Notes on the Bible, by Albert Barnes, , at sacred-texts.com
It follows from Ecc 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," Ecc 3:10), there is a season, an appropriate time which God appoints for its being done Ecc 3:1-8. To the question Ecc 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 Ecc 3:11. Man's good is to rejoice and do good in his lifetime, which he can do only as God appoints Ecc 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 Ecc 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 Ecc 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 Psa 127:1-2 (attributed to Solomon).
Everything - More particularly, the actions of people (e. g. his own, Ecc 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 Ecc 2:1-8 were present to his mind. The rare word translated "season" means emphatically "fitting time" (compare Neh 2:6; Est 9:27, Est 9:31).
Stones may be regarded either as materials for building, or as impediments to the fertility of land (see Kg2 3:19, Kg2 3:25; Isa 5:2).
Get ... lose - Rather, seek, and a time to give up for lost.
Rend - i. e., Tear garments in sign of mourning or anger. See Sa2 1:2, Sa2 1:11 ff.
Rather, He hath made all (the travail, Ecc 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, Ecc 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 Ecc 7:13; Ecc 8:17.
In them - i. e., in the sons of men.
To do good - In a moral sense. Physical enjoyment is referred to in Ecc 3:13.
The last clause of this verse goes beyond a declaration of the fact of God's government of the world Ecc 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 Ecc 12:13 of the book.
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 Sa2 4:11; Eze 3:18...It is obvious from the context of the last clause of Ecc 3:14, and Ecc 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.
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 Ecc 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 Ecc 3:18-19, which reduces to its original form all that was made of the dust of the ground Ecc 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 Ecc 3:21, man finds his portion (see the Ecc 2:10 note) in such labor and such joy as God assigns to him in his lifetime Ecc 3:22.
I saw ... - Rather, I have seen (as in Ecc 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" Ecc 8:10.
A time there - i. e., a time with God.
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 Ecc 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.
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 Ecc 2:14 note. Death in particular Ecc 3:2, Ecc 3:11 is a part of the "work that God doeth."
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 Ecc 2:19; Ecc 6:12) does not necessarily imply complete and absolute ignorance. In Psa 90:11, it is applied to what is partially understood: compare similar forms of expression in Pro 31:10; Psa 94:16; Isa 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.
What shall be after him - i. e., What shall become of the results of his work after he is dead. Compare Ecc 2:19; Ecc 6:12.