Commentaries on the
History, Philosophy, and Symbolism
of the Degree of
Excerpted from pages 77 – 94 of
by Albert G. Mackey
HISTORY AND SYMBOLISM.
The degree of Super–Excellent Master certainly has no connection, in its history or its symbolism, with the Royal and Select degrees, nor was it ever, until it was very recently introduced by a few Councils in some of the Northern and Western States, considered as forming any part of the work of a Council. I do not myself acknowledge its legitimacy as a degree of Cryptic Masonry, and I seriously object to its introduction into the Council, because it destroys the symmetry of the rite which very properly closes with the ninth degree. A description of it is, however, inserted in this Manual, because, although I deem it misplaced, it has nevertheless been adopted, and is worked by many Councils, and is, withal, an interesting degree, and conveys some valuable information.
But although the introduction of the degree, into the Council work is of very recent date, being unnoticed by any writer who has hitherto compiled a Masonic monitor, the degree itself can boast of a much longer existence. It has always been in possession of the Supreme Councils of the Ancient and Accepted Rite, and was frequently conferred by the Inspectors-General as a “detached” or honorary degree. [Dalcho, in his “Orations,” says, while speaking of the thirty-three degrees of the Ancient and Accepted Rite: “Besides those degrees which are in regular succession, most of the Inspectors are in possession of a number of detached degrees, given in different parts of the world, and which they generally communicate, free of expense, to those brethren who are high enough to understand them.” It was in this way that, twenty years ago, I myself received the degree from the hands of Illustrious Brother Alex. McDonald, at that time Grand Commander of the Supreme Council for the Southern Jurisdiction of the United States, who at the same time presented me with a ritual, copied by him from a much older one in the possession of Brother Roche, a former member of the Supreme Council.] It is not, however, a degree that has been very generally known to Masonic writers. Lenning makes no allusion to it in his very copious “Encyclopadie der Freimaurerei,” nor is it to be found in the catalogue of several hundred degrees given by Thory in his “Acta Latomorum.” But, on the other hand, Dr. Oliver, in his “Historical Landmarks of Freemasonry, vol. II,” describes the degree with such completeness as to demonstrate that he must have seen or been in possession of its ritual precisely as it is practiced in this country. [I mention the name of this venerable patriarch almost at the very moment that the melancholy tidings of his death have reached me. As one honored with his friendship and grateful for his instructions, I dedicate this sentence to the memory of the most learned and enthusiastic of Masons.]
The Masonic legend of the degree of Super–Excellent Master refers to circumstances which occurred on the last day of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuzaradan, the captain of the Chaldean army, who had been sent by Nebuchadnezzar to destroy the city and temple, as a just punishment of the Jewish king Zedekiah, for his perfidy and rebellion. It occupies, therefore, precisely that point of time which is embraced in that part of the Royal Arch degree which represents the destruction of the temple, and the carrying of the Jews in captivity to Babylon. It is, in fact, an exemplification and extension of that part of the Royal Arch degree.
As to the symbolic design of the degree, it is very evident that its legend and ceremonies are intended to inculcate that important Masonic virtue, fidelity to vows. Zedekiah, the wicked king of Judah, is, by the modern ritualists who have symbolized the degree, adopted very appropriately as the symbol of perfidy, and the severe but well-deserved punishment which was inflicted on him by the king of Babylon is set forth in the lecture as a great moral lesson, whose object is to warn the recipient of the fatal effects that will ensue from a violation of his sacred obligations.
COUNCIL OF SUPER–EXCELLENT MASTERS.
A Council of Super–Excellent Masters consists of the following eleven officers: Most Excellent King, Companion Gedaliah, Three Keepers of the Temple, Captain of the Guards, Three Heralds, Treasurer, and Secretary. The Most Excellent King represents Zedekiah, the twentieth and last king of Judah. He is seated in the East. Gedaliah is seated in the West, except during a reception, when he assumes a station in front, of the King. The First Keeper of the Temple is seated in front of the West. The Second and Third on the left of the West, and near the door of preparation. The Captain of the Guards is seated on the right hand of the King, the Three Heralds are on the outside of the door, and the Treasurer and Secretary occupy the usual positions of those officers in other Masonic bodies. There are also three Guards who attend the King as an escort, but they are not permanent officers, and are assigned no definite position.
The following passages of Scripture are appropriately read in the course of a reception into this degree.
“How does the city sit solitary, that was full of people: how is she become as a widow! she that was great among the nations and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary! She weepeth sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks: among all her lovers she has none to comfort her: all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they are become her enemies.” — Lamentations 1:1-2.
THE DESTRUCTION OF THE TEMPLE.
