"They that sow in tears shall reap in joy ." -- Psalm 126

It had been a day of high drama and it ended in an evening of contrasts -- jubilation tempered with quiet caution, like the hope of spring without the certainty of summer.

The ancient rivalries were buried, at least temporarily, under a great orange and yellow tent that protected more than 1,300 guests from the chill of bitter memories and the windy spring night. It was the largest White House State Dinner in recent memory and the American hosts had less than a week to prepare for it.

Practiced observers of Washington politics and politesse were calling it one of the warmest and best State Dinners in the Carters' tenure in the White House. "Everybody here knows everybody else," said one guest delightedly. "It's the first time I've seen so much of Washington's social establishment in the Carter White House." The guests seemed to have developed the flitting attributes of mayflies, and there was barely room for the waiters to pass cigars and brandy as the guests mingled and table-hopped with all the informality of a high-school prom.

Close quarters and crystal glasses brimming with wine were much welcomed by some of the guests who left the sanctity of gleaming black limousines to wait as long as 45 minutes in the unseasonably cold weather before they were allowed into the White House.

"I always said it would be a cold day in hell before Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty," consumer affairs expert and former Miss America Bess Myerson was overheard to say.

There had been strong words in the afternoon to describe the past -- talk of bereavement and tears, sorrow and sacrifice, rivers of blood. and at day's end it seemed there was only the most banal of superlatives to describe the present -- the signing of the peace treaty.

It was, said Averell Harriman, the dean of Washington diplomacy, "Wonderful, the greatest day there's been."

"A stupendous achievement," said Ambassador-at-Large Arthur Goldberg, and his comments were echoed frequently among diplomats, politicians and corporate executives that gathered under the tent on the South Lawn.

The tone of the dinner was typified by the toasts exchanged by the three participants in the far-flung epic that began 16 months ago in Jerusalem. President Jimmy Carter with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin bound themselves to each other with mutual respect and public affection but tinged their remarks with the muted grace notes of the complexities still to be resolved.

It was Begin who surprised the crowd and brought yet another round of cheers by suggesting that "we all decide to nominate President Jimmy Carter" for the Nobel Peace Prize and suggested that he and Sadat be invited to Oslo to witness the event.

Not to be undone, Sadat came to the podium yet again to second Begin's suggestion. "Whenever I meet with Begin," Sadat said, "we seldom come in conformity. The miracle was achieved today."

The Egyptian president and the Israeli prime minister walked off the stage arm in arm as Carter smilingly announced that he "might consider the nomination" if the next nine months of negotiations were "completely harmonious" and met all the requirements of the Camp David accord.

The three leaders seemed somewhat dwarfed on the temporary stage, not only by its huge proportions but also by the transitory hold they had on events whose ancient roots were underscored by the Biblical quotations they read that were written centuries ago and were relevant still.

By the end of the evening the frivolity had almost reached a fever pitch. Not even the abundance of Biblical quotes and clerical personalities dimmed some of the lightheartedness. As Barbara Walters began her 11:30 p.m. report on the South Lawn, Sen. Daniel Moynihan (D-N.Y) ran up to her, hugged her, and shouted, "Barbara! Barbara!"

When the guests began to file out, presidential adviser Hamilton Jordan stood at the rear and shook hands just like a preacher greeting his congregation. There were cries of "Just like a Jewish wedding," and "Right on target! A superb evening." When Jordan spotted Begin, Jordan shouted "Begin for president."

In spitc of the phalanx of security guards, Begin stopped and embraced Jordan.

While the road to peace took 30 years, and the treaty an intense, golbe-hopping 16 months, the dinner was assembled in only five days. It surpassed by nearly 200 people the dinner President Nixon gave for the former Vietnam POWs in 1973.

The White House sent out the first batch of Mailgram invitations -- nearly 800 -- at 2 a.m. last Thursday. A telephone bank immediately went into operation for the RSVPs and worked until 3 yesterday morning. Up until yesterday afternoon the White House was still receiving responses and the social office was still typing up the 15-page guest list at 6:30 last night.

A huge yellow-stripe tent, decorated with candelabra and candles, provided a romantic setting, as it had at the POW dinner. But that dinner was held in May. Last night's frost nipped the daffodils and encouraged the women guests to keep their coats. Because of the size of the dinner, the White House rented the table settings, and many of the waiters, from one of the city's most prestigious caterers, Ridgewell's.

A kosher meal was available.

Because of the overflow, extra tables were set up in Blair House. When the White House didn't put the years of the domestic wines on the press release, an Israeli reporter asked "Is it '67, '73, or '78," referring to benchmark dates in the stormy relations between the two nations.

President Carter broke yet another precedent -- by saying grace. The three heads of state sat with their wives and a few of the evening's entertainers at a table in the front of the tent. The after-dinner entertainment represented the balance of cultures that had been followed through the day. An Egyptian trio joined Israeli-born violinists Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman and American soprano Leontyne Price.

During the dinner even President and Mrs. Carter did their share of table-hopping. The tenor in the tent made it too exciting to sit still, the president observed. The high-tone status of the dinner was buttressed by the presence of such social establishment bastions as Edward Bennett Williams and Clark Clifford from Washington, Felix Rohatyn and former Commerce Secretary Pete Peterson and a host of other luminaries from across the country. Unlike some official dinners where the ratio of stars to star-gazers is overwhelmingly in favor of the latter, last night there seemed to be a luminary at every table. "There's Bob Strauss schmoozing with Averell Harriman who was sitting with Andy Young," said one woman. "I can't believe it. the whole thing's gone off without a hitch."

Among the invited guests were the entire American Cabinet, 39 U.S. senators, 115 U.S. representatives, five governors and numerous corporate representatives. Jack Goldman, a senior vice president of the Xerox Corp., said his company had donated money to the dinner's budget.

Howard Samuels, the former New York off-track betting czar who now heads his own company, remarked, "No, we didn't give and no, I wouldn't care to." Both Art Buchwald and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) came through the receiving area joking, "We gave at the office."

On a day when three leaders agreed, as President Carter said, "Peace... was born today," there were frequent mentions of the bereavement, bloodshed and ancient bonds that have tied Israel and Egypt together. "In ancient days, God promised Abraham that from his seed would come many nations, and that promise has been fulfilled," said President Carter in his toast last night.

"Yet for much too long, the people of Israel and the people of Egypt -- two of the nations of the Children of Abraham trusting in the same God, hoping for the same peace... knew only enmity between them... That time, thank God, is at an end," said Carter. Like many of the speakers during the day he turned to the Koran and the Old Testament to try to catch the day's exuberant mood. "We hope that others will soon join us in our efforts to make this treaty a cornerstone of a comprehensive peace... a true and lasting peace for the entire Middle East."

The party didn't end when the three leaders left the tent. Champagne, coffee and dancing were available on the first floor of the White House. With a band playing "what a Swell Party It Is," former Colorado lieutenant governor Mark Hogan sipped champagne and showed the program that Gamal Sadat (son of the Egyptian president) had signed for him. "That's what made tonight so exciting. I thought everyone would be here saying, 'Well, here we are,' but there was a certain glow of friendship that came from witnessing a piece of history."