Dogs in the ancient world by and large didn’t engender the same emotions as, say, the average Goldendoodle. Most were feral scavengers known to hang around wherever death and refuse were in ample supply. They have more in common with a New York City subway rat than they do with Snoopy. Lions on the other hand, were (and still are) a symbol of honor and nobility. It’s no mistake that messianic imagery throughout the Bible includes these majestic animals that sit at the top of their food chain, rule over swaths of land, and fight for pride.
And yet the Preacher of Ecclesiastes says, “Surely a live dog is better than a dead lion” (Eccl. 9:4).
To understand what he’s saying, we need to understand the scope of Solomon’s project in Ecclesiastes. Ultimately, the book chronicles his quest for “the good life.” The Preacher looks at life “under the sun,” which might be best understood by swapping that phrase with another—“as it appears.” He is essentially saying, “I’m going to take life at face value, apart from any meaning that might be imposed on it by God or religion, and try to find out what is good, what is meaningful, what is worth living for.” He sums up the whole project with a single Hebrew word: hebel.
This word has been variously translated as “vanity” or “meaningless” or, more literally, “vapor” or “smoke.” The Preacher kicks off the book with this word, saying, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Eccl. 1:2). The most literal reading would simply be, “All of life is a vapor,” the point being, nothing seems to matter. You can experience all the pleasures of life—such as money, power, and sex—but in and of themselves, they leave you feeling empty and unsatisfied.
Even moral goodness fails to hold up under the Preacher’s scrutiny:
It is the same for all. There is one fate for the righteous and for the wicked; for the good, for the clean and for the unclean; for the man who offers a sacrifice and for the one who does not sacrifice. As the good man is, so is the sinner; as the swearer is, so is the one who is afraid to swear. This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that there is one fate for all men. Furthermore, the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil and insanity is in their hearts throughout their lives. Afterwards they go to the dead. For whoever is joined with all the living, there is hope; surely a live dog is better than a dead lion (Eccl. 9:2-4).
The common destiny he refers to here is death, the big bummer of the entire book. The Preacher essentially says, “Wealth is great, but you’re gonna die. Love is great, but you’re gonna die.” And here, “Moral goodness is great, but you’re gonna die. Better a live dog than a dead lion.” Death is the great equalizer, and we all live in its shadow. It ruins the end of all of our stories.
Death is the great equalizer, and we all live in its shadow. It ruins the end of all of our stories. Why bother, then, with trying to live like a lion?
Why bother, then, with trying to live like a lion? After all, moral flexibility is often rewarded in this life. Opportunities abound for all of us to cut corners, especially in the workplace. We might be tempted to use a bit of gossip to gain an edge over a competitor or to manipulate customers and make a bigger commission. We might be tempted to help ourselves to office supplies or to not honor the jar in the fridge that asks us to pay for our sodas. Or we might be tempted with much, much worse.
In Ecclesiastes 9, the Preacher exposes the appeal of dishonesty. “Under the sun,” it’s hard to justify a commitment to integrity. The dogs seem to be doing just fine, and in the marketplace, they often seem to outwit and outlast the lions. If we accept the world simply “as it appears,” the dog’s lifestyle is appealing. We want to survive—both literally and figuratively—and if cheating helps us pay the bills or get an edge, so be it.
If you took this passage out of context, you could preach some pretty horrific sermons on “The Meaninglessness of Moral Goodness.” But don’t worry; that’s not the goal here. To make sense of the passage, we need to see it in light of Ecclesiastes 12, where the Preacher says, “The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil” (Eccl. 12:13-14).
Having looked at life “as it appears,” he concludes that this way of seeing the world is inadequate and the only way to find meaning is in the fear of God.
Fearing God overshadows all other fears. The fear of an angry boss, an unpaid bill, a lost client—any temptation to game the system—fades in the light of a God who sees “everything which is hidden” and will bring it all to judgment one day. The commandments aren’t punitive restrictions that God slaps on His wayward creation, either. They reveal the world as it was meant to be. We weren’t made to live like dogs, and doing so wreaks havoc not only in the world around us but also in our souls. It’s self-destructive. Fearing God and following His commands form the path to real life, to being fully human.
The world we live in is frustrating. Hard work and labor often feel like chasing the wind. Attempting to do good and love our neighbors feels especially foolish when the “dogs” keep getting raises and promotions. But that very world is a world that Jesus entered, and through His life, death, and resurrection, He is transforming it. By His grace, we are restored, and we can endure life’s storms and troubles as well as the injustices of the marketplace. We can follow Jesus and live in a way that allows us to flourish and thrive. And we can rest in the knowledge that, while it remains a dog-eat-dog world, it won’t stay that way forever.
Illustrations by Yuko Shimizu