Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering; but unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect.- Gen_4:2-5.
By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain.- Heb_11:4.
1. Here are two kinds of offerings made to God. One is vegetable, and one is animal; one is acceptable to God, one is not. God sets His seal of approbation on one form of sacrifice, He rejects the other. What is the reason? The writer of the Hebrews explains it. He says, “By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent (that is, a fuller and more complete sacrifice) than Cain.” There we strike on the first great principle of sacrifice. The value of the offering depends not on the character of the offering itself. It depends on the character of the offerer. It is not the sacrifice, it is the man who makes it, that gives it efficacy with God.
Now that is a very simple thing to us. But long ago it was a revolutionary thought. As far back as we can trace sacrifice, man's ideas about it were something like this: Its efficacy depended on its costliness. Hence was reached the terrible thought that the human life, being the highest and costliest of all, would therefore be most acceptable to God.
But when we turn to the Bible, we find this reversed everywhere. Sacrifice is made effective not by the offering but by the offerer. It took ages for this lesson to be burnt into the conscience of Israel. Israel was surrounded by nations that believed and practised the opposite. These nations sought to placate their gods by the number and value of their gifts, while their own moral character was steeped in the vilest immoralities. Israel was often tempted into similar conduct. Over and over again Israel had to be taught that mercy and obedience are what make the sacrifices acceptable to Jehovah. Without moral character even the costliest are an abomination. One of the earliest historic instances of this teaching is the answer which Micah represents Balaam as giving to Balak. The Moabitish king desires to know how he shall please Jehovah and win Him to his side. “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” In other words, can we win the Divine life or favour by increasing the number or the preciousness of animals or human victims? No. God's favour is not won thus. It depends on ourselves, on our own heart and moral character. The reply put into the mouth of the prophet is, “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” So in many other passages.
Here, then, in this very early account of sacrifice we get one of its essential principles. It depends for its efficacy on moral disposition. It depends on submission to the will of God. If it were presented by those who had love neither for God nor for man, but who only desired to secure themselves in a life of self-pleasing, then the ritual and the offering, and everything connected with it, no matter how gorgeous, or costly, became an abomination to God.
The acceptance of the offering depends on the acceptance of the offerer. God had respect to Abel and his offering-the man first and then the offering. God looks through the offering to the state of soul from which it proceeds; or even, as the words would indicate, sees the soul first and judges and treats the offering according to the inward disposition. God does not judge of what you are by what you say to Him or do for Him; He judges what you say to Him and do for Him by what you are.1 [Note: Marcus Dods.]
2. We are not expressly informed what was the exact motive or inducement in the case of the offering of the first-fruits of the land, but we are assured that the motive was wanting in all the essential requisites that constitute rectitude and purity of intent in the sight of God. Formality of profession, a sense of the propriety of outward decorum, a feeling of rivalry in regard to Abel, worldly interest, pride-these, and such like earthly motives, may have had the principal sway with Cain in inducing him to present his offering before the Lord. Cain lacked the faith of Abel, whose faith was something more than a belief of the natural man in a Creator, who argues from the design manifested in creation that there must be a Designer, and from the character of the works of nature that the Designer must be God. Cain was content with a faith of this extent-a barren faith, the faith of the worldling.
“By faith” Abel offered an acceptable sacrifice, and for want of faith Cain did not. And what was that want of faith? In that Cain chose to give fruit instead of an animal? Not a bit of it. Faith is not a superficial thing. Its presence is not to be looked for in physical presentations or actions; it is a thing of the heart. Abel's heart was God's; Cain's heart was not. The one sacrifice was genuine; the other was a sham. God won't be befooled; that is what it means.1 [Note: W. G. Elmslie.]