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  • Paul Reich

Why I Call My Blog “The Plumbline” Part 4: Symbolic Reasons (continued)

Updated: Feb 3, 2021

The plumbline is used symbolically outside of Scripture for a divine, objective, and reliable standard of moral uprightness, justice, and truth.




Plumblines work because of the law of gravity. No matter where you are in the world, gravity pulls objects toward the center of the earth. This law ensures that the plumbline will hang perfectly vertical anywhere on earth, allowing it to be a dependable standard for construction. Because the plumbline responds consistently to gravity, it serves as an objective, universal, and reliable absolute to which masons and carpenters can align their structures. Further, because gravity is an unseen force and the plumbline is always true, it is rather obvious why the plumbline became a symbol for a divine standard of morality, justice, and truth.


In my last blog, I explored how the ancient Egyptians used the plumbline morally in their “Weighing of the Heart” ceremony. In this blog, I will briefly examine a similar symbolic use of the plumbline in Freemasonry and the broader culture. I will then end this post by briefly discussing idiomatic relevance of the word “plumb” as derived from its use in nautical practice.


The Plumbline in Freemasonry


Since ancient times, plumblines have been in common use for masonry work. Not only were plumblines used to determine the verticalness of structures, the ancient plumbline level was designed for determining if something was horizontally level as well as used for calculating various angles. Constructed of three pieces of slender wood, the genius of this simple instrument made it a regular tool for masons and carpenters for thousands of years.


The ends of two pieces of wood of equal length were attached at a right angle. These two pieces were intersected by a third piece forming an “A” frame. A plumbline was then fastened to the apex of the frame and allowed to hang freely. The cross piece of the “A” was notched with a range of protractor-like markings. When the two legs of the “A” were placed on a wall and the plumbline hung in the exact center of the cross piece, the wall was level. The other markings on the cross piece were used for determining various angles when building something with an incline.

Since the plumbline and level were common tools in masonry for thousands of years, it is no surprise that they made their way into the teachings and symbols of Freemasonry. Freemasonry emerged from the stonemason guilds of the Middle Ages and evolved into a secret fraternity with multiple degrees of achievement and initiation, each with corresponding rites, symbols, mythical stories, and instructions. Freemasonry is syncretistic, drawing from the symbols and teachings of masonry, the Bible, ancient religious orders, and even the occult. Based on the Scriptures use of the plumbline, Freemasons also use the plumbline as a symbol of moral uprightness.


The Plumb is a symbol so simple that it needs no exposition. As the Level teaches unity in diversity and equality in difference, so the Plumb is a symbol of rectitude of conduct, integrity of life, and that uprightness of moral character which makes a good and just man. In the art of building accuracy is integrity, and if a wall be not exactly perpendicular, as tested by the Plumb-Line, it is weak and may fall, or else endanger the strength and stability of the whole. Just so, though we meet upon a Level, we must each build an upright character by the test of the Plumb, or we weaken the Fraternity we seek to serve and imperil its strength and standing in the community. As a workman dare not deviate by the breadth of a hair to the right or to the left if his wall is to be strong and his arch stable, so Masons must walk erect and live upright lives.[1]

Many of the beliefs and practices of Freemasonry are contrary to Scripture and the organization is considered by most Christians as belonging to the cult/occult category of religious societies. Though they require belief in a “Supreme Being,” they embrace men from all religious backgrounds allowing each man to worship God as he believes – Yahweh, Allah, Vishnu, among others. Their syncretism also permits each lodge to choose the holy book that its members feel is authoritative - some chose the Bible while others chose the Quran, the book of Mormon, or the Hindu Scriptures, depending on the religious background of its members. Though their emphasis on good works moves them to engage in activities for the benefit of society, they wrongly equate good works and uprightness of character as a means of reaching heaven. This is contrary to the Scriptures which teach that salvation is only found in Christ and His redemptive death on our behalf (Acts 4:12; Romans 5:1, 6-9; 1 Timothy 2:5-6).


