You’ve probably heard “Hallelujah,” an incredible song composed by the late Canadian artist Leonard Cohen. The song has been widely performed and it has been featured in TV shows and films.
“Hallelujah” is one of the world’s most iconic and popular songs, and the crazy thing is that the song was underappreciated for a full decade after Cohen wrote it. How did “Hallelujah” become so popular, and what exactly do the song’s complex lyrics mean?
Essentially, the song tells the story of the Bible’s King David and the love of his life, Bathsheba. But this song isn’t about religion. Let’s dive in and learn all about the history and meaning behind one of the most beloved songs in the world.
The Dark and Twisted Love Story of King David and Bathsheba
Before we get into the origins and history of the song “Hallelujah,” it’s helpful to know the basics of the backstory upon which the song is based. The scandalous story is a tale of infidelity and betrayal that would rival any scandal amongst celebrities and world leaders in the modern era.
King David was the second king of what was known at the time as The United Kingdom of Israel and Judah. Bathsheba was married to another man, a soldier named Uriah.
“He Saw Her Bathing on the Roof”
When David saw Bathsheba bathing on the roof, he was mesmerized by her beauty and asked that she be brought to him. He knew that Uriah was away at war, so the timing was perfect.
David and Bathsheba began a passionate love affair, and eventually, Bathsheba became pregnant. Desperate to cover up the scandal, David plotted a scheme to get Uriah back home so that Uriah could sleep with Bathsheba. The idea was to try to pass the baby off as Uriah’s child.
However, Uriah had other plans. He wasn’t ready to leave the war front because the war was still waging on. Since he wouldn’t return home, David had Uriah sent to the frontlines so that he would be killed. That’s exactly what happened.
Abuse of Power
Ultimately, this story is about the abuse of power, all in the name of lust. The lust leads to adultery, murder, and brokenness. Until he fell in love with Bathsheba, David had been a gifted and brave leader, but he started believing his own propaganda, a fate that befalls many great leaders.
In short, David started taking what he wanted with little thought to the consequences.
Historically, people have blamed Bathsheba for luring David with her beauty. But the fact is, David lusted after Bathsheba and there was a huge imbalance of power in the relationship. As a woman in Biblical times, Bathsheba had little power of her own.
David and Bathsheba’s Legacy
David married Bathsheba once she became a widow. Unfortunately, the first baby was lost in a miscarriage, and David believed that God was punishing him for committing murder and adultery.
Eventually, Bathsheba gave birth to another baby, a boy who would become King Solomon.
You can find the original story in the Bible in 2 Samuel 11 beginning at verse 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.” (King James Version)
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Five Years, 80 Drafts, and 80 Verses
Cohen wrote about 80 drafts of the song, and he wrote one of them at New York’s Royalton Hotel. At the hotel, he sat on the floor in his underwear as he banged his head on the hard floor.
Also, some sources note that Cohen wrote a full 80 verses for “Hallelujah” before he narrowed it down to just seven final verses.
The original version of the song references other Biblical verses, including the story of Samson and Delilah. When Cohen performed the song during his 1985 word tour, he frequently changed up the lyrics with different performances.
In a documentary about Cohen titled “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song,” the creators explain that it took Cohen approximately five years to write “Hallelujah.”
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What’s the True Hallelujah Song Meaning?
What are the Hallelujah lyrics meaning? Below, we go into depth on all of the complex verses of this incredible song.
“Hallelujah” Verse 1
The first verse of the song starts like this:
“I’ve heard there was a secret chord that David played, and it pleased the Lord.”
This line in the lyrics introduces King David, and it mentions the sacred chord that David played on his harp. When David was a little boy, King Saul summoned him to play his harp, believing that the divine music would repel evil spirits from him.
In fact, it was David’s skill as a musician that earned him a spot in the royal court, so it was his first step in uniting the Jewish people and rising to power.
What does this line mean?
“But you don’t really care for music, do you?”
David suddenly remembers who he’s speaking to, and he realizes that God isn’t all that impressed by performances.
The second line goes into the chords that make up the harmonic progression of the melody. The references are “the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift.”
There is some controversy about the lyric “the baffled king composing Hallelujah.” Many critics believe the word should have been “battled,” but “baffled” is nevertheless the correct lyric.
The use of the word “baffled” symbolizes David’s role as the protagonist in a complex story about how he falls short of being “chosen by God.” David was baffled that he was chosen by God but still struggled with basic human urges. After all, David committed murder and adultery, so he was a deeply flawed human being.
He was also baffled when he began to live for himself instead of for God.
“Hallelujah” Verse 2
The second verse is about David’s faith. “Your faith was strong but you needed proof.” When David saw Bathsheba bathing on the roof, it tested his faith because he knew that he was making a huge mistake in coveting this woman who belonged to another man.
Next, comes the somewhat confusing lyrics:
“She tied you to a kitchen chair, She broke your throne, and she cut your hair.”
