By Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, Past Deputy Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales & the Australian Capital Territory.In order to be a movement in which building a man’s character was a sacred task like building a temple, Masonry found a model in the First Temple in Jerusalem and turned King Solomon into a Masonic dignitary, and speculative Freemasonry was on the way. The whole of cultured 18th society was excited about the Jerusalem Temple (see the chapter on Templo), and this reinforced the interest in Napoleon’s Middle East campaigns. But Masonry was not content with what Scripture said; it filled in the details by the copious use of pious imagination, going so far as to declare that Solomon was the Grand Master (one of three, the others being Hiram King of Tyre and Hiram Abif) at the time of the Temple’s dedication. In fact Solomon was neither the Grand Master (and would not have known the term) nor the project manager of the Temple, nor the overseer or officiant at Temple worship. Yet he was re-shaped as a prototype Masonic Master, and the ritual turned every latter-day Master into the “representative of King Solomon”.
What was Solomon’s real role in the Temple? As initiator and sponsor of the project who secured artisans and building materials and was proud of the workmen’s seven years of toil (I Kings 7, II Chron. 2). What was his role in Temple worship? Not as officiant – that was the high priest – but as a benign figurehead like a British monarch at a service at St. Paul’s or Westminster Abbey, or a lord of the manor in his local church: a temporal personage who paying lip-service to the ordained representative of the Most High.
Solomon did have a role at the dedication of the Temple, when he gave a speech and uttered a prayer “with his hands spread up to heaven” (I Kings 8), a posture which became the Masonic “Sign of Prayer”. Freemasonry also calls it a Sign of Perseverance, using “persevere” in the sense of tenacity. It has no connection with the theology of perseverance as determination to retain a state of grace.
Though Freemasonry refers to the Master being in the Chair of King Solomon, the king actually had no seat of honour in the Temple, nor did anyone else. Everyone stood or sometimes knelt. There was a King Solomon’s Chair, but it was in the royal palace, not in the Temple. Solomon’s role in the Temple was as the sponsor of the project. The original idea was possibly to build a royal chapel and then the plan was broadened to provide a national focus. Not that the ruler necessarily acted out of a royal father’s love for his children, but the building did unify the people as well as showing his power and glory.
Yet the Masonic choice of the Temple and the King Solomon story has a little known pre-history. Solomon and his father David had already figured in operative Masonry in the Cooke manuscript of 1410 which made incidental mention of David encouraging the masons and teaching them their trade (despite the Biblical view that David was a warrior poet, not a builder), and Solomon continuing this tradition. A late 17th century document speaks of the first Lodge being “in the porch of Solomons (sic) Temple”. This may indicate staff meetings at the entrance of the Sanctuary, though once the building was dedicated, non-sacred activities were curtailed. Nonetheless, the Sanhedrin, the supreme court, met for many years in the Chamber of Hewn Stone within the Temple precincts.
Our 18th century Masonic ancestors needed an exemplar which featured the art of building. They could have taken the Biblical references to David and Solomon and upgraded them by turning minor into major. But it was not so simple. The Regius document of about 1390 had a competing “building” story with its own king. This was the story of the building of the Tower of Babel and of King Nimrod (the manuscript calls him Nemrod), who wanted to create a universal religion. Some sources call him “the first and most excellent Master” and as late as mid-18th century the Thistle manuscript says that he “created the Masons”. Possibly, though, there was more than one Nimrod and the name is a generic royal title like Pharaoh, the title of a king of Egypt.
So by the 18th century Freemasonry had two classical edifice stories, the Tower of Babel and the Temple of Jerusalem, and two kings, Nimrod and Solomon. Could the craft have built itself on twin legends – or would one be chosen whilst the other faded or was pushed into obscurity? The second option prevailed. In the circumstances of the time, when respectability was so important, Babel and King Nimrod were an embarrassment. The Tower, though impressive, it was a heathen edifice designed to storm the heavens and defy the Almighty. Nimrod, though he yearned for a universal religion, that religion was fire-worship (“Nimrod” is from a root that means to rebel). Freemasonry could not jeopardise its credibility by promoting a questionable episode and personage. In contrast, Solomon and the Temple gave it status and became the preferred theme.
In Masonic parlance, the Temple became a Grand Lodge, because that is the most majestic institution we have. King Solomon was deemed to be a Grand Master, because that is the highest dignity that exists in the craft. The Worshipful Master “holds rule” as the king’s representative. Not merely due to historical precedent, but because the king, already known for his prosperity, power and writings, is reported to have asked God for only one thing – the gift of wisdom. At times his wisdom failed him, but the members of a Lodge should pray for a Worshipful Master whose wisdom is constant and thus improves on the Solomonic model.
For more articles on Freemasonic issues by Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, visit his Freemasonry webpage.
Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple’s book on the history, symbolism and teachings of Freemasonry, enlivened with personal reminiscences and humour.