The Secret Chord: Leonard Cohen and the Ketuvim

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Several years ago, I wrote a paper comparing the lyrics of Leonard Cohen with the Ketuvim (the portion of the Jewish Bible including the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, 1 and 2 Chronicles). Cohen’s recent passing has moved me to revisit my own “old ideas” about one of my all time favorite poets and musicians. I am thankful to Dr. John Goldingay at Fuller Theological Seminary for encouraging me and guiding me through this reflection back in 2006…

As King David prepared Israel for the reign of his successor Solomon, he assembled four thousand cohenim “to offer praises to the LORD with musical instruments” (I Chronicles 23:5). About 3,000 years later, a descendant of the cohenim has, until recently, continued to offer his praises to the LORD with a transcendent poetry and a startling humanity reminiscent of the Hebrew Scripture’s ketuvim.[1]

The Canadian singer and songwriter Leonard Cohen has been called “a prophetic voice in music…[with an] almost biblical significance and authority.”[2] Influenced at an early age by the Hebrew Scriptures, which “would send shivers down [his] spine,”[3] Cohen’s lyrics hold a spiritual depth and sensuality not unlike that of the Hebrew ketuvim. His sultry voice and pleasantly simple tunes give his profound lyrics prominence in his music, thus making his spiritual message unmistakably present: that is, to be human is to attempt to revere G-d and love the other sincerely and sometimes sensually in the midst of our limitations, finitude and sexuality. With a message deeply indebted to and remarkably similar to the Hebrew Writings, Leonard Cohen invites his listeners to contemplate the wisdom found in his first muse: the ketuvim. In doing so, we will find, in the Writings, a wisdom that, in turn, will challenge Cohen’s message and perhaps even our own spirituality and modus vivendi.

Perhaps his most famous song (thanks to Jeff Buckley’s heartbreaking rendition and other artists’ interpretations), “Hallelujah” serves as a tour de force of Cohen’s poesy, commingling sex and the sacred, referencing Scripture and offering a ketuvim-like message.

The Secret Chord

            The song “Hallelujah” begins in the Psalter, where we are invited to sit and listen to the Psalmist play. Cohen writes,

I’ve heard there was a secret chord

That David played and it pleased the Lord

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

It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth

The minor fall, the major lift

The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Cohen incites his listeners to peer into the Psalter to discover the secret chord that will please the LORD. Although we might not believe that sound can carry any sort of God– pleasing vibrations, Cohen and the Psalter both suggest that it is good and fitting to make music to the LORD. Yet the “secret chord” is so much more than a simple strum on a stringed instrument. Though Cohen describes a basic chord progression of pop music in his lyrics (“It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth…”), he is also suggesting the elements that make up a LORD – pleasing prayer: reaching out to the divine for guidance, protection and salvation (the fourth, the fifth, the major lift) and yet also remaining profoundly and painfully aware of humanity, sin and finitude (the minor fall). The ketuvim are a medley of minor falls and major lifts, earthy pragmatics and transcendent pleas.

Psalm 51 serves as an example of this mixture, beginning on a clear note of petition: “Have mercy on me, O G–d, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” Then, the psalmist takes the petition a step further by asking G–d to give her a bath, believing that a divine wash would eradicate all her iniquity and sin.[4]

After looking up to G–d for mercy and a bath, the psalmist looks upon herself and describes her sin in what Leonard Cohen calls the “minor fall”: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight…Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” Then, the psalmist returns to the petition (the “major lift”): “Teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean, wash me…”

Cohen completes the verse, “The baffled king composing, ‘Hallelujah’” and that is exactly what the psalmist promises to do after the final petition for mercy: “My tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance…my mouth will declare your praise” (14-15). The Psalm then climaxes with a conclusion that might be the key note in what Leonard Cohen dubs the “secret chord”: “For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (16-17). This conclusion resonates with a chorus from another Cohen song called “The Window”:

Ring the bells that still can ring.

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack, a crack in everything.

That’s how the light gets in.

Our broken spirit and our contrite, cracked selves perhaps prove more pleasing to G–d and useful than burnt offerings. Perhaps being wholly vulnerable and raw before the divine requires more trust and courage than offering a sacrifice at the temple. Here, Cohen and the ketuvim seem to suggest a similar approach to revering and pleasing G–d: bring your finite and fragmented self to the LORD as an offering; come before his presence with your weakness, limitations and failures.