These beliefs along with their practice to remove the name of Jesus when using verses from the New Testament, their elite secret rituals and oaths, and their promotion of various pagan occult sources all confirm Freemasonry’s place in the cult/occult category. So, it is not my intent to endorse Freemasonry, just as it was not my intent to endorse the beliefs and practices of the ancient Egyptians. My point is simply to note the broader symbolic use of the plumbline as a standard for moral uprightness in both these belief systems. If you are interested in further information about Freemasonry, its cultic practices, and connection to the occult, see the two well-documented books I recommend below.[2]


The Plumbline in Broader Culture


Even the broader culture recognizes the symbolic virtue of alignment. Dr. Scott Russell Sanders, a distinguished professor of English, a novelist, and an essayist wrote a reflective piece about tools he inherited from his father. At one point in his essay, he waxes philosophical about the mystical virtue of well-built objects being level and plumb.


Long before studying geometry, I learned there is a mystical virtue in right angles. There is an unspoken morality in seeking the level and the plumb. A house will stand, a table will bear weight, the sides of a box will hold together, only if the joints are square and the members upright. When the bubble is lined up between two marks etched in the glass tube of a level, you have aligned yourself with the forces that hold the universe together.[3] (italics added by me for emphasis)

Water follows the same gravitational laws that align the plumbline. We have all observed how the liquid in a cup of coffee or bowl of soup will remain level even when placed on an unlevel surface, leaving and oval shape of liquid below the rim of the container. Even the early Egyptians used hollowed boards filled with water to check if something was level. It was only a matter of time, before a more useful instrument utilizing the leveling abilities of water was invented. That instrument is the bubble level (also called “spirit level”). Since its invention in the 17th Century, the bubble level has increasingly replaced the plumbline for most plumbing and leveling purposes. Now, with further advancements in technology, the bubble level is beginning to lose ground to the digital level and laser level, though these levels are still dependent on the leveling properties of water to calculate their readings.



Regardless, of the tool (plumbline or bubble level), the conceptual imagery of level and plumb is still the same – specifically, aligning yourself to the divine unseen laws of the universe. It is in this way that Dr. Sanders compares something properly constructed to aligning “yourself with the forces that hold the universe together,” and the “unspoken morality in seeking the level and the plumb.” His verbage further confirms the imagery of the plumbline as a universal standard with divine and moral implications.


The Plumbline in Nautical Usage


Another symbolic use of the plumbline that has relevance for my blog comes from a nautical background. To prevent a ship from running aground or to determine depth for dropping an anchor, seamen would sometimes lower a lead weight attached to a rope until it hit sea bottom. The rope was then retracted, and the wet portion measured to determine the depth of the water. From this practice came the idiom, “plumbing the depths,” which means to explore or examine something intensely to find the answer.


Though my blogs will be of a briefer nature, my goal is that they will still be substantive and motivate readers to “go deeper.” To help, I plan to supplement some blogs with lengthier articles, teaching resources, or recommended reading so that interested subscribers can further “plumb the depths” of these select topics. In this way, readers can go “below the surface” and find the answers they are looking for to help them better align their lives to God’s plumbline - Christ and His teaching - and grow in their faith.


Summary


We have looked at the symbolic use of the plumbline in ancient Egyptian mythology, in Freemasonry, and in broader culture. The plumbline metaphors used in these contexts for a divine, objective, and reliable standard for truth, justice, and morality are compatible with the symbolic use of the plumbline in Scripture. This demonstrates that there is both historical and broader cultural recognition of plumbline imagery outside of Scripture. My hope is that this shared understanding will convey to readers the relevance of my chosen blog name, “The Plumbline." The idiom “plumb the depths” derived from nautical usage will also hold significance as we tackle some subjects that will require readers to “go deeper.”


In the past four posts, we have looked at three reasons I named my blog “The Plumbline” – personal reasons, biblical reasons, and symbolic reasons. We will complete this series next week with a post on "relevant reasons" for my choice of “Plumbline” as the name for both my blog and this ministry. See you next week.


References:

[1] (June 1924). The Level & Plumb. Short Talk Bulletin, Vol. II, No.6. https://www.masonicworld.com/education/files/artoct02/level.htm (accessed January 18, 2021)

[2] For more information on Freemasonry see: Ankerberg, John and Weldon, John. The Secret Teachings of the Masonic Lodge. Moody Publishers, 1990. McKenney, Tom. 33 Degrees of Deception: An Expose' of Freemasonry. Bridge-Logos Publishers, 2011.

[3] Sanders, S. R. (2014, September 2). The Inheritance of Tools. https://delphinius56.wordpress.com/2014/09/02/1047/ (accessed January 16, 2021).

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