Sunday’s Scripture ~ Ecclesiastes 9:1-10 CEB
Ecclesiastes is a portion of Scripture that finds its home among the Wisdom Literature. Neighbors to Ecclesiastes in the Wisdom Literature are texts like Proverbs and Job in the Hebrew Bible and Wisdom of Solomon and Ben Sira in the Apocrypha. The kinds of literature can vary across Wisdom Literature texts. For example, the verses in Proverbs are primarily aphorisms whereas verses in Job include poetic verse and prose.
At a quick glance this passage from Ecclesiastes appears to be all prose…but sandwiched in the middle of the prose is this little gem, “Whoever is among the living can be certain about this. A living dog is definitely better off than a dead lion” (Ecc 9:4).
The writer of Ecclesiastes says this as if the wind blew this thought into his mind, down to his lips, and out of his mouth, and then moves right on with the next thought. He keeps going and I’m like…what?? Thinking that I’m not alone in the world of trying to understand this aphorism, I thought I would turn to the scholarly experts for some help in interpreting this phrase.
First let’s think about the words and/or emotions that the words lion and dog evoke. When I think about lions I think of stately, regal creatures; pride; king of the jungle; and noble. And when I think of dog…well, first I think of my four-legged children. They are so cute!
Samson and Delilah
Yet, in literature…and in Scripture…dogs are not so favorable creatures. They find company among the bottom dwellers and scavengers. In his commentary on Ecclesiastes William P. Brown writes, “The dog was typically associated with filth and even death in ancient Near Eastern culture” and the term dog “was frequently a term of contempt in biblical tradition and remains so in English.”*
The writer of Ecclesiastes uses these animal images in this aphorism as symbols to point to bigger categories of what Brown calls “opposing reputations”:
- intelligence and folly
- might and weakness
- majesty and lowliness**
The writer of Ecclesiastes believes that reputation is of utmost importance, particularly the reputation that continues about you in the world even when you are no longer in it. If that’s the case, then we all want to be lions right?! But return to the aphorism – the lion isn’t alive…it’s dead…so in this instance the living dog – the lowly scavenger – has the upperhand on the lion carcass.
I think in this somewhat crude aphorism the writer of Ecclesiastes is trying to say that the living have an advantage over the dead. Yes, the living need to be aware of our limits and come to grips with our mortality, but we cannot live as people that are constantly dreading the events that await us. Death is part of God’s creation and death has been part of God’s creation since the beginning. Ecclesiastes has no knowledge of eternal life so he writes as though this is the only life we have, so let’s make the most of it. Let’s attend to opportunities that arise. Let’s live life to the fullest. Let’s experience and experiment, but not recklessly. It’s possible that through the course of our lives that those that start off as dogs could become lions and vice versa. What is most important is that we are present in the moment, that we make most of what our God has given us, and find delight in it.
When I think about my four-legged children I definitely do not think of filth or death. But when I consider their lives I see an example of true simplicity. They live in the moment – whether they are on a walk, or hunting lizards in the backyard, or chowing down on a bacon-flavored treat. They are present. They are vibrant. They seek the most out of their day…and if they seek too much out of their day too soon in the day, they take a nap! Ahhhh…that’s the life. And I think Ecclesiastes would agree.
Prayer: “There’s a song in every silence, seeking word and melody; there’s a dawn in every darkness, bringing hope to you and me. From the past will come the future; what it holds, a mystery, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.”*** Amen.
*Brown, William P. Interpretation: Ecclesiastes (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2000), 92.
***”Hymn of Promise,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 707.