In Ecclesiastes 9:1–10, Solomon considers the unavoidable reality of death for every person. All people share this same destiny. Ultimately, our lives and the appointed day we will die are in God’s hands (verses 1–3, see also Hebrews 9:27; Job 14:5); therefore, we must appreciate life and make the most of it while we still have breath. Solomon observes, “But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion” (Ecclesiastes 9:4, ESV).
The key to grasping the meaning of certain Bible verses is understanding their cultural context, as in the case of Ecclesiastes 9:4. In ancient times, dogs were not cute and cuddly pets. Instead, they were looked down on with contempt and considered unclean, revolting scavengers (Exodus 22:31; 1 Kings 14:11; 21:19, 23; Jeremiah 15:3; Psalm 22:16). Conversely, lions were esteemed as regal, valiant, powerful hunters (Genesis 49:9; 2 Samuel 17:10; Proverbs 28:1; 30:30). Lions were the “king of beasts” who ruled and roared at the top of the food chain, while dogs crouched and groveled at the bottom.
The basic idea of a living dog is better than a dead lion is that “as long as there is life, there is hope.” Solomon used these two animals as symbols for two types of people—the lowly and the mighty. From an ancient-world point of view, a living dog held no authority or status but at least had the distinct advantage of life. A deceased lion represented someone who may have once been formidable and influential but was now helpless and hopeless in death. In Solomon’s reasoning, it was better to be alive and powerless (yet still with hope) than dead, even if once mighty and respected.
Since everyone dies in the end, it’s futile and foolish to spend our days in meaningless pursuit of things like power, fortune, and notoriety. Death diminishes the majestic lion to a position below that of the living dog, to a state of nothingness (Ecclesiastes 9:5). We are better off taking advantage of the time we have left to evaluate our existence and reflect on our own mortality.
Hope for the living begins with an awareness of life’s brevity. A wise person will ponder the real purpose of life while he or she still can. Earlier, in Ecclesiastes 7:2, Solomon stated, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.” When we face the reality of death, a natural consequence of attending a funeral, we are forced to contemplate our destiny. Thus, seasons of grief and mourning serve a valuable purpose—they remind us to seize the day, to make the most of our lives while we still have breath and hope (Psalm 39:4–7). No such possibility exists for the dead.
God gives us one life—one priceless opportunity to know Him and receive His gift of salvation (Isaiah 55:6; 2 Corinthians 6:2). If we never think about death and our eternal fate, we will likely miss the chance to spend eternity with Him.
A living dog is better than a dead lion because, for the lion, hope is dead. His once regal standing is worthless in death. But the living dog still has hope. The living human can still come to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and experience the hope of eternal life with God. As Christians, we are “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:3–5, ESV). The believer’s hope is “an anchor for the soul, firm and sure,” never to be destroyed by death (Hebrews 6:13–20).