What Is the Meaning of the Word Hallelujah?
- Dr. Dikkon Eberhart Author
- Updated Dec 10, 2018
A joy of our Christian lives is our invitation to praise the Lord. We love to do this anytime and in any number of ways. One of the ways we praise Him is by using the word Hallelujah! Almost every English-speaking Christian knows how to pronounce that word, though the word is not English, but some Christians may not know the nuances of meaning which the word can evoke. Below, I’ll explore the nuances.
Personally, Hallelujah—the word itself—has made me weep. Perhaps others have wept at it, too. Many biblical books can induce tears, but for me Psalms, in particular, merges elements of poem, song, and glorification—tearfully! And Hallelujah is used frequently in Psalms. Today, the word is famous as both the title and the theme of poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen’s masterpiece Hallelujah, which many Christians and even non-Christians love.
Etymology and Definition – What composes the word Hallelujah?
Although Hallelujah is written as one word, its Hebrew original comes from two words, which (both the words and the concepts) have been merged into one. The first half of the word, from the verb hillel, means to praise, and it is used hundreds of times in the Bible. Praise what? Praise “jah.” “Jah” is a shortened form of the 4-letter Hebrew name for the Lord, YHWH, which is usually pronounced Yahweh. Incidentally, there is a simple form of that same word, spelled halal, that suggests an alternate meaning—to boast. Halal is only used a few times in the Bible.
What does Hallelujah mean?
Plainly, a simple translation of Hallelujah is “Praise the Lord.” However, things related to biblical language are sometimes more puzzling than they appear to be on the surface. Let’s conclude that the first half of the word is hillel, and, therefore, it refers to praising (because that is the most frequent biblical usage). Praising is almost always directed toward the Lord. Sometimes Hebrew authors use it to refer to humans.
For example, Genesis 12:15 uses the hillel form with regard to Sarai, when she is praised to Pharaoh and thereby brought into his palace. Similarly, Proverbs 28:4 uses the hillel form when it states that those who forsake the law praise the wicked.
The words of the Bible constitute the Lord’s inerrant message to us humans, but translation between human languages can confuse the message. What are we to infer by the praise sense of the word being applied almost entirely to the Lord, but sometimes instead to a beautiful woman and also to admirers of the wicked? Sarai was a beautiful woman, but she was not Abram’s sister—that was a lie. To admire the wicked is willingly to ally with evil doers. Does God deliberately use hillel in these contrasting applications of praise for Himself (good) against lies and admiration of evil (bad) for the shock value? I don’t know.
Suppose instead we assert that the intended meaning is boast, not praise. “Boast of the Lord.” Boasting is a different act from praising, yet each injunction can be supported by the Hebrew text. I don’t know for sure about this either. What I do know is that God gave us language to glorify Him. What I also know is that we complicate pure language by adding communication in the form of facial expressions, gestures, and spoken tones. Let’s pity the poor translators who must end up with mere words on the page!
The Point – What’s the point of this biblical word analysis?
The Bible is infallible. Perhaps our human intellect does not have the standing to fully and completely understand the Lord’s inerrant word—but still we must try. In the Bible, the greatest majority of uses of the word Hallelujah occur in the Psalms. Hallelujah sometimes appears at the beginning of a psalm, sometimes at its end, and sometimes at both—sometimes the word is internal within the psalm.
Psalms are poems. The Psalmist (usually David, scribing for the Lord) uses Hallelujah and its cadence and subtleties to produce the most powerful effect upon us when a psalm/poem is sung or read. The most powerful effect is the glorification of the Lord.
The Lord must be glorified, for that is our calling as humans and sinners—and as believers. Given, then, that the intent of the word Hallelujah is to glorify, its referent must include both the low as well as the high, since the actions of the Lord are perceived by us both as bad and as good.
Death, for example, is generally perceived by us as bad. However, death is a provision of the Lord and, as such, it belongs to the Lord and is, therefore, to be praised. Hallelujah is most commonly experienced as a liturgical command, as a prelude to something wonderful (and that is deliberate with regard to the word), but it should also be accepted in melancholy mode, almost indeed as a dirge.
Say Hallelujah’s four English syllables slowly, solemnly, with prayerful contemplation. Say them again. Yours has been the whole experience of the work of the Lord—Gloria in Excelsis Deo—which is joyful but, at once, is also sober, dignified, reverential, pious. What a word!
