O Key of David: A Tale of Two Politicians and an Unorthodox Sheriff

Reading Time: 4 mins

On each of the seven days leading up to Christmas Eve (December 17-23), Chad Bird will provide a meditation that focuses on the ancient “O Antiphons,” each of which addresses Christ by a different Old Testament name. Today’s reflection, the fourth in the series, is on “O Key of David.”

Let me tell you a tale of two politicians. One thought he was a big man. The other found out he served a big God. Their story, told by Isaiah, is crucial for understanding why Jesus is called the “Key of David.”

About 2,700 years ago, in the city of Jerusalem, Hezekiah sat on the throne. Two men who served during his reign are our interest. One of them was named Shebna and the other Eliakim. Permit me, if you will, to modernize their story from Isaiah 22:15-25.

Shebna was a kind of vice-president, the “master of the palace.” And, oh, he would have relished the title “Master.” His press releases read like a litany of self-congratulatory praise. He rolled into work every morning in the “glorious chariot” of his shiny new limo and strutted in like he owned the place. He paused only to let a few hangers-on lick his boots with sycophantic gushing before he was off to save the world <sigh> a-gain. Shebna was pompous, bloated with self-importance. Case in point: he had already ensured that at his death, he would be laid to rest in this gaudy monstrosity of a tomb so no one would ever forget what an awesome person he had been during his lifetime.

Shebna, in short, was a mortal with a huge god complex.

He sickened Isaiah. And, more importantly, Isaiah’s God. So the preacher verbally blackened this politician’s eye, popped his bubble, and predicted his shameful demotion. In one of the most memorable images in Scripture, God says he is going to take Shebna, roll this man up into a ball, and throw him far, far away from Judah (Isa. 22:18).

He who thought he was a god would end up as nothing more than a bouncing ball of mortal buffoonery.

The Lord had another man, Eliakim, who would assume his post. God would rip off Shebna’s robe and sash—the uniform of his office—and wrap these around Eliakim (22:21). The fool would be naked, the wise man clothed. Whereas Shebna had been pompous, Eliakim would be paternal, “a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of David” (22:21). God would establish for him a “throne of honor” (22:24) instead of Shebna’s house of shame (22:18).

Then we hear this—and this is what our whole discussion has been leading us to—God says, “And I will place on [Eliakim’s] shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open” (22:22). In Hebrew, a key is a mafteach, from the verb patach, “to open.” A mafteach is thus “an opening device.” Perhaps this mafteach or key was some official insignia that Eliakim had. Whatever it was, he possessed “the authority to legislate and make binding decisions” (A. Motyer). What he shut, stayed shut. What he opened, stayed open. His word established reality.

Eliakim was God’s chosen servant. The key man. The opener and closer.
Quite unexpectedly, this largely unknown politician was also a prefigurement of the Messiah.

O Key of David, Come!

Today, December 20, the church sings the fourth of the “O Antiphons.” On this day, we sing to Christ:

“O Key of David and scepter of the house of Israel, You open and no one can close, You close and no one can open: Come and rescue the prisoners who are in darkness and the shadow of death” (LSB, 357).

When Jesus tells John to write a letter to the church in Philadelphia (modern-day Alaşehir, Turkey), our Lord identifies himself this way, “The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens” (3:7).

Perhaps you’ve read those words before. If you didn’t already know, now you do: Jesus is saying that he is the new and better Eliakim.

It’s a strange comparison, to be honest, but still less strange than when Jesus likened himself to that pigheaded, xenophobic missionary named Jonah slathered in three days’ worth of fish slime (Matt. 12:40) or to a bronze snake coiled around a pole (John 3:14). In this case, Christ is telling us: “Now, kids, go back and read Isaiah 22 with me in mind. What Eliakim was, I am more.”

A New Sheriff’s in Town

When the Messiah comes, there’s a new sheriff in town. But he’s the most unorthodox sheriff the world has ever seen. He doesn’t investigate crime scenes, collar criminals, and throw them behind bars. No, he comes whistling into county jail, whips out his key, and proceeds to throw open jail cells left and right. “You are free to go,” he laughs with a great big belly laugh, then moves on to the next cell, high-fiving folks as they blink and shuffle into the blinding light of liberation.

You and I just sit there for a minute on the other side of those bars, looking back and forth at each other, like, “Who’s this crazy dude?” Meet unorthodox Sheriff Jesus, come to rescue the prisoners who are in darkness and the shadow of death. Now, we know we belong in jail. No trumped-up charges put us there. We were caught, convicted, and sentenced with 100% justice. Blood on our hands. Smoking guns. Our fingerprints all over the crime scene of the commandments. Caught dead to rights. We are sinners; this is as true as true can be.

But all that doesn’t matter one iota because the Eliakim named Jesus is here. And for all those sins, he paid the price by being lifted onto the throne of crucifixion. We can’t even call them “our” sins anymore; Jesus has assumed ownership of them. They’re his sins. He’s like a father to us, caring for his children. God’s chosen servant. The key man. The opener and closer. He’s come to set us free.

Sure, there will always be some stupid Shebna’s around, who’ll sulk in their wide-open cells, spooning with the darkness, kissing their chains, caressing unbelief, whimpering about the gospel being a fairy tale, clutching the bars even as Jesus tries repeatedly to lug them into freedom. And to them, on the last day, Jesus will walk up and say, with a heavy heart, “Since you refused to let my will be done, thy will be done,” and their doors of darkness will be locked for good.

Don’t be that fool. Don’t just sit there, thinking this is all too good to be true, that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Friends, with Jesus, even breakfast and dinner are free.

You are forgiven. You are free. The new Eliakim has come.

He who is the Key of David has opened the kingdom of heaven to us—to me, to you, to the whole blessed world. Yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, Jesus is with us, Light of Light, Freedom of Freedom, whose laughter and love will make the darkness retreat in shame and flood our lives with joy to the world.

O Key of David, Come!
Come and rescue the prisoners who are in darkness and the shadow of death!


*In tomorrow’s article, we will look at “O Dayspring.”