I have very fond memories of my grandmother, but she had one strange taste: an inordinate love of taxidermy. Her house was infested with a menagerie of stuffed animals. From the menacing buffalo head that greeted me at the door, to the glassy-eyed kudu bull who guarded the staircase, to the yellow-billed kite keeping watch over me while I played with trains. It was a pretty freaky and intimidating place to spend a weekend, and goes a long way to explain my latent agoraphobia that favors hotels over the outdoors.
But the most terrifying trophies were the leopard and lion skin rugs. My dear grandma made no effort to allay my fears that these creatures were able to maul me if I got too close.
Thankfully, none of this scarred my psyche; I still wanted to own a dog. My first puppy was a pavement special, a mutt of note. Ugly, scrawny, and dumb as dumbbell, but I’d still choose that mongrel any day of the week over a stuffed leopard, lion, or anything.
Everyone understands that a living poodle is better than a dead lion. (Of course a dead poodle is not a bad idea either). King Solomon offers us this eccentric serving of sideways wisdom in Ecclesiastes 9: 4But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. 5 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. 6 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.
Perhaps you are currently languishing in a melancholic mid-life limbo; the long, dark, tea time of the soul. Your life feels underwhelming. Perhaps your career never crept off the bottom rung of the corporate ladder. Maybe you expected that your bank account would be bulging more than what your waistline is. Perhaps you anticipated more children or fewer marriages in your life. And now your rose-colored bifocals have slipped, only to reveal the hindsight of your life as it really is—nauseatingly mediocre.
This unvarnished specter chimes a dissonance in the soul, which we often dismiss as a mid-life crisis. Buy a convertible, get some hair-implants, join a gym; you’ll soon feel better. But if you were on Solomon’s couch, he’d lob this injunction at your depression: “You are sad because you are perceptive. If my life was as pathetic as yours I’d be melancholic too. But at least you’re not a stuffed lion.”
4 But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion.
You may feel like a loser, but a living loser is still better than a deceased success, because there is still hope for the breathing guy. The memory of the buried champion is fading like a cheap paint job in the sun, but you have a priceless advantage—opportunity to enjoy life. While you have a pulse there are endeavors open to you to import some sanguinity into your barren world. So eat, drink, and be merry. Go wash up, put on some new clothes, get some gel in your hair, order a fillet mignon, and smooch your wife.
He expounds on the four gifts of God that make life worth living, no matter how unsuccessful you think you are.
7 Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.
The more I read Ecclesiastes the more I picture Solomon as a really fat dude. He mentions over and over that food and drink are what makes life worth living. A live dog nibbling on a chew-toy beats a trophy lion being eaten by worms. Footnote: there will be no dieting in Heaven. Dieting is the consequence of being gluttonous or irresponsible with food choices. In Heaven God will wipe away every tear induced by dieting.
8 Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head.
In a dusty, agrarian world without detergents, everyday clothes were dark in color (no matter what color they started out as). So a clean, white robe and oil in the hair was preparation for a soiree, a party, or banquet. We use gel, mousse, or styling wax. Anti-social people tend to be depressed people. When you least feel like being with people, is often the best time to make a reservation, iron your shirt, put product in your hair, and go hang out to the glory of God. Why? Because a live dog hanging out with his mangy mutt buddies, is better than a dead lion, alone in the grave.
9 Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.
A good marriage is a snapshot of heaven. Being single comes with its own blessings, but if you are procrastinating a proposal to your girlfriend, waiting til you’ve sown your wild oats, you are delaying God’s blessing in your life.
10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.
You’ve heard of the Bucket List? This is a list of activities terminal patients compile to do before they ‘kick the bucket.’ Solomon says, stop delaying until you find out you have six months to live. If you have a project you want to do, “get busy living or get busy dying” to quote Stephen King (something I don’t often do). Do you want to see the world, climb Mt Everest, take a cooking course, have a baby, learn French? Get on it. Life is short, and then you die.
But the chisel that pries open most of Ecclesiastes enigmatic wisdom is the concluding verses.
12: 13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.
Yes food, fellowship, marriage, and projects are gifts from God in this life, and they are enjoyable. But they are not fulfilling. After a meal, you get heartburn. After the party, you have to do the dishes. Your marriage will have its ups and downs. Your bucket list will reach an end, and you will still feel like something’s missing.
The gifts are bread crumbs that God leaves for you to follow to find him. He is the banquet. If you think the crumbs are supposed to fill you up, you will feel frustrated and cheated. Life is fun only when you enjoy the gifts of God for what they are: pointers to the Creator, Savior, and lover of your soul, in whom is the only satisfaction forever and ever.