A Story of a Beautiful Hallelujah
It was late morning on the eve of Christmas Eve. I called my wife at the church. Since she and I came to Christ six years before, from Judaism, she had been our pastor’s secretary. I was checking in, concerned about errands I needed to finish while I was out on the road. We spoke briefly about the errands.
Then I asked her when she planned to come home from the church. Uncharacteristically, she did not know. Usually, she knows. Usually, she knows because she knows what tasks she must finish. Usually, she responds with a time—an hour, two hours.
But this time, she was vague. It was odd of her—my wife is not a vague person, about time or about anything else. “I don’t know,” is what she said, and she said it with a puzzled intonation, as though she wondered why she did not know and yet she said it anyway. I was puzzled, too, when I hung up.
I thought perhaps I should call her back, to ask if she were all right. I thought perhaps I should question her tone of puzzlement, which suggested she did not feel in charge of her time that afternoon. But I did not call her back. I had errands to do.
Here’s what I learned later. After I hung up, an hour or two passed at the church. My wife was alone. She finished tasks. There is always a task to finish on a secretary’s desk. But, puzzlingly, she did not formulate a plan for the finishing of her tasks and for her getting home.
Then the church’s door opened and a man entered whom my wife had never seen. The man introduced himself and asked if the pastor was in. The pastor was not in.
The man seemed puzzled by the circumstance that the pastor was not at the church. “But God told me I must come to see him now.”
“Well, would you like me to make an appointment for you, for later?”
“But God told me I must come to see him now.”
This is how my wife reported the conversation to me—after all, the man was puzzled himself. He had done what God had told him to do. Now, it was the pastor’s turn.
The pastor had left the church not long before, with several plans in his mind. He had not been certain which of the plans he would undertake. He would let my wife know which plan he would undertake, he said, when he knew himself.
My wife dialed the phone. The pastor answered.
“There’s a man here,” she said, and she gave his name. “He says he needs to see you. I wasn’t certain about your plan.”
“Well, I haven’t selected my plan yet. I don’t know why. Right now, I’m eating lunch.” The pastor thought for a moment. “Can he wait ten minutes?”
My wife looked at the man. “Can you wait ten minutes?”
She turned back to the phone. “He can wait. See you in ten.”
In ten minutes, the pastor arrived at the church. He and the man went into the pastor’s office. Two hours later, the man accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord, and his name was written in Glory.
Late that same night, on the eve of Christmas Eve, my wife and I relaxed on our couch. Our house was aromatic with baking gift breads. Our Christmas tree was lit with white bulbs, wax candles burned among our mantel display of spruce boughs and red balls, and twinkling candles were alight in our windows so that, as my mother told me when I was a child, regarding Christian custom, if the Christ Child should need a place to lie down, He would know by our candles that He would be welcome here.
My wife had explained to me the odd events of that afternoon—the man puzzled why the pastor should not be at his office when God had indicated that he would be, my wife puzzled about her inability to manage a time to return to our house so that she was available just at the right moment to make that telephone call to our pastor, our pastor puzzled that he had not selected among his plans for the afternoon so that he was, at the necessary time for the man, just eating lunch.
We listened to Susan Boyle sing Hallelujah. The solemn words filled the room. We are busy people, she and I, with several jobs between us—retirees who still work hard, and I had a new book coming out, a memoir recounting my life as the son of a poet father—a father whose poetry molded my relationship with our Father.
Relaxing on our couch, weary after days and days of heavy work for both of us, nearing the completion of our Advent anticipation of a miracle—humbly trying to experience our anticipation with patience—the beauty of the season and of Christ’s light overthrew me.
I wept. I wept for Cohen’s spare, elegiac poetry. I wept for Boyle’s easy voice. I wept for the still, calm beauty of our decorated home. I wept for giving gift bread to our friends, bread which my wife had created.
But mostly I wept that, on the eve of Christmas Eve, the Lord Himself had used my wife and our pastor for His own purpose, which was to bring another soul to salvation—that godly using, which had puzzled each of them, as the planning of their day was set aside.
Dr. Dikkon Eberhart and his wife Channa live in the Blue Ridge area of SW Virginia. They have four grown children and five grandchildren, who keep them busy. Eberhart is the author of the popular memoir The Time Mom Met Hitler, Frost Came to Dinner, and I Heard the Greatest Story Ever Told (Tyndale House Publishers). Eberhart writes memoirs to assist those who long to be closer to God. Meet him at his blog and website www.dikkoneberhart.com. Author image: ©Alexander Rose Photography, LLC
Main image credit: ©Unsplash/SharonMcCutcheon