Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Commentary: Ecclesiastes 12:1-7 (with some Job)



In my final commentary concerning the scriptural reference found in our degrees, I have seen a change. I've changed after rereading this closing poem to Ecclesiastes. Because I think context is key, I have posted the full poem while highlighting what we recognize.

Ecclesiastes 11:7-12:8

Truly the light is sweet, 
and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun: 
But if a man live many years, 
and rejoice in them all; 
yet let him remember the days of darkness; 
for they shall be many. 
All that cometh is vanity.

Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; 
and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, 
and walk in the ways of thine heart, 
and in the sight of thine eyes: 
but know thou, that for all these things 
God will bring thee into judgment.
Therefore remove sorrow from thy heart, 
and put away evil from thy flesh: 
for childhood and youth are vanity.

Remember now thy Creator 
in the days of thy youth, 
while the evil days come not, 
nor the years draw nigh, 
when thou shalt say, 
I have no pleasure in them;
While the sun, or the light, 
or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, 
nor the clouds return after the rain:

In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, 
and the strong men shall bow themselves, 
and the grinders cease because they are few, 
and those that look out of the windows be darkened,
And the doors shall be shut in the streets, 
when the sound of the grinding is low, 
and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, 
and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low;

Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, 
and fears shall be in the way, 
and the almond tree shall flourish, 
and the grasshopper shall be a burden, 
and desire shall fail: 
because man goeth to his long home, 
and the mourners go about the streets:

Or ever the silver cord be loosed, 
or the golden bowl be broken, 
or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, 
or the wheel broken at the cistern.
Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: 
and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.

Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; 
all is vanity.


I find our use of this particular passage fascinating. We discuss in our lectures the subject of death and mortality. In fact, of all the subjects in all the degrees, mortality seems to get the most ink. It's a focus of the Royal Master, Select Master, Order of the Temple. The symbols of death, the coffin, the shovel, and the grave are highlighted. But, have we thought of the square?

As I mentioned in the previous two entries to this series, I think that matching the movable jewel to the Biblical passage is a good exercise for us. In this degree, we see the joining of the two previous tools, the plumb and the level. Through the working of time (the level) and the rectitude of our character (the plumb), we square ourselves for the day when the silver cord is loosed, when the golden bowl be broken. This is the final measurement.

All these things we do, these things we concern ourselves with, are vanity of vanities, in the words of the preacher. They are vain attempts at perpetuity. Then the physical self returns to the earth and the soul departs to Heaven. These words are not intended to be hopeful, this is a lamentation after all. It's the judgement of the Grand Master of Heaven and Earth, wearing the symbol of life, the square, that determines what's next. And that's the rub. We don't have a single passage to work through. We lament but then we find hope.

At Masonic funerals, the words found in Job 14 are spoken (with additions from the Latin Vulgate of collection of Psalm verses). Job is a beautiful and difficult book. It lyrically laments on the absolute power contained within God and the minuscule contribution a single man will have, no matter how successful. The specific words we use are meant to give us some sense of completion, that what we work for and strive for has purpose. And it is explained thusly:

Mortals, born of woman,
    are of few days and full of trouble.
They spring up like flowers and wither away;
    like fleeting shadows, they do not endure.
Do you fix your eye on them?
    Will you bring them before you for judgment?
Who can bring what is pure from the impure?
    No one!
A person’s days are determined;
    you have decreed the number of his months
    and have set limits he cannot exceed.
So look away from him and let him alone,
    till he has put in his time like a hired laborer.
“At least there is hope for a tree:
    If it is cut down, it will sprout again,
    and its new shoots will not fail.
Its roots may grow old in the ground
    and its stump die in the soil,
yet at the scent of water it will bud
    and put forth shoots like a plant.
But a man dies and is laid low;
    he breathes his last and is no more.
As the water of a lake dries up
    or a riverbed becomes parched and dry,
so he lies down and does not rise;
    till the heavens are no more, people will not awake
    or be roused from their sleep.
“If only you would hide me in the grave
    and conceal me till your anger has passed!
If only you would set me a time
    and then remember me!
If someone dies, will they live again?
    All the days of my hard service
    I will wait for my renewal to come.
You will call and I will answer you;
    you will long for the creature your hands have made.
Surely then you will count my steps
    but not keep track of my sin.
My offenses will be sealed up in a bag;
    you will cover over my sin.
“But as a mountain erodes and crumbles
    and as a rock is moved from its place,
as water wears away stones
    and torrents wash away the soil,
    so you destroy a person’s hope.
You overpower them once for all, and they are gone;
    you change their countenance and send them away.
If their children are honored, they do not know it;
    if their offspring are brought low, they do not see it.
They feel but the pain of their own bodies
    and mourn only for themselves.”

Boy, that's depressing. So, what do we do? How do we take this set of verses and apply them to the hopeful nature of Freemasonry? 

For me, reading through this, with the idea of vale of tears clearly in mind, I think it's the author's way of telling us to stop worrying about death and instead to focus on life. We will experience death, we will leave sad and despondent people behind just as some before us have left us behind. Our work may be forgotten but ultimately, the Great Artificer is design plans upon some celestial work. 

We are living stones but just one. Nothing more, nothing less. All things are vanity, meaningless, when we reside on the quarry floor. We can't see what might be constructed from our efforts so we exert because it is good.

The final commentary by God to Job has always been distressing to me but also heartening. Boiled down, God is chastising Job for thinking he can know the great multitudes present in creation. Job has tested God into explaining what everything means. And God rebukes him.

Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge?" (Job 38:2)

And then, God uses building metaphors to describe the creation of the universe:

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone—while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?" (Job 38:4-7)

Again, a request for trust, for faith. That sometimes, when we think that we are not receiving the fairest possible shake from God, perhaps it's only that at our ground level view, that we don't actually see where we fit, how we fit. And that is absolutely frustrating.

My take away is that sometimes, in our darkest fears, that death will cut short our contributions, that life is too short, that everything is meaningless, that our lack of contributions are just us lacking perspective. We just need to keep shaping our living stone, keep working, and know that God will ultimately fit us once we cross the vale of tears. Meaningless might be what we think we do but meaningless is not what we are. That's what sayeth this preacher.

Thoughts? Leave your comments below.

1 comment:

Lee Love said...

I like Albert Pike's quote:

http://izquotes.com/quotes-pictures/quote-what-we-have-done-for-ourselves-alone-dies-with-us-what-we-have-done-for-others-and-the-world-albert-pike-145781.jpg