by K.W. Leslie, 10 December

Hallelujah is actually two Hebrew words. הַ֥לְלוּ/hallelú, the command “All of you, praise!” (KJV “praise ye”), and יָ֨הּ/Yah (KJV “Jah”), short for יְ֭הוָה/YHWH, “Jehovah, the LORD.” When we say hallelujah, or its Greek variant ἀλληλούϊα/allilúia (Latin and KJV “Alleluia”), we’re literally saying, “Praise the LORD,” which is why many bibles translate it that way.

There are certain Jews who insist the -jah ending of the word absolutely does not refer to YHWH. That’s because they consider God’s name far too holy to say aloud. (Certainly too holy to abbreviate with some nickname like Yah!) But they wanna say hallelujah, and don’t wanna replace it with “hallelu-Adonai” or “hallelu-haShem” or one of their other euphemisms they use, like the Christian substitution “the LORD.” So they claim Jah means something else, like “yea!” Which is kinda ridiculous, considering all the Hebrew personal names which deliberately end in -iah or -jah, such as Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Nehemiah. These names are deliberate references to YHWH; their parents wanted the LORD’s name to be part of their names, and remind them who their God is. Most Jews recognize Jah is totally an abbreviation for YHWH—and since it’s not the whole holy name, it’s okay to say it. So they’ll say hallelujah with no hesitation.

My mom once participated in a prayer ministry in Israel. At one point, when they worshiped together, someone got the clever idea to sing a popular worship song together. One that’d been translated into dozens of languages, so each of them could sing it in their native tongue and it’d harmonize, despite the cacophony of different languages. But when they call came to the word hallelujah in the song… no surprise, they all sang “hallelujah” together. It’s the one word we all have in common. It’s probably more universal than the word “okay.”

To pagans, hallelujah is an exclamation of joy. In the Leonard Cohen song (assuming you aren’t more familiar with the version Cloverton rewrote for Christmas) it’s a euphemism for disappointing lust. Some of the pagan stuff has leaked into Christianity, with the result being people who shout “Hallelujah!” at stuff we probably shouldn’t praise God for. But most Christians correctly understand it means “Praise the LORD,” and that’s why we say it: We’re praising God. We’re encouraging and provoking others to praise God. It is phrased as a Hebrew command after all.

The highest praise?

Recently I’ve heard various Christians claim hallelujah represents the greatest thing we could ever tell God: “Praise you.” (Properly that’d be the Hebrew term אֲהַלֵּ֣לךָ/ahallélkha, but whatever.) The greatest praise we could ever make towards God is supposedly “Praise God.” Their point is it’s not a special ritual or sacrament; not a serious act of penance, contrition, humiliation, or submission. It’s to simply praise God. It’s not complicated. We like to complicate things. More accurately, overcomplicate ’em. But God’s happy with simplicity.

And I agree praising God is definitely not as complicated as we make it out to be. Our culture’s much too focused on karma, the idea we’ve gotta earn or curry God’s favor, so if we wanna praise God, we’ve got some serious sucking up to do. We gotta put some effort and thought into it.

And y’know, some of this effort and thought definitely goes into saying hallelujah. You get these Christians who figure if hallelujah is the highest praise we can offer God, they’re gonna offer him tons of hallelujahs. They’ll bust out the full “Hallelujah Chorus” when given the opportunity. You don’t have to put a lot of effort into saying hallelujah… but that’s simply not good enough for them; they’re gonna put lots of effort into it. Missing the point of this idea altogether, but that’s how humans get: We want the karma points!

But no you don’t have to make a crazy effort. Anybody can say hallelujah. Or write it, sign it, pray it silently in your heads. God’ll hear us. Worship isn’t limited to those who have the time, money, and strength to do it.

This said, I actually don’t agree hallelujah is the highest form of praise to God. Yes we should praise God, yes we should openly praise him, and yes we can say these words of praise without mounting a crazy production. But it’s one thing to say the word. It’s another thing to mean it, and consistently praise God with our lives and every action. If all we do is say hallelujah, and sing nice things to God during our Sunday morning services, but the rest of our lives don’t honor God any, we’re hypocrites. Y’might remember how much hypocrisy annoys Jesus. So do the hallelujahs of hypocrites.

So if we don’t wanna be hypocrites, we need to praise God with our lives. The highest praise isn’t “Hallelujah!” but “Yes Lord.” It’s doing as Jesus taught and commanded. Obedience is the highest praise. Not just nice words.

So by all means say hallelujah. But first, do try not to be a hypocrite.