Femme Vitale

Cohen’s second verse of “Hallelujah” explores the femme fatale with his trademark technique of using biblical imagery to suggest sexual intimacy:

Your faith was strong, but you needed proof

You saw her bathing on the roof

Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you

She tied you to her kitchen chair

She broke your throne and she cut your hair

And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Intimately aware of the strange and overwhelming power that a woman can have over a man, Cohen borrows imagery from the Hebrew Scriptures (particularly from the account of David and Bathsheba, Samson and Delilah), which certainly also affirm the power of femininity. Women, in the ketuvim, are seen as forces to be reckoned with; a man, no matter how strong or powerful or spiritual, turns into a helpless babe in the presence of a woman. The Writings overflow with stories of women gaining power and influence over men. In the story of Esther, a woman uses her beauty to influence a king and thus prevent genocide against her people. In the story of Ruth, a woman takes initiative with a man and thus saves herself and mother–in–law from shame and starvation. In the Song of Songs, a woman proves just as forceful and feisty in sexual intimacy as any man. Yet unlike Cohen, who seems to focus on the destruction women often bring, the ketuvim recount stories of women using their feminine wiles to prevent death and bring about life.

Of course, the Writings also recognize the reality of the femme fatale. In Proverbs, the student is advised to steer clear of the wayward woman, who will lure you into herself until you are trapped, broken, broke and powerless (Prov. 5:8-10). The woman serves as the personification of waywardness in order to convey how attractive unruliness can be and how easily one can fall into it. Women are not the personification of looseness because women are naturally wayward (certainly not!), but rather because women are so damn attractive and men desire them so passionately. At the same time, Proverbs uses a woman as the personification of wisdom, again suggesting how a woman’s feminine charm may also bring good.

With this comparison, we see Cohen and the ketuvim both agreeing on the power a woman holds over a man and the potential harm she can bring. However, the ketuvim also offers more positive perspectives on the woman as a femme vitale, as a woman using her power over men to bring life.

 Lovers and Beautiful Losers

Another verse of Hallelujah again suggests sexual intimacy while remaining vague and ambiguous,

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

 These lines express an attempt to love sensually and sincerely. Cohen tries to be the best lover he can be, but he knows he has limitations. And he knows the importance of naked honesty in love and sexuality.

Cohen leads us to explore the Song of Songs wherein we discover a love that involves taking turns, giving and receiving, initiating and accepting, and sharing one another (2:16, 6:3). “Hallelujah” taps into this love that is not satisfied with merely receiving and taking love (“I couldn’t feel”), but desires to give and make love as well (“so I tried to touch”). The second half of this sexually–charged verse reads:

And even though it all went wrong

I’ll stand before the Lord of song

With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Here Cohen taps into a theme that plays out profoundly in the Writings: worshipping God in the midst of terrible loss and misery. Job, after losing all his possessions and children, exclaimed, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21).[5]

In the book of Lamentations, a similar offering of praise is made amidst misery. After describing famished babies dying on the streets (2:11-12, 19, 4:4), groaning priests (1:4), raped women (5:11) and ravenous mothers eating their own children (2:20, 4:10), the lamenter reaches out to God in hope: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (3:19-23).

Offering praise in the midst of desolation not only reveals a deep faith in G–d, but also holds G–d accountable. Rolf Jacobson explains how praise can be used against G–d.[6] Holocaust survivor and best-selling author Elie Wiesel writes, in times of extreme injustice, “the only way to accuse G–d is by praising him.”[7] By praising G–d, we remind him of his goodness and steadfast love. When we see the world around us as everything but good and loving, we are in fact accusing G–d by praising him for something that we clearly cannot see. We are throwing theodicy in G–d’s face by saying, “G–d, you are loving and you are sovereign. I am suffering in a world that is out of control and not loving, but G–d, you are loving and you are sovereign.” Instead of asking G–d the question, “How can you be loving and sovereign when everything around me points to the contrary?,” praise, instead, begs the question. Praise makes G–d ask the question. The author of Lamentations, Job and even Leonard Cohen might all be accusing G–d of injustice by praising his name, by singing, “Hallelujah.”

