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The Meaning and History of the Song "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen

Kyson is a longtime music lover, playlist maker, and foot tapper.

Learn more about the lyrics, meaning, and history of one of this singer-songwriter's signature pieces.

Learn more about the lyrics, meaning, and history of one of this singer-songwriter's signature pieces.

What Is the Song "Hallelujah" About?

It's a song that many know, but few know much about. The meaning of "Hallelujah," a popular masterpiece of music, is perhaps best understood through its complex history.

This song has a long and fascinating story behind it—one that is marked by a tragedy eerily befitting this mournful masterpiece. It was an under-appreciated work of a poet/songwriter in the '80s and became the iconic song of a legendary musician who faced a tragic early death. Now it's one of the most covered songs of all time. It has been adapted, re-interpreted, and re-written countless times. Through its evolution and constant re-interpretation, the meaning and significance of "Hallelujah" have gained even more substance.

In This Article

  1. The Meaning of the Song "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen
  2. Sexual Interpretation of the Song
  3. Judaism in the Song
  4. How Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" Became Popular
  5. Jeff Buckley's Cover of "Hallelujah"
  6. Artists Who Have Covered the Song
  7. 2020 Donald Trump Controversy
  8. What Makes It Such a Great Song?

The Meaning of the Song "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen

In Hebrew, the word "hallelujah" means to rejoice in praising God. However, the numerous biblical references and religious symbols in Cohen's song lead not to spiritual heights, but to Cohen's secularism. It is a bitter lament about love and loss. Cohen, adept in scripture, simply taps the human condition described in the bible in order to provide counsel to the brokenhearted.

Through Cohen's imagery, including references to some of the most notorious women in the Bible, we find that the word "hallelujah" can mean so much more than just its religious context. "Hallelujah," the song teaches us, is a refrain worthy of times of celebration, mourning, regret, catharsis, and reconciliation. Cohen's song tells a story of broken love, true love remembered and mourned, guilt, penance, and of finding peace in the vicissitudes of brokenness—themes with a myriad of applications and dimensions.

Sexual Interpretation of the Song

The lyrics also allude to the rush of sexual orgasm. The brilliance of Cohen's poetry and lyrics is that nothing is ever just one thing. These lyrics are open-ended and leave room for multiple interpretations. We can find hints of sexuality in verses such as:

Well there was a time when you let me know

what's really going on below

but now you never show that to me do you

But remember when I moved in you

and the holy dove was moving too

and every breath we drew was hallelujah

"Below" could be in reference to his partner's sexual excitement. But, she seems to have grown cold and holds back her true feelings from him. Perhaps he is saddened because he feels that the relationship has died. He felt deep intimacy and passion when he made love to her, but that well of intimacy has dried up. The sexual interpretation of Cohen's "Hallelujah" hinges on lines such as:

Remember when I moved in you

and the holy dove was moving too

and every breath we drew was hallelujah

Judaism in the Song "Hallelujah"

"Hallelujah" was originally composed by singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen and released in 1984. He was a musician from Canada, who is known for richly structured, soulful, poetic songs exploring the depths of despair, broken love, and politics—all of which are often laced with religious imagery drawn from his Jewish background. "Hallelujah" was released on the album Various Positions (1984). In a relatively recent interview (posted below) Cohen reminisces about being told that the album wasn’t good enough for an American market—and indeed it never really sold well.

The song’s thematic content is oddly fitting for its history. The song’s constant refrain, "hallelujah," takes the listener through a journey of pain, joy, suffering, and celebration. This is a journey that all peoples know well but speaks volumes in Jewish history.

Some have gone as far as to say that the song reflects both Cohen's struggles with faith and tests of faith inflicted upon the Jewish people. However, it's unknown whether or not this was intentional on Cohen's part. Most music theorists presume that the lyrics are meant to be more open-ended.

Leonard Cohen's Religious Imagery in the Lyrics

  • Well I've heard there was a secret chord
    That David played and it pleased the Lord
  • The baffled king
  • You saw her bathing on the roof
    Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya
    She tied you to her kitchen chair
    And she broke your throne and she cut your hair
  • The holy dove

The song, as Cohen wrote it, is rich with references to Jewish scriptures, including references to King David and Samson's tragic romances. The song’s meaning is vague, and numerous interpretations have been garnered. It speaks of spoiled love and has a myriad of religious, romantic, and psychological dimensions. Its breathtaking beauty is unquestionable. Cohen's lyrics are haunting and filled with lamentation, especially when he sings:

But remember, when I moved in you

And the holy dove was moving too

And every breath, we drew was Hallelujah


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

The song largely went unnoticed for many years. One exception was Bob Dylan, who was purportedly taken with the song and would play it live on occasion. Still, it took nearly another decade before it garnered a large popular or critical audience.

John Cale's Version

Before Jeff Buckley recorded his iconic version, John Cale, of Velvet Underground fame, heard Cohen's track while attending one of Cohen's concerts at New York City's Beacon Theater in 1990 and was inspired. The song stayed in his mind; he didn't decide to record it until Les Inrockuptibles asked him to contribute to I'm Your Fan. Cale's version of the song immediately struck a chord and inspired a host of other artists to record their own versions.

Leonard Cohen and the Buckley Family

As an odd "coincidence" of fate, Cohen had a friend named Tim Buckley—a country/jazz/folk artist who had achieved some notoriety in the '60s and '70s. Tim fathered an illegitimate child with Mary Guibert, who Buckley would hardly have any contact with. Mary got married, and the child (later Jeff Buckley) was raised under the name Scotty Moorhead. Scotty would, like his father, become a musician. It was this man who would turn "Hallelujah" into the iconic and celebrated piece of music that it is today.

Jeff Buckley's Cover of "Hallelujah"

Jeff Buckley was originally named Scotty but would later take his biological father's surname and became known as Jeff Buckley. From a young age, Jeff showed signs of being a promising musician—one who would later be heralded a genius and would go on to eclipse his father in prominence.

From the beginning of his musical career, Jeff eluded labels with musical influences as broad as classic rock, folk, jazz, hardcore punk, and even Pakistani folk music. He had a distinct voice that, like the man, escapes categorization. His career began by playing in café's in France and elsewhere, where he would do intimate shows covering artists such as Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, French folk songs, and the India/Pakistani stylings of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

He always performed on a Les Paul electric guitar. To this day, few people play as Buckley did—performing on an electric guitar with the sensitivity of an acoustic folk "balladist" and the precision of a classical harp player, couched in a symphonic, clean, electric glow as haunting as his voice is.

Early in his career, Buckley started playing Cohen's "Hallelujah," and his unique musical disposition took the under-appreciated masterpiece and turned it into something of a legend. Recordings of his early live performances reveal a treatment of the song that is undeniably both haunting and beautiful. He would eventually record it on his debut album, Grace.

Sadly, Buckley would pass away just before the release of his second album—cutting short a career that had barely begun.

Buckley has been posthumously recognized as a musical genius, and his cover of Cohen's "Hallelujah" was soon considered a classic. In 2004, Rolling Stone declared Buckley's cover one of the greatest songs ever recorded[1]. To this day, his version is considered definitive and has served as the inspiration for countless other renditions.

Time wrote the following about Buckley's treatment of the song:

"Buckley treated the... song like a tiny capsule of humanity, using his voice to careen between glory and sadness, beauty and pain... It's one of the great songs” [2].

The Song Gained More Attention After Jeff Buckley's Cover

It still took several years before the song gained wide popularity. In the late 2000s, there was a sudden burst of interest in the song, and by 2008 Buckley's recording went beyond Platinum in sales. Its countless use in movies and television shows is impossible to list in any thorough manner. Numerous other artists have covered the song, re-interpreting, adapting it, and sometimes adding their own verses.

Artists Who Have Covered the Song "Hallelujah"

  • Rufus Wainwright
  • U2
  • Brandi Carlisle
  • Imogen Heap
  • Dresden Dolls
  • Susan Boyle
  • k.d. Lang
  • John Cale

These are just a handful of the artists that have added their voices to the canvas. It has been used in funerals and weddings, in Christian worship, and in the midst of tragedies. One of its most recent uses was its performance in a tribute to the child victims of the Sandy Hook massacre on The Voice.

2020 Donald Trump Controversy

In 2020, both Leonard Cohen and the song "Hallelujah" rocketed into headlines because of the song's controversial use at the 2020 Republican National Convention ("RNC"). A cover of the song by Tori Kelly was used during the RNC's closing fireworks show after Donald Trump accepted the Republican Nomination for the 2020 election, apparently against the wishes of Leonard Cohen's estate, who had denied the Republican Party to use it.

Cohen's estate is exploring legal options, but it is unlikely any legal battle would be successful. In a letter, the Cohen Estate's lawyer made the cheeky suggestion that Cohen's song "You Want it Darker" would have been more appropriate. The latter song could be interpreted as a reflection on the dangerous mixture of religion and political power.

What Makes It Such a Great Song?

The significance of the song is as varied as the different covers that exist. Each musician gives it new substance. Perhaps we have Buckley to thank for this. His distinguished artistic mark brought the song to the point of its transcendence. It's one of Cohen's most brilliant works.

The word "hallelujah," he teaches us, is a refrain worthy of times of celebration, mourning, regret, catharsis, and reconciliation. The original song is the story of broken love, true love remembered and mourned, guilt, and penance, and of finding peace in the vicissitudes of brokenness—themes with a myriad of applications and dimensions.

The song, reflecting the diverse substance of its own lyrics, has seen a lot of life, and death. It's for this reason that the significance of "Hallelujah" isn't likely to wane anytime soon. In the wake of all the tragedies in this world, remember what Cohen sang:

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



GG on August 28, 2020:

This song is everything but a Hymn,

Religious people sings it as a Hymn,

"But you don’t really care for music, do you?"

What an epic troll the old man was!!!

Scott on August 25, 2020:

Another international artist who sings this song very expressively is Vicky Leandros . She has not released it up to now but sings it regularly in her concerts .

Sheila on July 16, 2020:

Laila Payne Some of these are bible history stories like Sampson and Delilah. His strength was in his hair. That’s in the Old Testament book of judges. And David who became king, oh my there is so much to tell there. He’s written about in second Samuel and Kings in the Old Testament. I just thought you might enjoy reading these if you like the song.

Leah on June 13, 2020:

I was never heard of halluju until now and I love it and you will love it to

Leah Berna on June 13, 2020:

The song hallelujuh is a meaningful tTo me and love it it is amazing song

Leah Berna on June 13, 2020:

Do have the full story of hallelujuh

Laila payne on May 21, 2020:

This song, at least the lyrics I wrote down scream of domestic abuse."she tied you to the kitchen chair, she broke your throne and cut your hair and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah"...she was controlling him and making him sing "hallelujah", perhaps forcing him to commit to religion or just to pretend to be happy. Also "and love is not a victory march" such as the woman thinks her eggshell of a "perfect" relationship is a victory its not "its a cold and its a broken Hallelujah"

Tonny Chung on May 09, 2020:

My own take on the song’s interpretation is “reconcile the irreconcilable”.

mikeg on March 01, 2020:

Cohen's music never targeted the pop world... the pop world came to his amazing music

mybabybryan on February 14, 2020:

I was married with a child when Cohen released Hallelujah. I now find myself resenting people changing the words to suit the performer, i.e., age, setting, occasion, etc.. The pure, raw as written lyrics should not be distorted nor left out. Example: Lovely children with beautiful voices but not a song, in my opinion, for a children's choir to sing. If deemed appropriate, then it should be sung as written, in it's entirety. Just my humble opinion.

cold land on January 31, 2020:

I almost never answer these comments but because I agree with both Judys last comment and A raised Eyebrow below it so much, I though it was worth voicing my agreement; and adding my own opinion. The themes of suffering, spirituality and sexuality and the others themes mentioned are all part of the human condition. The song’s vividly speaks to the human condition; his, mine and the characters he sings about. All of these things may or may not fit neatly into a box of a church or even a non-adult conversation. What I love most of about this song is that it doesn’t fit. It also pushes me to think deeper into who I am without trying to fit into the box of question-answer. I am a practicing Catholic that say the rosary, and have felt true suffering. It is one of my number one songs.

Judy (Lazarus) on January 26, 2020:

I've always loved Leonard Cohen's lyrics in this song. Most pages giving lyrics don't include the one quoted twice where Cohen affirms that even after having lost this love, he will still praise the Lord of love for having been given the opportunity to experience it all. The song is raw, real, and rare. What bothers me is that so many Christian self-professed songwriters have taken the tune and put their own lyrics to it because the original is too "secular" or "depressing" to sing in church. They just don't. get. it. I think it's far more beautiful the way it was written, thank you very much. Being a Christian myself, I find nothing wrong with the metaphor of the holy dove and the reference to orgasm. Others might (and do), but I don't. As to whether the song is Christian, of course it isn't! it was never meant to be! Yet it is one of the most spiritually honest songs I have ever heard.

A Raised Eyebrow on January 22, 2020:

It blows my mind how many people can't view this song from any viewpoint other than "Is it ratifying my faith?" The song deftly explores the suffering of love using the analogy of a "broken hallelujah", a hurt cry of celebration, but it's not "spiritual" because it wasn't 100% about God or Jesus and there were references to *gasp* sex?

Songs and songwriters don't owe you or your religion any obeisance. They don't need to observe your bizarre shame over sex, an act of love and pleasure that every single person owes their existence to, that holds spiritual meaning in most religions. Only a Christian could hear a song featuring stories and characters from the bible, where the chorus is literally "Hallelujah", and think that the song isn't doing enough for their religion.

Yellow Forest, that you can see no meaning in Cohen's use of "Hallelujah" beyond getting a rise out of the religious, that you think the references to biblical characters were just thrown in for attention (in a song that took years to write and is celebrated for its many layers of meaning), that you think a song exploring love when it's being born, dying, long dead, and remembered is purely hedonistic, only reveals your own shocking lack of spirit.

For all the people angry about Cohen stealing your religious stories for his own purposes, check your self:

Yellow Forest on January 19, 2020:

Whenever you hear Hallelujah,the first thing that comes to mind is Hallelujah Chorus of Handel's Messaiah which dates back to mid 18 Century.I am a fan of Pentatonix whose rendition of Cohen's Hallelujah is beautiful. I really expected to be a version of Handel's Hallelujah Chorus.I liked the music but not the lyrics.

In Cohen's there is nothing spiritual abouit it and is purely hedonistic. He chose the word Hallelujah to gain instant notoriety and threw few biblical characters to create sensation and attention.. It is not spiritual in view of Judaism or Christianity and honestly rather blasphemous.

I still hear the Pentatonix rendition of this song!

Charlene Hocking on January 10, 2020:

Best version IDF soldiers singing it in Hebrew.

S. Nyberg on January 06, 2020:

If you've never heard KD Lang singing this song then you are missing the best version ever. I've heard this song hundreds of times and she nearly brought me to my knees.

Amy on December 26, 2019:

For the people whining that the song was not Christian or didn't refer to Jesus:

A) Leonard Cohen was Jewish.

B) Not all spirituality is transcendent. Some of it is found in desperation, in moments of love when all else is fallen, and in other moments of life.

Sax Wales on December 20, 2019:

This song has been used as a Christmas song, that's the best version,

Just heard a young girl sing the Christmas version on YouTube.

Go a listen to her sing it Kaylee, fabulous, you will not be disappointed.

pj on December 18, 2019:

Leonard sure made people think about things, eh?

Noreen on December 17, 2019:

Hallelujah.... is the highest praise!!!! The song is somewhat confusing as to Christian or secular!!! I love BOTH!

Jen on December 16, 2019:

"Shrek" version is by Rufus Wrainwright.

Poppy from Enoshima, Japan on December 16, 2019:

What a great and detailed description of this song. You have a fluent and engaging writing style. My favourite version of "Hallelujah" is the one that's played in "Shrek," though I'm not entirely sure who sang that one.

Suzie from Carson City on December 15, 2019:

Thank you so much for this explanation of a song that I especially love. I've been very curious about it's meaning. You've done a wonderful job of presenting this information...."Hallelujah!" Paula

A not so innocent observer on December 15, 2019:

When Did religion get to dictate what is sacred? Only the heart gets to decide these things. Any other way is to give away what was born into you...a dangerous place to ne

Shelia on December 08, 2019:

This is a lack of spiritual discernment with those that find this song spiritual. I’ve never liked this song and I’ve questioned why most people think it’s a song of reverence. There’s some biblical wording but there’s nothing in this song that’s truly spiritual.

Eli on November 07, 2019:

It really irritates me that so-called Christians will use this as a Christian song! This song is partly about a powerful orgasm. Keep good religion out of it.

Chris on November 05, 2019:

Hallelujah is a praise for God, it has been hi jacked much as other holy things such as the rainbow.

Cynthia on October 09, 2019:

My brother recently passed. He loved Leonard Cohen and this song. It is haunting and eerily comforting to listen to. If it is a song about humanity and our broken condition then Hallelujah Jesus is the only answer for this. RIP Garman.

Trevor James on August 08, 2019:

Hallelujah is Hebrew and it stands for praise-Jah abbreviation for “Praise Jehovah”. Jehovah, is Gods name. Jehovah created and sent his son Jesus to us, as an undeserved gift, giving us the opportunity to gain back the state of perfection that our human forefather Adam lost. Jehovah gave the earth to Adam. Soon he will take it away from Satans hands and influence and give it back to us. Jesus, as our current acting King, will lead us for a time. Teaching us how to fix the earth and live forever on it in perfection. No more sickness or death. This is his promise.

Thanksra7 on June 10, 2019:


Joy on April 21, 2019:

The tragic early death they are referring to is Jeff Buckley who covered the song, not Cohen himself.

kris on March 03, 2019:

He didn't die a short tragic death he was a good age

PsyChosis on February 27, 2019:

There are multiple versions on youtube titled as Elvis Presley singing this song. While as it begins, your mind instantly says Elvis, the reality is it can not be Elvis. Not for the obvious reason, Elvis was dead before this song was writen, but rather the person imitating Elvis voice can't carry the persona of Elvis singing it.

SUSANGOODRICH on February 25, 2019:

@Ms Pita I'm not sure Elvis Presley could have sung this. Wasn't it written after his death?

Lu on December 13, 2018:

Awkward sing during church service huh?

Ms Pita on November 15, 2018:

Elvis Presley also sang this ! !

Nduwe Joy on November 01, 2018:

this is one of the songs I love in my life, how I wish the Worden is totally religious, a song that has given many trophies, I will be one among those who gets trophies through this song

Joe on October 28, 2018:

If you read 2 Samuel chapter 11 in the old testament...this says it all

Gendo on September 18, 2018:

A Japanese artist named "Miyavi" also covered the song. You can hear actual pain and sadness in his voice.

No way on June 25, 2018:

I cannot believe that the song All This Time was not even based on God and the word hallelujah and what it is supposed to be used for it's plain and simple and how they can put these words in a home and say that it's supposed to be poetic and beautiful I wish you would have used it for words instead of Hallelujah but maybe beautiful butterflies or something. I mean have respect for the one who made us after the one who died for us all I have to say is hallelujah to that!

Nancy Heinz on April 02, 2018:

Absolutely Beautiful - Just so heart felt!

Cindy Ann Savage on February 17, 2018:

What a wonderful and incredibly interesting article!! Salute to the creative mind behind such rare gems on today's world!

Cindy Ann Savage

Athens, Ga. USA

Brian Cordell on August 10, 2017:

In second paragraph, there is an error in the lyrics. "Lift" and "Fifth" should be a part of the rhyme.

Cillian Flood on December 25, 2016:

The default avatar for this post is wearing a Cohen hat. Is that coincidence or intentional? I don't know but I love it.