by Midnight Freemason Regular Contributor
There are many parts of our Masonic ritual that are taken from the Holy Bible, either via direct quotation or through paraphrasing. One of favorites is what is sometimes referred to as “the Grasshopper Speech” in the Master Mason degree.1 It is often given by the Junior Warden at the beginning of the second half of that degree, and is a direct quotation from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. To me, it is one of the most powerful excerpts from Scripture in our ritual because of its teachings as well as because of the beauty of its prose. It has particular resonance for us as Freemasons as we are reminded of our mortality, but also called upon to seize our present opportunity to live virtuous and upright lives while we still can.
The verses from the King James Bible are my personal favorite, although the words sing in just about any version of the Bible you prefer. I’ve reprinted the KJV words below:
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 ever 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.2
The book of Ecclesiastes is a collection of wisdom teachings and poems of “The Preacher,” who many believe to be King Solomon. The first eleven chapters talk of man’s petty foibles, the futility of grudges or jealousy, and so on, which the Preacher deems ephemeral, writing, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” Interspersed with these warnings are pieces of wisdom meant to guide men towards a virtuous life living in “the fear of the Lord.”
The Grasshopper Speech begins the twelfth and final chapter and serves as a capstone to the teachings that have come before it. It warns us not to waste time in our youth and manhood ignoring these teachings. Time waits for no man, and indeed the majority of the speech is an allusion to the aging of the human body. The “grinders” are teeth, the “windows be darkened” refers to our failing eyesight; the blossoming almond tree being our whitening hair, and the silver cord and golden bowl possibly alluding to our bowing posture and flagging intellect. By the time we see fit to live by the teachings laid out earlier, it may be too late, this poem tells us. We will have wasted the best years of our limited lives on meaningless squabbles (vanities) and have no time or energy or ability left for virtue and righteousness (when “desire shall fail”). It is at once a depressing and inspiring piece of scriptural prose.
This speech, in conjunction with the three Blue Lodge degree obligations, made up the bulk of my initial memorization work as Junior Warden in 2022. I loved working on the speech, especially given the combination of speaking the words while also moving about the lodge with the candidate. It demanded mastery of the verbiage in order to time the floorwork properly. Aside from the Middle Chamber lecture, this is one of the few pieces of ritual outside the East that demands this delicate balance.
Moreover, this moment is very important for the candidate, even if he may not realize it at the time. It is a memento mori, a reminder that he is mortal; that he, like every brother who has come before him and will come after him, will grow old and eventually “return to the earth as it was,” his spirit returning unto God who gave it. And that because this is true and unavoidable, he should listen to the words being spoken and the lessons imparted in our Masonic rituals and use them to live a virtuous life. As Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and author of the Stoic work Meditations wrote several centuries later: [We are]“not to live as if you had endless years ahead of you. Death overshadows you. While you’re alive and able – be good.”3 Or as Jacob Marley, the dead partner of Ebenezer Scrooge tells him in Charles Dickens’ 19th century classic, A Christmas Carol, “No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused!”4
We can see then how the context of the verses within the wider book helps give this moving part of the ritual even more definition for the candidate. In his preceding degrees, the concepts of death and immortality and virtue have been described to him, but delivered at somewhat of a distance via the Master’s Lectures. But now death is personalized and soon to arrive in person, so to speak. Therefore, I felt that to convey the importance of these words, as well as the beauty, required a better understanding of them and the book of Scripture from which they were drawn. Because ultimately the Grasshopper Speech, and Ecclesiastes as a whole, is about the flaws of humans, but also about our propensity to gain wisdom through faith in God, thereby having hope for immortality through the virtuous practice of charity while still living “under the sun.”
1 Obviously, this applies to my jurisdiction under the Grand Lodge of Maryland. Your jurisdictional mileage may vary.
2 Eccles. 12: 1-7.
3 Aurelius, Marcus, Meditations, trans. Gregory Hays (New York: Modern Library, 2003), p.41
4 Dickens, Charles, A Christmas Carol: The Original Manuscript Edition (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2017), p.31
Phillip Welshans is Senior Warden of Palestine Lodge #189 in Catonsville, MD under the Grand Lodge of Maryland A.F. & A.M. He is also a member of the Maryland Masonic Lodge of Research #239, and the Hiram Guild of the Maryland Masonic Academy. As a member of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, S.J. in the Valley of Baltimore, he has completed the Master Craftsman programs and is a member of the Scottish Rite Research Society. His interests are primarily in Masonic education, particularly the history of the Craft, esotericism, and the philosophy of Masonry.
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