As we approach Christmas, it seems apposite to examine the ancient O Antiphons, recited and meditated upon in the octave — eight days — before this great feast of the Church year.

Here are the links to the readings for December 17, December 18 and December 19.

The Octave verses are referred to in the haunting Advent hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

The O Antiphons spell out SARCORE. These are an aide memoire, because, reversed, they spell out in Latin ero cras, which means

I shall be [with you] tomorrow.

The Bible verses behind SARCORE — ero cras — are as follows:

  1. “O Sapientia, quae ex ore altissimi…” (O Wisdom from on high…)
  2. “O Adonai et dux domus Israel…” (O Lord and leader of the house of Israel…)
  3. “O Radix Jesse qui stas in signum populorum…” (O Root of Jesse who stood as a standard of the people…)
  4. “O Clavis David et sceptrum domus…” (O Key of David and scepter of our home…)
  5. “O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae…” (O Dayspring, splendor of eternal light…)
  6. “O Rex gentium et desideratus…” (O longed-for King of the nations…)
  7. “O Emmanuel, rex et legifer noster…” (O Emmanuel, our king and law-giver…)

Today’s verse takes a closer look at the fourth — ‘O Clavis David’ — O Key of David. This concerns Isaiah 22:22, given below in the English Standard and King James Versions, respectively:

22And 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.

22And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.

What follows are three reliable Bible commentaries on these verses; more information is available at the links provided. Emphases mine below.

Barnes’s Notes on the Whole Bible:

And the key – A key is that by which a house is locked or opened. To possess that is, therefore, to have free access to it, or control over it. Thus we give possession of a house by giving the “key” into the hands of a purchaser, implying that it is his; that he has free access to it; that he can close it when he pleases, and that no other one, without his permission, has the right of access to it.

Of the house of DavidOf the house which David built for his royal residence; that is, of the palace. This house was on Mount Zion; and to have the key of that house was to have the chief authority at court, or to be prime minister (see the note at Isaiah 22:15). To be put in possession of that key, therefore, was the mark of office, or was a sign that he was entrusted with the chief authority in the government.

Will I lay upon his shoulder(see Isaiah 9:6). This seems to have been designed as an emblem of office. But in what way it was done is unknown. [Bishop] Lowth supposes that the key was of considerable magnitude, and was made crooked, and that thus it would lie readily on the shoulder. He has observed also, that this was a well-known badge or emblem of office. Thus the priestess of Ceres is described as having a key on the shoulder (Callim. “Ceres,” ver. 45); and thus in AEschyl. “Supp.” 299, a female high in office is described as having a key. But it is not known in what way the key was borne. It may have been borne on the shoulder, being so made as to be easily carried there; or it may have been attached to the shoulder by a belt or strap, as a sword is; or it may have been a mere emblem or figure fashioned into the robe, and worn as a sign of office; or the figure of a key may have been worn on the shoulder as an epaulet is now, as a sign of office and authority. If the locks were made of wood, as we have reason to suppose, then the key was probably large, and would answer well for a sign of office … For a man thus to march along with a large key on his shoulder, shows at once that he is a person of consequence

So he shall open … – This phrase means, that he should have the highest authority in the government, and is a promise of unlimited power. Our Saviour has made use of the same expression to denote the unlimited power conferred on his apostles in his church Matthew 16:19; and has applied it also to himself in Revelation 3:7.

Revelation 3:7 reads as follows:

7“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.

Before I go into the next explanation, it is a good idea to revisit the O Antiphon for December 18, particularly concerning what was known as a man’s girdle — baldric, cincture, sash or band — referred to as well as in Isaiah 22:21:

21and 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 bea father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah.

Of Isaiah 11:5, Barnes says:

And righteousness shall be the g[ir]dle of his loinsThe sense of this verse is plain. He will always exhibit himself as a just and faithful king. “The girdle of the loins” refers to the cincture, or band, with which the ancients girded themselves. A part of their dress consisted of an outward, loose, flowing robe. This robe it was necessary to gird up, or to confine close to the body in active labor, or in running; and the meaning of the figure used here is, probably, that the virtues of righteousness and justice would adhere to him as closely and inseparably as the garment does to the body to which it was bound. The figure of representing the virtues as clothing, or describing them as parts of dress with which we are invested, is common in the Scriptures:

I put on righteousness, and it clothes me;

My judgment was as a robe and a diadem.

Job 29:14.

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,

My soul shall be joyful in my God; For he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, He hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, As a bridegroom decketh himself with ornaments, And as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels.

Isaiah 61:10.

Compare Revelation 19:8, and Paul‘s beautiful description in Ephesians 6:13-17. In like manner, vice and wickedness are sometimes represented as so closely adhering to a man as to be a part of his very clothing

Adam Clarke Commentary:

And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulderAs the robe and the baldric [sash or belt worn over the shoulder], mentioned in the preceding verse, were the ensigns of power and authority, so likewise was the key the mark of office, either sacred or civil ...

To comprehend how the key could be borne on the shoulder, it will be necessary to say something of the form of it: but without entering into a long disquisition, and a great deal of obscure learning, concerning the locks and keys of the ancients, it will be sufficient to observe, that one sort of keys, and that probably the most ancient, was of considerable magnitude, and as to the shape, very much bent and crooked … of a large curvature; which Eustathius explains by saying it was δρεπανοειδης, in shape like a reaphook. Huetius says the constellation Cassiopeia answers to this description; the stars to the north making the curve part, that is, the principal part of the key; the southern stars, the handle. The curve part was introduced into the key-hole; and, being properly directed by the handle, took hold of the bolts within, and moved them from their places. We may easily collect from this account, that such a key would lie very well upon the shoulder; that it must be of some considerable size and weight, and could hardly be commodiously carried otherwise ...

In allusion to the image of the key as the ensign of power, the unlimited extent of that power is expressed with great clearness as well as force by the sole and exclusive authority to open and shut. Our Savior, therefore, has upon a similar occasion made use of a like manner of expression, Matthew 16:19; and in Revelation 3:7 has applied to himself the very words of the prophet [Isaiah].

Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Jamieson, Fausset, Brown):

the phrase is rather figurative for sustaining the government on one‘s shoulders. Eliakim, as his name implies, is here plainly a type of the God-man Christ, the son of “David,” of whom Isaiah (Isaiah 9:6) uses the same language as the former clause of this verse. In Revelation 3:7, the same language as the latter clause is found (compare Job 12:14).

Through the O Antiphon verses, we begin to see that Jesus Christ is the One prophesied, He who has all power and authority — the divine Keeper of the Key to the Kingdom of God.