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Shouldering Government?

What does government his shoulders mean? Photo Wbeem / fotor / cc by nc

What does “the government will be upon His shoulder”  mean? Photo Wbeem / fotor / cc by nc

Our age of instant data, micro-dinners and quick fixes too often carries over into our efforts to understand God’s Word, the Bible.  Now, I’ve been guilty of this as well; you don’t understand a verse, so, a quick Hebrew or Greek definition that suits your purpose and presto! – the heavens open, angels sing, and you are now armed with all knowledge and wisdom?


Sometimes the Hebrew word for “pot” means “pot”, and the Greek word for “hungry” may just mean “hungry”.  What then?

Well, you may have to dig a little deeper, spend a little more time (in the Greek “cronos”) and get into the background of a passage.  Bridging the cultural, historical, and geographical gap from our world to that of the Bible passage can produce a rich, vast landscape of texture and color to a seemingly puzzling passage. 

It’s like turning on the lights in a darkened stadium.  All of a sudden, you can see colors, depth, and a bigger picture is revealed than what would otherwise be attainable by just a simple definition.

Now, an example from my own studies to illustrate this is a favorite passage from Isaiah, “ For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given; And the Government will be upon His shoulder.  And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  (Isaiah 9:6 N.K.J.)

This is a favorite Christmas reading from many pulpits, but a passage that also confuses me.  What on earth does “And the Government will be upon His shoulder” mean?  Now, maybe being a king causes one to have a pain in the neck, but I doubt if that’s what Isaiah meant.  Here is where a book like Freeman’s Manners and Customs of the Bible can help.  There are other books, but this is the one I used in this case, and it helped shed light on this passage.

The government on one’s shoulders literally refers to keys.  Yes, they had keys and locks back then, even before Isaiah’s time (see Judges 3:25).  The problem with the keys was that they were large and heavy – between 6 to 24 inches, and made from wood, bronze, or iron.  Not the kind of thing that you would shove in the pocket of your tunic.  These keys were worn over the shoulder, tied together with a cord.  Isaiah 22:22 alludes to the practice of carrying the keys on one’s shoulders.  “The keys of the house of David I will lay on his shoulder; so he shall open and no one shall shut; And he shall shut, and no one shall open.”  (Isaiah 22:22 N.K.J.)

This passage also reveals that he who carries the keys also carries the authority and the power to use them – the power to loose and the power to bind.  Carrying such keys was an outward show that much favor, wealth and authority was entrusted to the bearer.  In Isaiah 9:6, “… the Government will be upon His shoulder”, the reference to the keys is used figuratively to symbolize Christ’s power and authority.  All who read Isaiah’s words in that time and culture would have understood this to mean God’s stamp of approval upon this Child, Jesus

Furthermore, keys and locks being somewhat rare and expensive, were used for such things as royal residences, treasuries, armories, or throne rooms, etc., and the one bearing these keys was entrusted with them by the king himself. All the world would know that the key bearer was trusted, and represented the ruler.

Now, maybe I’m stre-e-e-etching it a little, but the one modern equivalent that I can think of is the cell phone.  (Humor me a little!)  When cell phones first came out, they too were large and expensive.  It always seemed silly to me to walk around with one of these permanently attached to one’s hand or carrying it on one’s hip like an old west gun belt.  This strange sight had its benefits.  For it was obvious even to the most neophyte in our culture that the bearer of such a device was wealthy and important.  I remember seeing people getting calls every few minutes for no other reason than to impress everyone within earshot that they had a cell phone.  But now even the kids and dogs in my neighborhood seem to have cell phones, so it’s not such a status symbol anymore.

In Isaiah 9:6 the prophet is revealing God’s affirmation of Jesus by placing the figurative keys of heaven (i.e. God’s power and authority) on the shoulders of this child born in a manger.

Reference: Manners and Customs of the Bible – James M. Freeman, Logos International 1972

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