The Symbolism of King Solomon’s Temple
Provided by the Oklahoma Chapter and Council Education E-Newsletter (https://okyorkrite.com/)
Extracted from the According to Mackey Column in the February 2022 Issue
The following entry appears on pp. 85-99 of the 1869 edition of “The Symbolism of Freemasonry” by Albert G. Mackey.
I have said that the operative art is symbolized–that is to say, used as a symbol–in the speculative science. Let us now inquire, as the subject of the present essay, how this is done in reference to a system of symbolism dependent for its construction on types and figures derived from the temple of Solomon, and which we hence call the “Temple Symbolism of Freemasonry.”
Bearing in mind that speculative Masonry dates its origin from the building of King Solomon’s temple by Jewish and Tyrian artisans, the first important fact that attracts the attention is, that the operative masons at Jerusalem were engaged in the construction of an earthly and material temple, to be dedicated to the service and worship of God–a house in which Jehovah was to dwell visibly by his Shekinah, and whence he was, by the Urim and Thummim, to send forth his oracles for the government and direction of his chosen people.
Now, the operative art having, for us, ceased, we, as speculative Masons, symbolize the labors of our predecessors by engaging in the construction of a spiritual temple in our hearts, pure and spotless, fit for the dwelling-place of Him who is the author of purity–where God is to be worshipped in spirit and in truth, and whence every evil thought and unruly passion is to be banished, as the sinner and the Gentile were excluded from the sanctuary of the Jewish temple.
This spiritualizing of the temple of Solomon is the first, the most prominent and most pervading of all the symbolic instructions of Freemasonry. It is the link that binds the operative and speculative divisions of the order. It is this which gives it its religious character. Take from Freemasonry its dependence on the temple, leave out of its ritual all reference to that sacred edifice, and to the legends connected with it, and the system itself must at once decay and die, or at best remain only as some fossilized bone, imperfectly to show the nature of the living body to which it once belonged.
Temple worship is in itself an ancient type of the religious sentiment in its progress towards spiritual elevation. As soon as a nation emerged, in the world’s progress, out of Fetichism, or the worship of visible objects,–the most degraded form of idolatry,–its people began to establish a priesthood and to erect temples.
“The groves were God’s first temples. Ere man learned
To hew the shaft, and lay the architrave,
And spread the roof above them–ere he framed
The lofty vault, to gather and roll back
The sound of anthems–in the darkling wood,
Amid the cool and silence, he knelt down,
And offered to the Mightiest solemn thanks
The Scandinavians, the Celts, the Egyptians, and the Greeks, however much they may have differed in the ritual and the objects of their polytheistic worship, all were possessed of priests and temples. The Jews first constructed their tabernacle, or portable temple, and then, when time and opportunity permitted, transferred their monotheistic worship to that more permanent edifice which is now the subject of our contemplation. The mosque of the Mohammedan and the church or the chapel of the Christian are but embodiments of the same idea of temple worship in a simpler form.
The adaptation, therefore, of the material temple to a science of symbolism would be an easy, and by no means a novel task, to both the Jewish and the Tyrian mind. Doubtless, at its original conception, the idea was rude and unembellished, to be perfected and polished only by future aggregations of succeeding intellects. And yet no biblical scholar will venture to deny that there was, in the mode of building, and in all the circumstances connected with the construction of King Solomon’s temple, an apparent design to establish a foundation for symbolism.
[Theologians have always given a spiritual application to the temple of Solomon, referring it to the mysteries of the Christian dispensation. For this, consult all the biblical commentators. But I may particularly mention, on this subject, Bunyan’s “Solomon’s Temple Spiritualized,” and a rare work in folio, by Samuel Lee, Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford, published at London in 1659, and entitled “Orbis Miraculum, or the Temple of Solomon portrayed by Scripture Light.” A copy of this scarce work, which treats very learnedly of “the spiritual mysteries of the gospel veiled under the temple,” I have lately been, by good fortune, enabled to add to my library.]
