There is a possibility that the word “Hallelujah” is among the most overused and misused words that we ever got from the Judeo-Christian Bible. We’ll study aspects of that word in this article, and find out how big a mistake we may be making by how we use it. I’ll be interested to know your thoughts when we’ve finished our journey.
“Hallelujah” is a word of Hebrew origin, and is found 28 times in the Bible, in only two books: 24 times in Psalms 104-150 (well, actually 23 times plus one variation of the word) and 4 times in Revelation (confined to chapter 19, in which the residents of heaven sing and shout praises to the King of Kings).
It is a compound word, comprising the root “halal” (meaning, in this context, to give or sing praise) and “Yah” (the shortened version of YHVH, or Yehovah, the name of God).
If you go to the book of Psalms, looking to find the word “Hallelujah” there, your success will depend on which English translation you use. While the HCSB consistently transliterates it “Hallelujah,” in most other versions you will find it rendered “praise the Lord,” occasionally “praise Yah,” or (in the KJV) “praise ye the Lord.” However, just about all translations revert to the actual word “Hallelujah” when it appears in the book of Revelation.
Sports, Steaks, and Songs.
Perhaps because the true meaning of the word is not universally known (or we have forgotten it), let me suggest that we tend to throw it around far more often than we should. It does contain the name of God, after all, and the Third Commandment in Exodus 20:7 clearly tells us how God feels about our misusing His name or using it “in vain” or in a profane way. Yes, we sometimes rightly and joyfully use it in praise of our Creator (for example, Handel’s “Hallelujah” Chorus is replete with it). But there are times we’ll shout it when our sports team scores in a closely contested game, or when (after several failed attempts) the restaurant finally serves our steak cooked exactly right. (I’m not pointing fingers. I fear I’ve been known to throw the “H” word around too loosely at times myself.)
Pop songs that are seasoned with liberal sprinklings of the “H” word are often very fashionable, though they equally often contain quite dubious lyrics for Christians. A couple of them come immediately to mind. Leonard Cohen’s strange song of that name (“Maybe there’s a God above, but all I’ve ever learned from love was how to shoot at somebody who outdrew you“) and George Harrison’s doctrinally indefensible hit (“My sweet lord, Hallelujah. My my lord, Hallelujah. Mmmmm My lord, Hare Krishna. My my my Lord, Hare Krishna“).
We know that “Yah” is a name of God because of its use in the Hebrew scriptures. It is found 26 times (not including when it is used as part of the word “Hallelujah”) — in the books of Exodus (Moses sang, “Yah is my strength and my song,” 15:2), Isaiah (“Yah, Yehovah, is an everlasting rock,” 26:4), but mainly in the book of Psalms (“Praise Yah, for Yehovah is good; sing praise to His name,” 135:3).
So here’s a question to ponder: Imagine if we were actually in the presence of God the Creator, and we found ourselves in a situation (our team scoring, the perfectly cooked steak, etc.) where we might automatically shout the “H” word. Now that we’ve remembered that it contains the name of God, and we’ve re-read the Third Commandment, would we still be as willing to use that word so loosely in His presence?
Well, aren’t we always in the presence of our God? Doesn’t it follow, then, that we should reserve the use of His name in the word “Hallelujah” only in instances of sincere praise of Him, to Whom it is directed?
Maybe if we went back and read all 28 occurrences of “Hallelujah” in Scripture, we would see in what types of situations and for what reasons it was written for us, under inspiration from God, by the Psalmist(s) and John. It can be a very teachable moment, I have found.
With that in mind, I have copied out all 28 “Hallelujah” verses for you at the bottom of this article. As we read through them, we should try to coach ourselves to say or think “Praise God!” or “Praise Yehovah!” every time and in each context that we see the word “Hallelujah.” If we do that enough times, we will begin to see it for what it is — an exclamation of praise specifically for and directly to God — and not just another thing to yell out of habit when we are excited about other, less important things.
Misuse? In Vain?
And I think this might be a key to understanding why God gave us the Third Commandment in the first place. Stay with me, and let’s think this through.
Both Jesus (Sermon on the Mount) and Paul (1 Corinthians 9) gave us specific and highly enlightening instructions on how we should understand each of the Laws and the Commandments of the Bible. Both used examples to show that a rote, limited, methodical, literal (therefore “fleshly” or physical) interpretation will only take us so far.
Paul cited a law given in Deuteronomy 25:4 to make a point. It says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it treads out grain.” Jesus gave several examples, which took this form: “You have heard it said, Do not murder… But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.” Those who believe that the exact, limited, physical letter of the Law is all that is required of us might easily try to duck out of responsibility by arguing, “Well, I’ve never murdered anyone, and besides, I don’t own an ox!”
What Jesus and Paul have taught us is that for every rule, commandment, instruction, or law that God has given to us, there is a wider, more all-encompassing, elevating, and moral (therefore “spiritual”) plane to which we are expected to take every one of them. Paul said, “Is God really concerned with oxen? Or isn’t He really saying it for us? Yes, this is written for us.” Jesus was certainly not saying He was going to “do away” with the commandment against murder. Quite the contrary, He elevated it to the level of human feelings, emotions, character, and the spirit. If we are angry without cause, we will be judged as having broken that same law.
