblingblock to the conversion of–or even conversation with–anyone outside the body of Christ with a modicum of intelligence. It is sad, but no wonder, that Christianity is viewed as a religion for mental midgets who are intellectually deficient. May the Lord forgive us all of our Inattention to study and learning, and of our vanity and self-idolatry as well.

  • Chris

    Much as I would like to claim Cohen for Britain, he is Canadian.

  • Barnabas

    I so agree with you Riete…please look it up before you take part…that’s just like saying or doing something and NOT sure of what it is!…It’s just like the WORD in the Bible, we say & do what it say’s but don’t change anything it say’s in there…Mark 13:31 say’s, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my Words shall not pass away.”…I’m thankful that I am now aware of what this song says…I kind of discerned it right when I first heard it, but never looked into it until now!…I knew there was something fishy about it…Thank YOU LOrd for the discerning Spirit…not being judge mental but it’s good to be aware! & these lovely ladies were trying too hard but God knows everything…we need to worship Him in Spirit and in Truth…God bless everyone!

  • I thought you might find it interesting that the young lady playing guitar will be on the new Gaither release Women of Homecoming.

  • Jamie Grace? Hmmmm, interesting. I mean I think she has some singing talent, but I really don’t see her connection to southern gospel or homecomings. 🙂

  • John Situmbeko

    I don’t think Gaither’s Homecomings are strictly southern gospel. Over the years CCM artists like Michael W. Smith, Ray Boltz, Carmen, Cece, Amy Grant, e.t.c. have appeared on the videos.

  • Cece is black gospel though, so at least we’ve got “gospel” in there! I can also understand including a CCM artist who’s more “inspirational” and has had songs covered in SG (like Ray Boltz, though he sure wouldn’t be invited back now!) And of course they’ve had various country/bluegrass musicians who either work closely with southern gospel singers or are stepping out to perform on Country/Bluegrass homecomings. But as I just posted, Jamie Grace doesn’t have any connections to gospel or southern music at all—white or black gospel, country, bluegrass, etc. She’s pure Christian pop, and pretty lousy Christian pop at that.

  • Nicholas MOSES

    Leonard Cohen was not a Christian (he was Jewish) and we should not be surprised if he did not attempt to fit his song to a Christian spiritual, moral or theological framework. However, the image of a “Holy Dove” seems to me quite Trinitarian, and if it is understood as such, we have to concede that the Holy Ghost WAS indeed at work when David slept with Bathsheba, for it was their son Solomon from whose lineage St. Joseph sprung. Though I might be reaching with that one.
    The third verse is more telling:
    “Maybe there’s a God above
    But all I’ve ever learned from love
    Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you”
    That kind of anguished soul-searching is definitely out of place in adoration or processional hymns. So too is the fourth verse, which is blasphemous if “It doesn’t matter which you heard” is taken to mean what I suspect it means:
    “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”
    Overall, I agree with the author’s assessment: “What is the Church coming to? I declare, every time I think Christians can’t get any more blind and ignorant… they find a new low. How terrifying.” Much as I love this song, and whatever its merits, it has no place whatsoever in Christian liturgy or adoration.

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  • Pitt Khawlhring

    One girl sang this song in one church I attended… “Oh no… not again” was my reaction when I heard the music intro….. Really, people should first know the meaning of the songs, before they sing..

  • It’s very popular, even among Christians. I think some people may not realize just how bad it is because many versions leave out some of the very worst verses. It has a pretty melody that revolves around the word “Hallelujah,” so they just start strumming and singing, minus thinking.

  • Sunomis

    Thank you Yankee! I have always felt that way too.
    For me that song is a hymn to carnal extasy, and the word Hallelujah a sort of Nietzschean “Yes” from one creature made of flesh to the world. I even suspect a subtle hint at homoerotic love.
    All in all, a great song, but I’m tired of singers that sing it with a religious tone, without the original’s sensuality.

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  • everybodyknows

    I think Lucifer is the ‘lord of song’ no? he was in charge of music in heaven before he was thrown out

  • Does the Scriptural canon say that or is it just in the apocrypha? I would have to look that up, but it’s an interesting theory if so.

  • Ralf HENNECK

    The adulterous relation did not at all give bith to Solomon, not at all ! This baby died in spite of David praying and fadting. (2 Samuel 12.19-20)

  • Right, I know. Solomon was born later, but Bathsheba was his mother.

  • paloma

    K D Lang received much adulation for her rendition at a huge venue. Of course she is not a Christian either. Cohen recently died. I had to wonder about his destination. The song is blasphemous and fools people because it sounds so beautiful; the rhythm is seductive. The late Jeff Buckley’s version could break your heart. But IT IS NOT CHRISTIAN.

  • Ralf

    Yes, it’s not Christian at all !

  • Victoriana

    I felt disturbed by the popularity and the Biblical references in this song, and wondered if anyone besides me saw it as a non-Christian song. I am greatly encouraged by the insight and discernment of these responses. Also, I thank God for the gentle and noncondemning spirit of everyone here.
    I have a couple of points to add. People have commented on the evocative melody which seems to draw us up in worship. Look at the first verse of the song. The writer describes the exact chord progression that he is using to manipulate that inspirational feeling. It seems a tad cynical to me to tell people how you are manipulating them, but there it is in black and white.
    It is commendable that people want to substitute Christian lyrics in this beautiful melody, but it is still plagiarism to take someone’s original music and add lyrics they did not write or intend. Mr. Cohen is deceased, so he’s not likely to sue anyone for copyright violation, but his intellectual property should be respected, and we should write new, separate, Christian songs. It’s also a valid point that the Christianized lyrics still remind the listener of the original, explicitly non-Christian lyrics and intent of the song.
    Two more reasons that people may not realize the non-worshipful implications of this song:
    1. A number of singers perform it with so much emotion that it is hard to understand ANY of the lyrics except “Hallelujah”! That makes it hard to analyze!
    2. Mr. Cohen is a really good poet, and good poetry is ambiguous. There are phrases that can be interpreted as having spiritual meaning. We can focus on those and miss the over all “fishy” tone that some people noticed without even analyzing the lyrics, as well as missing the overt references to sexuality that yankeegospelgirl and others helpfully pointed out.
    I want to say thanks again to everyone for these posts. It is good to read such thoughtful comments on a potentially divisive topic. Blessings to all!

  • Popular a cappella group Pentatonix recently put this out on their Christmas album. I suspect they are just a secular group hoping to cash in on Christmas. I like Cohen’s song, but it’s definitely not a song about anything but being human with human failings.
    Compare/contrast with this rendition by a ten year-old autistic girl (and supporting children’s choir), but with Christian-themed lyrics: https://youtu.be/gfAwXDWThlo

  • A Christmas album? Yuck.

  • Melina Vlachou

    Thank you God at least one more person gets this! The Lord of song is not our Lord Jesus or our Father Yaweh… As for Cohen although I used to love his songs, I assume he had a deal with ”the Lord of song” too… It gives me the creeps that everyone just listens to any kind of ”worship” song without checking out the meaning and the ethics behind the lyrics.