I propose now to illustrate, by a few examples, the method in which the speculative Masons have appropriated this design of King Solomon to their own use.
To construct his earthly temple, the operative mason followed the architectural designs laid down on the trestle-board, or tracing-board, or book of plans of the architect. By these he hewed and squared his materials; by these he raised his walls; by these he constructed his arches; and by these strength and durability, combined with grace and beauty, were bestowed upon the edifice which he was constructing.
The trestle-board becomes, therefore, one of our elementary symbols. For in the masonic ritual the speculative Mason is reminded that, as the operative artist erects his temporal building, in accordance with the rules and designs laid down on the trestle-board of the master-workman, so should he erect that spiritual building, of which the material is a type, in obedience to the rules and designs, the precepts and commands, laid down by the grand Architect of the universe, in those great books of nature and revelation, which constitute the spiritual trestle-board of every Freemason.
The trestle-board is, then, the symbol of the natural and moral law. Like every other symbol of the order, it is universal and tolerant in its application; and while, as Christian Masons, we cling with unfaltering integrity to that explanation which makes the Scriptures of both dispensations our trestle-board, we permit our Jewish and Mohammedan brethren to content themselves with the books of the Old Testament, or the Koran. Masonry does not interfere with the peculiar form or development of any one’s religious faith. All that it asks is, that the interpretation of the symbol shall be according to what each one supposes to be the revealed will of his Creator. But so rigidly exacting is it that the symbol shall be preserved, and, in some rational way, interpreted, that it peremptorily excludes the Atheist from its communion, because, believing in no Supreme Being, no divine Architect, he must necessarily be without a spiritual trestle-board on which the designs of that Being may be inscribed for his direction.
But the operative mason required materials wherewith to construct his temple. There was, for instance, the rough ashlar–the stone in its rude and natural state–unformed and unpolished, as it had been lying in the quarries of Tyre from the foundation of the earth. This stone was to be hewed and squared, to be fitted and adjusted, by simple, but appropriate implements, until it became a perfect ashlar, or well-finished stone, ready to take its destined place in the building.
Here, then, again, in these materials do we find other elementary symbols. The rough and unpolished stone is a symbol of man’s natural state–ignorant, uncultivated, and, as the Roman historian expresses it, “grovelling to the earth, like the beasts of the field, and obedient to every sordid appetite” [Veluti pecora, quae natura finxit prona et obedientia ventri.–Sallust, Bell. Catil. i.]; but when education has exerted its salutary influences in expanding his intellect, in restraining his hitherto unruly passions, and purifying his life, he is then represented by the perfect ashlar, or finished stone, which, under the skilful hands of the workman, has been smoothed, and squared, and fitted for its appropriate place in the building.
Here an interesting circumstance in the history of the preparation of these materials has been seized and beautifully appropriated by our symbolic science. We learn from the account of the temple, contained in the First Book of Kings, that “The house, when it was in building, was built of stone, made ready before it was brought thither, so that there was neither hammer nor axe, nor any tool of iron, heard in the house while it was in building.” [I Kings vi. 7.]
Now, this mode of construction, undoubtedly adopted to avoid confusion and discord among so many thousand workmen, has been selected as an elementary symbol of concord and harmony–virtues which are not more essential to the preservation and perpetuity of our own society than they are to that of every human association. [In further illustration of the wisdom of these temple contrivances, it may be mentioned that, by marks placed upon the materials which had been thus prepared at a distance, the individual production of every craftsman was easily ascertained, and the means were provided of rewarding merit and punishing indolence.]
The perfect ashlar, therefore,–the stone thus fitted for its appropriate position in the temple,–becomes not only a symbol of human perfection (in itself, of course, only a comparative term), but also, when we refer to the mode in which it was prepared, of that species of perfection which results from the concord and union of men in society. It is, in fact, a symbol of the social character of the institution.
