Commentaries on the

History, Philosophy, and Symbolism

of the Degree of


Excerpted from pages 95 – 115 of

A Manual of the Lodge

by Albert G. Mackey


If the first degree is intended as a representation of youth, and the second of manhood, the third, or MASTER MASON, is emblematic of old age, with its trials, its sufferings, and its final termination in death. The time for toiling is now over; the opportunity to learn has passed away; the spiritual temple that we all have been striving to erect in our hearts is now nearly completed, and the wearied workman awaits only the word of the Grand Master of the Universe, to call him from the labors of earth to the eternal refreshments of heaven. Hence, this is by far the most solemn and impressive of the degrees of Masonry; and it has, in consequence of the profound truths which it inculcates, been distinguished by the craft as the sublime degree. As an Entered Apprentice, the Mason was taught those elementary instructions which were to fit him for further advancement in his profession, just as the youth is supplied with that rudimentary education which is to prepare him for entering on the active duties of life; as a Fellow Craft, the Mason is directed to continue his investigations in the science of the Institution, and to labor diligently in the tasks it proscribes, just as the man is required to enlarge his mind by the acquisition of new ideas, and to extend his usefulness to his fellow-creatures; but, as a Master, the Mason is taught the last, the most important, and the most necessary of truths, that having been faithful to all his trusts, he is at last to die, and to receive the rewards of his fidelity.

It was the single object of all the ancient rites and mysteries practiced in the very bosom of pagan darkness, shining as a solitary beacon in all that surrounding gloom, and cheering the philosopher in his weary pilgrimage of life, to teach the immortality of the soul. This is still the great design of the third degree of Masonry. This is the scope and aim of its ritual. The Master Mason represents man, when youth, manhood, old age, and life itself have passed away as fleeting shadows, yet raised from the grave of iniquity, and quickened into another and a better existence. By its legend and all its ritual, it is implied that we have been redeemed from the death of sin and the sepulchre of pollution. “The ceremonies and the lecture”" as a distinguished writer has observed, “beautifully illustrate this all-engrossing subject; and the conclusion we arrive at is, that youth, properly directed, leads us to honorable and virtuous maturity, and that the life of man, regulated by morality, faith, and justice, will be rewarded at its closing hour by the prospect of eternal bliss.”


This has very properly been called the sublime degree of a Master Mason, as well for the solemnity of the ceremonies which accompany it, as for the profound lessons of wisdom which it inculcates. The important design of the degree is to symbolize the great doctrines of the resurrection of the body and the immortality of the soul; and hence it has been remarked by a learned writer of our Order, that the Master Mason represents a man saved from the grave of iniquity, and raised to the faith of salvation. The lecture is divided into three sections.


The ceremony of raising a candidate to the sublime degree of a Master Mason is particularly described in the first section, which, though brief, will be found essentially useful.

The Compasses are peculiarly consecrated to this degree, because within their extreme points, when properly extended, are emblematically said to be inclosed the principal tenets of our profession, and hence the moral application of the Compasses, in the third degree, is to those precious jewels of a Master Mason, Friendship, Morality, and Brotherly Love.

The following passage of Scripture is introduced during the ceremonies:

“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 music 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.” — Ecclesiastes 12:1-7.

The passage of Scripture here selected is a beautiful and affecting description of the body of man suffering under the infirmities of old age, and metaphorically compared to a worn-out house about to fall into decay. How appropriate is such an introduction to the sublime and awful ceremonies of that degree, in which death, the resurrection, and life eternal are the lessons to be taught by all its symbols and allegories!


The Working Tools of a Master Mason are all the implements of masonry indiscriminately, but more especially the Trowel.

The Trowel is an instrument made use of by Operative Masons, to spread the cement which unites a building into one common mass; but we, as Free and Accepted Masons, are taught to make use of it for the more noble and glorious purpose of spreading the cement of brotherly love and affection; that cement which unites us into one sacred band, or society of friends and brothers, among whom no contention should ever exist, but that noble contention, or rather emulation, of who can best work and best agree.

