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Hallelujah: Call “of” Praise or Call “to” Praise

hallelujah sxc hu smallAfter discussing, in my recent blog post, “Hallelujah is a Sentence,” that the biblical “term” Hallelujah has grammar and that we should both be aware of that grammar and use the phrase accordingly in our worship songs, I received two types of criticism. Let’s call them sniveling and thoughtful.

(This is the part of the blog where I attempt to stir up readership by making outlandish controversial remarks designed to increase “BUZZ.” Soooo…. start buzzing. Here’s a script you can use until you think of your own. “You won’t believe what this Christian writer, Andrew Sargent from drandrewsargent.com, said about some of the people who criticized his blog. It’s scandalous! You just have to read it… and then you have to read everything he’s written so you can find other outrageous things to be upset about… just keep clicking in and sharing them with everyone you know.”)

The sniveling complaints… which mostly came to me from back door channels went something like, “I don’t care if Hallelujah is a call to praise in Hebrew. I speak English and I’ll use it anyway I want. So there. Na-na-na Nana-na! And your Mother wears army boots!” Which is true. My mother was a WAC, which is how she met my father, who was a peace time draftee.

The thoughtful complaints, zeroed in on an element of the discussion that I left out. Blogs are short after all. They zeroed in on the fact that some things become “frozen formula” and cease to carry the exact meaning they once had. So a shout like “Hallelujah!” could have become not just a call to praise, but a shout of praise itself, devoid of the grammatical sense it originally carried.

This is akin to the habit on airlines for the pilots to say, “We’d like to thank you for flying with us today.” But have you ever noticed that they never do.

(Have you stopped laughing yet?) So the grammar of “We’d like to thank” is ignored and received as thanks itself.

Growing up in certain religious circles, I often heard the word “rebuke” used as a rebuke. We took the biblical statement, “The Lord rebuke you.” (Jude 1:9) as a rebuke.

Not— “What you did was wrong; you should be ashamed; only horrible people take double communion helpings because they missed breakfast!”

But—”I rebuke you, Grape Juice Breath!  Oh, and you’ve got a piece of cracker stuck between your teeth.”

The question, however, is not whether the shout, “Praise YAH!” became a call “of” praise and not just a call “to” praise, but whether there is any suggestion that its use among those who knew Hebrew and Aramaic came to defy its grammar (i.e. Is there any ancient justification for us to use it any way we want?) Put another way, is Hallelujah used as a call of praise without also being a call to praise? And THAT is a good question.

We know that the shout itself became important in public worship by the tendency in both the LXX and the book of Revelation to use it in transliteration rather than translation. This means that they use Greek letters to sound out the Hebrew phrase rather than using Greek words to represent the phrase’s meaning.[1] We might also note that the phrase Hallelu Yah is separated in the Hebrew manuscripts into two terms (Which is why you don’t find Hallelujah in most English translations of Psalms) but are joined as a single term in these other texts. In fact, 3 Maccabees 7:13 uses the phrase τό ἁλληλουϊά  “the hallelujah” as in “they departed with joy, shouting the hallelujah.

In over 100 instances where the root HLL is used in terms of praise for YHWH it only appears in the grammatical form Hallelu-Jah some 30x. HLL shifts its form regularly to match the grammatical demand of the moment. (e.g. 1 Chronicles 23:30—(וּלְהַלֵּ֖ל לַיהוָ֑ה In many Psalms, Hallelu-jah, as two terms opens and closes psalms but in no instance that I have found does the use of the phrase violate its grammar. It is either left hanging alone, a simple Hallelujah disconnected from the statements around it… thus, a shout of praise as a communal call to praise, as in Revelation 19:1-4, or it works its grammar as in its use in Revelation 19:6, “Hallelujah, for the Lord our God, the Almighty reigns.” In fact, I can’t find a single occurrence, in or out of scripture in which the grammar of the shout is violated.

If someone can find one, I’d love to see it. That’s all part of being in a learning community after all.