There are other elementary symbols, to which I may hereafter have occasion to revert; the three, however, already described,–the rough ashlar, the perfect ashlar, and the trestle-board,–and which, from their importance, have received the name of “jewels,” will be sufficient to give some idea of the nature of what may be called the “symbolic alphabet” of Masonry. Let us now proceed to a brief consideration of the method in which this alphabet of the science is applied to the more elevated and abstruser portions of the system, and which, as the temple constitutes its most important type, I have chosen to call the “Temple Symbolism of Masonry.”
Both Scripture and tradition inform us that, at the building of King Solomon’s temple, the masons were divided into different classes, each engaged in different tasks. We learn, from the Second Book of Chronicles, that these classes were the bearers of burdens, the hewers of stones, and the overseers, called by the old masonic writers the Ish sabal, the Ish chotzeb, and the Menatzchim. Now, without pretending to say that the modern institution has preserved precisely the same system of regulations as that which was observed at the temple, we shall certainly find a similarity in these divisions to the Apprentices, Fellow Crafts and Master Masons of our own day. At all events, the three divisions made by King Solomon, in the workmen at Jerusalem, have been adopted as the types of the three degrees now practised in speculative Masonry; and as such we are, therefore, to consider them. The mode in which these three divisions of workmen labored in constructing the temple, has been beautifully symbolized in speculative Masonry, and constitutes an important and interesting part of temple symbolism.
Thus we know, from our own experience among modern workmen, who still pursue the same method, as well as from the traditions of the order, that the implements used in the quarries were few and simple, the work there requiring necessarily, indeed, but two tools, namely, the twenty-four inch gauge, or two foot rule, and the common gavel, or stone-cutter’s hammer. With the former implement, the operative mason took the necessary dimensions of the stone he was about to prepare, and with the latter, by repeated blows, skilfully applied, he broke off every unnecessary protuberance, and rendered it smooth and square, and fit to take its place in the building.
And thus, in the first degree of speculative Masonry, the Entered Apprentice receives these simple implements, as the emblematic working tools of his profession, with their appropriate symbolical instruction. To the operative mason their mechanical and practical use alone is signified, and nothing more of value does their presence convey to his mind. To the speculative Mason the sight of them is suggestive of far nobler and sublimer thoughts; they teach him to measure, not stones, but time; not to smooth and polish the marble for the builder’s use, but to purify and cleanse his heart from every vice and imperfection that would render it unfit for a place in the spiritual temple of his body.
In the symbolic alphabet of Freemasonry, therefore, the twenty-four inch gauge is a symbol of time well employed; the common gavel, of the purification of the heart.
Here we may pause for a moment to refer to one of the coincidences between Freemasonry and those Mysteries which formed so important a part of the ancient religions, and which coincidences have led the writers on this subject to the formation of a well-supported theory that there was a common connection between them. The coincidence to which I at present allude is this: in all these Mysteries–the incipient ceremony of initiation–the first step taken by the candidate was a lustration or purification. The aspirant was not permitted to enter the sacred vestibule, or take any part in the secret formula of initiation, until, by water or by fire, he was emblematically purified from the corruptions of the world which he was about to leave behind. I need not, after this, do more than suggest the similarity of this formula, in principle, to a corresponding one in Freemasonry, where the first symbols presented to the apprentice are those which inculcate a purification of the heart, of which the purification of the body in the ancient Mysteries was symbolic.
[“Each of the pagan gods had (besides the public and open) a secret worship paid unto him; to which none were admitted but those who had been selected by preparatory ceremonies, called Initiation. This secret-worship was termed the Mysteries.”–Warburton, Div. Leg. I. i. p. 189.]
We no longer use the bath or the fountain, because in our philosophical system the symbolization is more abstract, if I may use the term; but we present the aspirant with the lamb-skin apron, the gauge, and the gavel, as symbols of a spiritual purification. The design is the same, but the mode in which it is accomplished is different.