The three precious jewels of a Master Mason are here referred to.


The second section of this lecture is of pre-eminent importance. It recites the legend or historical tradition on which the degree is founded; a legend whose symbolic interpretation testifies our faith in the resurrection of the body and the immortality of the soul, while it exemplifies a rare instance of virtue, fortitude, and integrity.

The legend of the third degree has been considered of so much importance that it has been preserved in the symbolism of every Masonic rite. No matter what modifications or alterations the general system may have undergone—no matter how much the ingenuity or the imagination of the founders of rites may have perverted or corrupted other symbols, abolishing the old, and substituting new ones—the legend of the Temple Builder has ever been left untouched, to present itself in all the integrity of its ancient mythical form.

The idea of the legend was undoubtedly borrowed from the Ancient Mysteries, where the lesson was the same as that now conveyed in the third degree of Masonry.

Viewed in this light, it is evident that it is not essential to the value of the symbolism that the legend should be proved to be historical. Whether considered as a truthful narrative of an event that actually transpired during the building of the Temple, or simply as a myth, embodying the utterance of a religious sentiment, the symbolic lesson of life and death and immortality is still contained in its teachings, and commands our earnest attention.

Again is the lesson taught here, as it was in the first degree, that a Mason should enter upon no great and important labor without first invoking the blessing of Deity. But the symbolism here is still further extended, and the candidate, representing one who is about to enter upon the pilgrimage of life, and all its dangers and temptations, first is supposed to lay down upon his trestle-board the designs of labor, of honest ambition, or of virtuous pleasure upon which he is about to enter, and then to invoke the protection and blessing of the Grand Architect of the Universe upon his future career. For the Temple Builder is, in the Masonic system, the symbol of humanity developed here and in the life to come; and as the Temple is the visible symbol of the world, its architect becomes the mythical symbol of man, the dweller and worker in the world, and his progress by the gates is the allegory of man's pilgrimage through youth, man hood, and old age, to the final triumph of death and the grave.

The number 12 was celebrated as a mystical number in the ancient systems of sun-worship, of which it has already been said that Masonry is a philosophical development. The number there referred to the twelve signs of the zodiac, and in those Masonic rites in which the Builder is made the symbol of the sun, the twelve F:. C:. refer to the twelve signs in which alone the sun is to be sought for. But in the York rite this symbolism is lost, because Hiram there represents man, and not the sun. But the ancient number has still been preserved. Portal says the number twelve was a perfect and complete number. The number thirteen indicated the commencement of a new course of life, and thence it became the emblem of death. The number twelve has always been considered as a sacred number: witness the 12 great gods of the Greeks and Romans; the 12 altars of Janus, referring to the 12 months of the year, the 12 tribes of Israel, the 12 Apostles, and a hundred other instances that if necessary, might be cited.


The word means a traveler, one who passes over the road—derived from way or road, and the word fare, in its old meaning of to pass or go over. Bailey defines a wayfaring man as “one who is accustomed to travel over the roads.” It is with this meaning frequently found in Scripture, as in Judges 19:17: “And when he had lifted up his eyes, he saw a wayfaring man in the street of the city.” Such a man, having perhaps just landed at Joppa, and on his way to the interior, would be most likely to be met near that city, and would be best enabled to give any information wanted as to the condition of the shipping in the harbor, or in relation to any othet matter connected with a passage.

The word “sea-faring man” sometimes ignorantly used in this place, is a monstrous corruption of the old term.

Joppa, which was by the Hebrews called Japho, and is now known as Jaffa, was and is a sea-port town and harbor on the coast of Palestine, about forty miles in “a westerly direction” (being about northwest) from Jerusalem. At the time of the building of the Temple it was the only sea-port possessed by the Israelites, and was therefore the point through which all passage out of or into the country was effected.

