The year is 1984, and George Orwell’s dystopian future has not come to pass. A 50-year old musician’s career has reached an all-time low. A song he is about to write, rooted in a word that is thousands of years old, will rise like a phoenix from his creative ashes – flying right into the popular consciousness of a generation.
He is sitting on the floor of his hotel room in New York City, clad in only his underwear, with numerous lyric-filled notebooks strewn around him. He is banging his head on the floor as he struggles to complete a song for which he has 80 draft verses; a song that has been stuck inside him for at least two years.
[VIDEO: This article is adapted from a Chapel message spoken to the students, staff, and faculty of the Robert E. Webber Institute For Worship Studies, January 2017.]
After the new album including the song is reluctantly released by the writer’s record label, Bob Dylan hears the tune, tucked away on the B side of the album. Sensing it has a prayerful gravitas, he plays it live.
Others like John Cale, Jeff Buckley, Bono, Bon Jovi, K.D. Lang, and Rufus Wainwright all create versions of the song, as well as many others. The song makes an appearance in the movie, Shrek, and on television on shows like the OC, The West Wing, Scrubs, and ER. To this day, the song is broadcast at 2 am every Saturday night on the Israeli Defense Force’s Radio Channel. Pentatonix version of the song on YouTube has 104 million views and counting. The song is a viral hit.
Because the central word of the song is as irresistible to the contemporary Church as it was to the ancient Hebrews, the song has been Christianized, literalized, sanitized, exorcised, and baptized to make it more appropriate and accessible for today’s faith-oriented audiences.
If the song is not already stuck in your head at this point, the lyrics go…
“…Like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift, the baffled king composing hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelu-ia.”
When asked to explain his controversial song, Hallelujah, the late Leonard Cohen (he died in November 2016) said that the song:
“…Explains that many kinds of hallelujahs do exist, and all the perfect and broken hallelujahs have equal value.”
The second story is about a different song, but the story has some striking similarities to the first. Another composer in his 50s, in the year 1741, is holed up in his room in London, England, giving life support to a career that is also at an all-time low. In significant debt, and certain to land in debtor’s prison, he is working on what he believes may be his last commission – a libretto on the life of Christ.
As author Patrick Kavanaugh puts it, “He grew so absorbed in the work that he rarely left his room, hardly stopping to eat. Within six days Part One was complete. In nine days more he had finished Part Two, and in another six, Part Three. The orchestration was completed in another two days. In all, 260 pages of manuscript were filled in the remarkably short time of 24 days.
A friend who visited him as he composed found him sobbing with intense emotion. Later, as the writer groped for words to describe what he had experienced, he quoted St. Paul, saying, ‘Whether I was in the body or out of my body when I wrote it I know not.’”
The title for the commissioned work was, simply, Messiah, and of course, George Frederick Handel was the composer.
What some have called the zenith of the composition would be the movement with the words,
“Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Halle-luia, For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, and He shall reign forever and ever, and ever. Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah! King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He shall reign forever and ever. Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah. Halle-lu-jah!”
When King George first heard that chorus he was so moved he stood to his feet (some say he was asleep and he thought the triumphant sound was his cue to stand), and the entire audience followed his lead – starting a tradition that lasts to this day of standing during the Hallelujah Chorus.
ARTISTS AND WORSHIPPERS ON THE WILD EDGE
Artists on the floor, locked in their rooms, on the brink of their own sanity, at the end of themselves.
Worshippers on their feet, singing a single word that is thousands of years old, rapt in joyous, effervescent praise.
What is it about the worship word “hallelujah” that seems to be imbued from on high with a force that, upon sincere repetition, can bring us to our knees in humility or raise us to our feet in praise?
After all, it’s just a word. But unlike many of our words today, it’s a word that has lasted in its import and potency, across generations and cultures, for thousands and thousands of years.
Those are bragging rights.
AN OLD WORD WITH FRESH POWER
The word, “Hallel” is a second-person plural imperative meaning “Praise.” It is spoken, as a command, to a community. The second half of the word is a magnificent short-form name for the unspeakable name of God to the Jews, and the most intimate name of God to Moses, Yahweh, “I am that I am.”
Hallelujah is a call to “Praise the Lord.” In my pastoral experience, it’s not only the heart cry of a community expressed in shouts or song. It’s also the resolute whisper of the single mother who chooses her prayer-words economically as she faces her own daily limits. It’s the unrestrained bellow of the grateful parent in the face of a holy triumph in the life of a wayward child.
Hallelujah. Praise the Lord.
Here is how Eugene Peterson renders Rev. 19:6-7 in The Message:
Then I heard the sound of massed choirs,
the sound of a mighty cataract,
the sound of strong thunder:
The Master reigns, our God,
Let us celebrate, let us rejoice,
let us give him the glory!
PEOPLE OF THE WILD HALLELUJAH
I like to think that we are called to be a People of the Wild Hallelujah. The wild hallelujah – the unfettered, indiscriminate, untamed, rambunctious, always-halting-ever-exalting-and-never-exhausted-in-meaning-or-power Hallelujah.
And it is a command, both individual and plural in spirit. It’s a word that has lasted across millennia as essential worship vocabulary for the trans-historic people of God forging through their hard lifetimes, celebrating the victory of God in their day and their age.
The Wild Hallelujah is for our own spiritual formation. We speak to our souls “Praise the Lord,” just as David awakened his soul in Psalm 57:7-11. And when we speak the wild and unpredictable hallelujah, we shake off the wet, wooly garments of a languishing spirit and awaken our souls to acclaim the Lord!
As one who’s battled severe depression much of my life, I’ve sung, shouted, and whispered the words, “Hallelujah, praise you, Lord” until my worry and fear are absorbed into the presence of God.
The Wild Hallelujah is for the Church’s renewal. We speak to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19), calling ourselves as a Church to fall to our knees or rise to our feet to be the
People of Everlasting Gratefulness,
People of The Promised Triumph,
People of the Wild Hallelujah.
THE WILD HALLELUJAH ON THE LIPS OF THE SAINTS
The praise of God is a ready remedy for depressions of the mind, the indecisions of the spirit, and the sorrows of the weary soul. It is imbued with life by the Holy Spirit when it rises from human lips, and propels us into the world Jesus loves with fire in our bones.
It has become a singular, potent vocabulary for the beautiful and broken acclamations of God that flow from the beautiful and broken bearers of His image.
“Hallelujah! Praise the Lord, O my soul. I will praise the Lord as long as I live” (Psalm 146: 1).
Hallelujah, for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.
As the worship leaders, and creative designers of the Church’s formative liturgies, let’s put the word “Hallelujah” in all its grades and kinds, on the lips and on the tongues and in the hearts of all the saints – in our homes and in our communities of faith.
Amen, and amen.
George Frederick Handel