Cohen’s ‘If It Be Your Will’: Song, Prayer, Psalm

Leonard Cohen described If It Be Your Will ‘as more of a prayer’ than a song during his introduction to its performance by the Webb Sisters and Neil Larson. Here I suggest that it is not only a prayer but more specifically a psalm.

Even the title is highly suggestive of a key feature of psalmody—an absolute trust in God. As the song unfolds this trust, we see that this commitment to God is founded in a creature-Creator relationship, as the singer’s finitude is sublimely conveyed:

If it be your will, that I speak no more
And my voice be still, as it was before

The frailty of the singer is in little doubt given their own metaphorical claim to be a ‘broken hill’. Is it pushing our reflection too far to imagine this as an oblique reference and contrast to the ‘holy hill’ (Psalm 2:6; 3:4; 15:1; 24:3; 43:3 and 78:54) of the Psalter? Beyond the trust and frailty, we also have a subtle undertone of accusation. For all the trust implicit and explicit in the biblical psalms the psalmist is not slow in challenging Yahweh. Here, likewise, Cohen questions with the very refrain, ‘If it be your will’. This is no fatalistic trust in the deity but a relationship and commitment-based questioning:

If it be your will, that a voice be true

Of course, poetry has an immense capacity for polyvalence and here there is a welcome poignant ambiguity. Undoubtedly other readings are possible. We are on firm ground when we note that some of the language of this song is undoubtedly redolent of the Psalms. For example, we cannot miss the allusion to Psalm 98:8:

Let the rivers fill, let the hills rejoice

The specific focus of this prayer, mercy, is also a key aspect of the biblical psalms. Cohen’s psalm is, like many of its Hebrew progenitors, a plea for mercy:

If it be your will, if there is a choice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in Hell
If it be your will, to make us well

Interestingly here in Cohen’s work the call for mercy is for others, and not for himself. Of the 29 calls for mercy, I can find in the Psalter, all but four (Psalm 79:8; 106:46; 123:2 and 3) are prayers prayed by the psalmist for his own deliverance, like that most famously found in Psalm 51:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love
Psalm 51:1a, NRSV

The poetic plea also challenges the conventional notion of hell. It appears that Cohen sees many in this world in need of a deliverance from an all too tangible place of suffering. This adds to the difficulty in pinning down the polarities of trust and challenge—perhaps, like in the Psalter and throughout the Hebrew Bible, these are not polarities at all but concomitant in the God-given grace of a relationship between creature and Creator.

On another occasion when he performed this song, Cohen refers to humanity as ‘creatures of a higher order’. He is, however, under no illusion about the source of the suffering of those in earthly hell. For Cohen, just as we creatures reflect something of our Creator in our ‘rags of light’ so these same clothes make us ‘dressed to kill’ in the worst sense.

Cohen’s poem stands in the firmest of biblical traditions—there is profound questioning here as well as ultimately a willingness to surrender in trust—a response that reflects the creature-Creator relationship. Both Job and Jesus have gone before on this precarious path as illustrated here as we close with three parallel statements:

See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?
I lay my hand on my mouth.
Job 40:4, NRSV

“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me;
yet not as I will, but as You will.”
Matthew 26:39b, NRSV

If it be your will, that I speak no more;
And my voice be still, as it was before.
I will speak no more, I shall abide until;
I am spoken for, if it be your will.
If It Be Your Will, Leonard Cohen

V is for Victorian Opinion

Many of these posts have celebrated Psalm 51 as the Psalm of Psalms in the medieval period. Even as late as the Victorian period there were some commentators who weren’t shy of throwing a few superlatives at this psalm and its six companion penitential psalms. Here is Neale and Littledale’s take on the seven psalms:

the seven weapons wherewith to oppose the seven deadly sins: the seven prayers inspired by the sevenfold Spirit to the repenting sinner: the seven guardians for the seven days of the week: the seven companions for the seven Canonical Hours of the day. [Neale and Littledale, p.124]

The reference here to the seven deadly sins is another reason for the popularity of the penitential psalms and their chief, Psalm 51. In the Middle Ages the notion that there were seven serious—i.e. deadly—sins was a popular one. I am unsure when the association was first established but here’s the list of which psalms which can be said, according to Catholic tradition, to counter a specific sin:

• Psalm 6: Pride
• Psalm 32 [31]: Avarice
• Psalm 38 [37]: Anger
• Psalm 51 [50]: Lust
• Psalm 102 [101]: Gluttony
• Psalm 130 [129]: Envy
• Psalm 143 [142]: Sloth

I have included the Latin psalm numbers in parentheses as the seven deadly sins are most readily connected with the Roman tradition and psalm numbering. A comparison of the seven sins and the seven prayers reveals a less than convincing match. The exception being Psalm 51 and the sin of lust. In this case, in accordance with the heading, the context is very much a story of sin that began with David’s lust for the bathing Bathsheba.

Despite the lack of one-to-one correspondence between the seven psalms and the seven deadly sins, I suggest we would do well to have Psalm 51 to hand daily. This is a psalm that can help us avoid sin and the Psalm of Psalms for asking for God to forgive us in his bountiful mercy.

 

Reference
John Mason Neale and Richard Frederick Littledale, A Commentary on the Psalms: From Primitive and Mediaeval Writers, second edition, volume 1, London: Joseph Masters, 1869.

T is for Tears

Despite the title, I have to confess there are no tears mentioned in Psalm 51. Despite this undeniable fact how many will have shed tears when praying this psalm? Is this not the frequent marker of true contrition and compunction?

I know from personal experience that this psalm can be accompanied by tears. If we read it as the head of the penitential psalms then it’s accompanied by tears, groans, and sighs:

I am weary with my moaning;
    every night I flood my bed with tears;
    I drench my couch with my weeping.
My eyes waste away because of grief;
    they grow weak because of all my foes.
Psalm 6:6–7, NRSV

Here we have arguably the most copious shedding of tears in all of the Bible. There’s even the indication that the plentiful tears are linked to a sight issue. Although we should note these psalms are often metaphorical with regard to the psalmist’s plight, the language would seem to imply these are the most literal of tears. The choice between literal or metaphorical elsewhere in the penitential psalms defies certainty, as here for example:

While I kept silence, my body wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
Psalm 32:3, NRSV

And similarly, here in this account of sighing and eyes:

O Lord, all my longing is known to you;
    my sighing is not hidden from you.
My heart throbs, my strength fails me;
    as for the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me.
Psalm 38:9–10, NRSV

The mention of tears in Psalm 102 is less concerned with contrition than with general woe, or is the link with ashes a sign of penitence?

For I eat ashes like bread,
    and mingle tears with my drink,
because of your indignation and anger;
    for you have lifted me up and thrown me aside.
Psalm 102:9–10, NRSV

There is, I suggest, an openness that defies a singular interpretation. This is an aspect of God’s mercy, that these psalms though rooted in an ancient context, when prayed today our context, our situation in life, makes these words ours. So, let’s pray Psalm 51 frequently and when the situation is right let’s not hold back the tears. We live after all in a vale of tears awaiting that day when there will be no more need of tear ducts (Revelation 21:4). Tears can be words before God as they are a sacrament, a sign, of our response to the living God.

Q is for the Quality of Mercy

Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice has a speech about mercy, the central theme of our miserere, Psalm 51. It is delivered by Portia in Act 4 Scene 1 in a courtroom context. Portia is pleading, even begging, for Shylock’s mercy. It provides a rich meditation on the meaning of mercy and its relationship with justice. Such reflection is important in earthly affairs, but as is made clear in the speech it pertains closely to the mercy with which Psalm 51 is concerned—that is the unfathomable quality of mercy shown by the Creator to his creatures:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.
William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene I