anthem

A Reflection on Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” (1992)

5 August 2022

5.3 MINS

Leonard Cohen (1934 – 2016), Canadian singer-songwriter, poet and novelist, released one of his most memorable songs (poems), Anthem, in 1992.  I have only come across his work in recent years and this song has made an abiding impression on me.

In this piece, I reflect on Leonard’s lyrics and put to you: I believe that he saw deeply into our world, its systems and ways of life; and we can take this anthem as a personal encouragement for us all, thirty years later.

I will break the lyrics down and reflect on them as we go through the song.

 

The birds, they sang,
At the break of day,
Start again, I heard them say,
Don’t dwell on what,
Has passed away,
Or what is yet to be…

Isn’t it remarkable that the birds, they greet us each new day with song? What a gift we have when we tune into their melody. They never seem to rise with regret for their past mistakes, they simply start over, the slate washed clean, ready for their new day.

This is such a great stance for all of us to start each new day. We can’t change the past — the past is the past, and stays in the past. However, we can shape the future, that is, how we will respond to the future.

Ah, the wars,
They will be fought again

Reflecting on history, we see wars and rumours of wars. It’s as if all our history has been punctuated by wars. When will we ever learn? But Romans 12:18 comes to mind, If it is possible on your part, live at peace with all men. So, let’s not be the ones to start a war or perpetuate a war, but rather, to terminate war.

The holy dove,
She will be caught again,
Bought and sold,
And bought again,
The dove is never free

Isn’t the dove the symbol of peace? But all too often, peace is bought and sold. This side of eternity, we will never see the dove released. But what a picture of hope — isn’t it great to dwell on such a dream?

Ring the bells that still can ring

What a chorus line! What a call to rise up! We all have bells that we can ring, we can rise up and ring the bells on abuse, on violence, on fraud, on corruption, on coercion and on lies. Notice, Leonard says the bells that still can ring. How it is so easy for us to be silenced, for our bells to be laid down, for our voices to be lost, not by external clamour, but by our own timidity or feelings of defeat.

Forget your perfect offering

In Leonard’s own words — “Forget your perfect offering”, that is the hang-up, that you’re gonna work this thing out. He is saying that we may imagine that we have the antidote, the cure, the solution to every obstacle. We don’t! So, forget any idea that we can rectify the fundamental flaw in the whole thing, sin. We can’t, but God can, through the death and resurrection of His son Jesus Christ. Let’s turn our eyes to Him and seek His face and recognise the efficacy of the cross.

There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in

I believe that diabolical plans have been laid for the world by the devil and his acolytes. But we know the end of the story: he does not win! Even now, before the end, I see so many cracks in the evil one’s plans. Psalm 21:11 (RSV) If they plan evil against you, if they devise mischief, they will not succeed.

The Bible is full of story after story where we see that evil does not prosper. What a man sows he will reap (Galatians 6:7). Wherever we see a crack appearing, let’s pray that it will grow larger and larger and eventually let the full light of day flood in. Evil can’t stand the true light of day!

We asked for signs,
The signs were sent:
The birth betrayed,
The marriage spent

These lines are perhaps, less clear, but so true. ‘We asked for signs’, is a straight lift from the Bible (Mark 8:11-12). Why, as we needed proof to believe. But what have we done with the signs? The greatest sign of all was Jesus and we betrayed Him. The marriage of the church with Christ, compromised.

So, for me, I take these lines to say, let’s not be blind, let us see. Let us see Jesus. Jesus has come in the flesh and dwelt among us with the promise of marriage to come. What a glorious hope and a future await us.

Yeah the widowhood,
Of every government,
Signs for all to see

Widowhood speaks to me of barrenness, hollowness, and doesn’t that describe our governments the world over? They simply parade platitudes and empty promises. What I have seen in recent years is, all the western governments are simply singing from the same narrative, delivered on cue, by their tame media moguls. Yes, the governments today are a sign for all to see.

I can’t run no more,
With that lawless crowd,
While the killers in high places,
Say their prayers out loud

Our declaration, our line in the sand. So far, but no further! How’s your conscience, have you been listening to it? The chances are that pragmatics often take over. What will people think? I need to provide for my family, that’s my primary responsibility and on and on. But have we inadvertently signed up to run with the lawless crowd who like to parade their own righteousness?

But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up,
A thundercloud,
And they’re going to hear from me

We may have signed up for only a little while; I will jump right out again before it gets too deep, we say. But we have found ourselves complicit now for too long and we now find ourselves enveloped in a thundercloud we never anticipated. Now it is too late to jump, we are tarred with the same brush.

