First, to continue from last week, is Isaiah’s love of wordplay and pun, which drives much of Isaiah’s word choice. Although we call this “wordplay” in English (or paronomasia, if you’re being technical) this was for literary effect and making it memorable; not for cleverness or frivolous entertainment. For example, in 24:17 we read Isaiah speaking of “terror, a pit, and a snare.” These nouns are pachad, wa-pachat, wa-pach (wa meaning “and” here, a conjunction) See the Anchor Bible Dictionary article, “Wordplay”.
The lesson manual today takes disparate verses and applies them in Messianic fashion to Jesus. That’s legitimate and useful, but we also need to know what we’re doing when we engage in that.
There are different kinds of interpretation, and it’s important that we learn to distinguish between two basic kinds, namely contextual and non-contextual. The former involves history and languages, trying to figure out what Isaiah meant at the time and how his audience would have understood him. We do not often see explicit contextual interpretation in Church manuals, articles, or lessons, but we frequently engage in non-contextual interpretation in while simultaneously thinking it’s the other kind. This is a little bit of a problem. Raymond Brown, SS, popularized the term sensus plenior or “fuller sense” to delineate the later non-contextual interpretation of a passage. This often involves Messianic or other interpretations, but what they have in common is that they are noncontextual.
Brown’s term gets at the idea that while the prophet’s context may limit meaning to one particular interpretation, God may have inspired later writers to get at a fuller sense of that passage, a sense of which even the original prophetic speaker was unaware and did not intend.
This is what often happens in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the New Testament, and the Talmud; the vast majority of OT quotations are put to vastly different usage than their contextual meaning. (If you’d like to read more about this and why it’s a problem, I suggest this book by Peter Enns, this one from a Jewish perspective, and this one if you really want to dig in.)
For us today, I have little problem with someone taking a passage out of context to make some kind of point, provided they understand that that is what they are actually doing (as Nephi does with Isaiah in 1Ne 19:23).
Put otherwise, I don’t have a problem with you engaging in something like sensus plenior provided you can define what it is 😉
But that’s often not the case; we confuse our non-contextual reinterpretations with “what Isaiah really meant” all the time. Both kinds of interpretation can exist side by side, we just have to recognize them for what they are.
Let’s see how this works. The first part of Isaiah 22:22 reads
“And 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.”
It’s easy to see how this snippet might be applied to a messianic context and Jesus, particularly when he says to Peter in Matthew 16:18-19
“you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Indeed, the language of Matthew 16 “almost certainly is based on the identical metaphor in Isa. 22:22” according to the Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament
And yet, if you read go beyond the snippet and read Isaiah 22:22 in context, with the verses before and after, it’s clear that Isaiah’s primary reference is contemporary and very definite, not a future Messianic figure.
The section begins back in verse 15.
Thus says the Lord GOD of hosts: Come, go to this steward, to Shebna, who is master of the household, and say to him: 16 What right do you have here? Who are your relatives here, that you have cut out a tomb here for yourself, cutting a tomb on the height, and carving a habitation for yourself in the rock?
17 The LORD is about to hurl you away violently, my fellow. He will seize firm hold on you,
18 whirl you round and round, and throw you like a ball into a wide land; there you shall die, and there your splendid chariots shall lie, O you disgrace to your master’s house!
19 I will thrust you from your office, and you will be pulled down from your post.
20 On that day I will call my servant Eliakim son of Hilkiah,
21 and will clothe him with your robe and bind your sash on him. I will commit your authority to his hand, and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah.
22 I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he [that is, Eliakim] shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open.
23 I will fasten him like a nail in a sure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his ancestral house.
24 And they will hang on him the whole weight of his ancestral house, the offspring and issue, every small vessel, from the cups to all the flagons.
25 On that day, says the LORD of hosts, the peg that was fastened in a secure place will give way; it will be cut down and fall, and the load that was on it will perish, for the LORD has spoken.
-(Mostly NRSV, with a little KJV in some spots.)
The three major characters here are Shebna the royal Steward, Eliakim who will replace him, and Isaiah, who carries out this message.
Again, Isaiah does not explain everything. It’s a high-context book.
Isaiah presumes his audience knows the political background of the conflict at hand, leaving modern readers to speculate as to the reasons that Isaiah objected to Shebna’s policies.- The Jewish Study Bible
Speculation based on this passage and a tomb inscription (discussed below) is that during this period of Hezekiah’s reign and the oncoming Assyrian threat, Shebna had opted to carve an elaborate tomb. We can relate Shebna the Steward to another, Denethor the Steward of Gondor.
As you may recall from The Return of the King, at a key moment, Denethor focuses on his imminent death instead of carrying out his duty of defending the city. In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf begins issuing orders instead of Denethor, who immolates himself.
In the Old Testament, Shebna is singled out and replaced in a unique revelation.
Unique among biblical oracles, this text condemns a particular non-royal individual: Shebna, who was the royal steward, in charge of the palace. These titles are known from other biblical texts and also from ancient Heb. inscriptions; they probably denote an office comparable to that of Prime Minister. Isaiah calls for Shebna to be deposed and replaced by a man named Eliakim son of Hilkiah (v. 20). – The Jewish Study Bible
As for Shebna’s tomb which he was having carved, many scholars think it has been found.
[A] damaged grave inscription was found beneath a modern building in a burial chamber hewn from the rock of the eastern slope of the Kidron Valley in the village of Silwan in southeastern Jerusalem. The tomb is widely believed to have been that of the Hezekiah’s royal steward Shebna, who was condemned by the prophet Isaiah for, among other things, presuming to have a tomb cut for himself in the rock (Isa 22:15–25).- The Context of Scripture, 2.54
“This is the tomb of [Shebn]a who is over The House
There is no silver or gold here, [nothing b]ut [his bones] and the bones of his “maid” with him.
Cursed be the man who opens it
Brackets indicate reconstructed text. You can see where those areas have been worn away.The name is partially reconstructed, but it matches what we might expect, and the indication that the tomb owner was “over the house” is equivalent to the title of Steward.
Now, for much of the rest of the lesson on this, I have a handout on the two kinds of interpretation, my vague lesson notes about bringing Christ out of this episode, and a powerpoint file, from teaching this lesson in 2010.
Returning to verse 22 and keys, note that the key on the shoulder is both literal and metaphorical there.
“Keys in the biblical period were not small pieces of metal fitting into one’s pocket, but large wooden objects, at times needing to be carried on the shoulder. Eliakim, as keeper of the key, will be custodian of the affairs of the Davidic dynasty.”- Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary Set: Old Testament