Let us now resume the connected series of temple symbolism.
At the building of the temple, the stones having been thus prepared by the workmen of the lowest degree (the Apprentices, as we now call them, the aspirants of the ancient Mysteries), we are informed that they were transported to the site of the edifice on Mount Moriah, and were there placed in the hands of another class of workmen, who are now technically called the Fellow Crafts, and who correspond to the Mystes, or those who had received the second degree of the ancient Mysteries. At this stage of the operative work more extensive and important labors were to be performed, and accordingly a greater amount of skill and knowledge was required of those to whom these labors were intrusted. The stones, having been prepared by the Apprentices (for hereafter, in speaking of the workmen of the temple, I shall use the equivalent appellations of the more modern Masons), were now to be deposited in their destined places in the building, and the massive walls were to be erected. For these purposes implements of a higher and more complicated character than the gauge and gavel were necessary. The square was required to fit the joints with sufficient accuracy, the level to run the courses in a horizontal line, and the plumb to erect the whole with due regard to perfect perpendicularity. This portion of the labor finds its symbolism in the second degree of the speculative science, and in applying this symbolism we still continue to refer to the idea of erecting a spiritual temple in the heart.
[It must be remarked, however, that many of the Fellow Crafts were also stone-cutters in the mountains, chotzeb bahor, and, with their nicer implements, more accurately adjusted the stones which had been imperfectly prepared by the apprentices. This fact does not at all affect the character of the symbolism we are describing. The due preparation of the materials, the symbol of purification, was necessarily continued in all the degrees. The task of purification never ceases.]
The necessary preparations, then, having been made in the first degree, the lessons having been received by which the aspirant is taught to commence the labor of life with the purification of the heart, as a Fellow Craft he continues the task by cultivating those virtues which give form and impression to the character, as well adapted stones give shape and stability to the building. And hence the “working tools” of the Fellow Craft are referred, in their symbolic application, to those virtues. In the alphabet of symbolism, we find the square, the level, and the plumb appropriated to this second degree. The square is a symbol denoting morality. It teaches us to apply the unerring principles of moral science to every action of our lives, to see that all the motives and results of our conduct shall coincide with the dictates of divine justice, and that all our thoughts, words, and deeds shall harmoniously conspire, like the well-adjusted and rightly-squared joints of an edifice, to produce a smooth, unbroken life of virtue.
The plumb is a symbol of rectitude of conduct, and inculcates that integrity of life and undeviating course of moral uprightness which can alone distinguish the good and just man. As the operative workman erects his temporal building with strict observance of that plumb-line, which will not permit him to deviate a hair’s breadth to the right or to the left, so the speculative Mason, guided by the unerring principles of right and truth inculcated in the symbolic teachings of the same implement, is steadfast in the pursuit of truth, neither bending beneath the frowns of adversity nor yielding to the seductions of prosperity. [The classical reader will here be reminded of that beautiful passage of Horace, commencing with “Justum et tenacem propositi virum.”–Lib. iii. od. 3.]
The level, the last of the three working tools of the operative craftsman, is a symbol of equality of station. Not that equality of civil or social position which is to be found only in the vain dreams of the anarchist or the Utopian, but that great moral and physical equality which affects the whole human race as the children of one common Father, who causes his sun to shine and his rain to fall on all alike, and who has so appointed the universal lot of humanity, that death, the leveller of all human greatness, is made to visit with equal pace the prince’s palace and the peasant’s hut. [“Pallida mors aequo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas Regumque turres.”–Horace lib. i. od. 4.]
Here, then, we have three more signs or hieroglyphics added to our alphabet of symbolism. Others there are in this degree, but they belong to a higher grade of interpretation, and cannot be appropriately discussed in an essay on temple symbolism only.
We now reach the third degree, the Master Masons of the modern science, and the Epopts, or beholders of the sacred things in the ancient Mysteries.
