In process of time. Heb. At the end of days; which some think points at some certain stated time; for certainly even then the people of God were not without a stated time for worship. At the end of days; that is, on the sabbath day, which was at the end of the days of the week; or at the year’s end; on some yearly solemnity which they were taught to observe, perhaps on some solemn remembrance of the fall. Or at the year’s end, when they had gathered in the harvest; when they perceived that God had blessed them, they came, as ’twas fit they should, with their thank-offerings.
Cain, a wicked man, had his offering as ready as Abel, a good man. Outward duties of religion may be performed by the bad, even as by the good. The hypocrite doth often go as far, every jot, in outward performances as the true Christian; hears as many sermons,—offers up as many prayers,—gives as much alms,—and is yet a hypocrite all the while. The bare performance of these duties doth not, cannot render a man acceptable to the heart-searching God. Nay, it should seem that Cain came with his offering before Abel; and is it not common for hypocrites to be as forward to perform outward duties as the true Christian? If the Pharisee and the publican go up to the temple to pray, the Pharisee will be sure to be there first. Luke 18:10.
From the offerings of Cain and Abel, we learn the antiquity of religious worship. The service of God is no novelty. I know there is an old way which wicked men have trodden; Job 22:15; but old as it is, the way of religion and godliness is older. Ask for the old paths. Jer. 6:16. The devil was not up so soon, but God was up before him.
Grotius thinks that reason taught them that, seeing God was the best, they should honour him, by parting with the best they had to him and for him. Religion is agreeable with the principles of right reason.
But I rather think that God did in an immediate way reveal this manner of worship to Adam, and that he taught it to his sons. Otherwise, without a warrant, how could they expect that God should own them in it? for, doubtless, uninstituted worship is unaccepted worship. How could Abel offer in faith, if he had no divine revelation upon which to ground that faith? Heb. 11:4.
“I cannot see how natural light should dictate that God would accept of the blood of other creatures as a token of man’s obedience to himself.” “Cain’s sacrifice seems more agreeable to natural light than Abel’s, being a eucharistical offering, without hurt to other creatures. Abel’s was a bloody sacrifice, but it was offered in faith; (Heb. 11:4;) which is a higher principle than natural light, and must suppose a divine revelation.”—STILLINGFLEET.
“As to eucharistical sacrifices, such as the first-fruits and the like oblations, men’s own reason might suggest and persuade them that it was fit to present them, as the most natural signification of a thankful mind; and thus far there might be sacrifices in a state of innocence. But sin having changed the scene, expiatory sacrifices must be founded upon a positive institution, because pardon of sin being a matter of pure grace and favour, whatever was a means to signify and convey that, must be appointed by God himself.”—CAVE.
It was a great mercy of God to Adam, to reveal unto him this method of obtaining acceptance with himself; that, when he had lost by sin the tree of life, (which, whilst he had it, was a standing pledge of the divine favour,) God was graciously pleased to put him in a way of worship by sacrificing, which was to be, and no doubt was to him, an evidence of the restitution of that forfeited favour. And it was well done of Adam to teach his children this way. He did not, as too many fathers do, provide only for their comfortable subsistence in this world, by putting them in a calling; but he provided also for their souls’ subsistence in a better world, by putting them in a way of worshipping God. Contrary to this is the preposterous care of many parents;—care which was very commendable, if their children had bodies only, and no souls to look after. Adam, like Abraham, did command his children that they should keep the way of the Lord. Gen. 18:19. See Ephes. 6:4.
And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering:
5 But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.
Hitherto Cain and Abel have gone together; but now we must part them. They both brought their offerings, but they were not both accepted; like the Pharisee and the publican. Luke 18:14.
The Lord had respect unto Abel; was well pleased with him,—looked on him, as the word is; cast a gracious eye of favour upon him. Now this is the great thing we should aim at and labour after in all we do,—especially in religious duties,—to be accepted of the Lord. 2 Cor. 5:9. Abel had not only comfort in his own conscience, by the secret whispers of the Spirit of God, saying, “Well done;” but also credit before others: for that it was evidenced in some way seems to be clear from Heb. 11:4,—he obtained witness, God testifying of his gifts. How he testified of them doth not appear; whether by a voice from heaven, or, as others think, by blessing Abel’s possessions, and not Cain’s; or, as is most probably conjectured, by fire from heaven, which consumed Abel’s sacrifice, and not Cain’s. That seems to have been the way by which God was wont to evidence his acceptance of sacrifices; as of Abraham’s, Gen. 15:17; of Manoah’s, Judg. 13:20; of Elijah’s, 1 Kings 18:38; of Gideon’s, Judg. 6:21; and of Solomon’s, 2 Chron. 7:1. And here, that which we render had respect, some render he kindled: also in Ps. 20:3, that which the text reads accept, the margin reads turn to ashes. No sacrifices are acceptable to God, but those that are kindled with fire from heaven. God himself works in us all the works that he is well pleased with.
