In the ancient world, keys were heavy… both literally and symbolically. An ordinary key might be as small as six inches or as large as two feet long. Most were made of wood, although, archaeologist have found keys in Egypt made of iron and bronze, and figures of such are frequently found on monument. Assyrian locks and keys, large and made out of wood, have also been found.
In appearance, the keys resembled the skeleton keys of the 1500-1700's, except that they were bent at an odd angle at the pin end. The pins, sometimes called pegs or nails, were inserted into a hollow bolt (lock), which d released other pins, which allowed the bolt to be drawn back. Many keys had ornamented handles made of brass or silver filigree, oftentimes with hooks or rings attached.
From Robert Lowth D.D.: 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 key, and that probably the most ancient, was of considerable magnitude; and as to shape very much bent and crooked. Aratus, to give his reader an idea of the form of the constellation, Cassiopeia, compared it to a Key. It must be owned that the passage is very obscure, but the learned (Pierre Daniel) Huetius 1630-1721 has bestowed a great deal of pains in explaining it. As found in Manilii, lib. 1:355. ("Isaiah A New Tranlation", p. 127. Published 1778, London.)
Homer, in his odyssey, (XXI. 6), describes the key of Ulysses’ storehouse as a large curvature and being in the shape of a reap-hook. (Translated by Eustathius, Bishop of Antioch, 320 AD)
In ancient times, keys were either slung around the shoulders (Hebrew – shekem; meaning on the neck), or hung from the shoulder by way of a knotted kerchief.
But why carry a key on the shoulder? Keys were a status symbol. A key on the shoulder meant that someone possessed something important enough and valuable enough to be locked up. Eastern merchants were known to make a lavish display of carrying their keys on their shoulders.
A key on the shoulder might also indicate honor. Those chosen by the king to be the royal key bearer (treasury) held a high position in the court and were due great respect. They were
But a key two feet long would be difficult to carry and hard to work with. Records indicate that royal key bearers often had servants walk in front of them, carrying the key for them.
Judges 3:25 indicates that it may have taken more than one person to make these keys work. "And they tarried till they were ashamed: and, behold, he opened not the doors of the parlor; therefore they took a key, and opened them: and, behold, their lord was fallen down dead on the earth."
From Joseph Roberts (1835), recounts this experience: "How much was I delighted when I first saw the people, especially the Moors, going along the streets with each his key on his shoulder. The handle is generally made of brass (though sometimes of silver), and is often nicely worked in a device of filigrane. The way it is carried is to have the corner of a kerchief tied to the ring; the key is then placed on the shoulder, and the kerchief hangs down in front. At other times they have a bunch of large keys, and then they have half on one side of the shoulder, and half on the other. For a man thus to march along with a large key on his shoulder, shows at once that he is a person of consequence. “Raman is in great favor with the Modeliar (headman or chief) for he now carries the key.” “Whose key have you got on your shoulder?” “I shall carry my key on my own shoulder.”’ - (Oriental illustrations of the Sacred Scripture*, P. 424. Published 1835, London.)
Key on the Shoulder is an ancient idiom that means "power" or "authority". The Key represents the authority (access) and the shoulder represents the power (permission) to enforce the authority: One who is allowed access is in control.
In the opening text, Shebna, Hezekiah's treasurer, is warned that Eliakim shall carry "the keys of the house of David. Or, in other words, Eliakim is to replace Shebna as the treasurer. This
is a figurative way of expressing what is said in the preceding
verse (21): "I will commit thy government into his hand." The
expression is partly figurative in that the hand is a symbol of
power. Therefore, hand and keys together were symbolic of
great power including wealth and authority.
The idea contained in these passages is also expressed in Isaiah
9:6, where it is said of the Messiah that "the government shall
be upon his shoulder." And again Matthew 16:19, when Christ says
to Peter: "I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of
heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on the earth shall be
bound in heaven; and whatsoever thus shalt loose on earth shall
be loosed in heaven."
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