The chair symbolized the fall of King David because a chair is in a much lower position than a throne. Cutting David’s hair symbolizes David’s loss of power, but ultimately the strength that Bathsheba gained when her son, Solomon, was appointed as king.
Also, the cutting of hair refers to the Biblical Delilah, who became friends with Samson so that she could learn the secrets of his strength. She convinced Samson to cut his hair, and it turns out that the secret to his strength was his glorious hair.
“Hallelujah” Verse 3
Verse 3 goes into “I took the name in vain,” and asks the question “what’s it to you?” This probably symbolizes David taking the Lord’s name in vain and then denying that he was ever truly very faithful to begin with. Also, he ultimately made his choices, right or wrong, so it was irrelevant.
The next line of the third verse says that “there’s a blaze of light in every word, It doesn’t matter which you heard, The holy or the broken Hallelujah.”
This line indicates that behind every word or action, there is always a glimmer of hope. The “holy or the broken” means either the true faith in God, or the broken faith.
“Hallelujah” Verse 4
Verse 4 brings us to “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.”
Because David lost the feeling of love, he resorted to touching. This indicates that his motivations were quite shallow. However, he indicates that he is telling the truth, at least, and isn’t trying to pretend he’s something he’s not.
In the end, David stands “before the lord of song, with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.” David acknowledges that “it all went wrong,” but he is standing by the fact that he made his choices and he is throwing himself before the mercy of God as he praises the Lord.
“Hallelujah” Other Verses
There are some other meaningful verses in the song. For example, when David says, “I know this room, I’ve walked this floor,” he notes that he used to live alone and he is willing to revert back to the familiarity of a loveless life.
“Love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah” means that love isn’t always good and pure. Sometimes love is unfaithful, wrong, and even misleading.
“There was a time you let me know, What’s really going on below, But now you never show it to me, do you?” represents the beginning and blossoming of a fresh new relationship that was honest. Then, the relationship changes to failing to show one’s true feelings.
When David says, “Maybe there’s a God above, As for me, all I’ve ever learned from love, Is how to shoot somebody who outdrew you,” he is acknowledging that his faith was being tested and all he learned from love was how to get back at someone who hurt him.
David reiterates his shaken faith and the poor choices he made, and he also notes again that love isn’t always sunshine and rainbows.
“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.”
The Song Isn’t Supposed to Be Religious
Although “Hallelujah” has Biblical references and tells the story of King David and Bathsheba, this song isn’t about religion, according to Cohen.
How does Cohen himself describe the song? Here is what he said:
“This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled. But there are moments when we can… reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that’s what I mean by ‘Hallelujah.'”
Cohen went on to explain that “Hallelujah” itself explains that there are many different types of hallelujahs in existence. In Cohen’s view, the broken and perfect hallelujahs all have equal value.
Cohen noted that the song was his way of confirming his faith in life, not in formal religion. Instead, he wanted to affirm his faith in life with emotion and enthusiasm.
In an interview, Cohen said that although the song is based on a religious story, he wanted it to ultimately be a secular song. Cohen said that he wanted people to be able to interpret the song in a way that made sense to them.
Here is an interview with Leonard Cohen discussing “Hallelujah.”
Religious Imagery in the Lyrics
Although the song has religious imagery and depicts a woman who was considered to be notorious, the song isn’t about religion. “Hallelujah,” tells the story of a true love that was also broken.
That flawed love was also mourned and remembered, and the story was laced with guilt, penance, and ultimately, finding peace.
The word “Hallelujah” can be a refrain that’s worth of mourning, times of celebration, catharsis, regret, and finally, reconciliation.
Judaism in “Hallelujah”
Leonard Cohen was Jewish, but he wasn’t a religious man. Nevertheless, he drew on the religious imagery of his religious background to write much of his poetry and music.
This song takes the listener on a journey of joy, pain, celebration, and suffering. Few groups of people in history understand this journey as well as the Jewish people.
Some people have interpreted the song to represent Cohen’s own struggles with faith, as well as the tests of faith that Jewish people have endured. However, most music experts believe that Cohen wrote the song with the intention that the lyrics be more open-ended, not religious.
A Song That Had to Claw Its Way to Success
Leonard Cohen was out of the spotlight for quite a while before he released “Hallelujah.” His previous album had failed to be successful commercially, but when he released the “Various Positions” album that had “Hallelujah” on it, he started getting attention again.
Believe it or not, Columbia Records initially rejected “Various Positions,” and Cohen believed it was because they “didn’t hear a single” on the album. Because of this, the song was released by an independent label. It wasn’t until an artist named John Cale covered the song that “Hallelujah” finally got the recognition it deserved.
Years later, Cohen said that the success of “Hallelujah” gave him a “certain mild sense of revenge” in his heart.
When Leonard Cohen died in November 2016, “Hallelujah” finally reached the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
How Did “Hallelujah” Become so Popular?
For many people, the first time they heard “Hallelujah” was when they saw the “Shrek” movie. Before that, the song went largely unnoticed, even though it was sung by artists such as Bob Dylan.
The first time the song got a lot of attention was when it was covered by an artist named John Cale, who was a member of Velvet Underground. We’ll go into more detail about Cale’s version below.
Jeff Buckley also recorded the song, and his untimely passing helped to give the song some momentum.
However, “Hallelujah” went fully mainstream when it was a part of the “Shrek” movie and soundtrack in 2001.
The Best “Hallelujah” Covers
Many artists have covered “Hallelujah,” including these:
- U2 (Bono)
- Brandi Carlisle
- Dresden Dolls
- Susan Boyle
- Imogen Heap
- Bob Dylan
- Alexandra Burke
The song has also been performed privately by various entertainers, and it was even a featured song on “Saturday Night Live” when presidential candidate Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump in 2016. The SNL version was performed by cast member Kate McKinnon.
When McKinnon performed the song, it wasn’t meant as a parody. In fact, she had tears in her life, so on this one occasion, SNL wasn’t trying to be funny. Watch her performance below.
After Welsh singer-songwriter John Cale watched Leonard Cohen perform “Hallelujah,” he asked Cohen to send the lyrics to him. When Cale received the 15-page fax from Cohen, he says he went through the pages and chose what he considered to be the “cheeky verses.”
The John Cale version of “Hallelujah” is noted for its “soberness and sincerity.”
While Rufus Wainwright’s version of “Hallelujah” appeared on the “Shrek” soundtrack, Cale’s cover of the song appears in the film. It is also Cale’s version that appears on the soundtrack album for the TV show “Scrubs.”
Below is John Cale’s cover of “Hallelujah.”
Jeff Buckley’s rendition of “Hallelujah” has been described as “sorrowful.” However, Buckley himself gave his opinion of the song, and Buckley described his version of “Hallelujah” as a “hallelujah to the orgasm.”
Originally named Scotty Moorhead, Jeff Buckley was fathered by a country artist named Tim Buckley, who was actually a friend of Leonard Cohen. Although he had little to do with his biological father, Jeff Buckley far surpassed his dad in talent and fame.
Buckley’s musical influences ranged from hardcore punk rock, jazz, folk music, classic rock, and even folk music from Pakistan. He started his career by playing in French cafes, and he started playing “Hallelujah” early in his career.
Unfortunately, Jeff Buckley died an untimely death just before he released his second album. Posthumously, Buckely was recognized as a musical genius, and his cover of Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is one of the most beloved versions of the song ever recorded.
It’s been stated that Buckley treated “Hallelujah” as a “tiny capsule of humanity,” and that he used his voice to go from beauty and pain to glory and sadness.
Rolling Stone added Buckley’s cover of “Hallelujah” to be one of their 500 greatest songs ever recorded.
Here is Jeff Buckley’s iconic cover of “Hallelujah,” which has more than 198 million views on YouTube. Buckley starts singing at 1:20.
Another Canadian musician, Rufus Wainwright’s version of “Hallelujah” has been described as “purifying and almost liturgical.” Because his version of the song is included in the “Shrek” soundtrack, the song was certified Platinum two times in the U.S.
Interestingly, Wainwright had the opportunity to meet Jeff Buckley before he died, and the song had a special place in his heart because of his brief acquaintance with Buckley.
Watch Rufus Wainwright sing “Hallelujah” live below.
Leonard Cohen was a Canadian musician, so when the city of Vancouver hosted the 2010 Olympics, it made a lot of sense for his iconic song to be sung at the opening ceremony on February 12, 2010.
Naturally, the Olympic committee wanted a native Canadian to perform the song, and they chose the country and pop singing sensation k.d. lang. lang’s rendition of “Hallelujah” ended up being one of the highlights of her career, and her cover of “Hallelujah” is one of the most well-known versions of the song.
A few months later, lang was asked to fill in for Susan Boyle at the last minute at the Logie Awards in Australia. She performed “Hallelujah” again and received an extended standing ovation.
After Cohen’s death, lang said that she considered “Hallelujah” to be about being caught in two places at once: the struggle between searching for spiritual wisdom and having human desire.
Below, you can watch k.d. lang sing “Hallelujah” at the opening ceremony of the 2010 Olympics.
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What Did Leonard Cohen Think of all the “Hallelujah” Covers?
Leonard Cohen was well aware of how beloved his song was, and interviewers loved to ask him what he thought about various renditions of the song.
Cohen found it “ironic and amusing” that the song had become so popular since his record label had refused to release it when he first wrote it. However, he noted in an interview with CBC Radio in 2009 that “too many people sing it.”
Watch the late great Leonard Cohen perform his signature song “Hallelujah” live below.
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As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
Liam’s lifelong love for music makes his role at Music Grotto such a rewarding one. He loves researching, writing and editing music content for Music Grotto.