Why did God accept Abel and not Cain? What reason was there for it? Of a truth, I perceive, saith Peter, that God is no respecter of persons. Acts 10:34. This difference was not without good cause. When there was a difference in the duty, ’twas fit there should be a difference in the success. God showed himself to be no respecter of persons in that he preferred the younger brother, that offered aright, before the elder brother, that did not.
1. Some think there was a difference in the quality of the offerings. Both brought that which appertained to their callings; and ’twas well to offer of that in which God had blessed them. 1 Cor. 16:2. But of Cain it is said that he brought of the fruit of the ground; any thing next to hand,—no matter what; some of the light corn, or some that he had not occasion for, but had been left at the year’s end. But Abel took more care: he brought of the firstlings of the flock; that is, the choicest and best that he had: and of the fat thereof; that is, the best of those best. The principle that Abel went upon was, that he that is the best should have the best; and therefore he would not, he did not, vow and sacrifice unto the Lord a corrupt thing: he did not bring the torn, and the lame, and the sick, for sacrifice; for he knew that was evil. Deut. 15:21.
Those that think to deceive God, by putting him off with any thing worthless in his service, will prove in the end but to deceive themselves. But those that offer as Abel offered,—that bring the best they have, and are sorry they can bring no better,—are like to speed as Abel sped; to be, like him, accepted of the Lord. God must have the firstlings; the first of our time, and the first of our strength. God must have the fat,—the best service, the most inward worship.
2. Others think the difference was in the quality of the offerers, and in the principles upon which they acted in this service. (1.) Abel was a justified person: so was not Cain. ’Tis said, the Lord had respect to Abel and his offering. Observe, first to Abel, and then to his offering. Under the covenant of works in the state of innocency, the respect was had, first, to the deed, and then to the doer, for the deed’s sake; first, to the performance, and then to the person for the performance’s sake. But under the new covenant, the order is inverted. First, respect is had to the person as a chosen vessel, a member of Christ, and then to the performance for the sake of the person, or rather for the sake of Christ, the great High Priest of our profession, (Heb. 3:1,) in whom only God is (if he be at all) well pleased with us. But as for that man that is out of Christ,—unconverted, unregenerate, such a one as Cain was,—nothing that he doth is acceptable to God. His plowing is sin; Prov. 21:4; nay, his praying is sin; the sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord; Prov. 15:8; and for that very reason,—because he is wicked; for a good man obtaineth favour of the Lord. Prov. 12:2. (2.) Abel offered in faith: so did not Cain. This was the distinguishing mark: the Holy Ghost tells us so. By faith Abel offered a more excellent sacrifice than Cain; Heb. 11:4; that is, Abel had an eye to God in what he did,—to the will and command of God as his rule, to the honour and glory of God as his end. Abel offered by faith in the promised Messiah, the great gospel sacrifice, by virtue of which only, all other sacrifices and offerings are accepted.
It is faith alone that puts an excellency upon all our offerings. Our services are pleasing to God no further than they are done with an eye to Christ. Upon that great altar must all our sacrifices be offered, or there is no acceptance.
Cain angrily resented God’s different acceptance of their services. He was wroth. There are eight words in Hebrew, they tell us, which signify anger; and that which is here used notes the most vehement indignation, the highest degree of anger. The reason of this anger was, because his brother’s offering was accepted, and his own was not: or, as the Apostle expresses it, because his own works were evil, and his brother’s righteous. 1 John 3:12. He was angry at God, as if he had done him wrong in not accepting him. He was angry with his brother for—I know not what. He was vexed at the disgrace that was cast upon him; vexed to see his younger brother preferred before him; vexed to see a visible testimony given to his brother’s works, find not to his own. This was great wickedness in Cain; and that which was at the bottom of it was, pride of heart,—which is evermore the companion of hypocrisy. That heart that is swelled up with pride, will, upon the least disgrace, be ready to burst with anger. Cain’s anger discovered itself in his looks: his countenance fell. Where anger is burning like fire in the heart, it will appear like flame or smoke in the countenance. What a change do the heats of passion make in the very faces of men! so that if they would but look at their face in a glass, they could not but be ashamed.
Philip Henry, Exposition of the First Eleven Chapters of Genesis (London: J. Nisbet and Co., 1839), 101-09.