"Hallelujah!" is a glorious Hebrew loan word that we have absorbed into our praise cultures around the world. As I have journeyed to know the word of God better, refining my strengths and committing weaknesses to grace, I have become fascinated with the Hebrew language. As a believer and worship leader, this has helped me to serve the Lord and his church. God has given me something to share with others as he keeps helping me grow!
For me, I see biblical Hebrew as the human language God chose to verbalize his will to mankind. He chose to speak through the Semitic nomads who settled in Canaan and were descendants of Abraham's forefather Eber: aka "Hebrews". The Roman letter “A” – Greek “Alpha” came from some of the same root as the Hebrew “Aleph.” Emoticons and emojis are a modern version of some of the earliest forms of written communication.
Some of you may have read the study I prepared on the obscure Hebrew word “Selah.” It was recently brought to my attention that Zondervan actually removed this word from their newest translations (NIV-2011) since "its meaning is uncertain" and it "may interrupt reading.” They replaced it with a footnote at the first ocuurence in the chapter. That is to their own shame.
I began to think, “If we do not take every word of God seriously, in the future, our great, great grandchildren may not have reliable translations to choose from – if even any Bible at all.”
The more I have studied Hebrew, the more I have seen that words have been marginalized, altered or lost to the historical background which created the evolution of their translation that we see today. For example...
Jehovah and Hallelujah
Have you ever wondered where the word “Jehovah” originated? It appears in a few translations and in a lot of hymns. Psalm 148 is one that the Churches of Christ sing often with fervor. We know it as “Hallelujah! Praise Jehovah.” Today, churches love the spiritual song “Days of Elijah,” which includes the crescendo-filled bridge “There’s no God like Jehovah!” We sing that phrase 16 times in a row during that section.
As we study the word “Hallelujah,” it is good to preface the study with a look at the word “Jehovah.” It is a good example, like “Selah,” to show how words end up in our language, even though we may not know why - much less what the word originally meant.
Jehovah, simply put, is an English translation/transliteration of the Hebrew word YHWH. This word, YHWH is actually the core, covenant name of God. It is the same name God revealed to Moses in Exodus 3 “for all generations.” In the Old Testament, it is used almost 7,000 times! And in Hebrew, it sounds like the phrase “I AM.” Over the years, it has most commonly translated as “LORD.” Lord is a title, not a name. And there is a real word “Lord” in Hebrew: “Adonai.”
Note: Look in the introduction section of your Bible, and you will see explanations of the variations of “Lord,” LORD,” ”God,” ”GOD,” and the corresponding Hebrew words. Incidentally, when I wrote the hymn “Yahweh the Lord ‘Abba' Father" I mistakenly thought Yahweh was supposed to be translated “the Lord.”
If you hear or read a reference to the term “Tetragrammaton,” that is a fancy way of saying “four-letter name” as a reference to YHWH.
Very briefly, “Jehovah” arose overtime, because of these reasons (And this is a time-saving encapsulation)
- YAHWEH was the sacred covenant name of God to the Jews. They have traditionally abstained from saying YHWH. In order to not get close to sinning and using this name in vain as commanded in Moses’ 10 commandments, they only said it once a year on Yom Kippur during the temple service. When you read sacred Jewish texts today, in English, a term “HASHEM” is used for God. “Hashem” means “the Name” in Hebrew. It is sad that the personal connection, talking to God on a first name basis was lost – with good intentions. If you look at Psalm 116:13 and Zechariah 13:9, you’ll see one example of God wanting us to call on his name – “Yahweh”
- When scripture was read orally, priests and Rabbi’s would substitute YHWH with “Elohim” which means “God” or with “Adonai” which means “Lord” – And of course “HASHEM” is also used now.
- After the oral tradition related to temple service was halted in 70 A.D. as the temple was destroyed, pronunciation practices were quickly lost.
- In the 6th century Masoretic scholars, the preservers of ancient Jewish pronunciation, chose to add an “O” vowel to Yahweh. Even though they were not aware of how the word was spoken in antiquity, this would reflect the use of Adonai and Elohim. The “Y” sound as in yellow, can also be shown with a”J” as in Hallelujah.
- Ultimately, denominational scholars of the Christian tradition, added “Jehovah” to English literature. A few Bible translations have adopted its use as well. See Biblehub.net or other online scripture search sites.
The irony of the word Jehovah being used, is that its roots were an attempt to not use God’s name in vain. How sad that we have lost the name of God in that process and use words in vain that God intended for us to use in our humble walk with him!
A broken hallelujah
Leonard Cohen, the masterful jazz artist, has given us a beautiful tune about David’s imperfect life and, nevertheless, his "broken hallelujah." We have heard over a dozen versions of it including even Easter and Christmas renditions. It’s a beautiful songs and is an allegory to our lives, that we can still praise the Lord in our human frailty and imperfections.
As I have searched out the scriptures, first as a disciple of Christ and then as a worship musician, my understanding of the word “hallelujah” has deepened and I want to share these thoughts with you here. Some of my own thinking was wrong and that “broken hallelujah” is always getting better!
If we want to renew our minds and not conform to the pattern of this world, we need to begin with understanding the meaning of God’s word. “Hallelujah” is a Hebrew word that is international. And it is a compound word using three Hebrew terms.