The small hill near Mount Moriah can be clearly identified by the most convincing analogies as being no other than Mount Calvary. Thus Mount Calvary was a small hill; it was situated in a westerly direction from the Temple, and near Mount Moriah; it was on the direct road from Jerusalem to Joppa, and is thus the very spot where a weary brother, traveling on that road, would find it convenient to sit down to rest and refresh himself; it was outside of the gate of the Temple; and lastly, there are several caves, or clefts in the rocks, in the neighborhood, one of which, it will be remembered, was, subsequently to the time of this tradition, used as the sepulchre of our Lord. The Christian Mason will readily perceive the peculiar character of the symbolism which this identification of the spot on which the great truth of the resurrection was unfolded in both systems—the Masonic and the Christian—must suggest.


The Sprig of Acacia is an important symbol in Freemasonry. The plant is known to botanists as the acacia vera of Tournefort and the mimosa nilotica of Linneaus. It is an evergreen that grows in great abundance in the vicinity of Jerusalem. Its name in Hebrew is Shittah, or in the plural, Shittim, and it was always esteemed as a sacred tree by the Israelites. The tabernacle and its furniture, with the Ark of the Covenant, was made out of it, and it was consecrated, from among the other trees of the forest, to sacred purposes.

As a symbol, it received, among the ancients, three interpretations. 1. In consequence of its incorruptible and evergreen nature, it was readily adopted as a symbol of the immortality of the soul. 2. In allusion to the derivation of its name, among the Greeks, from a word which signifies freedom from sin, it was also adopted as a symbol of innocence. 3. Like all the other sacred plants, such as the myrtle, the mistletoe, and the lotus, which were used in the Ancient Mysteries, it became a symbol of initiation. The three interpretations combined teach us, by the use of this one symbol, that in the initiation of life and death, of which the initiation in the third degree is simply emblematic, innocence must for a time lie in the grave—at length, however, to be called by the Grand Master of all things to immortality.


The vicinity of Jerusalem is exceeding rocky and mountainous. These rocks abound in clefts or caves, which were sometimes used by the inhabitants as places of sepulture, sometimes as places of refuge in time of war, and sometimes as lurking-places for robbers, or for persons guilty of crime and fleeing from justice.


There is a Masonic tradition, that the Jewel of an ancient Grand Master—and the one therefore always worn by the Builder—was the Square and Compasses, with the letter G between. The finding of this jewel alone gives any probability to this part of the legend.

It is hardly necessary to say that the letter G, wherever spoken of in Masonry as a symbol, is merely a modern substitute for the Hebrew letter yod (י) which was the initial of Jehovah, the tetragammaton, and therefore constantly used as a symbol of Deity.


Thou, O God! knowest our down-sitting and our up-rising, and understandest our thoughts afar off. Shield and defend us from the evil intentions of our enemies, and support us under the trials and afflictions we are destined to endure, while traveling through this vale of tears. Man, that is born of a woman, is of few days, and full of trouble. He cometh forth as a flower, and is cut down; he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not. Seeing his days are determined, the number of his months are with thee; thou hast appointed his bounds that he can not pass; turn from him that he may rest, till he shall accomplish his day. For there is hope of a tree if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease. But man dieth and wasteth away; yea, man giveth up the ghost, and where is he? As the waters fail from the sea, and the flood decayeth and drieth up, so man lieth down and riseth not up, till the heavens shall be no more. Yet, O Lord! have compassion on the children of thy creation, administer them comfort in time of trouble, and save them with an everlasting salvation. So mote it be. Amen.


The five-pointed star has been adopted, in very recent times, as a Masonic symbol. Differing, as it does, entirely from the blazing star, which in the first degree refers to Divine Providence, it is consecrated, in the third degree, as a symbol of the Fire Points of Fellowship.

Among the Jews, as, indeed, among all other civilized nations, it was considered not only an act due to decency and humanity, but a religious obligation, to bury and pay honors to the dead. The bier was followed by mourners, who poured out the anguish of their hearts in lamentable wails, and who rehearsed the virtues of the departed, and expressed the sorrow of the survivors. “Men,” says Jahn, “who were distinguished for their rank, and who, at the same time, exhibited a claim to the love and favor of the people for their virtues and their good deeds, were honored with an attendance of vast multitudes, to witness the solemnities of their interment.” [Jahn, John. Biblical Antiquities. p. 100.]

