O Key of David, and Sceptre of the house of Israel, that openeth and no man shutteth, and shutteth and no man openeth, come to liberate the prisoner from the prison, and them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death.
O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel; qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
The fourth of the O Antiphons, O Clavis David, addresses Christ by another title that comes from the book of Isaiah. In Isaiah 22, a scene is described in which a new ruler replaces an old, and this is accomplished by the Lord, who says of this new ruler that “… 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” (Isa 22:22-23). The symbolic device “the key of the house of David”, meaning kingly power and authority over Israel, is shortened to “the key of David” in Revelation 3:7, except here it’s possessed by Christ, the true King of Israel.
The Isaianic reference in St. John’s revelation is within the message addressed to the Church in Philadelphia (modern Alaşehir, Turkey), in which a New Jerusalem coming down from heaven is described. The New Jerusalem -the true Jerusalem- is the Kingdom of God, not bound by geography or ethnicity, with Christ as its King forever. The transposition from the small scale king and key in Isaiah to the large scale King with the Key in Revelation is characteristic of Old Testament prophecy relating to Christ generally. What may first have been the words of seers like Isaiah regarding the situations of their own day were often soon recognized as signposts pointing toward some great future leader or reality for the house of Israel — a restored kingdom, an anointed messiah to gather and rule the nation, and all the nations of the earth paying homage to this new Jewish king. After Christ’s resurrection, not only was his messianic status vindicated and solidified, but he was revealed as “Lord and God“, (John 20:28). The transposition from local oracle to messianic prophecy to divine revelation happens most fully in the four gospels, but most triumphantly in John’s Revelation.
In Revelation the messiah speaks from his divine throne as the one “who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.” This agrees with Job’s account of God who, “if he tears down, none can rebuild; if he shuts a man in, none can open” (Job 12:14). This sort of power extends far beyond the political governing of an ancient tribal kingdom in the near east; this is a reflection of the cosmic authority which laid the foundation of the earth … when the morning stars sang together; this is a wisdom which reaches from one end of creation to the other.
But this power and authority is shown not solely from the ultimately transcendent Self-Existent One who inscrutably causes all things to be in the manner appropriate to their derivative existence. It’s shown not even solely from the tribal Deity whose actions, laws, and delegated viceroys would intimately connect him with a particular nation. God has shown us his authority as a man walking among mankind. The God who numbers the stars and names them had a star herald his own birth. The God who set the boundaries of the seas can walk on them at will. The God who would speak from whirlwinds and thunder can also dissipate storms with his human voice. And the God who laid the foundations of the earth would emerge from the earth after it served as his tomb.
But most significantly for us, this God with the power to set and remove boundaries has the power over sin and death, too. Christ, possessing the key to the true City of David, can liberate humanity from the wages and power of sin which is death. After mankind’s initial rebellion against God, the reality of death (and whatever shadowy existence lay beyond it) was an unconquerable enemy. But at the first Easter, Christ descended into that shadowy reality to free those who had been sitting in the darkness. His uncreated light burst the doors of Hades and ransacked its previously unbreachable lock-smithery. For any who choose to still sit in that darkness and turn away from the light leading to glory, they are free to do so. But they aren’t trapped there anymore. None of us are. That defeated darkness nevertheless still pollutes our hearts with its inky black lies of futility. But now as then, when the light shines in the darkness, the darkness will not overcome it. And so to him who has the key of David, we pray, “come to liberate the prisoner from the prison, and them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death.”