In the third degree the symbolic allusions to the temple of Solomon, and the implements of Masonry employed in its construction, are extended and fully completed. At the building of that edifice, we have already seen that one class of the workmen was employed in the preparation of the materials, while another was engaged in placing those materials in their proper position. But there was a third and higher class,–the master workmen,–whose duty it was to superintend the two other classes, and to see that the stones were not only duly prepared, but that the most exact accuracy had been observed in giving to them their true juxtaposition in the edifice. It was then only that the last and finishing labor was performed, and the cement was applied by these skilful workmen, to secure the materials in their appropriate places, and to unite the building in one enduring and connected mass. Hence the trowel, we are informed, was the most important, though of course not the only, implement in use among the master builders. They did not permit this last, indelible operation to be performed by any hands less skilful than their own. They required that the craftsmen should prove the correctness of their work by the square, level, and plumb, and test, by these unerring instruments, the accuracy of their joints; and, when satisfied of the just arrangement of every part, the cement, which was to give an unchangeable union to the whole, was then applied by themselves.
[It is worth noticing that the verb natzach, from which the title of the menatzchim (the overseers or Master Masons in the ancient temple), is derived, signifies also in Hebrew to be perfected, to be completed. The third degree is the perfection of the symbolism of the temple, and its lessons lead us to the completion of life. In like manner the Mysteries, says Christie, “were termed τελεταὶ, perfections, because they were supposed to induce a perfectness of life. Those who were purified by them were styled τελουμένοι, and τετελεσμένοι, that is, brought to perfection.”–Observations on Ouvaroff’s Essay on the Eleusinian Mysteries, p. 183.]
Hence, in speculative Masonry, the trowel has been assigned to the third degree as its proper implement, and the symbolic meaning which accompanies it has a strict and beautiful reference to the purposes for which it was used in the ancient temple; for as it was there employed “to spread the cement which united the building in one common mass,” so is it selected as the symbol of brotherly love–that cement whose object is to unite our mystic association in one sacred and harmonious band of brethren.
Here, then, we perceive the first, or, as I have already called it, the elementary form of our symbolism–the adaptation of the terms, and implements, and processes of an operative art to a speculative science. The temple is now completed. The stones having been hewed, squared, and numbered in the quarries by the apprentices,–having been properly adjusted by the craftsmen, and finally secured in their appropriate places, with the strongest and purest cement, by the master builders,–the temple of King Solomon presented, in its finished condition, so noble an appearance of sublimity and grandeur as to well deserve to be selected, as it has been, for the type or symbol of that immortal temple of the body, to which Christ significantly and symbolically alluded when he said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
This idea of representing the interior and spiritual man by a material temple is so apposite in all its parts as to have occurred on more than one occasion to the first teachers of Christianity. Christ himself repeatedly alludes to it in other passages, and the eloquent and figurative St. Paul beautifully extends the idea in one of his Epistles to the Corinthians, in the following language: “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the spirit of God dwelleth in you?” And again, in a subsequent passage of the same Epistle, he reiterates the idea in a more positive form: “What, know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?” And Dr. Adam Clarke, while commenting on this latter passage, makes the very allusions which have been the topic of discussion in the present essay. “As truly,” says he, “as the living God dwelt in the Mosaic tabernacle and in the temple of Solomon, so truly does the Holy Ghost dwell in the souls of genuine Christians; and as the temple and all its utensils were holy, separated from all common and profane uses, and dedicated alone to the service of God, so the bodies of genuine Christians are holy, and should be employed in the service of God alone.”
The idea, therefore, of making the temple a symbol of the body, is not exclusively masonic; but the mode of treating the symbolism by a reference to the particular temple of Solomon, and to the operative art engaged in its construction, is peculiar to Freemasonry. It is this which isolates it from all other similar associations. Having many things in common with the secret societies and religious Mysteries of antiquity, in this “temple symbolism” it differs from them all.
The full text of the 1869 edition of Mackey’s “The Symbolism of Freemasonry” may be found at: