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An Interpretation of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"

Updated on May 20, 2010

"Hallelujah" as performed by Jeff Buckley

: a song with Biblical and sexual connections

"Hallelujah" was the first song I heard by the late Jeff Buckley and everything still stands still for me in that moment back in 2002. I remember sitting in my friend's basement bedroom, completely confused about who I wanted to be and wondering if I'd ever feel comfortable in my own skin. I was the typical Morrissey loving, black band t-shirt wearing, poetry writing teen who listened to her parents records more than they did. But a felt something shift and change inside of me when I heard Jeff Buckley sing this particular song. A clarity about life that cut through all the hormones that were clouding my perspective. Little did I know at the time that, although Jeff Buckley was an excellent song-writer in his own right, the song had other origins.

I now know of course that "Hallelujah" was originally written and performed by Leonard Cohen, who I have great respect for as a writer. The album, Various Positions, which includes the original version of "Hallelujah" is, however, sadly dated. The heavy 1980s synths and cloying female chorus have made it impossible for me to enjoy the original version. In regards to this song, this is truly one of the rare times I will admit to liking a cover version better than the original. Leonard Cohen's voice is servicable and endearing in a "Bob Dylan" kind of way, but Jeff's angelic vocal powers are better suited for a song essentially about two key subjects: sex and religious belief.

I have long pondered the cryptic meaning of lyrics in "Hallelujah" and I've done some research to come up with the meaning that makes the most sense to me. I am not in any way, shape, or form Leonard Cohen, but as long as you read my interpretation with that knowledge, we'll be just fine! I doubt I'm the only one who wants some answers on some of the lyrical references, so I thought I'd post my interpretation.

Leonard Cohen grew up in the Jewish tradition, so this explains a lot of his references to the Old Testament, specifically the story about King David and his affair with the married Bathsheba. David was in love Bathsheba, but she was married to Uriah, the Hittite. David sends for Uriah so that he can sleep with Bathsheba and keep her pregnacy's origin a secret. He refuses to leave his troops, so David commands that he be abandoned on the battlefield to die. He then marries Bathsheba, but is plagued by guilt because what he had done had "displeased the lord."

(Verse 2) Your faith was strong but you needed proof/ You saw her bathing on the roof/her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you

(Verse 4) Well, maybe there's a god above/ but all I ever learned from love, was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you/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 core theme of this story that is echoed throughout was David's struggle with his lust for Bathsheba and his desire to serve and please God. He knew that by committing adultery with Bathsheba that he was entering into an unholy union, but a dark place within him encouraged him to follow his impulses. This darkness is referred to in the first verse of the song: "It's not a cry that you can hear at night/it's not somebody who's seen the light/it's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah."

The other biblical reference I caught was about Samson and Delilah. Their story ties in well with the downfall of the musician and composer, King David. David lost his idealistic faith in God as a result of his lust for a married woman, and Samson loses his hair because he became vulnerable to the charms of the deceitful Delilah: "And she tied you to a kitchen chair/she broke your throne and she cut your hair/and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah."

The story of Samson and Delilah was about her betraying his trust, and his one-sided affection for her. She was appointed by the Israelite's enemy, the Phillistines, to find the secret to Samson's demise. Delilah asked Samson three times to reveal his weakness to her, seducing him into eventually telling her that his power came from the length of his hair. He explained to her that he grew his hair long in honor to God and as reminder all that God had blessed him with. She eventually cut off his hair while he slept, resulting in his downfall. Whether it was merely a psychological crutch or actual power that God bestowed upon him was between Samson and God

While I do acknowledge the songs allusions to the Bible, I think the lyrics only refers to those stories as a comparison to what the singer was experiencing in his own relationship with a woman who didn't share his love to the same degree. I also think that the religious undertones of this song refer to the man who struggles with an unhealthy obsession, one that was destructive and led him away from his moral and religious integrity. He knew that his obsession would lead to his undoing, but his love was so strong hat he would let her destroy him to hold on to the feeling she gives him as long as he can. This feeling also includes the rush of sexual orgasm, which is subtly, yet beautifully referenced in the following verse: "Well there was a time when you let me know/what's really going on below/but now you never show that to do 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" is used in reference to his partner's sexual excitement, and how she now seems cold and holds back her true feelings from him. He is sad because he deeply felt intimacy and passion when he made love to her: "Remember when I moved in you and the holy dove was moving too/and every breath we drew was hallelujah".

I hope this analysis was helpful, but what I truly love about this song is how the lyrics personally affect people on different levels and in different ways. Love is and always will be a "broken hallelujah".


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      Jay 6 weeks ago

      So many say this is about sex. It's not, really. It's referring to bible times and the people there. Samson was the strongest man alive, due to his long hair, but he sinned and had relations with a woman who chopped it off, taking his strength. That is found in the second stanza. And Hallelujah means praise Jah. Who is Jah? Jehovah. Yes, you're singing a song saying praise Jehovah. This is coming from a youth, I recommend you go do more research.

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      Jess 9 months ago

      Yup, the song's about bangin

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      Annabelle 10 months ago

      Like any other form of art and expression... the person listening or observing creates their own story from their own interpretation based on their personal filters or life experiences. It a song about relationships... whatever you deem that to be ...Your Truth

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      Charlene Cameron 11 months ago

      We were all a broken hallelujah at one time and then Jesus Chrict took the sin of the people and offered himself a sacrifice on the cross. Now we have that gift of His love to unbreak the hallelujah. Praise the Lord.

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      glenelvis 11 months ago

      Good job Jake you came the closest to revealing the true interpretation and the meaning of the song everyone else was twisted or totally missed the true meaning. The broken Hallelujah is the broken relationship between David and God when he sinned and "it displeased God". For the actual Bible chapter/verses read: Psalm 51:10-19. Here is a brief reference.

      Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit (Holy Dove) from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit. Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee. For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

      He realized in the end that sacrifices would not fix his mistake and broken relationship with God, that only a broken and a contrite heart would mend his relationship with God.

      To hear this Psalm in modern contemporary song, watch this video clip from another Jewish artist by the name of Keith Green, this rendition will give you an idea of exactly how David was feeling and will completely blow you away:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rv16YUTCp9U

      Keith Green passed away several decades ago but his music still lives on today all across the world.

      Enjoy and be touched by God!

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      Jake 12 months ago

      Obviously I understand your assessment is your opinion. But for the sake of intellectual thought can I share that I don't agree with your interpretation of the following .......

      "Well there was a time when you let me know/what's really going on below/but now you never show that to do me do you/But remember when I moved in you/and the holy dove was moving too/and every breath we drew was hallelujah"

      I believe this is referencing David's relationship with God. Not a sexual act. God undoubtedly spoke with David has he was the anointed one to lead the people of Israel. No David was not the prophet but just as we can receive inspiration can Heaven. So did David. But Davids choices broke the connection he had with God. "Use to let me know what's really going on below.... God inspired David to

      Know His will for the people. "But now you don't really show that to me do ya"

      That's because Davids negative choices broke that connection between God and Man that only a certain sanctity of life can bring. David goes on to reminisce about the old times. " ..remember when I moved In you.." referencing what was once a strong relationship where God would speak and David would act. "And the holy dove was moving too". At Christ's Baptism it says the Holy Spirit "descended like a dove". So in this line it could further carry home that David basked in the Spirit of the Lord, that David saw miracles wrought before him. "And every breath we drew was hallelujah"

      Every word David spoke was in praise to God for his goodness and his matchless power!

      Now that seems to fit a little better :)

      Listen

      To the song with that in mind :)

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      Denny 12 months ago

      What' s not religious at all are you who say the song is not religious at all ! I heard it sung in church today!

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      NOUFEL 13 months ago

      IM WITH YOU OBERA 0000

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      Sandyfrench 14 months ago

      I'm with you Jazzy T. There is nothing religious at all about this song.

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      Jazzy T 17 months ago

      Leonard Cohen uses the word 'hallelujah' sardonically. There is no joy in it, in my view. It might as well be called 'Halle-fucking-lujah.' It's been over-analysed to death, to the point where it's used as a hymn, which is laughable...a bit like Susan Boyle singing 'Perfect Day' as if it's about a person!

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      Kimberly 2 years ago

      I think there are many interpretations of this song and the author had the many meanings in mind when he wrote it. He did intend for all sakes and purposes for each line to have multiple meanings. This is why he was said to be banging his head in his hotel room as he worked and reworked each line. It meant things to all of us. It clearly had one meaning to him but he wanted to represent it in various ways with the same words so the listener would understand it no matter which way they looked at it. Using this song in Shrek was completely out of place. I think the person who put it in there had no idea what it meant.

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      It's all about Jesus 2 years ago

      Just like any type of story book or even the bible, ALL WORDS must line up with one focus in mind to make since, as i am a song writer & theologian as well. I'm just going to throw this out there, because i don't believe this song is putting focus on a "sexual act" of a "sexual orgasm" with these words "Well there was a time when you let me know(prayer to God)/what's really going on below (some put god off in to the heavens or (context) the sky) /but now you never show that to me do you/But remember when I moved in you (in to a persons heart)/and the holy dove was moving too (Holy Spirit)/and every breath we drew was hallelujah" I believe, this songs goes a little deeper then that. I think it is about the "The Many Member Body of Christ "the Church" & Holy Ghost (Holy Dove(peace) Jesus Christ & the growing correction for striving to make a person righteous with in there heart. You see the bible talks about the church as being a female "the bride" any christian after asking Christ into his or her heart becomes a part of "the bride/church". We fall short from God all the time as king David & Samson with his hair. Some times we loose our focus. But because we have a relationship with God within our heart. The love growing with in us helps put our focus back to God. When we mess up then feel the correction on our heart, it strengthens our relationship back within God! Some times we don't feel like God is always there and we do "stupid things" that makes us feel like God has left us. He never leaves a true heart of his. We are the ones that leave him. Anyway, if you need scripture on the reason i feel this way then let me know. This song lines up more with All scripture (Old & New Testament) then what a lot of folks will agree with, as I have done a lot of research in the scriptures. Focus point: This song is talking about a relationship within God and how we fall short sometimes and the correction comes from our mistakes within in our. If we see our mistake clearer in our own eyes, it will make us more wise and strengthen us for the next trial if you live through it! I hope this makes since.

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      learning 2 years ago

      I think you absolutely nailed it my friend. Well done....great post.

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      agreeableINdisguise 2 years ago

      Great post, I have slowly built up a wonder about this song's meaning, and 'remember when i moved in you...' began to speak to me, as I am a parent and a little surprised (and then, not at all) that they chose this song for Shrek.

      Here's to having later-in-life revalations about the subtle mature content in movies/music we innocently enjoyed as children!

      Great cover of this song, Jeff sounds amazing.

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      raymar 2 years ago

      Hallelujah is literally interpeted "praise Jah", Jah being the shortened poetic form of Jehovah, the personal name of Almighty God.

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      Vince 3 years ago

      The Holy Dove is The Holy Spirit of God as referenced in the bible. Hallelujah is a praise and acknowledgment of God. A "broken" Hallelujah is one that takes into account our imperfection and brokenness while still praising God. King David never "lost" his faith. Instead, he offered God a broken, imperfect apology while acknowledging his sinfulness and Gods grace, love amd forgiveness. It's like a child giving a parent a gift that doesn't work properly. It's still precious and beautiful in Their eyes just as your "broken Hallelujah is in Gods.

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      Daphnie 3 years ago

      my favourite version now is Lee DeWyze's

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      Fernanda 4 years ago

      I like your interpretation.

      I like Jon Bon Jovi's cover better tough http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RSJbYWPEaxw

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      Angela 4 years ago

      "What's really going on below but now you never show that to me do ya?" Is in reference to God ceasing to reveal to King David what was going on here on Earth. God gave David sight in battle and was the reason Israel conquered. After Bathsheba-God cut that off.

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      Prof X 4 years ago

      "Remember when I moved in you and the holy dove was

      moving too/and every breath we drew was hallelujah".

      How I moved in you: How I had sex with you.

      Dove: Penis

      Every breath we drew hallelujah: And it was godly.

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      ti 4 years ago

      Thank you so much for your beautiful interpretation You are amazing!

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      friend 4 years ago

      The 1st I've found .. so now pronoun d ur eplinate out do's ya

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      Ellen 5 years ago

      A+ for this interpretation

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      Matt 5 years ago

      Thank you for this

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      Tdavis 5 years ago

      I believe rather than picking it apart verse by verse, line by line, look at the total picture. It seems a person is tormented by their own weaknesses; ie. Love, sex, lust to name just a few of the temptations to lead us from god and weaken our faith. The speaker seems to want his relationship with god, yet he struggles with his vices and cites examples of ones who suffered tremendously for yielding to temptation. "you" being his imperfect part of himself that his heart conflicts with as he tries to keep faith. We all fail at times and are weak, but still hold faith, no matter how little that faith is. We hold on, even if our hallelujah is "cold and broken", sometimes we may barely get the word to pass our lips in a whisper

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      Ray 6 years ago

      Rufus Wainwright has a great version. Obsessed with Dr house the you tubers have a great vids.And that's created a different view of the song for me.

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      kristycutsforth 7 years ago

      Jeff was an amazing talent with great taste. He also got me interested in Nina Simone! Thanks for your comment...verse 4 gets to me too!

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      I am DB Cooper 7 years ago from Whereabouts unknown at this time

      Verse 4 always gets me. Buckley's cover is amazing.