The pop song “Hallelujah” written by Leonard Cohen has become very popular, especially as it was covered by successful groups such as “Il Divo” and “Pentatonix” for the more classically inclined, and a whole list of other famous singers. It has become a firm favourite of many.
A few years ago I took a funeral where the performance of the song was a key component, because the version sung by Il Divo was quite clearly the deceased’s preferred song. Before the funeral I felt moved to limit the verses sung, because the most common English version focuses mainly on erotic and violent relationships. Part of the inspiration for those lyrics came from the stories of Samson and Delilah and of David and Bath-sheba.
The best interpretation that we could give to the lyrics knowing the Biblical background might be that even when people chosen by God do despicable things, good can still result – and then somehow we can still respond to with a “hallelujah”. For Leonard Cohen that “hallelujah” was divorced from God and at its heart was “a cold and broken hallelujah”.
At the time I somehow did not think to listen to the Il Divo lyrics again. If I had, I could have realised that they were quite different. They are in Spanish and convey a more uplifting – and in my opinion more truthful – meaning.
Because I’m not really satisfied with any of the translations of those Spanish words into English, I’ve had a try myself. This is not a totally literal translation of the Spanish, but rather one that conveys the sense and poetry.
At home a soldier found his peace,
A child recovered from disease
and labour’s halted in the rainy forest ,
a homeless person was saved today
when someone saw a stranger’s face,
and gave despite society’s constant protest.
An atheist found faith in God,
a hungry person was filled with food
a Church was given wealth into the future,
and so there’s hope all wars will cease
and in the world will reign full peace,
and there’s no misery, but a Hallelujah
For love will then be all in all,
Corruption no longer take control
the good and true will win us over,
for God protects us from the strife
and give to us fullness of life,
replace the man-made hell with Hallelujah
That version of the song talks more about the small signs of hope in the world with a vision to the great hope of the future. That can indeed result in “hallelujah” – the Hebrew exhortation to “praise the LORD”. There are other more explicitly Christian lyrics to this tune.
If anyone would ask me now to have “Hallelujah” sung at their funeral I would point them to the Spanish version sung by Il Divo. In this newsletter you now also have a singable English translation of that.