One of the numerous legends attached to Solomon, this tale involves his most faithful servant, Benaiah. This version is closer to the one found in Solomon and the Ant than other accounts which have Solomon taking pleasure in sending his servant on an impossible errand. Similar themes are pursued in Zen Buddhist stories, using the line “It will pass.” A North African version follows the fortunes of a man who is free, then sold into slavery, until eventually he inherits his master’s riches, before turning ill.
Spoiler Alert: This is one of the stories found in When It Matters Most.
It was well past nightfall. A servant stood at the door of the throne room. The king sat in the grand chair, arms on rests, staring without focus. His unadorned, golden crown dangled from his right hand, threatening to fall. A single torch cast shadows through the room. They were alone.
This trusted servant knows better than most the burdens carried by the king, whose decisions were the difference between justice and oppression, war and peace. He broke the silence, “My King, what troubles you?”
The monarch raised his eyes, only now realizing his servant’s presence. He lifted himself off the throne and moved to a grouping of simpler chairs by the wall, gesturing that the servant join him. “My friend, you ask of my troubles. Would you have me burden you with my thoughts?”
A smile passed between them. Each well in the other’s confidence, the question and its answer reflected an earlier time, a ritual. “If you would share them with me.”
Taking a breath, the king’s smile faded, “With my crown comes power and responsibility to be exercised on behalf of the people – I know this.” A deeper pause. “I know, as well, my shortcomings. Because of this, there are times when my confidence wanes and I hesitate when I should act, which in turn adds to my sense of failure.”
The servant wanted to assure his king that this is not true, but looking into the monarch’s eyes, he simply nodded. The king was wise, not perfect.
“But that’s not all,” continued the king, “Equally, there are times when I’m quite clever and receive praise, so that I grow overconfident. I’m so sure of myself that I act when I should hesitate.”
Again, the servant simply nodded.
“By sabotaging myself in these ways, I misuse the power and betray the responsibility accorded to my role.”
After a pause, the servant responded, “So, my King, I hear two things. First, when you are losing confidence, you need assurance. And second, when you are becoming overconfident, you need to be cautioned. With these, you would be a better king.”
“And without them, I should not wear this crown.”
The two spoke until the sun rose and filled the room with light, but still a solution eluded them. His determination undiminished, the servant proposed a way forward, “If we are without an answer, one must be found. Allow me to consult the wisest of our land.”
And so with his monarch’s blessing, the servant set out across the land, seeking women and men renowned for their wisdom. With each, he shared the king’s struggle. From each, he took words of advice.
As he travelled from the north to the south, from the east to the west, reaching the very borders of the territory, the burden of the task overwhelmed him. Having recorded every word spoken, he now travelled with boxes: boxes filled with books, books filled with pages, pages filled with words, all for his king. “But what use are these,” he lamented, “there is no consensus and the king can’t read through all this material every time a decision is made.”
Abandoning the boxes, the servant returned home. As the city appeared in the distance, the taste of failure soured his mood. An ill-tempered wind rose. By the time he arrived at the gates, he could not bring himself to enter. He sat on the ground, deriding his inability to ease the king’s mind. The wind kicked dust into his face. It caught his curse and his attention. He listened as it gusted and swirled. The servant discerned a pattern within the breeze, a pattern that whispered, “This, too, shall pass.”
The servant rolled the words in his mind, “Yes, it’s true I’ve failed. But as for tomorrow and the next task, it might be different. It’s not the first time I’ve needed to let go of my shortcomings and it won’t be the last. This, too, shall pass.” Somewhat comforted, he got up and entered the gate.
Then it struck him. The four words addressed half of the king’s quandary. When the king feels insufficient, when he worries about failure, when he feels overwhelmed and begins to lose confidence, the four words would offer assurance.
“And,” growing more excited, “these are my own words. After visiting the wisest in our land, it came down to me.” Walking swiftly, proudly, he imagined how the rest of the court would react; how the king would react. The palace now in sight, the servant was overjoyed.
At this moment the still active wind gusted, again blowing dust into his eyes and provoking a curse. In the silence that follows, the words were softly repeated.
The servant stopped in his tracks, “This is also true. Today I may receive praise from the court and the king, but I am still myself, short-comings and failings intact. I should savour this moment but not let it mislead me about my own greatness. This, too, shall pass.”
As the wind continued unabated, the servant realized that the same four words addressed the second half of the king’s quandary. When the king becomes overconfident, when he thinks too much of his own knowledge and skills, the four words would encourage caution.
The servant resumed his walk at a thoughtful pace, eventually entering the courtroom. Seeing the king on his throne, he imagined the weight that comes with the crown. Word of his return had drawn a crowd to the room. As the servant steps forward, they parted. The monarch stepped down from his throne, but maintained a formal distance.
“My King, I have travelled this land from the north to the south and from the east to the west. What I share with you was gifted to me by the winds.” The servant paused for a breath, “The winds gust over the highest mountains and lowest valleys, blowing through the homes of the weakest and the strongest, the youngest and the oldest, the most impoverished and the most wealthy. From their experience of our lives, the winds offer these four words: This, too, shall pass.”
Members of the court began to chatter, “It doesn’t make sense. What does it mean?”
But the king understood. He smiled, stepped forward, and embraced his servant.
A simple, copper ring bearing the four words was struck for the king, who allows it to tarnish on his finger. Though the court didn’t notice, the message was not lost on the servant. Though the gold crown was set aside at the end of each day, the green band never left the king’s finger.