Interpreting Hallelujah

Anthony Draper
12 min readApr 23, 2016

People around the world are familiar with Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. The song has long been a staple of western culture, covered by hundreds of artists throughout the world. However, people are still unclear as to the meaning of the song. I will explore one of many interpretations, one I believe is best supported by the text more than any other, focusing on the lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s original recording. In the last two decades, the song has been interpreted as a “hallelujah to the orgasm” (Jeff Buckley) or a “very sexual” composition discussing relationships (Allison Crowe), but this should not be the lens with which we view the song.I will endeavour to show the song not as a blasphemous religious metaphor for a sexual affair, or Jeff Buckley’s ‘Hallelujah to the orgasm’, but in fact a song that shows a man so broken with depression and despair, so disconnected from the Word of God, so empty, that he finally has nowhere else to turn but to God, and to sing his praises, literally, to sing ‘Hallelujah’.This theme and other variances have long been explored in Cohen’s work in songs such as ‘If It Be Your Will’, ‘The Future’, and his collection of fifty psalms, ‘Book of Mercy’.First, I will analyse the lyrics of the song itself. For the sake of time, only the four verses in the original recording will be presented here. Then, I will look at other work of Cohen’s published around the same time period, such as other songs on the Various Positions album and his collection of psalms, ‘Book of Mercy’. Let’s begin with the first verse of the song:

I 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, the major lift, The baffled King composing Hallelujah

The song begins ‘Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord that David played and it pleased the Lord’. And this secret chord that is spoken of, played by David, can only be a divine chord given to David alone by God. This secret chord is perhaps a metaphor for the divine inspiration bestowed on David that allowed him to write so many of the Psalms. That is why it was so pleasing to the Lord, because David was writing what God was showing him. We don’t know what divine inspiration feels like, but perhaps David had a choice in the matter. Perhaps he could have turned away from this divine…

Anthony Draper

Graphomaniac interested in culture, philosophy, and theology. Support my efforts: