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

Y is for YHWH

When devout Jews read the word YHWH (or YHVH) in the biblical texts they read the word as Adonai. In doing this they are showing a reticence to use the divine name. The word Yahweh is one way of rendering the four letters YHWH, or YHVH, known as the Tetragrammaton. The reticence to vocalise the divine name has left some uncertainty as to how to pronounce YHWH when vowels are added. Hence the uncertainty about whether we should use Jehovah or Yahweh. Pronunciation depends on how vowels are added. The latter results if the vowels associated with Adonai, translated Lord, are used as in some manuscripts. As is evident by now to readers of this blog, I prefer the rendering Yahweh.

Although the name Yahweh is ‘revealed’ by God in the book of Exodus the name is used before this point in the biblical story. In Exodus 3:13‒15, Moses encounters a burning bush which is not consumed by fire. The story is full of imagery typical of a theophany, or divine encounter. In the narrative, God reveals himself as Yahweh.  Because, as we have seen, the necessary vowels for vocalisation are not present the name might mean a range of things. These include: ‘he is’; ‘he becomes’; ‘he will be’; ‘he causes to be’; etc. Semantically this can sound very profound but also rather abstract. It is therefore important to note that the burning bush account indicates that Yahweh is anything but remote. The story makes it clear that Yahweh’s presence and his relationship with Israel are central to the story that is being presented:

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am [YHWH] has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:

This is my name forever,

and this my title for all generations.

Exodus 3:13‒15 (NRSV)

The name Yahweh has immensely important implications for the Bible story and also for our understanding of the psalms. What we find in this name is the idea of a special relationship between God and Israel. Yahweh is the God of Israel; the nation of Israel are the people of Yahweh. This is a startling claim and raises profound issues for interfaith dialogue and the relationship between Judaism and Christianity with their rival truth claims. Questions are raised as to how we go from a special revelation, to a single people, to a universal religion open to all. This challenging issue is sometimes termed the scandal of particularity.

It has been suggested that the longer name (technically an appellation), Yahweh Sebaoth is the solemn cultic name of the God of Israel.  This is based on the use of the appellation in Psalm 24 which can be seen as a special psalm used in an enthronement ceremony of Israel’s God:

Lift up your heads, O gates!

    and be lifted up, O ancient doors!

    that the King of glory may come in.

Who is this King of glory?

    The Lord of hosts [i.e. Yahweh Sebaoth],

    he is the King of glory. Selah

Psalm 24:9‒10 (NRSV)

Given that the Hebrew Bible so clearly presents Yahweh as the revealed name of God and that he has other appellations too, why are people of faith today reticent to name him? Most Christians will call Yahweh, God for much of the time. It is certainly not due to the sense of fear and awe that made scribes omit the vowels from the divine name.