One of the most shocking, but welcome, aspects of the Bible is how often power is challenged. It occurs so often in the biblical tradition that we might take it for granted, but the practice of saying uncomfortable things to those who have authority, to speak from a position of weakness to those who have power to harm one’s life or position, is a rarity in antiquity and today. Implicit in this is that those who have power, even those with rightly-ordered authority, need, like the rest of us, to hear the truth about their own behavior and practices. In the Old Testament it is most often the prophets who are called upon to carry out this uncomfortable task, emboldened by the word of God to call wrongdoers back to the path of the covenant and its demands.
Isaiah speaks in this way to “Shebna, master of the palace” during the reign of King Hezekiah of Judah, at a time when the southern kingdom was under siege by the Assyrian king Sennacherib. We know a fair bit about this time, as the history concerning these figures appears in Isaiah 36-39 and 1 Kgs 18-20. Shebna is promised by Isaiah that he will lose his position to Eliakim, who appears in the later narratives as the master of the palace, with Shebna now the secretary to the king. Shebna loses his position, according to Isaiah, because he built himself a grand tomb and became a “disgrace to his master’s house.” God speaks through the prophet saying, “I will thrust you from your office and you will be pulled down from your post.”
The following passage has significance both for its historical context and subsequent Christian interpretation. Eliakim is given Shebna’s “authority” to “be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. 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. I will fasten him like a peg in a secure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his ancestral house.” He remains a secure peg and a throne of honor until Eliakim himself will be cut down and fall (as the next verses suggest, according to many commentators).
Echoes of this passage and its implications for human leadership in the ekklēsia, or church, resonate in the narrative of Jesus naming Simon petros, “rock,” at Caesarea Philippi. According to Matthew, Jesus says: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” While numerous scholars have challenged the authenticity of this scene as a whole, the naming of Simon by Jesus as petros, found in all four Gospels, is beyond question.
What did Jesus mean by it? Oscar Cullmann wrote (in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament): “Since Peter, the rock of the Church, is thus given by Christ himself, the master of the house (Is 22:22; Rev 3:7), the keys of the kingdom of heaven, he is the human mediator of the resurrection, and he has the task of admitting the people of God into the kingdom of the resurrection. Jesus Himself has given him power to open entry to the coming kingdom of God, or to close it.” The authority Shebna and then Eliakim were given to serve the master of the house Hezekiah is now seen as Peter’s authority to serve the Messiah’s house. The task of admitting the people of God into the kingdom—this is authority.
But the authority does not belong to the human office-holder; it belongs to the office and more profoundly to God. Immediately after Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah, he is chastened for his unwillingness to hear or understand God’s way. The giving of rightly ordered authority is not the same as having rightly ordered servants. This is why, even today, while recognizing and accepting the authority of the leaders of the church, it is always incumbent upon the householders to call the masters of the house to live as they have been called to do—because the final authority is God.