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Barnes' Notes on the Bible
It follows from Ecclesiastes 2:26 that the works of people are subject in their results to another will (God's) besides that of the doer. Here is the germ of the great question of later times - how to reconcile man's free will with God's decrees. Solomon's way of stating it is that to every separate work, which goes to make up the great aggregate of human activity (the "travail," Ecclesiastes 3:10), there is a season, an appropriate time which God appoints for its being done Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. To the question Ecclesiastes 3:9 What profit? he answers that the works of people, if done according to God's appointment, are a part of that beautifully arranged scheme of Divine Providence which, as a whole, is, by reason of its extent and duration, incomprehensible to us Ecclesiastes 3:11. Man's good is to rejoice and do good in his lifetime, which he can do only as God appoints Ecclesiastes 3:12-13. God's work, of which this would be a part, is forever, is perfect (and so not subject to vanity), and is calculated to teach people to revere Him Ecclesiastes 3:14. His work, which was begun long ago, is now going on to completion; His work hereafter will be a complement of something which was done previously; and He recalls the past in order to add to it what shall make it complete and perfect Ecclesiastes 3:15. The principle of divine government - that every work in order to be permanent and successful must be God's work as well as man's work - is also declared in Psalm 127:1-2 (attributed to Solomon).
1To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
Everything - More particularly, the actions of people (e. g. his own, Ecclesiastes 2:1-8) and events which happen to people, the world of Providence rather than the world of creation. It would seem that most of his own works described in Ecclesiastes 2:1-8 were present to his mind. The rare word translated "season" means emphatically "fitting time" (compare Nehemiah 2:6; Esther 9:27, Esther 9:31).
2A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
3A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
Stones may be regarded either as materials for building, or as impediments to the fertility of land (see 2 Kings 3:19, 2 Kings 3:25; Isaiah 5:2).
6A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
Get ... lose - Rather, seek, and a time to give up for lost.
7A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
Rend - i. e., Tear garments in sign of mourning or anger. See 2 Samuel 1:2, 2 Samuel 1:11 ff.
8A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
9What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth?
10I have seen the travail, which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it.
11He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.
Rather, He hath made all (the travail, Ecclesiastes 3:10) beautiful (fit, in harmony with the whole work of God) in its time; also He hath set eternity in their heart (i. e., the heart of the sons of men, Ecclesiastes 3:10).
The word, translated "world" in the text, and "eternity" in this note, is used seven times in Ecclesiastes.
The interpretation "eternity," is conceived in the sense of a long indefinite period of time, in accordance with the use of the word throughout this book, and the rest of the Old Testament. God has placed in the inborn constitution of man the capability of conceiving of eternity, the struggle to apprehend the everlasting, the longing after an eternal life.
With the other meaning "the world," i. e., the material world, or universe, in which we dwell, the context is explained as referring either to the knowledge of the objects with which this world is filled, or to the love of the pleasures of the world. This meaning seems to be less in harmony with the context than the other: but the principal objection to it is that it assigns to the word in the original a sense which, although found in rabbinical Hebrew, it never bears in the language of the Old Testament.
So ... find - i. e., Without enabling man to find. Compare Ecclesiastes 7:13; Ecclesiastes 8:17.
12I know that there is no good in them, but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life.
In them - i. e., in the sons of men.
To do good - In a moral sense. Physical enjoyment is referred to in Ecclesiastes 3:13.
13And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God.
14I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before him.
The last clause of this verse goes beyond a declaration of the fact of God's government of the world Ecclesiastes 2:26 by adding the moral effect which that fact is calculated to produce on those who see it. It is the first indication of the practical conclusion Ecclesiastes 12:13 of the book.
15That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been; and God requireth that which is past.
Rather, What has been - what was before, and what shall be has been before. The word "is" in our the King James Version is erroneously printed in Roman letters: it does not exist in the Hebrew (it should have been italicized); and the word there translated "now" is the same which is translated as "already."
Requireth - i. e., requireth for judgment, as the word specially means in 2 Samuel 4:11; Ezekiel 3:18...It is obvious from the context of the last clause of Ecclesiastes 3:14, and Ecclesiastes 3:16-17, that this is the meaning here.
Past - literally, "put to flight."
The meaning of the verse is that there is a connection between events - past, present and future - and that this connection exists in the justice of God who controls all.
16And moreover I saw under the sun the place of judgment, that wickedness was there; and the place of righteousness, that iniquity was there.
That great anomaly in the moral government of this world, the seemingly unequal distribution of rewards and punishments, will be rectified by God, who has future times and events under His control Ecclesiastes 3:16-17. As for people, they are placed by God, who is their teacher, in a humble condition, even on a level with inferior animals, by death, that great instance of their subjection to vanity Ecclesiastes 3:18-19, which reduces to its original form all that was made of the dust of the ground Ecclesiastes 3:20. And though the destinies of man and beast are different, yet in our present lack of knowledge as to God's future dealing with our spirits Ecclesiastes 3:21, man finds his portion (see the Ecclesiastes 2:10 note) in such labor and such joy as God assigns to him in his lifetime Ecclesiastes 3:22.
I saw ... - Rather, I have seen (as in Ecclesiastes 3:10) under the sun the place etc. The place of judgment means the seat of the authorized judge. Compare "the place of the holy" Ecclesiastes 8:10.
17I said in mine heart, God shall judge the righteous and the wicked: for there is a time there for every purpose and for every work.
A time there - i. e., a time with God.
18I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts.
literally, I said in my heart with regard to the sons of men, it is that God may prove them and show them that they are beasts, they themselves. "Showing" is the reading of the Septuagint and Syriac: the present Hebrew text reads "seeing." The meaning is that the long delay of God's judgment Ecclesiastes 3:16-17 is calculated to show people that the brevity of their life renders them incapable of following out and understanding His distributive justice.
19For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.
That which befalleth the sons of men - literally, the event (happenstance) of the sons of men, i. e., what comes upon them from outside, by virtue of the ordinance of God. See the Ecclesiastes 2:14 note. Death in particular Ecclesiastes 3:2, Ecclesiastes 3:11 is a part of the "work that God doeth."
20All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.
21Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?
The King James Version of this verse is the only rendering which the Hebrew text, as now pointed, allows. It is in accordance with the best Jewish and many modern interpreters. A slightly different pointing would be requisite to authorize the translation, "Who knows the spirit of the sons of man whether it goes above, and, the spirit of the beast whether it goes down below?" etc., which, though it seems neither necessary nor suitable, is sanctioned by the Septuagint and other versions and by some modern interpreters.
Who knoweth - This expression (used also in Ecclesiastes 2:19; Ecclesiastes 6:12) does not necessarily imply complete and absolute ignorance. In Psalm 90:11, it is applied to what is partially understood: compare similar forms of expression in Proverbs 31:10; Psalm 94:16; Isaiah 53:1. Moreover, it is evident from marginal references that Solomon did not doubt the future existence and destination of the soul. This verse can only be construed as a confession of much ignorance on the subject.
22Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?
What shall be after him - i. e., What shall become of the results of his work after he is dead. Compare Ecclesiastes 2:19; Ecclesiastes 6:12.