I must say, however, that words matter. If we use an important term from Scripture to mean something other than what Scripture means by it, that makes interpretation difficult for our congregation.” In this regard, my wife commented, “If we don’t have to concern ourselves with the meaning of words, then we can tell people, “You’re an idiot! We can tell everyone we know, “That guy’s an idiot.” Then tell them not to get upset, because, what I mean by idiot is, “A really nice guy.”

[1] Though one Greek translation of the Old Testament does translate it. Theodocian renders it, “Praise the One,” choosing “One” no doubt to avoid saying the name of God.

5 thoughts on “Hallelujah: Call “of” Praise or Call “to” Praise

  1. Nathan says:

    Choosing one of these interpretive options, (“call to praise” vs. “shout of praise”) for any given instance of Hallelujah excludes the other. Hallelujah is either a sentence or an interjection. Grammatically, it can’t be both. This is part of the point that J.A. Motyer makes in the entry in the DNTT when he references Hallelujah functioning as a shout of praise in I Chr. 16-36 and Psalm 148:1. “It is only thus used in LXX (the opening verses of Pss. 104-106; 110-118; 134; 135; 145-150),” i.e. not as translation but as a transliteration…” (DNTT p. 99). The thought here is that the word is transliterated in the LXX because it is the sound of the word itself that contains the emotive expression of praise. If it was to be understood as a sentence calling people to worship then the LXX would have translated the sentence as a sentence rather than transliterate a compound word.

    This is further supported by the ISBE entry that identifies Hallelujah as sometimes functioning as an interjection. An interjection is not a sentence but a word or phrase that expresses an emotion or sentiment.

    If it is a “call to praise”, then it is a sentence calling other worshipers to praise and is directed to them. If it is a “shout of praise” then it is an interjection; an emotive expression of praise directed to God. Grammatically, it can’t be both.

    If it functions grammatically as an interjection in the text then it can be used as such in contemporary worship without fear. As an interjection, it makes grammatical sense in the song that you quoted.

    And honestly, I have no dog in this fight as I eschew contemporary Christian music entirely.

    1. And yet, when Revelation uses it as “interjection” it functions with proper grammar, weaving into the following terms with a clear recognition of its meaning.

      To say that it is an interjection does not mean that we can then use it without regard to its meaning… nothing in the biblical or extra-biblical texts suggest that this happened. So I disagree that by designating it with OUR label “interjection” that it must follow OUR rules for interjection… it clearly does not do so in any single ancient example. The Hebrews have pronouns and their pronouns do not function like our pronouns… same for their participles, infinitives, adjectives etc… They have different grammatical rules for it.

      In India all the Christians greet each other with the English “Praise the Lord” even if they don’t speak English… I find this an interesting element of their exchange.

      What is the phrase hallelujah supposed to mean when used “as an interjection”? what rules are their for its use given this meaning? Interjections have meaning. “Cool!” “Rats!” “Ouch!” “Awesome!” One of the rules of interjections is that they are grammatically disconnected, expressing emotional opinion about the rest… is this how Hallelujah is being used in modern worship songs.

      Modern worship songs use it any way they please, weaving it into grammar, without regard to its grammar or meaning. “Hallelujah to you oh king” is a confusion… as is one of my old time favorites “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord! Sing Hallelujah to the Lord! Sing Hallelujah, Sing Hallelujah, Sing Hallelujah to the Lord.”

      One has not fulfilled Hallelujah until one opens there mouth to actually do it… “How awesome are you oh God, maker of heaven and earth, doing wonders, redeeming those who cast their trust on you. You are worthy to be praised, for you created the seas, you calm their fury, you set their limits, you walk upon the back of the waters. You are a merciful God! I adore you! Holy are you! and so on and so on.

      As I’ve said before, find me one single example that uses this phrase in defiance of its grammatical meaning and then we will have something awesome to consider… but so far I’ve found nothing that gives us the warrant to abuse the phrase’s meaning just because we want to churn out spiritual sounding songs filled with ignorant bible-babble.

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