The destruction of the temple which had been built by King Solomon is the important event that is recorded in the legend of this degree. This was not the result of a single hostile act, but was brought about after a series of wars and sieges, which, with brief intervals of peace and prosperity, lasted for one hundred and fifty years, and finally culminated not only in the destruction of the city of Jerusalem, its holy temple, and all its magnificent palaces and dwellings, but also in the total annihilation of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. About the year 741 B.C., which was two hundred and sixty-three years after the building of the temple, and in the reign of Ahaz, king of Judah, an invasion of Palestine was made by Tiglath-pileser, king of Assyria, who carried off the pastoral population that lived beyond the river Jordan, together with the tribes of Zebulon and Naphtali. His successor, Shalmanezer, continued these predatory incursions, and after having made Hoshea, the king of Israel, tributary to Assyria, when the tribute was withheld he attacked and reduced Samaria, in the year 721 B.C., and carried the remnant of the ten tribes, which constituted the Israelitish monarchy, into Assyria and Media, whence they never returned. This was the end of the kingdom of Israel.
But the kingdom of Judah still remained, consisting of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, the capital of which was the city of Jerusalem.
Less than a century after the extinction of the kingdom of Israel, Nebuchadnezzar, the Chaldean monarch, commenced those hostile aggressions upon the kingdom of Judah which only terminated in its meeting with a similar fate.
In the reign of Jehoiakim, in the year 599 B.C., Jerusalem was besieged and taken by Nebuchadcezzar, who carried away many of the people as captives to Babylon, and despoiled the temple of a large proportion of its treasures and sacred vessels.
In the reign of Jehoiachin, who succeeded his father Jehoiakim on the throne of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar again laid siege to Jerusalem. On its surrender, for it made but little resistance, Jehoiachin was carried to Babylon, where he remained a prisoner until his death. Nebuchadnezzar, on this invasion, took away ten thousand Jewish captives, consisting of all the remaining artificers and effective Inhabitants, leaving behind only the poorer people and the unskilled laborers. He also placed Zedekiah, the uncle of Jehoiachin, upon the throne, having first exacted from him an oath of fidelity and allegiance.
The third and last invasion of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar was in the reign of this king, who proved treacherous to his Babylonian master. Nebuchadnezzar accordingly marched upon Jerusalem with a mighty army, and, having taken up his own residence in Riblah, a town of Syria, he dispatched Nebuzaradan, his general, or, as he is called in Scripture, “captain of the guard,” to the city, which he took by storm after a twelve months' siege.
On this occasion, the King of Chaldea was resolved to inflict signal vengeance on his unfaithful tributaries, and to leave no means for a renewed revolt. He accordingly directed Nebuzaradan, after having taken possession of all the vessels and treasures of the temple which had escaped the former pillage, and all the riches that he could find in the king's house and the houses of the other inhabitants, to set fire to the temple and the city, and completely to consume them; to overthrow the walls, the towers, and the fortresses, and in short to make a thorough desolation of the place, in which condition it remained for fifty two years, until the restoration of the captives by Cyrus.
This is the calamitous event which is briefly referred to in a portion of the ceremonies of the Royal Arch, and which it is the sole object of the Super–Excellent Master's degree to commemorate.
Zedekiah was the twentieth and last king of Judah. When Nebuchadnezzar had in his second siege of Jerusalem deposed Jehoiachin, whom he carried as a captive to Babylon, he placed Zedekiah on the throne in his stead. By this act Zedekiah became tributary to the King of the Chaldees, who exacted from him a solemn oath of fidelity and obedience. This oath he observed no longer than till an opportunity occurred of violating it. In the language of the author of the Books of Chronicles, “he rebelled against King Nebuchadnezzar, who had made him swear by God.”
This course soon brought down upon him the vengeance of the offended monarch, who invaded the land of Judah with an immense army. Remaining himself at Riblah, a town on the northern border of Palestine, he sent the army under his general, Nebuzaradan, to Jerusalem, which was invested by the Babylonian forces. After a siege of about one year, during which the inhabitants endured many hardships, the city was taken by an assault the Chaldeans entering it through breaches in the northern wall.
It is very natural to suppose, that when the enemy were most pressing in their attack upon the devoted city, when the breach which was to give them entrance had been effected, and when perhaps the streets most distant from the temple were already filled with Chaldean soldiery, a council of his princes and nobles should have been held by Zedekiah in the temple, to which they had fled for refuge, and that he should ask their advice as to the most feasible method of escape from the impending dangers. History, it is true, gives no account of any such assembly, but the written record of these important events which is now extant is very brief, and as there is every reason to admit the probability of the occurrence, the original compiler of the degree was authorized to make the meeting of such a council a part of its legendary ceremony. By the advice of this council, Zedekiah attempted to make his escape across the Jordan. The result is so succinctly told in the simple language of the prophet Jeremiah, who was present during the siege and at the capture, that no other words could give as good a description.
“And it came to pass that when Zedekiah the King of Judah saw them [the princes of Babylon] and all the men of war, then they fled, and went forth out of the city by night, by the way of the king's garden, by the gate betwixt the two walls: and he went out the way of the plain. But the Chaldeans' army pursued after them, and overtook Zedekiah in the plains of Jericho: and when they had taken him, they brought him up to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon to Riblah, in the land of Hamath, where he gave judgment upon him.
