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.
As the year’s cycle turns to autumn, the brightness of summer darkens and winter cannot be held back. It is all rather depressing, but even autumn has its lessons, in particular the warning that life’s kaleidoscope has seriousness and sorrow as well as colour and frolic. In Freemasonry this is the theme of the Third Degree. The Mason begins with a First Degree where a burst of light promises hope and meaning, but by the Third Degree he finds that life is real and earnest, and there is solid work ahead. The Third Degree lesson is dramatised in the final chapter of Ecclesiastes, calling the young to make the most of their youth and the elders to recognise the finality of old age. The latter know it is serious, but smile to see how true to life is its description of the waning of human powers.
Ecclesiastes (in Hebrew Kohelet) is one of the five short Scriptural scrolls that also include Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations and Esther. The name Kohelet is from a verb that means, “to gather an assembly”. Some believe that Kohelet was the preacher in a congregation; other views apply the term to a convenor of a teaching convocation; alternatives see the name as indicating a gather of wisdom and even (connecting the word with an Arabic root) a sage old man. The word is feminine, as is chochmah, wisdom.
Prolonged debate preceded the acceptance of Kohelet into the Biblical canon. It was argued that the book contradicted itself, its contents were not Divine but human wisdom, and it had heretical tendencies. Some claim that the stamp of orthodoxy was earned by the pious epilogue: “The end of the matter, when all has been heard: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man”.
SR Driver sums up Kohelet: “Life under all its aspects is dissatisfying and disappointing: the best that can be done with it is to enjoy – not in excess, but in a wise and well-considered moderation, and as gift intended by God to be enjoyed – such pleasures as it brings with it.” The reality is not nearly so syllogistic. The verses go this way and that. LV Snowman wrote, “The preacher was a pessimist, a sceptic, and a believer all in one”.
Jewish tradition attributed the book to Solomon, seeing Song of Songs as the work of his youth, Proverbs of his adulthood and Kohelet of his old age. AJ Grieve comments: “As the book most akin to it, Job, discusses a perplexing moral problem in the person of a hero of antiquity, so here Solomon is taken as the type of a wise man who had thoroughly explored all human experience.” Robert Gordis supports Solomonic authorship in that the creative activity of Wisdom teachers had its first flowering in Solomon’s reign.
Masonic ritual lends its own drama and power to chapter 12, though, without the final verses of chapter 11, we lose the full contrast between youth and age, and the following translation therefore begins a few verses before those which the ritual chooses to cite. Though verse 7 (“The dust returns to the earth… the spirit returns to God”) was not meant as a pious affirmation of the afterlife, but merely recognises that death is inevitable, Masonic thinking prefers the conventional view that the body decomposes but the spirit soars upward, suggesting that physical destruction can be defeated by life after death.
THE ALLEGORY OF AGE
11:7 Sweet is the light:
It is good for the eyes to see the sun.
11:8 Even if one lives for many years.
Let him rejoice in them all:
Let him remember that the days of darkness will be many,
And all that follows will be empty.
11:9 Rejoice, O young man, in your heyday:
Let your heart give you joy in your days of youth.
Walk where your heart leads you, where your eyes point –
But know that for all these
God will hold you to account.
11:10 Remove sadness from your mind,
Banish sorrow from your life –
For childhood and sorrow are a passing breath.
12:1 Remember your Creator in your days of youth,
Before troubled days come and the years approach
When you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”.
12:2 Before the sun becomes dark,
And the light of the moon and the stars,
And the clouds come back after the rain;
12:3 When the guards of the house (the arms) are shaky,
And the strong men (the legs) are bent:
When the maidens who grind the corn (the teeth) are idle because they are few,
And those that look through the windows (the eyes) become darkened.
12:4 When the doors to the street (the ears) are shut,
And the sound of the mill becomes low:
When one is startled at the sound of a bird,
And all the sounds of music are muted.
12:5 When one is frightened of heights,
And there are terrors in the street;
When the almond tree (white hair) blossoms,
The grasshopper (sexual vitality) is a burden,
And the caper-bush excites no desire:
For one is on the way to his eternal home
And the mourners are gathering in the streets.
12:6 Before the silver cord (the spinal column) has snapped
And the golden bowl (the skull) is broken;
When the jug (the stomach) is shattered at the spring
And the wheel (the liver) smashes into the well:
12:7 For the dust returns to the earth as it was
And the breath returns to God who gave it.
12:8 Absolute vanity, says Kohelet:
All is vanity.
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.