Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
The thought expressed at the end of the last chapter is developed in this chapter, which treats of the supremacy of God. Man can have no enjoyment except as He is pleased to bestow it. He has pre-ordained the times and seasons of all human events, and success cannot be obtained except in conformity with His arrangement.
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:(1) A season.—The word is only found in later Hebrew (Nehemiah 2:6; Esther 9:27; Esther 9:31), and in the Chaldee of Daniel and Ezra.
Purpose.—The use of the word here and in Ecclesiastes 3:17; Ecclesiastes 5:8; Ecclesiastes 8:6, in the general sense of “a matter,” belongs to later Hebrew. The primary meaning of the word is “pleasure” or “desire,” and it is so used in this book (Ecclesiastes 5:4; Ecclesiastes 12:1; Ecclesiastes 12:10).
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;(2) The list of times and seasons is ranged in Hebrew MSS. and printed books in two parallel columns.
A time to die.—Job 14:5.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;(4) Mourn.—This is the ordinary word used for noisy funeral lamentations (Jeremiah 4:8; 1Samuel 25:1).
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;(5) Gather stones.—As the collecting of stones for building purposes is included in Ecclesiastes 3:4, it is thought that what is here referred to is the clearing or marring of land (Isaiah 5:2; Isaiah 62:10; 2Kings 3:19; 2Kings 3:25).
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;(6) To lose.—Elsewhere this word means to destroy, but in the later Hebrew it comes to mean to lose, like the Latin “perdere.”
He 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.(11) In his time.—In modern English, “its.”
The world.—The word here translated “world” has that meaning in post-Biblical Hebrew, but never elsewhere in the Old Testament, where it occurs over 300 times. And if we adopt the rendering “world,” it is difficult to explain the verse so as to connect it with the context. Where the word occurs elsewhere it means “eternity,” or “long duration,” and is so used in this book (Ecclesiastes 1:4; Ecclesiastes 1:10; Ecclesiastes 2:16; Ecclesiastes 3:14; Ecclesiastes 9:6; Ecclesiastes 12:5). Taking this meaning of the word here (the only place where the word is used with the article), we may regard it as contrasted with that for “time,” or season, immediately before. Life exhibits a changing succession of weeping alternating with laughing, war with peace, and so forth. For each of these God has appointed its time or season, and in its season each is good. But man does not recognise this; for God has put in his heart an expectation and longing for abiding continuance of the same, and so he fails to understand the work which God does in the world.
I know that there is no good in them, but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life.(12) I know.—Literally, I knew: i.e., I came to know. The writer is relating the conclusions at which he successively arrived.
To do good.—This phrase is always used elsewhere in a moral sense: “to act rightly.” When enjoyment is meant, the phrase used is, as in the next verse, “to see good;” but the context seems to require that this sense should be given to the phrase in this verse also.
And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God.(13, 14) Ecclesiasticus 11:17; Ecclesiasticus 18:6.
That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been; and God requireth that which is past.(15) Is now.—Rather, was long ago.
Requireth.—Seeketh again: i.e., recalleth the past. The writer has not been speaking of the bringing the past into judgment, but of the immutable order of the universe, which constantly repeats itself. But it would seem that the word suggesting the thought of seeking for the purpose of judgment leads on to the next topic.
And moreover I saw under the sun the place of judgment, that wickedness was there; and the place of righteousness, that iniquity was there.(16) This verse introduces the consideration of the difficulty arising from the imperfection of moral retribution in this life. Other places where the iniquity of judges is mentioned are Ecclesiastes 4:1; Ecclesiastes 5:8; Ecclesiastes 6:7; Ecclesiastes 8:9-10.
I 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.(17) A time there—viz., with God. In this verse a judgment after this life is clearly spoken of, but not yet asserted as a conclusion definitely adopted, but only as a belief of the writer’s conflicting with the doubts expressed in the following verses. “1 said in mine heart,” with which Ecclesiastes 3:17-18 both begin, conveys the idea, “I thought,” and yet again I thought.” The writer returns again to speak of the punishment of the wicked in Ecclesiastes 8:15; Ecclesiastes 11:9.
For 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.(19) That which befalleth.—The word translated “event” in Ecclesiastes 2:13 (where see Note).
Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?(21) The LXX., followed by a great body of interpreters, ancient and modern, translate, “Who knoweth whether the spirit of man goeth upward?” &c, and this agrees better with the context of this paragraph. The sceptical thought is, “We see that death resolves into dust (Genesis 3:19; Ecclesiastes 12:7; see also Ecclesiasticus 41:10) the bodies of men and animals alike; and if it be alleged that there is a difference as to what becomes of their spirits, can this be asserted with the certainty of knowledge?” The writer here seems to have read both Psalm 49:14 and Proverbs 15:24.