The Mosaic law which related to defilement by dead bodies, rendered it necessary that none should be buried near sacred places, nor even within the limits of cities, except in the case of kings and very distinguished men. The strictness of the religious code against pollution would, however, forbid that even these should be interred in the neighborhood of a temple or sanctuary.

As far back as the era of Abraham, sepulchral monuments are mentioned. When Rachel died, we are told that Jacob “set a pillar upon her grave.” The ancient Arabians erected a heap of stones over the dead; but as among the Hebrews such a heap was an indication that the body beneath had been stoned to death, the latter nation, therefore, confined their monuments to a single stone, which it was usual carefully to hew and to ornament with inscriptions.

Although among the early Jews the burning of the body was esteemed disgraceful, the sentiment of the people was subsequently changed, and to burn the body with aromatic spices, and deposit the ashes in an urn, was considered, in the days of King Solomon, as a distinguished honor, while, says Jahn, “not to be burned was regarded a most signal disgrace.” [Jahn, John. Biblical Antiquities. p. 102.]

We thus close the second section with a tribute to the memory of that distinguished artist who preferred to lose his life rather than betray his trust.


The third section furnishes many details in relation to the building of the Temple, and concludes with an explanation of the hieroglyphical emblems of the degree. Nearly all of this section is monitorial.

The Temple of King Solomon occupied seven years in its construction, during which time we are informed that it rained not in the daytime, that the workmen might not be obstructed in their labor.

This famous fabric was supported by fourteen hundred and fifty-three columns, and two thousand nine hundred and six pilasters, all hewn from the finest Parian marble.


It was symbolically supported, also, by three principal columns, Wisdom, Strength, and Beauty, which were represented by the three Grand Masters.

There were employed in its building three Grand Masters; three thousand three hundred Overseers, or masters of the work; eighty thousand Fellow Crafts; and seventy thousand Entered Apprentices. All these were classed and arranged by King Solomon, that neither envy, discord, nor confusion were suffered to interrupt that universal peace and tranquillity which pervaded the world at this important period.


There are in this degree two classes of emblems or symbols, the first of which is monitorial, and consists of the Three Steps, the Pot of Incense, the Bee-Hive, the Book of Constitutions, guarded by the Tiler's Sword, the Sword, pointing to a Waked Heart, the All-seeinq Eye, the Anchor and Ark, the Forty-seventh Problem of Euclid, the Hour-Glass, and the Scythe. They are thus explained:

THE THREE STEPS usually delineated upon the Master's carpet, are emblematical of the three principal stages of human life, viz: Youth, Manhood, and Age. In Youth, as Entered Apprentices, we ought industriously to occupy our minds in the attainment of useful knowledge; in Manhood, as Fellow Crafts, we should apply our knowledge to the discharge of our respective duties to God, our neighbor, and ourselves; so that in Age, as Master Masons, we may enjoy the happy reflections consequent on a well-spent life, and die in the hope of a glorious immortality.

THE POT OF INCENSE is an emblem of a pure heart, which is always an acceptable sacrifice to the Deity; and as this glows with fervent heat, so should our hearts continually glow with gratitude to the great beneficent Author of our existence, for the manifold blessings and comforts we enjoy.

THE BEE-HIVE is an emblem of industry, and recommends the practice of that virtue to all created beings, from the highest seraph in heaven to the lowest reptile of the dust. It teaches us, that as we came into the world rational and intelligent beings, so we should ever be industrious ones; never sitting down contented while our fellow-creatures around us are in want, when it is in our power to relieve them without inconvenience to ourselves.

BOOK OF CONSTITUTIONS, GUARDED BY THE TILER'S SWORD reminds us that we should be ever watchful and guarded in our words and actions, particularly when before the enemies of Masonry; ever bearing in remembrance those truly Masonic virtues, silence and circumspection.

