You’ve probably heard the song “Hallelujah.” You know, the song that’s been covered by everyone from Bob Dylan and U2, to the man singing in the subway. There are literally hundreds of recorded covers of Hallelujah, but oddly enough no one ever seems to get sick of the song—It brings down the house every time. Some have even called it the perfect song—but like most great works of art, the story behind the song may be better than the actual song.
Hallelujah was written by Canadian songwriter and artist, Leonard Cohen. The original date it was written is unknown because Cohen constantly tinkered with it. Cohen was a mad artist—he would pace around his hotel room in his underwear into the early morning hours never satisfied with the lyrics or arrangement. It is purported he wrote as many as 70 verses, but no one knows the true number.
After five years of tinkering, in 1984, Cohen recorded Hallelujah on an album so unappealing his record label wouldn’t release it, so Cohen released the album independently with little fanfare. You may have heard the original Cohen version of Hallelujah, but most likely you haven’t. It’s not that good. It’s dark and slow, a far cry from the crowd pleasing version covered by so many.
One night, while performing at the Beacon ballroom, a man named John Kale heard Cohen sing Hallelujah and loved it. He asked Cohen for permission to record his own version, and to send him the lyrics—Cohen faxed him 15 pages.
Kale, changed some lyrics, the tempo, and most importantly the “feel” of the song. and recorded his version on a Leonard Cohen tribute album, “I’m Your fan.”
Cohen’s tribute album wasn’t popular, very few people purchased the album, but a young aspiring singer named Jeff Buckley heard the song at a friend’s house one night and decided to record his own version.
In 1994, Buckley recorded his version of Hallelujah,” that’s the version you’ve probably heard, It’s the famous one, just a man and his guitar, with a slight hint of desperation in his voice. Every subsequent cover of Hallelujah has been a cover of Kale, covering Buckley, covering Cohen.
Ironically though, no one really paid attention to Buckley’s version when the song was released in 1994. It wasn’t until Buckley died in a tragic drowning accident in 1997 that his music garnered mass attention, propelling “Hallelujah” into the spotlight—15 years after Cohen’s first recording.
Five years of writing and rewriting, three failed albums, three different versions, and a tragic death was all it took for everyone to discover the perfect song.
I bring all of that up, because it made me think about the verse in the Bible where Paul said that God is the author and perfecter of our faith. I love when God initiates faith in me. Initial faith is inspiring and exciting. It brings with it dreams and hopes, but the perfecting of faith, the tweaking, is agonizing.
Great art is usually recognized in hindsight; faith is much the same. Perfect faith is a process. Failures, revisions, time, wins and losses, and the Bible is filled with little verses, usually unnoticed by the average reader. Verses like Genesis 15:1.
“Some time later, the Lord spoke to Abraham in a vision.
It’s those first three words, “Some time later” that is so telling. It’s the life lived in between the stories in scripture that say so much. Genesis 41:1 is another one.
“Two full years later Pharoah dreamed…”
The frustrating part of perfecting faith is that it’s different for everyone. Sure, there are patterns God uses, but he is unique with every individual, and most of the time it feels like he moves faster with everyone else.
There’s a story about a time when Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan were having dinner in a café in Paris one day, and Bob Dylan told Cohen he really liked his song, “Hallelujah.” He asked Cohen how long he had worked on it. Cohen told Dylan 2 years because he was too embarrassed to admit the answer was actually 5 years. Cohen told Dylan he really liked his song “I for an Eye.” He asked Dylan how long he had worked on it. Dylan told Cohen he wrote it in 15 minutes.
I want great faith; I bet you do too. I want the first draft to be the finished version, but God loves to take his time, he’s a mad artist perfecting me, and he’s never finished until my life is finished.
There is a sign that hangs on the wall in my barbershop that says, “Great haircuts are not cheap and cheap haircuts are not great.” I think faith works the same.
Don’t compare your debut album to someone else’s greatest hits.
God is perfecting you, and he is perfecting me too. I’d be willing to bet the people you could list right now that you consider to have great faith are either much older or have gone through an incredibly trying season in life. I wish it worked the other way, that great faith was found in youth and prosperity, but it’s not.
The world is filled with one hit wonders, but God has different plans for you. He will keep tweaking, perfecting and rewriting, but we can be confident “he, who began the good work will continue his work until it is finally finished.”
*I took details about the history of the song “Hallelujah” from Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, “Revisionist History” episode “Hallelujah” on July 27, 2016
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