O Clavis David,
et sceptrum domus Israël,
qui aperis, et nemo claudit,
claudis, et nemo aperuit:
veni, et educ vinctum
de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris,
et umbra mortis.
O Key of David,
and scepter of the house of Israel,
you open, and no one shuts,
you shut, and no one opens:
come, and lead the prisoner
seated in darkness
and in the shadow of death.
Christ is born to us. Glorify him.
The Key of David is an image found in a couple of places in Scripture. Once in Isaiah 22, where the Lord, having taken exception to Shebna, King Hezekiah’s secretary, for his presumptive building of an expensive tomb for himself, thus displaying a failure to understand and appreciate the coming judgment and exile of Judah, promises to replace Shebna with Eliakim. The new steward of the house, with access to all the royal rooms and buildings, including the prison house, will be Eliakim. Isaiah writes:
In that day I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your sash on him, and will commit your authority to his hand. And he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. And I will fasten him like a peg in a secure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his father’s house. Isaiah 22:20-23 (ESV)
But this sturdy peg, upon whom are placed the hopes of all his father’s house, will not escape the coming judgment in the armed hosts of the Babylonians, and will, with the rest of Judah, be cut off, and all the hopes hung on it coming crashing down like tin cups.
This Key of David is found again in the Apocalypse. Here, it is in reference to the Church at Philadelphia, one of the seven Churches of Revelation, about whom the Lord has nothing critical to say:
“And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: ‘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. I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet and they will learn that I have loved you. Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth. I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’” Rev. 3:7-13 (ESV)
Once again, the theme of judgment and suffering is sounded in concert with the image of the Key of David. How is it that this one, in whom all access to the Father is given, will also be judged? St Peter tells us:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him. 1 Peter 3:18-22 (ESV)
This Key of David is the harrower of hell. Our Lord is not only him who goes to prepare a place for us, in the many roomed house of God, but is also him who has preached the Gospel of Life to the dead, and emptied hell of all those called to eternal life. The Key of David has, himself, become subject to judgment and death. He has become sin for us, and received in himself the due penalty for our sins. He has tasted death, and thus having been resurrected from the dead, given the Father’s seal of approval, there is no hindrance to the freedom from death that Christ brings us. The dead in Christ will live, for hell has already been swallowed up in victory. In Christ we will not escape suffering and death, because even our hope of freedom from death is a path itself carved through the valley of the shadow. We must walk that pathway of suffering and death, but we walk it as free, knowing that our hope lies firm behind the veil of the holy of holies.
As we await the Advent of our Lord, here among our darkening days and killing frosts, we are given small glimpses of these images. Darkness overtakes the light. We are constrained and huddled against the encroaching cold. But real suffering is ours, too. The pain of untimely death. The suffocating despair of poverty. The heavy shackles of failure against images never meant to be real. We are aliens to ourselves and to one another. This aging body, heavier and slower, is not the young self we once knew. This growing impatience and irritation at slights more imagined than real, affronts to our self-created dignity. We snap and snarl now as false gospels of prosperity and worldly peace fail to materialize and to satisfy.
Come, Key of David. Lead us from jail, from shadow and darkness. Come, Harrower of Hell, and make us truly free, truly alive.
Christ is born to us. Glorify him.