Jesus said that the kind of worshippers the Father seeks will worship him in “Spirit and truth.” By the grace and truth come through Christ, we can deepen our understanding of truth through deeper Bible study. Looking at the origins of words and their definitions is such a blessing! Even in your mother tongue, it helps to grasp the meaning of a word from its etymological roots.
Note: Some people may think that using a dictionary in your own language is not a helpful thing. In the case of a loan word like “hallelujah,” that is true! Looking at the Hebrew carefully and getting advice from a trained teacher to supplement your learning and reading is so important.
My growing understanding of “hallelujah” has made my worship more attuned to God. His good pleasing and perfect will is clearer to me now. Here is why:
“Hallelujah!” is not a casual exclamation
The exhortation for us with “Hallelujah!” is based on the Hebrew verb “Halal.” This verb is translated “EXTOL” in several passages. Extol itself means to praise lavishly! Dave Eastman, in his video lesson on Psalm 150 describes Halal this way: “The word Halal carries with it the meaning, to make a show, to boast, to be clamorously foolish, to rave, to celebrate…Halal is a call to expend energy…to pour ourselves out.”
In other words, if we say Halal, and we do when we say “Hallelujah!” it ought to always have a lot of exclamation points in our hearts and minds! Otherwise, it’s more broken than it ought to be!
The closest English equivalent besides “extol” I can think of is “Hail!” Psalm 150 sums up this culmination of cymbal crashing, clamorous and enthusiastic praise by acclaiming "Let everything that has breath HALAL Yah - Hallelujah!"
Knowing what it means, I try to not take this word lightly when I say it or sing it!
Reflection Question and Scripture
- Read Romans 15:11 and find out which Psalm Paul is sharing with the church. Try to look at it with a Hebrew lexicon. Biblehub.net In this context, Romans 15:7-16, what things can you do to deepen your appreciation and others’ for what God has done in Christ? Do you see these things as worthy of a Hallelujah!?
"Hallelujah!" is a grand exhortation to the whole congregation
As you know, we have grown as a church in singing with intent, purpose and direction. Dave Eastman has been our strongest advocate in worship education and we have seen that songs can be sung to one another (horizontal) sung to God (vertical), sung to our own souls (inward). “Hallelujah!” is a horizontal phrase to call all those present in the assembly to “PRAISE THE LORD!”
In English, we don’t have universal plural and singular second person “YOU” terms. This is definitely plural. So when we sing it – our hearts ought to be reaching out to everybody in the room! That alone takes an expending of energy!
Think of it as joyfully crying out with a loud voice “ALL OF YOU!!! EXTOL YAHWEH!” Or, “EVERYBODY – PRAISE OUR GREAT GOD!!!!!”
The power of this is that all of us are encouraging all of us to hail our great God and King with one voice! It should be a group exaltation that honors the only God worthy of such exuberant collaboration from all of his creation! When the church sings any song using “Hallelujah” all of us become worship leaders – if we understand that the phrase is a call to “all YOU saints in here” to lavishly rave and celebrate our glorious creator!
Reflection Questions and Scripture
Read the following passages, and their contexts, and ask the Lord to give you some practical ideas to share in your church, perhaps with your worship team, that will add to the quality of your worship services:
Yahweh is the intended center of lavish praise from our "Hallelujah!"
The traditional translation “Praise the Lord!” for "hallelujah" has stood the test of time. We have all heard Handel’s rousing version and its proclamation “And he shall reign for ever and ever! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” I cannot bemoan or criticize the fact that “Praise the Lord” is the commonly accepted and adequate translation.
However, in the spirit of discussing truth and sharing my heart, I maintain that using “the Lord” as the translation of “YAH” does not do justice to this covenant name of God. “YAH” is simply a contraction for Yahweh.
Yahweh is used about 6,800 times in the Old Testament. I like to think of it as God’s way to let Moses be on a first name basis with him. And of course, that name ought not be used in vain! That relationship should be cherished, protected and boasted about with utmost humility, gratitude and wonder!
Even in the amazing and beloved Psalm 23, saying “the Lord” is my shepherd falls short of the blessed richness of stating God’s name when you sing out “Yahweh” is my shepherd. If I am correct in my understanding, we have been unwittingly using God’s name in vain by saying for centuries that is something that he never said it was.
Did you ever meet a person who could not remember your name and called you by the wrong name constantly? Some people are more sensitive to that than others – and I probably have forgotten people’s names more than most folks and cringe when I have to ask them again.
Exodus 3 shows God meeting Moses at all of his weaknesses and saying “I exist,” “I am,” “I made your mouth. I will be with you,” “My name is Yahweh. I AM who I AM.” This play on words is interesting when you see how Yahweh is used in scripture. Below are few examples of Yahweh being used showing his ways of keeping his covenant promises by the integrity of his name. The image below is not a comprehensive list by any means of such examples.
So when we say “Hallelujah!” we ought to be intending to express “Hail Yahweh everybody!”
Reflection Questions and Scripture
- Read 1 Corinthians 14:15 and then contemplate over a few hymns that you love to grasp the meaning of each phrase. Next time you sing it, sing with intent and understanding from your heart and mind.
- What do Jesus’ words in John 8:58 have to do with God’s covenant name “Yahweh”?
- Do a study of the times and ways Jesus teaches about who he is by starting off “I am…” How does that relate to God’s name? For example, “I am the good shepherd.”
These are my personal reflections and I pray that they will deepen your love for God, his creation, people and his word. May the great “I AM” continue to bless us all until we are with him forever.