The first time I heard this song (many years ago) it touched me. It's been covered by many artists. Both the melody and the words are haunting and powerful - but the lyrics are confusing. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this song is that it likely means something different to everyone who sings or hears it. The words and lyrics have been added and deleted over time to fit certain situations, but this blog is about the original song. I've struggled myself to understand the meaning behind Leonard Cohen's lyrics. And here is an explanation or interpretation that makes the most sense to me:
The logic of the song is there can be many different hallelujah's; "hallelujah" can be expressed in many settings and different circumstances. Cohen uses this theme to talk about the hardships of love. There are many biblical references in the song (King David, Samson and Delilah). I will not go in to them, others have already explained these references in great detail.
There are many versions of this song. Even Cohen did not always sing the same verses. I believe the version he performed during his 2008 tour (maybe still does) is the most logical (complete):
Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
David loves music, but his love does not. He does not understand this (is baffled) and tries to explain (the cords are matched by the actual song), thus composing the Hallelujah. I believe this is about unmatched interests in a relationship.
Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
The man (David) falls in love, but the relationship is not a healthy one. It ends up with him submitting and losing his power (himself). It is a destructive relationship and the Hallelujah is one of despair.
Maybe there's a God above
But all I've ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya.
And it's not a cry that you hear at night
It's not somebody who's seen the light
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah
Maybe the most "black" verse, reflecting on the bitterness of love. When you hear a Hallelujah it's probably not because of joy (seeing the light), but because someone is hurting and the Hallelujah harkens back to a more positive and brighter time.
Baby I have been here before
I know this room, I've walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you.
I've seen your flag on the marble arch
Love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah
The relationship still exists, but it's hollow. It is like it was when he was alone. He has seen the glorious side of love (the flag on the marble arch), but the love is not lasting and his heart is broken, therefore the Hallelujah is cold and broken.
There was a time you let me know
What's really going on below
But now you never show it to me, do you?
And remember when I moved in you
The holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah
He remembers when things were good, how their lovemaking made him feel like they were really together, and their Hallelujahs were those of joy and ecstasy.
I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
The conclusion of the song: here Cohen turns from occasionally looking back to completely looking forward. We try, but often fail in love. We start with the best intentions and though it can go wrong, we still need to try. In the end it is worth it. This Hallelujah is optimistic, because it shows that the hardships have not defeated David.
This last verse is not included in most covers, but for me the last verse makes the song complete. It takes it full circle, bringing back the biblical relationship between the subject and a (the) Lord. It also gives the song a hyperbolic ending, which I prefer.