THE SWORD, POINTING TO A NAKED HEART demonstrates that justice will sooner or later overtake us; and although our thoughts, words, and actions may be bidden from the eyes of men, yet that

ALL-SEEING EYE, whom the Sun, Moon, and Stars obey, and under whose watchful care even Comets perform their stupendous revolutions, pervades the inmost recesses of the human Heart, and will reward us according to our merits.

THE ANCHOR AND ARK are emblems of a well-grounded hope and a well-spent life. They are emblematical of that divine Ark which safely wafts us over this tempestuous sea of troubles, and that Anchor which shall safely moor us in a peaceful harbor, where the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary shall find rest.

THE FORTY-SEVENTH PROBLEM OF EUCLID was an invention of our ancient friend and brother, the great Pythagoras, who, in his travels through Asia, Africa, and Europe, was initiated into several orders of priesthood, and raised to the sublime degree of a Master Mason. This wise philosopher enriched his mind abundantly in a general knowledge of things, and more especially in Geometry or Masonry. On this subject he drew out many problems and theorems; and among the most distinguished he erected this, when, in the joy of his heart, he exclaimed, Eureka, in the Grecian language signifying I have found it; and upon the discovery of which he is said to have sacrificed a hecatomb. It teaches Masons to be general lovers of the arts and sciences.

[This problem is thus enunciated by Euclid: “In any right-angled triangle, the square which is described upon the side subtending the right angle is equal to the square described upon the sides which contain the right angle—Euclid, Book I., Prob. 47.]

THE HOUR-GLASS is an emblem of human life. Behold! how swiftly the sands run, and how rapidly our lives are drawing to a close! We can not without astonishment behold the little particles which are contained in this machine; how they pass away almost imperceptibly! and yet, to our surprise, in the short space of an hour they are all exhausted. Thus wastes man! Today he puts forth the tender leaves of hope; tomorrow blossoms, and bears his blushing honors thick upon him; the next day comes a frost, which nips the shoot; and when he thinks his greatness is still aspiring, he falls, like autumn leaves, to enrich our mother earth.

THE SCYTHE is an emblem of time, which cuts the brittle thread of life, and launches us into eternity. Behold! what havoc the scythe of Time makes among the human race! If by chance we should escape the numerous evils incident to childhood and youth, and with health and vigor arrive at the years of manhood; yet, withal, we must soon be cut down by the all-devouring scythe of Time, and be gathered into the land where our fathers have gone before us.

The second class of emblems are not monitorial, and therefore their true interpretation can only be obtained within the tiled recesses of the Lodge. They consist of the Setting Maul, the Spade, the Coffin, and the Sprig of Acacia. They afford subjects of serious and solemn reflection to the rational and contemplative mind, and thus the lecture closes with cheering promises of a blessed immortality beyond the grave.


Brother: Your zeal for the institution of Masonry, the progress you have made in the mystery, and your conformity to our regulations, have pointed you out as a proper object of our favor and esteem. You are now bound by duty, honor, and gratitude to be faithful to your trust; to support the dignity of your character on every occasion; and to enforce, by precept and example, obedience to the tenets of the Order.

In the character of a Master Mason, you are authorized to correct the errors and irregularities of your uninformed brethren, and to guard them against a breach of fidelity. To preserve the reputation of the Fraternity unsullied, must be your constant care; and for this purpose it is your province to recommend to your inferiors, obedience and submission; to your equals, courtesy and affability; to your superiors, kindness and condescension. Universal benevolence you are always to inculcate, and by the regularity of your own behavior afford the best example for the conduct of others less informed. The ancient landmarks of the Order, intrusted to your care, you are carefully to preserve; and never suffer them to be infringed, or countenance a deviation from the established usages and customs of the fraternity.

Your virtue, honor, and reputation are concerned in supporting with dignity the character you now bear. Let no motive, therefore, make you swerve from your duty, violate your vows, or betray your trust; but be true and faithful, and imitate the example of that celebrated artist whom you have this evening represented. Thus you will render yourself deserving of the honor which we have conferred, and merit the confidence that we have reposed.

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