Spiritual Thoughts - Feb. 7, 2020

Popularizing hallelujahs: a reflection on Psalms in the Bible

On Oct. 3, 1987, I hitchhiked 464 kilometres from Sudbury, Ontario, to Toronto to see the Irish rock band U2 perform their newly released album The Joshua Tree at the Canadian National Exhibition Stadium. Under the stars, 80,000 spectators witnessed the incredible Bono and his band perform songs like, “Where The Streets Have No Name,” “One Tree Hill,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” and “40,” which is taken from Psalm 40 of the Bible and written by King David over 3,000 years ago. 

By performing “40” U2 transformed the open-air stadium into an open-air church. I remember vividly that fumbling bass line introducing “40,” followed by the Edge’s wailing guitar, then Bono singing:

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I waited patiently for the Lord
He inclined and heard my cry
He brought me up out of the pit
Out of the mire and clay

I will sing, sing a new song
I will sing, sing a new song…

Bono pleads: “You sing it.” As the Edge’s guitar prods us on, we sing:

How long to sing this song
How long to sing this song    

Bono repeats: Hallelujah.
How long, how long, how long
How long, to sing this song

When Bono finished singing, he wished us all, “Good night, and God bless,” then retreated from the stage, while inviting us to continue singing. As the remaining U2 members remained to accompany the crowd, for what seem like an hour, I remember looking around at thousands of lighters flickering inside the stadium like micro-stars in our very own U2 universe. As each U2 member slowly retreated, the faithful “fires” made their way onto the streets— flowing a river wide — while crying out David’s ancestral Psalm to modern souls,“How long, how long, how long/How long, to sing this song.” According to the @U2 website, U2 has performed that ritual over 1,762 times to millions and millions around the world. 

U2’s 40 is not very different from David’s Psalm 40, so reflecting back on that era, I am intrigued to know why U2’s 40 went almost unheard of in the churches at that time? I believe the answer partly lies in why another popular artist alludes to another Psalm of David. Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” certainly alludes to King David’s affair with Bathsheba, but also to Psalm 51, because in Psalm 51 David pleads with God to “Create in me a clean heart,” a heart overburdened by his sinful behaviour as depicted in the David/Bathsheba narrative in 2 Samuel, chapter 11. Three thousand years after 2 Samuel was written, Cohen’s “Hallelujah” brings millions and millions of us back to that tragic love story:

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?

…Well your faith was strong but you needed proof

You saw her bathing on the roof.

In Cohen’s song, the allusion to the tragic story of 2 Samuel 11 is noticeable when the narrator tells us David “saw her [Bathsheba] bathing on the roof” (v.2). Likewise, Cohen also alludes to Psalm 51 when we hear, “David played” a “secret chord [confession?]…and it pleased the Lord.” I am intrigued at how this passionate love story gone wrong — that we follow in 2 Samuel 11 — makes its way into Psalm 51 by way of the themes of guilt and mercy. Yet, the song’s connection to Psalm 51 also provides ample evidence that Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” like U2’s “40” are possible hits because of the enduring nature of the Psalms. 

However intriguing the crossover to pop culture by these two Psalms is, a troubling emotional “gap” exists between the “theological” narration in 2 Samuel 12 and that of David’s soulful cry in Psalm 51. David’s cry in the Psalm, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” invites us into communion with him when he is struggling with the emotional and existential crisis after Nathan, and others, know they are aware about his murder and his adultery. Upon reflection, I understand now that the Bible (outside of Psalms), in its narrative form, may very well inform us about various historical and religious matters, but the poetic nature of the Psalms truly conveys our deep existential crisis “emphatically,” and therefore fills this “gap” to a certain extent. In Reflection on Psalms, C.S. Lewis examines this “emotional gap” further:

“Psalms are poems, and poems intended to be sung: not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons … Most emphatically the Psalms must be read … with all the licences and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyrical poetry … Otherwise we shall miss what is in them and think we see what is not.” (2-3; italics mine)

According to Lewis, making “emotional rather than logical connection” in the Psalms help us to empathize with the human element embedded in them, and to “see” the invisible in them—thus filling in the gap. Therefore, the “invisible,” such as the Apostle Paul declares, “…since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things [the Psalms] he has made.” (Romans 1:20; italics added)

When pastors or theologians neglect to consider the literary and musical elements of the Psalms as a priority, they are robbing me of this “invisible.” Maybe in a sermon I don’t need to know how Bathsheba tied David “to a kitchen chair” or “broke” his throne and cut his hair, but I do need to feel how David from his lips cries “Hallelujah.” Hence, if I am robbed of this type of “emotional attachment,” as depicted by the Jewish Levite Leonard Cohen in his “Hallelujah,” I will not sense the same emotional connection to David’s soul, or to that soulful singing of Bono: “How long, to sing this song” as I did on that October night when I slowly made my way out from the stadium in that unforgettable river of fire.

Gilbert McInnis is completing his master’s degree in Divinity through Queen’s College, Memorial University, and currently is an assistant professor and the co-ordinator of the writing centre for University College of the North, Thompson. His forthcoming book “Kurt Vonnegut: Myth and Science in a Postmodern World” will be released in the spring by Peter Lang Inc. See his Amazon Author’s website for more works by him.  

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