On Hallelujah

The word hallelujah comprises two parts, hallelu, and yah. Yah is an abbreviated form of Yahweh, the LORD. The first part, hallelu, is a plural imperative, or command form, of the verb hillēl, a form of hālal, whose basic meanings are several, and interesting to explore.

According to the lexicon the first of the three meanings of hālal is ‘shine’. The word is used of the lamp of God’s favour, of the sun, and in Job’s arresting image, of the water droplets scattered by the sneeze of a crocodile (Job 41:18 [10 MT]).

The second meaning, which some have said is an extension of the first, is ‘break forth with a cry’, ‘boast’, and as used in our word, ‘praise’. It is the word used in Jeremiah 9’s prophecy “Let him who boasts, boast in this, that he understands and knows me”. Boasting in the Lord, as Paul calls it, is thus a form of praise.

The third meaning of the word hālal is to be foolish, even crazy. Taking all these meanings into consideration, then, we arrive at a picture of praising God which involves making him shine by crying forth his praises, even in such a way as to appear foolish. King David is the Bible exemplar of the foolish praise-giver, in his dance before the Lord at the return of the Ark, which Michal despised, in 2 Samuel 6.

The word hallelujah was used liturgically, that is, as part of divine service. As such, it is found at the beginning and ending of some Psalms, with which the word is particularly associated. The Book of Psalms is called in Hebrew, Tehillim, a form of hālal, which means “praises”, and which title emphasises, in view of the content of the Book, that God’s people will praise him not only in the good times, but even in times of difficulty and trial.

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