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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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It is remarkable that ‘key’ in the concrete form does not occur in the apostolic writings. The four occurrence in Rev. are symbolical. There are certain passages in Acts where we should expect mention of a key, but the circumstances are exceptional, and ‘key’ is omitted (Acts 12:10; Acts 16:26-27). When a porter was in attendance, admittance was given from the inside, and a key to open was not necessary (cf. Acts 12:14-15). From the fact that city gates were guarded, the need for a key was in this case also absent. It may be noted that the chains by which prisoners were secured, and the stocks in which their feet were made fast, were in all likelihood secured by the equivalent of a key (Acts 12:6-7; Acts 16:24 etc.).

We remark the difference between the Hebrew word (מַפְתֵּחַ), ‘that which opens,’ and the Greek and Latin (κλείς, clavis), ‘that which shuts.’ This seems to correspond with actual usage. Among the Hebrews the lock was arranged in such a manner that the key was requisitioned only for opening (see illust. in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) ii. 836). The bar was shot, and the lock acted of itself, but it could be withdrawn only by aid of a key or opener. This advanced mode of making fast a door was doubtless preceded and attended by a simpler process, whereby the bolt or bar could be moved forwards and backwards by means of a hoot passing through a slit in the door. This served to shut the door, but did not make it absolutely secure as in the other case. For the age with which we have to deal we must think of the key as a device by which one outside held command over the closed door. Having shut it in the first instance, one had power to open it by applying the key.

The imagery of Rev., so far as ‘key’ is concerned, implies power and authority on the part of one standing outside and having possession of the key. This power is in the hands of angelic beings, who are above earth, and chiefly in the hands of the Risen Christ. Their dominion is manifested upon earth and in the under world, over living and dead.

(1) Christ has the keys of death and of Hades (Revelation 1:18, Revised Version ). This power is Imperial, exercised from without and from above. There are interesting parallels to this, apart from Scripture, in literature, both earlier and later. When Ištar descended to the land of no-return she called imperiously to the porter to open the door, and threatened in case of refusal to shatter the door and break the bolt. Here the power is primitively conceived, and remains largely with the one within. For later and more advanced conceptions see Dante, Purg. ix. 65ff., and Milton, Paradise Lost, ii. 774ff., 850ff. In both these instances the power, although great, is still limited.

(2) Angelic authority is evident in Revelation 9:1; Revelation 20:1, where the key of the ‘pit’ or ‘well’ of the abyss, or of the abyss simply, is spoken of. This power was delegated (‘was given,’ 9:1). That some symbol of power was bestowed seems clear from 20:1, where the key and a great chain for binding are seen in the angel’s hand (or attached to his person). The figure of the key here directs our thought to the pits or wells of ancient times, whose opening was safeguarded against illegitimate use by a covering of some kind. The primitive setting of such coverings would naturally be horizontal, but here the imagery, extending to key, points rather to a door set upright and secured by bolt or lock. The stone doors of tombs may be compared.

(3) Upon earth itself Christ’s unlimited authority is exercised over the churches, including that in Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7). The ‘key of David’ here mentioned is reminiscent of Isaiah 22:22, where some sort of investiture is in the writer’s mind (Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) v. 172). In this instance power is exhibited in the most absolute form, and made over to the Church in the sense of a ‘door opened,’ for the enjoyment rather than for the extension of the gospel (see R. W. Pounder, Hist. Notes on the Book of Revelation, 1912, p. 140). It is not surprising that the reading of this verse should have been attracted to Revelation 1:18, as appears in some inferior Manuscripts (ἅδον for Δαυείδ).

See further Dict. of Christ and the Gospels , article ‘Keys.’ For specimens of actual keys discovered in the course of excavation see R. A. S. Macalister, The Excavation of Gezer, 1912, i. 187 and ii. 271. Further illustrations in A. Rich, Dict. of Roman and Greek Antiquities3, 1873, s.v. ‘Clavis.’

W. Cruickshank.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Key'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​k/key.html. 1906-1918.
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