“Then the King of Babylon slew the sons of Zedekiah in Riblah before his eyes: also the King of Babylon slew all the nobles of Judah. Moreover, he put out Zedekiah's eyes, and bound him with chains, to carry him to Babylon. And the Chaldeans burned the king's house and the houses of the people with fire, and brake down the walls of Jerusalem.
“Then Nebuzaradan, the Captain of the Guard, carried away captive into Babylon the remnant of the people that remained in the city, and those that fell away, that fell to him, with the rest of the people that remained. But Nebuzaradan, the Captain of the Guard, left of the poor of the people, which had nothing, in the land of Judah, and gave them vineyards and fields at the same time.” — Jeremiah 39:4-10.
There are five persons of the name of Gedaliah who are mentioned in Scripture, but only two of them were contemporary with the destruction of the temple.
Gedaliah the son of Pashur is mentioned by the prophet Jeremiah (38:1) as a prince of the court of Zedekiah. He was present at its destruction, and is known to have been one of the advisers of the king. It was through his counsels, and those of his colleagues, that Zedekiah was persuaded to deliver up the prophet Jeremiah to death, from which he was rescued only by the intercession of a eunuch of the palace.
The other Gedaliah was the son of Ahikam. He seems to have been greatly in favor with Nebuchadnezzar, for after the destruction of Jerusalem, and the deportation of Zedekiah, he was appointed by the Chaldean monarch as his satrap or governor over Judea. He took up his residence at Mizpah, where he was shortly afterwards murdered by Ishmael, one of the descendants of the house of David.
The question now arises, which of these two is the one referred to in the ceremonies of a Council of Super–Excellent Masters? I think there can be no doubt that the founders of the degree intended the second officer of the Council to represent the former, and not the latter; Gedaliah the son of Pashur, and not Gedaliah, the son of Ahikam; the Prince of Judah, and not the Governor of Judea.
We are forced to this conclusion by various reasons. The Gedaliah represented in the degree must have been a resident of Jerusalem during the siege, and at the very time of the assault, which immediately preceded the destruction of the temple and the city. Now, we know that Gedaliah the son of Pashur was with Hezekiah as one of his advisers. On the other hand it is most unlikely that Gedaliah the son of Ahikam could have been a resident of Jerusalem, for it is not at all probable that Nebuchadnezzar would have selected such an one for the important and confidential office of a satrap or governor. We should rather suppose that Gedaliah the son of Ahikam had been carried away to Babylon after one of the former sieges; that he had there, like Daniel, gained by his good conduct the esteem and respect of the Chaldean monarch; that he had come back to Judea with the army; and that, on the taking of the city, he had been appointed governor by Nebuchadnezzar. Such being the facts, it is evident that he could not have been in the council of King Zedekiah, advising and directing his attempted escape.
The modern revivers of the degree of Super–Excellent Master have, therefore, been wrong in supposing that Gedaliah the son of Ahikam, and afterwards Governor of Judea, was the person represented by the second officer of the Council. He was Gedaliah, the son of Pashur, a wicked man, one of Zedekiah's princes, and was most probably put to death by Nebuchadnezzar, with the other princes and nobles whom he captured in the plains of Jericho.
It may be said that it is not important to decide which Gedaliah is referred to, because the whole legend of the degree is apocryphal, not founded on history, but simply intended as an allegory or symbolic lesson.
To this I reply, that even in the composition of a fictitious work we should observe consistency, respect probabilities, and by all means avoid an absurdity.
CHARGE TO THE NEW SUPER–EXCELLENT MASTER.
Companion: As Masonry is a science of morality vailed in allegory and illustrated by symbols, it is proper that, as a Super–Excellent Master, you should be instructed in the moral design of the degree into which you have just been initiated. It is intended, in the first place, to inculcate a sincere devotion to the GREAT I AM, in contradistinction to an idolatrous worship, which is, in other words, but a symbolical expression for a reverence of truth and an abhorrence of falsehood.
It also impresses on us the necessity of a faithful fulfillment of our several vows, and the fearless discharge of our respective duties; and teaches us, by its legends and its ceremonies, that the violation of our solemn vows, as in the instance of the last king of Judah, will not only cause us to forfeit the respect and friendship of our companions, but will also most surely destroy our own peace of mind.
Let us, then, labor diligently and faithfully in the cause of TRUTH, doing with all our might whatever our hands find to do, so that, when at the time of the third watch our work is finished, we may be greeted as Super–Excellent Masters, and be released from our captivity in the flesh, to return over the rough and rugged way of the Valley of the Shadow of Death to our abiding-place, eternal in the heavens, there to erect our second moral and Masonic temple, that house not made with hands, there to adore the Holy One of Israel throughout the endless circle of eternity.
[This charge, which has never before been published, is, I think, the conclusion of Cushman's historical lecture on the degree. Its appropriateness has induced me to adopt it, with some slight variations of language, as the charge to the candidate; and as such it should be used. I am indebted for it to the kindness of Comp. Tho. Snow, of New Hampshire.]
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