CELEBRATING THE MODESTY OF LIFE
"But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun" (Eccl.9:4-6).
Some passages from Ecclesiastes have captured the imagination of generations. One such beloved passage is the poem on time in Chapter 3. This life-affirming verse is used as a title in many Christian wedding cards, "He makes all things beautiful in His time" (Eccl. 3:15). What could be the second most notable proverbial saying is, "Better is the living dog than a dead lion." This sobering proverb has been cited by poets, politicians and philosophers around the globe. Thoreau (1817-1863), in his magnum opus Walden writes, "A living dog is better than a dead lion. Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and involved in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer." Yes! Life itself is a gift to enjoy and cherish. This proverb is quoted in the Arabian Nights, the tale of Sindbad the Sailor. It was referred by Emperor Hadrian in a dialogue with a Jewish Rabbi (Ruth Rabba 3:2): Hadrian asked Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah, "Am I not better than your Rabbi Moses?" "Why?," he asked. "Because I am alive and he is dead, and it is written, a live dog is better than a dead lion." In a debate on BBC (July 9, 2009) on the topic, "Is Nigeria a failed State?" one of the debaters quoted this proverb to point that there is still hope for Nigeria and the Nigerians.
These verses in Ecclesiastes have also given rise to controversies. They seem to imply that the dead have no reward, an idea which is not accepted by the Christian faith. In Christianity, the one who overcomes receives rewards from the Lord. Let us focus on the meaning of this passage and draw out certain lessons that will inspire our spiritual journey.
The Quest: What Is Better?
The main purpose of the Preacher in writing Ecclesiastes was to point out what was profitable for mankind. This is emphatically expressed in v.3, "What is the advantage to man in all the toil in which he toils under the sun?" Till the end of Chapter 6, the Preacher makes a series of empirical experiments and pragmatic observations to experientially verify what is profitable for man ‘under the sun.’ And he discovers that the ephemerality of existence and the inescapability of death cancels all ultimate gains of wisdom, achievements, pleasure, wealth, and so on. At the same time, he also points out that there are some things better than others, though they are also fleeting and passing in the ultimate sense. He says that a good name is better (7:1), wisdom is better (9:16), and in the passage under study, we hear him say, "A living dog is better" (9:4).In Ecclesiastes, hope and life are intertwined. Especially for those in desperation, it is good news. Otherwise, why do we have people fleeing across conflict areas to preserve nothing but their lives? Ecclesiastes strongly advocates that life is better, and sees a reason to rejoice in its modesty.
The Preacher is calling people towards the reality of life to see that it does not matter how unpleasant and lowly life might seem. The juxtaposition of two animals, a dog qualified as a symbol of contempt and humiliation and a lion known as the king of beasts (Gen.49:9), is puzzling. This does not necessarily express the author’s ambivalent attitude towards life, but truthfully portrays the humble reality of life. The choice of ‘a living dog’ serves as a point of contrast that there is profit in being alive, however ironic the sentiment may seem.
Dogs are a symbol of lowliness, while lions are considered to be the mightiest of all beasts. "And Hazael said, ‘But what is your servant a dog, that he should do this great thing?’ And Elisha answered, ‘The Lord has showed me that you shall be king over Syria’" (2Kgs.8:13). This points to the low-state of Hazael in his family. But, remember, a living dog is useful. Guide dogs are used in many places as helpers for the blind and dogs offer friendship and entertainment for children and grownups alike. They are faithful and loyal to their masters. In spite of their limited strength, they try their best to protect their masters in the face of danger. In contrast to dogs, even the ferocious, magnanimous frame of a dead lion, no matter how awe-inspiring it might be, is useless when you compare it with the usability of the living dog. From this pragmatic point of view, the Preacher concludes that a living dog is better than a dead lion.
Death is a universal leveller of men. It is the destiny of all of us. And we cannot circumvent it by doing good and observing holy rituals. The Preacher’s point is clear: though life is short, it is precious; it is the only time we have! The activities on earth do not continue past the grave; we cannot come back and finish what we did not complete here on earth. The Preacher’s point is not that there is no existence after death; but it is to remind us that when people die they cannot return; all the glamour, joy, satisfaction, peace and happiness that this life can afford is forever ended once we bow out from this world through the gates of death. His point is that earth’s activities cease at death. There will be no future opportunities to prosecute the business of life! Here is where faith takes hold. In view of the certainty of death, the Preacher urges us to experience life to the fullest. Ecclesiastes calls people and says, "Let us not worry about death, but focus on the life that is in our hands." In fact, there is very little time left for us to worry about life!
The Rationale: Why Is Living Better?
The living have hope. While we are living, we are able to change our destinies and make choices that will alter the course of human history. Most of all, as long as people are alive, they retain the ability to change the direction of their eternal destinies. This gift of life and the choice of freewill are only given to the living, not to the dead. The dead can no longer participate in the activities of the world and cannot change the course of anything. They remain only as passive memories. The Preacher is calling people to have a proper perspective of life: as there is hope in this life, let your choices be made from the perspective of finitude. A healthy reflection of one’s end is important for a healthy living. The Preacher advocates that life is to be viewed not from the present towards the end, but from the end to the present. That is when we can understand the profundity of the gift of life that is given by God to all of us.
At one level, this passage drives us towards the significance of life, no matter how meagre and modest it might seem! Let us be thankful to God for the very gift of life. Life is not to be lived with mourning because it is short or painful, but it is to be lived with joy and gratefulness. This proverb also directs us to the value of each passing moment. At another level, this proverb also advocates a contented life-style: not in the grandeur of a dead lion, but in the simplicity of a living dog. It redefines the pursuit of greatness and challenges seekers to find it in the most unlikely, humble places. It also helps us to brace ourselves from the perspective of human finitude. Death does not threaten us, rather it helps us to live our lives with purpose and focus. After all, one who loses sight of the end has lost it all!
The Preacher celebrates life, with all its incredible complexities and its incomprehensible mysteries. Though it is short and fleeting, it should be accepted as good and a precious gift from God. Spurgeon’s comments are appropriate to recall, "Life is a precious thing, and in its humblest form it is superior to death." Yes. Life is better, precious and God’s gift, and the Preacher calls us to celebrate it. For a Christian, death is not the end. We know that Jesus is the "author of life" (Acts 3:15), "the resurrection and the life" (Jn.11:25), "the truth and the life" (Jn.14:6). And anyone who believes in Him has eternal life (Jn.3:16). Though every Christian has to walk through the doors of death, there is hope even beyond the grave in the eternal sense. As the Preacher observes, though we cannot participate in the affairs of the earth once we pass away, we will shine like stars in the kingdom of the heavenly Father. It is the brief race here. Let us live it with constant gratefulness to God, a sense of purpose to extend our hands of help to the needy and under-privileged in society and enjoy this humble and fleeting life that God has given us, "for a living dog is better than a dead lion."