What we should be doing now, is ringing the bells that still can ring, rather than being part of the lawless crowd, responsible for killings and enveloped in thunder.

Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in

You can add up the parts,
But you won’t have the sum,
You can strike up the march,
There is no drum

My reflection here sums up the world we see around us today. Everything doesn’t add up. There are loose ends everywhere. We are encouraged to question everything, and everything doesn’t add up. The heartbeat of the drum is missing. I see this as the fingerprint of God that’s missing. All of creation is groaning in labour, eagerly awaiting the second coming (Romans 8:22).

Every heart, every heart,
To love will come,
But like a refugee

Our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). We are all pilgrims in a foreign land. But my prayer is that we will all come to Jesus, to His love and acceptance and His offer of full adoption into His family forever. That we are refugees will not matter then, as we are destined for a much better place than the one we have come from.

Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack, a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in

Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack, a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in,
That’s how the light gets in,
That’s how the light gets in

I know I have taken some liberties. But I choose to salute this anthem and applauded the late Leonard Cohen for his prophetic gift that comes down to us as both a serious warning and a huge encouragement for our day. A warning that, while we still can ring the bells, we must; and an encouragement that evil will not prevail, and that the light of God’s glory will arise upon us (Isaiah 60:1). Amen!

___

Photo by Aakash Sethi.

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8 Comments

  1. Vivienne Williams 5 August 2022 at 10:58 am - Reply

    Good job thank you

  2. Warwick Marsh 6 August 2022 at 12:14 pm - Reply

    Truly magnificent article about the greatness of God amidst troubled times in terrified humanity!

  3. Warwick Marsh 6 August 2022 at 12:16 pm - Reply

    Ring the bells that still can ring,
    Forget your perfect offering,
    There is a crack, a crack in everything,
    That’s how the light gets in

    Ring the bells that still can ring,
    Forget your perfect offering,
    There is a crack, a crack in everything,
    That’s how the light gets in,
    That’s how the light gets in,
    That’s how the light gets in

  4. Kim Beazley 6 August 2022 at 1:25 pm - Reply

    Great article, Dr Twelves, on one of my favourite Leonard Cohen songs (more like poetry set to music). I really liked this:-

    “I know I have taken some liberties. But I choose to salute this anthem and applauded the late Leonard Cohen for his prophetic gift that comes down to us as both a serious warning and a huge encouragement for our day.”

    I always think of the verse, “for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29) in cases like this where God speaks through those who aren’t Christians. Another who comes to mind in that respect, & with a similar theme to the one you’ve drawn out in “Anthem” that speaks to our troubled times is the early 20th century Irish poet, W B Yeats, in his poem “The Second Coming”, in particular the first stanza:-

    “Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.”

    • Jim Twelves 7 August 2022 at 9:54 pm - Reply

      Kim,
      I am thrilled you liked my piece. And thank you particularly for the line – I always think of the verse, “for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29) in cases like this where God speaks through those who aren’t Christians.
      I know of WB Yaets, but that’s all, perhaps I need to dig into him, thank you so much.

      • Kim Beazley 8 August 2022 at 8:42 am - Reply

        In relation to Cohen, & especially the symbolism you highlight in his lyrics, I always think of his most famous song, “Hallelujah”, in particular these lines:-

        “There was a time when you let me know
        What’s really going on below
        But now you never show it to me, do you?
        And remember when I moved in you
        The holy dove was moving too
        And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

        I did my best, it wasn’t much
        I couldn’t feel, so I learn to touch
        I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come here tonight friends to fool you
        And even though it all went wrong
        I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
        With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah”

        This, to me, is at least suggestive of a curiosity for a possible relationship with God.

        • Jim Twelves 12 August 2022 at 8:41 pm - Reply

          Kim, thank you for bringing up ‘Hallelujah’. I agree with your take. It seems to me that Leonard was above all, a humble man. A great man, but one with his feet on the ground and he never seemed to let fame pollute him. I head him in a speech accepting a an award, and his main core message was to honor the man who taught him to play chords on the guitar. He didn’t have to do that but he did. It was a Spaniard and he honored Spain as well. Many award recipients would have simply been egotistical. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VIR5ps8usuo

  5. Jim Twelves 6 August 2022 at 10:21 pm - Reply

    Warwick, yes I was/am surprised to hear this call to ‘thing the bells’ from such a musical legend, but here it is! I can feel the heart cry, the double question, the question within a question. Can our bells still ring? Or are they muffled? I firmly believe that the work of the Canberra Declaration, is a loud and clear bell for sure. My heartfelt thanks to all those who make this platform sing; may the bells here keep on ringing!

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