O Key of David, come

A key can unlock or lock a door.

A key can open an entrance to a passageway to who knows what delights. 

A key can set prisoners free.

A key can be a symbol of authority and power.

What or who is the 'Key of David'? As with the other names in the Advent O Antiphons used in the last week of Advent the Key of David is a name used by Christians for Jesus Christ.

The key of David phrase is found first in the Hebrew scriptures. In Isaiah 22 there is a denunciation of self-seeking officials and a statement that the Lord will call Eliakim son of Hilkiah. The key of David is mentioned in a description of Eliakim's duties as royal chamberlain to King Hezekiah of Judah. Eliakim held the power and responsibility for peaceful and just government.
"I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open." Isaiah 22:22
Christians see in those words from Isaiah 22:22 a type or symbol of Jesus, the annointed One of God coming to establish God's kingdom of justice and righteousness. The authority (the key of David) rests upon his shoulders as prophesied by Isaiah hundreds of years before Christ:
"For a child has been born for us, 
a son given to us; 
authority rests upon his shoulders; 
and he is named 
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, 
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 
His authority shall grow continually, 
and there shall be endless peace 
for the throne of David and his kingdom. 
He will establish and uphold it 
with justice and with righteousness 
from this time onwards and for evermore. 
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this." 
Isaiah 9: 6 - 7 NRSV

One English translation of the O Clavis David antiphon goes like this:

O Key of David and sceptre of Israel, 
what you open no one else can close again; 
what you close no one can open. 
O come to lead the captive from prison; 
free those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

You may be familiar with the better known form from the Advent hymn 'O Come Emmanuel':

O come, Thou Key of David, come, 
and open wide our heav’nly home; 
make safe the way that leads on high, 
and close the path to misery. 
Rejoice! Rejoice!Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel! 

So many people today are in some form of darkness or imprisonment and desperately need someone to lock the door to misery and open wide the door to light, joy and freedom. That is what the kingdom of heaven proclaimed by Jesus is all about. And so we pray for that kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven

The theme O Key of David is the subject of Malcolm Guite's sonnet 'O Clavis'. I find it a moving reflection. It draws on his experience of depression. He hopes that the words of this sonnet may be helpful to others who know the darkness of depression so I share them here:

Even in the darkness where I sit 
And huddle in the midst of misery 
I can remember freedom, but forget 
That every lock must answer to a key, 
That each dark clasp, sharp and intricate, 
Must find a counter-clasp to meet its guard, 
Particular, exact and intimate, 
The clutch and catch that meshes with its ward. 
I cry out for the key I threw away 
That turned and over turned with certain touch 
And with the lovely lifting of a latch 
Opened my darkness to the light of day. 
O come again, come quickly, set me free 
Cut to the quick to fit, the master key.

You can hear Malcolm Guite read his sonnet here. Or you can read it in his book Waiting on the Word, published by Canterbury Press 2015.


And finally to a version of the sung O Antiphon for today, O Key of David. In this video the music is composed by Michael G. Hegeman 1997 and performed by Lauda! Chamber Singers. I particularly like the visual images used of the opening and closing of doors.

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