Sermon - 21st April 2013
Scripture - Psalm 51, with reference to Leonard Cohen's song 'Hallelujah'
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
What’s the Song About?
Cohen is both a singer and a poet. He writes his own songs and this is one of his most popular – though it wasn’t very successful when it was first published. It’s been covered by a range of other artists – including KD Lang, Alexandra Burke and Jeff Buckley – all of whom sing it in their own way. The haunting tune and it’s slow pace has made the song both memorable and popular. The song has many verses and Cohen seems to change the verses he sings depending on his mood. The verses we listened to today are concerned mainly with Biblical images but other verses are harder and seem directed against a lover – we get a hint of that in the second line “but you don’t really care for music do you?” – the lover has clearly hurt him and there are some deeply acidic lines in some of the other verses. Who would date Cohen and not like music?
Cohen is Jewish and the verses in this version of the song are full of images from the Jewish Bible – what we call the Old Testament. The song is heavy with references to King David who played music to calm King Saul – his predecessor – who was mentally unwell and fell into depressions and rages. Only David’s playing could relieve him. The secret chord “which pleased the Lord” also pleased King Saul. David, once he became King, saw Bathsheba bathing and wanted her, having had an affaire with her she became pregnant and it became necessary for David to have her husband killed so they could marry.
David was a virtuous king who was a hero to his people and was, perhaps, the most religious and devoted king that Israel had. Yet this affaire with Bathsheba “overthrew” him. Often our physical desires undermine our morality and ideas about what God expects of us. Cohen seems to suggest that Bathsheba’s hold over David weakened him in much the same way that Delilah weakened Samson – whose strength came from his uncut hair. (Though we may wonder what choice Bathsheba herself had in events – how do you turn the king down?)
Then Cohen turns to his own faith, or lack of it. Again addressing an unknown person he seems to suggest that he’s been accused to taking the Lord’s name in vain – something anathema to both Jews and Christians. Jewish people will never speak the name of God referring to God as “the Lord” or “the Almighty” and when God’s name is written in the Bible it’s written without vowels so that it cannot be pronounced.
Cohen implies that he may not really know God’s name – perhaps he means he is estranged of distant from God, but he does recognise God’s presence in both the holy and the secular – the broken hallelujah.
In the last verse things are turned around when he knows that, at the end of his life, he will stand before God – the Lord of Song – with nothing to offer but a song of praise on his lips. There is an unspoken hope that God will accept him as he is.
What Do We Know About King David?
This last line reminds me of King David who was a wonderfully contemporary mixture of the holy and the profane. David clearly loved God, he was the first successful King of Israel, he secured Israel’s borders, set up a centralised state, helped the country become rich and powerful and is held to have written many of the Psalms.
He was, however, a deeply flawed person and we are still fascinated with his life – possibly because we relate to those who, like us, are deeply flawed and complex. As a young man he fell in love with King Saul’s son Jonathan saying that his love was better than that of women, he married Saul’s daughter legitimizing his claim on the throne but it wasn’t a happy marriage and he has the affaire with Bathsheba. The child conceived in their affaire died at birth and the marriage with Bathseheba doesn’t seem to have been happy. We know that David had great religious feelings and many believe that he wrote some of the Psalms.
What’s Psalm 51 About?
Our reading today was Psalm 51 which is traditionally used as a prayer of penitence. It’s often thought that this was written by David as he repented of his affaire with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband. The Psalm sees sin as dirt from which we have to be cleansed: “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!”. The writer is aware of his own failings but, more importantly, is aware of God’s loving kindness. The Psalm rings out with words of agony, pain and desperation. It’s the words of one who is broken and who shows great remorse. God is addressed but is silent.
Structurally, the Psalm opens with heartfelt pleas for mercy and cleansing from sin in the first two verses and supports them with a long confession of sin which follows. A series of pleas for radical renewal towards the end gives a desperate and powerful closing to the Psalm.
Links between Hallelujah and Psalm 51
I see links between the Psalm we had read to us and the song we have listened to. Cohen is a poet who is well steeped in the imagery of the Bible. At Synagogue and in daily prayer he would have become familiar with the Psalms which are used by both Christian and Jewish people as set prayers. Cohen, like David, and like us all, is a flawed person who has a mixture of religious sentiment and the all too real desires of the flesh to deal with. Some of the verses not in this version of the song make clear that he has had a stormy relationship with a woman and seems bitter about its ending. David’s relationships with women didn’t seem successful and his relationship with Jonathan was opposed by Jonathan’s father and ended in the tragedy of early death. The Psalm ends with a sense of possible restoration and forgiveness, the song ends with a desire to honestly stand before God in the knowledge that God knows the writer fully and accepts his offering of praise.
Our own Response to God’s Loving Kindness
Our lives are not, hopefully, as complex as David’s. We may, like Cohen, struggle with knowing of God’s existence, but not living up to the demands that God makes of us. We may do more than take the Holy Name in vain, but like Cohen we can see God at work in all of life – the holy and the profane.
Like the Psalmist we may feel that “our sin is always before us” but we also know that God’s loving kindness washes away our sins like the shower washes away our dirt. All we need to do is to reach out and experience that loving kindness and then believe that God is love and does forgive us. Sometimes it’s harder to let go of our sins, than it is to believe that God has forgiven us.
Like the Psalmist, and like Cohen, we bring our entire lives to God trusting that God will accept us as we sing our own praise to God recognising that we’re both holy and broken.
Long ago David your servant both pleased and angered you,
His great faith serves as an example to us now,
His ability to find love in a variety of places inspires us,
But his ability to separate out his knowledge of you from his deepest and darkest desires both horrifies and fascinates us.
Help us to find you in all things,
To trust in your love and kindness,
And give us grace, at the end, to come before you as we really are,
Saints and sinners,
As we bring our broken hallelujahs to your throne.