Two kings there were in ancient times, Lemuel and Qoheleth. They lived in neighboring lands and in the days of their boyhood had been eager to visit one another under the indulgent eyes of their parents. As the years rolled by, however, the duties of their royal crowns served to keep them apart till, in the shadow of their old age, they met again under the cedar trees where once they had played.
As they walked together, they talked of many things, of perils in kingship and of victories in war, of great gain and of equally great loss. They talked as easily and naturally as if there had been no lengthy passage of time since their childhood rambles. At length the evening shadows fell and they paused to listen to the sound of running water from a nearby stream and the whisper of light breezes among the forest ferns and leaves.
At last Lemuel spoke. “Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a woman.”¹
Qoheleth smiled. “Thus speaks one who is happily married. Though I confess that your choice of a wife had been thought quite perplexing until I ….”
“Until you spoke with her,” Lemuel completed, smiling in return. “That’s what they all said and now they, like you, trip over one another to please her. ‘Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain ….’”
“’But a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised,’”² Qoheleth interjected. “I too remember well the words of your mother.”
“An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.”³
“I know you too well to suspect a reproof for my 700 wives and 300 concubines,” Qoheleth said. “Long have I lived, Lemuel, and it has all been a vanity of vanities. All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.”¹ª
“Not even the Queen of Sheba? Nothing new though you have bent all your energies to find it, Qoheleth?”
“Now you mock me, my friend, but not unreasonably. It seems a great sorrow that with all my wealth, learning, and enterprise I have only seen the pit of emptiness – meaningless existence – under the sun.”
“But under heaven?”
“Ah, you have oft reached the mark before me, Lemuel, as I also remember. Alas, I had never the mother you did but one whose ill-considered words almost ripped my throne from beneath me. Woe to you, O land, when your king is a child, and your princes feast in the morning!”²ª
“And you have oft been too easily distracted,” Lemuel replied. “Through the seasons of your life, surely you have seen the difference between the life lived under heaven and one lived under the sun?”
“Well do you speak. I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.³ªYet God has put eternity into man’s heart.ª¹”
“Indeed for this saying alone, your name will endure, Qoheleth.”
“Friend Lemuel, this day we have both met and spoken well, this day that God has given us. For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven.ª²”
“But you have more to say, Qoheleth. Speak freely, my friend, for we may not yet meet again before the dust returns to the earth as it was and the spirit returns to God who gave it.ª³ Is this all that your great wisdom has shown you?”
“For behold, the end of the matter; now all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.¹º It is wise to remember one’s Creator before the dust returns to the earth as it was and the spirit returns to God who gave it.¹¹”
Then the two kings parted never to meet again, Lemuel with his wife and Qoheleth to his thousand and one.
I have recast the last chapter of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes – using certain passages verbatim – to imagine a conversation between the writers of the two texts, Proverbs 31 identified as having been written by an Aramaic king, Lemuel, and Ecclesiastes by the son of King David, Solomon, who identifies himself as Qoheleth.
¹[Proverbs 30:18-19]; ²[Proverbs 31:30]; ³[Proverbs 31:10]; ¹ª[Ecclesiastes 1:8-9]; ²ª[Ecclesiastes 10:16]; ³ª[Ecclesiastes 3:18-20]; ª¹[Ecclesiastes 3:11]; ª²Ecclesiastes 3:1; ª³[Ecclesiastes 12:7]; ¹º[Ecclesiastes 12:13-14]; ¹¹[Ecclesiastes12:7]
Painting by Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958), "Sunset in the Forest of Senoches."