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Hallelujah is a Sentence

At the risk of sounding like a petulant child… well, a petulant child that complains about the frequent misuse of ancient Hebrew in weekly church services…. Which now that I think about it isn’t really childish at all…. Okay, so… at the risk of sounding like a scholarly snob, a priss, a snooty-turn-your-nose-up-at-everything prig, I would like to set the record straight on the use of the term “Hallelujah”[1]…. which is actually a Hebrew sentence. Okay, so Hebrew doesn’t mark sentences, only clauses, but that doesn’t mean that they did not think in complete thoughts… and “Hallelujah” is a complete thought. It has a subject, a verb and a direct object. Hallelujah is a sentence.

The subject of Hallelujah is the same subject one finds in every imperative sentence. Imperative sentences are sentences that command people to do things. In the sentences, “Lift the body from under the armpits.” “Bend its legs to fit it in the trunk.” “Dig deeper or the dogs will dig it up.” “Scrub harder to get the blood up,” each command has the same unstated subject, “You”—you lift… you bend… you dig… you scrub.

Now, in English this often leaves some doubt as to the full nature of the subject; who is being commanded? A woman? A man? A group of women? A group of men? A mixed group?  In Hebrew, however, every verb has a subject actually recorded in “embedded pronouns.” Every verb has a “he” or “she” or “we” or “they” or “you” woven into it. In fact, every verb also has pronoun spellings for number [single vs. group actors] and gender [male vs. female actors]. There is a different spelling for:

  • They [males or mixed group]
  • They [female group]
  • You [single male]
  • You [group of males or mixed group]
  • You [single female]
  • You [group of females]

So, in our sentence “Hallelujah,” we know exactly who is being commanded. The subject of Hallelujah is “You [group of men or mixed group],” what most Texans, like my mamma, will agree should be translated, “Y’all.”

So what exactly are Y’all supposed to do when shouting “Hallelujah”? The actual verb comes from the Hebrew root,[2] HLL, which is associated in one way or another with the notion of “praise.” Hallelu, the subject-verb part of the sentence, found most often in the psalms, means “Y’all praise!!!

“Hallelu” is then followed with “Jah.”

Quick sidebar: Dear worship leaders and pastors, please stop getting your church to give audience response chants with the sentence Hallelujah broken improperly. Don’t yell, “Halle!” while holding your ear out to the congregation who is supposed to yell back, “lujah!” They may not know the difference, but that is a problem in itself. Why are we chanting things we don’t actually understand? So, next time, try this. Hold your ear out to the audience and yell, “Hallelu!” Then the audience can yell back, “Jah!” Not only will you be more accurate, and less irritating (to me, if to no one else), but you will also have a teaching moment where you can explain the chant properly.

Okay, let’s recap. We’ve covered the subject “Y’all,” and the verb [a command to praise]. The last bit is the direct object… the thing or one we are commanded to praise. The psalmists command the people to praise “Jah.”

So what or who is Jah? Jah is a poetic version of YHWH, the covenant name of the God of Israel, the God of the Bible, the maker of all things. You will find “Jah,” or utterances like it, connected to a lot of things. Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel for instance has a last name that means “a gift of YHWH.” The name Elijah means “My God is YHWH.” El (god) i (my) jah (YHWH). Jonathan means “YHWH has given,” working with an even shorter version of YHWH—“Ya.”

So, when we consider popular worship lyrics, like

And all the heavens shout Your praise,
Beautiful is our God, the universe will sing
Hallelujah to You our King
Hallelujah to You our King
Hallelujah to You our King
Hallelujah Lord [3]

we should be left wondering, “What does this even mean?” To say, “praise YHWH to You our King is nonsense.” Is the universe going to sing, “Praise YHWH,” at our king? And what are we to make of the last line? Are we actually commanding the Lord to praise YHWH? The Lord IS YHWH. Divine supremacy aside, that’s kind of weird.

 


[1] Alleluia is a Greek spelling, which is pronounced the same, but lacks (as does Greek) an actual H consonant, and an actual Y consonant.
[2] A ROOT is a series of Hebrew consonants that are connected to a given idea. The Hebrew people add certain vowels, prefixes, suffixes and infixes (letter stuck in the middle of words) to nuance the meaning, to create different words from the root, whether verb, noun, adjective or the like.
[3] “All the Heavens,” by Reuben Morgan. It is not my intension to single out this author. Most modern song writers butcher the sentence Hallelujah when they use it.
[4] Media pic is from sxc.hu

11 thoughts on “Hallelujah is a Sentence

  1. Very thoughtful indeed. That is the beauty of being knowledgeable of the languages I think this imperative though plural can also be utilized in a singular sense.

    1. Yes, since it speaks to the community as a whole it speaks to each of its members. Glad you are on here. I look forward to your feedback.

  2. Actually had a worship leader say of this article, in essence, “Who cares, I speak English and I’ll use it anyway I want to.” That’s a paraphrase but just about sums it up.

  3. Nathan says:

    This only gives one of the two uses of hallelujah/alleluia in the Bible. It is sometimes used as an exhortation to praise, as you indicate above but it is also used as a liturgical interjection/cultic cry. In some places in the Psalms it is an exclamation of praise in itself and it functions that way in Rev. 19 as well. This usage has continued in christian liturgy and has now passed into our modern worship songs. Once it is understood as an interjection of praise and exultation it makes sense in the worship song above.

    1. You raise an important point and I’m glad you brought it up.

      I disagree obviously. It is not a different sentence in those “cultic cry” instances, but is a congregational call for praise to YHWH, a call to all creation, a call to the congregation by the congregation, a call to the congregation by the priests, not a vague amorphous shout of praise, like “Hail” or “Worthy” or even “Hosanna!”. It is a call to praise, and in that sense praise itself, but not devoid of meaning, save by those who don’t really know what they are saying. In one popular song the lyrics are “Hallelujah to the King of Kings”… strip away the “TO” and you end up with something sensible, appositional. Praise YHWH, the King of Kings. You can say Just plain Hallelujah as in Rev 19:3 & 4 or “Hallelujah with…” or “Hallelujah because…” as in Rev 19:6 OR leave the “because” ellipsed as in Rev 19:1.

      Rev 19:1 Hallelujah; Salvation, and glory, and power, belong to our God:
      Rev 19:3 And a second time they say, Hallelujah. And her smoke goeth up for ever and ever.
      Rev 19:4 And the four and twenty elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshipped God that sitteth on the throne, saying, Amen; Hallelujah.
      Rev 19:6 And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunders, saying, Hallelujah: for the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigneth.

      In each of these instances the meaning of Hallelujah makes perfect sense as the sentence that it is.

      the closest I’ve found to what you are saying, is Psalm 104:35 in which a singular command to the Psalmist’s soul to bless the lord, is found by a separate conclusion in the 2nd plural, Praise Yah! But that is a final close to the whole psalm and still has the same force. In fact of the many uses of HLL in the psalms, only a few find their form in Hallelujah, shifting regularly to fit the grammar of the moment.

      The only one’s who want Hallelujah to be an amorphous liturgical shout “of praise” stripped of all sense of “call” stripped of all sense of grammar are those who never bothered to discover the meaning of what they are saying… and having gone so far down that trail, don’t want to turn back or rethink.

      Of course, if you can find an ancient use (among those who knew Hebrew) which defies the statement’s grammar, I would be very interested to see it.

      1. Nathan says:

        Maybe I am just completely misreading the entry for it in the Dictionary of New Testament Theology and ISBE. Check it out and let me know what you think.

        DNTT – Volume 1 pg. 97

        ISBE – http://www.internationalstandardbible.com/H/hallelujah.html

        1. ISBE was sparse on the matter. As was Anchor and the Interpreters went with me. I’ve been hunting today looking in all kinds of places where Hallelujah shows up. I’ll check it out. I wrote another blog to answer your statement which was a good one.

        2. A better question would be why you feel that using it as a cultic cry strips it of its fundamental meaning? For something to become a call of and not just to does not defy its “to-ness” sense. It is a cultic call to praise… which is exactly how Revelation uses it. There is not a single instance that I have been able to find… and I have looked… in which the phrase is used in defiance of its sentence meaning…. not one.

  4. Bernie Smith says:

    May I add that Hallelujah is a declarative sentence and not a question. It is customary in African Pentecostal circles to greet the congregation with “Hallelujah?” (or “Praise the Lord?” or even “Amen?”). The idea is to get a (presumably spiritual) reply from the people. See it as a very simple call and response to prepare their hearts to receive the word that will follow.
    In practice it is just a supposedly spiritual way to ask “Are you ready to hear and respond to the word?” Yet, it does violence to the very meaning of the terms–all three of which are declarations in scripture.
    Let’s declare our praises to the One who is worthy–no question about it!

  5. Dee says:

    I’ve heard that Hallelujah is the highest praise! How so..if the meaning is ( y’all praise God) ?

    1. Not sure how to answer the question. The word means “Ya’ll Praise Yaweh!” So the way we use it is often off base from its actual meaning. It is a community call to worship, not something we shout to God Himself.

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