This word of praise erupts out of the final chapters of the book of Psalms and of the book of Revelation. Today, Barry Cooper explores a word that calls us to marvel at the self-sustaining, eternally existing, utterly transcendent nature of God.
Sometimes, when the English language isn’t enough to capture what we want to say, we import words from other languages—Italian words like alfresco, German words like schadenfreude, Spanish words like taco. And let’s face it, we use Latin phrases ad nauseam. Then there are French words and phrases like bon voyage, rendezvous, or faux pas—that last one being particularly useful for socially awkward British people living in America.
But some of the words we’d like to import use letters that look very strange in English, so in those cases we try to preserve the sound of the original word while using English letters. It’s called transliteration. An example would be a Greek word like metropolis or the Chinese word wok. Believe it or not, America’s favorite condiment—ketchup—comes from a transliterated Chinese word.
The word hallelujah is a transliteration of two Hebrew words: “הָלַל” (hallelu) and “יָהּ” (ah). Write down those two Hebrew words using the closest equivalent letters we have in English, and you end up with that strange and beautiful word hallelujah or alleluia.
The first Hebrew word hallelu means “let us praise.” And the second word is Yah, which is the short form of Yahweh—the very specific, personal name of the God of Israel.
Yahweh has its origin in the name God revealed to distinguish Himself from all other gods. In Exodus chapter 3, when God speaks to Moses for the first time and calls him to bring His people out of slavery in Egypt, Moses says, “If the Israelites ask me Your name, what should I say?” And God responds, “I AM WHO I AM.”
The name Yahweh is built out of the Hebrew word for “I AM.” So it’s a name that is intended to make us marvel at the self-sustaining, eternally existing, utterly transcendent nature of this God, the true and living God who is quite unlike any other pretender to the throne. When the name Yahweh appears in the Old Testament, it’s often translated “LORD” in capital letters in our English translations, to mark it out from the more generic word “God.”
So hallelujah means “Let us praise Yah.” Let us join together in worshiping and praising this God—Yahweh—and no other.
Why was hallelujah transliterated rather than translated? Perhaps because the Hebrew original, containing as it does the name of God Himself, was considered too sacred to be changed in any way.
In the Old Testament, the word hallelujah is used twenty-four times, all of them in the book of Psalms. If you look at the climactic final psalm, Psalm 150, the word hallelujah bookends the whole psalm, appearing as it does right at the beginning and right at the end. In some translations, you might see the phrase “Praise the LORD” instead of “Hallelujah,” but it’s there in the original:
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty heavens!
. . .
Let everything that has breath praise the LORD!
In the New Testament, the word is used four times, all in the book of Revelation, and all in chapter 19. The word is cried out by a vast crowd in heaven, and interestingly, the initial cause of this praise for Yahweh is His avenging judgment. We don’t often think of saying hallelujah for the judgment that Yahweh will pour out on those who’ve rebelled against Him—certainly not when we’re breezily whistling along to Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” which is based on this passage of Scripture—but there it is. As the word hallelujah reminds us, Yahweh is our God. We are His people. He identifies so personally with us that when we are downtrodden or persecuted because of Him, Yahweh takes it very personally.
And then the vast crowd cry out together again. And the text says the words of praise are like overwhelming peals of thunder, tumbling over one another:
For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
So when you see or say that word hallelujah in future, let it bring to your mind this God and no other.
It’s a call for us to praise Yahweh, the great I Am.