Cohen’s verse also reminds me of a verse in Proverbs, which reads, “A man’s own folly wrecks his life, and then he bear a grudge against the Lord” (Prov. 19:3). This proverb suggests the absurdity in blaming G–d for our own mistakes. However, other books in the ketuvim, like Job, suggest that sometimes it is not our fault when it all goes wrong. This verse and this proverb invite us to ask ourselves, “When all things do go wrong and when all my plans crumble before me, whom do I blame?”

With this verse, we again see similarity between “Hallelujah” and the Writings. Cohen describes a give–and–take sensuality as seen in the Song of Songs and hope (or accusatory praise?) in the midst of horrible circumstances as seen in Job and Lamentations. Another verse from “Hallelujah” begins:

Maybe there’s a God above

But as for me, all I’ve ever learned from love

Is how to shoot at someone who outdrew you

In the first line of this verse, we see Cohen and the ketuvim no longer holding hands. Although the ketuvim is full of doubts and questions, the question of God’s existence is never taken seriously. In fact, we do not see the question even asked. Also, Cohen’s lessons from love are far more negative, depressing and vindictive than those suggested in the ketuvim. Although Cohen seems to tap into the love described in the Song of Songs in an earlier verse, we see here that Cohen has oversimplified love into a vengeful response to pain. Returning to the Song of Songs, we can see the ketuvim offering a much more complex, mysterious and paradoxical perspective of love.

Amidst luscious fragrances and pastoral imagery, we discover, in Song of Songs, a love that is better than wine (1:2, 3:10), that excites the deepest part of the soul (1:7), that arouses great delight (2:3) and generosity (2:4), that can be so potent that it will wear one out and make one faint (2:5, 5:8), that is to be treasured and held close (1:13), that involves searching, longing (3:1, 5:6) asking (3:3), and holding (3:4). It involves seeing beauty and even flawlessness in the beloved (4:7). It is ravishing (4:9), intoxicating (5:1) and enflamed by sexual desire (7:10). It involves seeing the other as a sexual object (7:10); yes, but not just as a sexual object, also as a friend (5:16) on whom to lean (8:5). Strong as death, fiercely passionate and an unquenchable fire (8:6-7), this love is worth more than one’s entire wealth (8:7).

Song of Songs also recognizes the danger and possible pain that love can bring. Throughout the Song of Songs, a warning is given three times: “do not awaken or arouse love before it is ready” (2:7, 3:5, 8:4). The song remains silent or at least ambiguous about the “right time” to love and about the consequences of loving at the “wrong time.” Nonetheless, the warnings seem to encourage lovers to be patient and wait for their love to fully bloom, aware that sexual love in the wrong context can be profoundly damaging. Ironically, however, the song ends with a call to make haste (8:14). Perhaps the song calls the reader to live the paradox of patiently making haste when it comes to love.

If love is this complex, then the lessons learned from it certainly go far beyond “shooting at someone who outdrew you.” The rest of the verse reads:

It’s not a complaint you hear tonight

It’s not someone who’s seen the light

It’s a cold and a very lonely hallelujah

These lines follow directly after the lines above so the “It” remains somewhat ambiguous based on the context. “It” could be love or even G–d. Most likely, “it” refers to the “it” used in the What’s-it-all-about question: What is life all about? What is being human all about? According to Leonard Cohen, life is not about complaining and it is not even about mystical, life–changing experiences. Life is about being cold and lonely and learning to accept it. Life is about failing and learning to be content with the failure. Real life happens when “you abandon your masterpiece and you sink into the real masterpiece.” ‘It’ is “being unable to fulfill [your mandated mission] and then coming to understand that the real mandate was not to fulfill it, that the deeper courage was to stand guiltless in the predicament in which you found yourself.”[9]

Cohen gives special attention to those who have failed, the man whose folly has wrecked his life (Prov. 19:3), the “beautiful loser.”[10] He seems to see this beautiful loser as one with a broken spirit and contrite heart, as one able to play the secret chord that will please the LORD. According to Leonard Cohen, this beautiful loser is more holy than the psalmist in a lament or even Job who has seen G–d in a stormy theophany. “The cold and very lonely hallelujah” is so much more earthy and real and human to Cohen. He can relate to it. He can relate to saying, “I’m tired and lonely and G–d feels far away, but I will praise him anyway.”

