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Occasional Letters: A Tale of Two Nails

D Newell, Glasgow

When I was a boy, our Sunday School occasionally held what was called an "Object Lesson Sunday". Each child was expected to bring along some small article related to a verse of Scripture from which a suitable message might be derived. I recall one of the more quick-witted and facetious lads contributing a 6-inch ruler with a label reading "John 3.1". Lacking either imagination or ingenuity, I asked my father for a suggestion. He retreated into his work shed and came back with a sturdy piece of wood into which he had hammered a single nail. In response to my bemused expression he explained, "Now that, son, is a nail in a sure place".

Although I cannot now remember what sermon was extracted from the nail, the Biblical origin of my father's object lesson is packed with teaching. It's one of those little stories appearing in the earlier part of Isaiah which can easily be overlooked in our rush to arrive at the safety of chapter 40. Here's a summary of the episode, which occurs in chapter 22:

"Thus saith the Lord God of hosts, Go, get thee unto this treasurer, even unto Shebna, which is over the house, and say, What hast thou here? and whom hast thou here, that thou hast hewed thee out a sepulchre here, as he that heweth him out a sepulchre on high?…it shall come to pass in that day, that I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah: And I will clothe him with thy robe, and strengthen him with thy girdle, and I will commit thy government into his hand…And they shall hang upon him all the glory of his father's house…In that day, saith the Lord of hosts, shall the nail that is fastened in the sure place be removed, and be cut down, and fall; and the burden that was upon it shall be cut off: for the Lord hath spoken it" (Is 22.15-25).

The incident confronts us with two distinct men, Shebna and Eliakim. The Assyrian army was rapidly approaching Judah, but Jerusalem's confidence rested primarily in man-made defences. Because the nation as a whole would not repent and turn to the Lord, she faced disaster: "thou didst look in that day to the armour of the house of the forest…but ye have not looked unto the maker thereof, neither had respect unto him that fashioned it long ago" (Is 22.8-11). It is in this setting of imminent peril that the Lord casts the spotlight upon two of the city's leading men, both of whom are mentioned in the historical narrative of the Assyrian attack in 2 Kings 18-19. Shebna, initially Judah's treasurer, a position of considerable responsibility and honour, was a man characterised by a fatal pride which revealed his state of heart, building for his own prestige a kingly memorial tomb. As a result Isaiah announced his downfall and death in captivity:

"Behold, the Lord will carry thee away with a mighty captivity, and will surely cover thee. He will surely violently turn and toss thee like a ball into a large country: there shalt thou die, and there the chariots of thy glory shall be the shame of thy Lord's house. And I will drive thee from thy station, and from thy state shall he pull thee down" (Is 22.17-19).

He would be hurled away like a javelin (the word translated "carry away" is first used in 1 Samuel 18.11 to describe Saul casting a spear at David), tossed like a ball into a far country, and pulled down from his high office. The driving energy of the imagery underlines the inevitability of his doom. From the glory he relished too much he would be tumbled into ignominy. In the service of God there can be no place for egotism, nor should anyone delude himself into thinking that, because of his gift and ministry, he is indispensable to the local assembly where God has put him. Paul's advice is cutting: "I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly" (Rom 12.3). How then ought we to think of ourselves? We are merely sinners saved by sovereign grace who, were we to do everything required of us (and who dare claim to have done that?), have nothing in which to boast. In a parable designed to bring us all down to earth with a bump, the Lord teaches His people, "when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do" (Lk 17.10). No saint should be smug.

But if God removes men He also raises up, which is exactly what the name Eliakim means. God would replace Shebna with another treasurer who would faithfully support the house of Judah in its need. Eliakim's ministry would be for God, who calls him "my servant", because his ability came from God ("I will…strengthen him"). Unlike his predecessor, he would be a man of sympathy in his administration, "a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah". To God he would be a servant but to Judah a father in his wisdom, tenderness and steadfastness. If the supervision of Old Testament Judah called for paternal care, how much more does the oversight of God's assembly today require the warmth of a father rather than the cold detachment of a business manager! Isaiah's description of Eliakim contains details which make us realise, with the benefit of hindsight, that he was a type of Christ. Notice, for example, that the key of David's house rests on his shoulder, giving him incontestable authority to open and close. The penny drops when we reach the final book of the New Testament: "These things saith he…that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth" (Rev 3.7). It seems reasonable to infer that Isaiah continues looking ahead to the Messiah: "I will fasten him as a nail in a sure place; and he shall be for a glorious throne to his father's house. And they shall hang upon him all the glory of his father's house" (Is 22.23-24). The security of his position ("a nail in a sure place") is joined with the majesty of a "glorious throne". The word for "nail" is used of the pins of the tabernacle, the tent peg with which Jael disposed of Sisera, and (the final occurrence) the coming Messiah in His glory (according to the marvellous four-fold description in Zechariah 10.4). Eliakim pictured One far greater than himself. Jamieson, Fausset & Brown note that "it was customary to hang the valuables of a house on nails". As a secure peg, he could bear the weight of all the pots and pans, great and small. How well this anticipates the Lord Jesus, uniquely able to sustain every one of His people! All God's plans and purposes hang safely upon Him.

But there's a sting in the "tale". Or at least some people think there is. Most modern commentators assume that, because of the narrative sequence, the final verse of the chapter describes a later downfall of Eliakim, so that the second treasurer proved no better than the first. I beg to differ. In company with earlier expositors, I take it that v.25 is a final glance backwards to the deposed Shebna. The metaphor of the "nail" is not determinative because it describes not a particular man but the office he occupies. The time reference ("in that day") echoes the language of v.20 (which clearly speaks of Shebna's replacement), while the securing of Eliakim is significantly different from that of his precursor. Verse 25 simply alludes to a "nail in a sure place", whereas of Eliakim we read that "I will fasten him as a nail in a sure place". What God personally fastens is safely fixed. Let us rejoice that all who belong to the Lord Jesus are depending for eternity upon One who can never let them down.

To be continued.

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