It’s a matter of developing character and conscience, it seems, that the Law and Commandments were given to us in the first place. After all, the Hebrew word “Torah,” most often translated “law,” is more accurately rendered “instruction.” The development of that Christ-like character, to which we all should aspire, starts at the lowest level. When basketball icon Michael Jordan was in junior high school, would anyone have expected him to perfect his “gravity-defying 360-degree lean-in dunk” at that age? Of course not. We start where we are, and we build. Starting with a law forbidding murder or mistreating livestock is part of that. If we recognize that refraining from murder and from muzzling the ox are behaviors that will make us better people, then obeying those laws (instructions) will build our character — but only to a certain basic degree. If we stop there, we will be able to live well, but at that level only. We probably won’t become a mass murderer, but we could easily become a misanthrope around whom nobody wants to be.
But if we ponder each commandment and ask, “What am I actually meant to learn from this? And how else can I apply it to other aspects of my life?” then we give ourselves the opportunity to increase the level of Christ-like character we build and live by every day.
Commandments Lead to Character.
So let’s end this journey by thinking for a moment about how the Third commandment fits into this character-development idea. God told us, “I am Yehovah, I do not change!” (Malachi 3:6) So when He tells us plainly that He considers it a serious offense if we misuse His name, we can assume that this instruction is for all eternity. But why has He commanded that? Is He so vain that He cannot bear any ridicule or satire or lightness made of His name? No. I think we can safely say that vanity is not in the character of the God of the Bible. So why is it not only a law, but one of the Ten Commandments? There’s far more at stake here than salving the feelings of some petulant deity.
So let’s agree to start at square one. What happens if we commit to meticulously avoiding saying God’s name (in any form) in a “vain,” light, off-handed, satirical, derogatory, or unsavory manner or purpose. No cursing using God’s name, no expletives using Jesus’s name, etc. After a while, what began as merely a rote obeying of the commandment becomes a part of our character. Yes, we started obeying the commandment because God was the One Who commanded it. But eventually, we move from “God said it so I will do it” to the burgeoning of respect for God’s name, which will have the effect of increasing our reverence for God Himself. We are coming to know (and to live as if we know) more about Him and to honor the greatness, holiness, majesty, righteousness, and power of the Creator of the Universe.
This action causes us to “set apart” God’s name from misuse. And what does the Bible call setting something apart for God’s use? It’s called “holiness.” Over time, the strength of our character grows so that more and more of our inward parts, our demeanor, our thoughts, our actions, everything becomes more and more attuned to God as the object of our worship. He is holy because He is God. To us, He becomes holy because we have obeyed, and that part of our character has become more and more Christ-like. In other words, we have increasingly set God apart as the most important Object in our lives, the One we know is to be worshipped.
So, I think there is a real lesson to be learned and growth into Christ-like character to be achieved here. What if we, in fact, take a relatively small issue like the word “Hallelujah,” which contains the name of God, and “set it apart” for use only for the praise of that God? And what if, as we do that, we do not do it in a grousing and rebellious manner, resentful that somehow we are being “forced” to do these things.
Rather, we should follow Christ’s (and Paul’s) principle of looking for the higher-level spiritual ways to keep each law or commandment and the lessons to be learned from each. The more we do that, the more other acts and forms of worship and holiness will almost certainly begin to develop. Even if at first we must force ourselves not to muzzle our ox as it treads out grain, if we are open to it and looking for it, we will begin to discover that we are doing a good thing for that ox. We are being generous, giving, yes even loving to this creature. As that becomes more and more a part of our character, that attitude can spread outward from each of us to the people around us, our family, our neighbors, our employees (which was what Paul was talking about), our leaders, and (gasp!) even our enemies.
We begin all of this with the premise that there is a Creator of the Universe and a Designer of the entirety of this thing we call a “human being.” It seems quite likely that this Creator could easily have predicted that, if we as humans want to be or do something, we can work our way toward that by imitating the actions of someone who already is or does that thing. Going through and discovering the hidden psychological and spiritual gems (and gifts) that can be found inside every one of the Laws and Commandments (which are instructions for the building of Christ-like character) is beyond the scope of this article. But everything starts with keeping each law or commandment, and working our way upward and outward from there. Maybe a place to start is the Third Commandment and the misuse of “Hallelujah.” What do you think?
FINAL NOTE: You can click the video below and listen to what is most likely the best known musical setting of the word “Hallelujah” (and certainly among the most Biblically based ever) — the “Hallelujah” Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. (I’ve put much more about the “Hallelujah” Chorus in my Additional Verses Bible Study.) At the end of his 259-page manuscript of the entire work, Handel wrote the letters “SDG” — Soli Deo Gloria, “To God alone the glory.” Let us approach the inspired words (most especially “Hallelujah” itself) and the glorious music with this same devotion.
The kingdom of this world is become
the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ;
and He shall reign for ever and ever.
King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.
BIBLICAL USES OF THE WORD “HALLELUJAH”
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