The ketuvim affirms that sentiment, as we see in Job and Lamentations. However, the ketuvim sees more to love than shooting at someone who outdrew you. And according to the ketuvim, love and life do involve complaining and yes, sometimes even mystical, life–changing experiences, sometimes even the loud and audible voice of G–d. The ketuvim affirms the beautiful loser’s hope and praise, but also invite us into “genuine covenant interaction” with the divine,[11] to stand up for ourselves with an “ego strength that is necessary for responsible faith,”[12] to rail against G–d and even to accuse G–d.

In conclusion, the Hebrew Writings prove to offer a wider, more inclusive and often more positive understanding of revering G–d and loving the other in the midst of our finitude. However, Cohen’s special attention to the broken, lonely, beautiful losers in the world who have lost everything, who have been destroyed by women and who still offer G–d praise remains, I believe, a key to the secret chord that is wholly pleasing to the LORD. The ketuvim, however, seems to see more notes on that chord.

Afterword

I acknowledge that a major problem with my argument is that I am comparing all 12 books of the Writings to only one song of Leonard Cohen. So of course the ketuvim will include more variety. There are several very different books in the Writings and I am only looking at one tiny (although magnificent) fragment of Leonard Cohen’s work. Due to limited time and space, I could not offer more texts from Cohen’s ouvre (songs, poetry, novels, interviews, etc.). However, I spent a great deal of time listening to Cohen’s music, reciting his poetry, reading his novels, and watching Lian Lunson’s wonderful 2005 documentary. As a result, I believe I got a good grasp on Leonard Cohen and his message. I also believe that the song “Hallelujah” represents his message well.

[1] The Ketuvim is Hebrew for “Writings” and refers to the following books of the Jewish Bible the TaNaKh): Psalms, Job, Proverbs, the Scrolls (Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations and Esther), Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah and 1 and 2 Chronicles.

[2] U2 guitarist the Edge says, “Leonard is this almost prophetic voice in music for me. He’s got this almost biblical significance and authority” in Lian Lunson’s video documentary, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man (2005).

[3] From Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man (2005).

[4] Goldingay suggests that some psalmists were female, declaring, “Outside the Psalms many of the main prayer – composers of the Old Testament are women (e.g. Exodus 15:21, Judges 5:1, 1 Samuel 2:1), so maybe inside the psalms, too.” Goldingay, 504 Reader Fall 06, p. 57. For this reason, I refer to the speaker of Psalm 51 as a female, while fully aware that whenever a psalmist uses a first person participle, it is always masculine.

[5] According to the NIV, Job 13:15 reads, “Though he slay, yet will I trust him.”

[6] See Rolf Jacobson, “The Costly Loss of Praise” in Theology Today 57 (3), October 2000.

[7] Elie Wiesel, Legends of our Time (New York: Avon, 1978), 38.

[8] Leonard Cohen quote from Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man documentary.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “Beautiful Losers” is the title of Leonard Cohen’s most popular novel. Leonard Cohen, Beautiful Losers (New York: Vintage, 1993), originally published in 1966.

[11] Walter Brueggemann, The Psalms and the Life of Faith (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1995), 60.

[12] Brueggemann, Psalms and Life of Faith, 61.

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About deforestlondon

Episcopal priest
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3 Responses to The Secret Chord: Leonard Cohen and the Ketuvim

  1. Sharon Obuchon-Staub says:

    Another comment from one of your most interested readers–Oddly enough I’d been thinking about the lyrics to “Hallelujah” when I hit once more on your blog. To my mind, Cohen starts out with a seemingly impersonal theological statement and then attacks in a personal way and digs the knife in with a bit of music theory. Here is diappointment, pain, anger, and “shooting at someone who outdrew you.” Song/music means love/God to him, so all the more devastating when the other does not “care for music.” But the “hallelujah” persists!

  2. James Carvin says:

    The entire song is a commentary on Psalm 51 and can not be sung without the broken spirit the Psalm calls for. Words are empty without contrition. The ‘sexual charge’ is nothing more than divine relationship. Thank you, Leonard Cohen, for a wonderful insight into this Psalm.

  3. Kithara says:

    I enjoyed your piece. I had one small difference of opinion about these lines:

    Well, maybe there’s a god above
    But all I’ve ever learned from love
    Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you

    I read these lines more as the depiction and framing of the broken soul in ironic and painful reflection. Perhaps another authentic offering than the pablum of the more attractive but burnt offering.

    Joe

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