The Offerings of Cain and Abel
Ver. 1. Adam has by his wife a son, who is called Cain; viz. a possession or acquisition; for, said Eve, “I have gotten a man from the Lord!” Many learned men have rendered it a man, the Lord; and it is not very improbable that she should understand “the seed of the woman” of her immediate offspring; but if so, she was sadly mistaken! However, it expresses what we have not seen before, i. e. Eve’s faith in the promise. Even though she should have had no reference to the Messiah, yet it shows that she eyed God’s hand in what was given her, and viewed it as a great blessing, especially considering what a part she had acted. In this she sets an example to parents to reckon their children “a heritage from the Lord.” But she also affords an example of the uncertainty of human hopes. Cain, so far from being a comfort to his parents, proved a wicked man; yea, a pattern of wickedness; held up like Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, as a warning to others: “Not as Cain, who was of that wicked one, and slew his brother!” The joys attending the birth of a child require to be mixed with trembling; “for who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool?”
Ver. 2. Eve bears Adam another son, who was called Abel, or Hebel. In these names we probably see the partiality of parents for their first-born children. Abel signifies vanity, or a vanishing vapour. Probably he was not so goodly a child in appearance as Cain, and did not seem likely to live long. The hearts and hopes of the parents did not seem to centre in him, but in his brother. But God seeth not as man seeth. In bestowing his blessing, he has often crossed hands, as Jacob did in blessing Ephraim and Manasseh. “He chooseth the base things of the world, that no flesh should glory in his presence.” These two brothers were of different occupations; one a husbandman, and the other a shepherd; both primitive employments, and both very proper.
Ver. 3–5. In process of time the two brothers both present their offerings to God: this speaks something in favour of their parents, who had brought them up “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” Ainsworth renders it, “At the end of the days,” and understands it of the end of the year, which was then in autumn, the time of the gathering in of the harvest and the vintage. The institution of a solemn feast among the Israelites on this occasion (Exod 23:16) seems therefore to have borne a near resemblance to that which was practised from the beginning.
In the offerings of these two first-born sons of man, we see the essential difference between spiritual worship and that which is merely formal. As to the matter of which their offerings were composed, it may be thought there was nothing particularly defective: each brought what he had. There is indeed no mention made of Cain’s being of the best of the kind, which is noticed of Abel’s. And if he neglected this, it was a sign that his heart was not much in it. He might also, no doubt, have obtained a lamb out of his brother’s flock for an expiatory sacrifice. But the chief difference is that which is noticed by the apostle: “By faith Abel offered a more excellent sacrifice than Cain.” Cain’s offering was just what a self-righteous heart would offer: it proceeded on the principle that there was no breach between him and his Creator, so as to require any confession of sin, or respect to an atonement. Such offerings abound among us; but they are “without faith,” and therefore it is impossible they should please God. The offering of Abel I need not describe; suffice it to say, it was the reverse of that presented by Cain. It was the best of the kind, and included an expiatory sacrifice.
The result was, “the Lord had respect to Abel and to his offering; but unto Cain and his offering he had not respect.” The one was probably consumed by fire from heaven, the other not so. This we know was afterwards a common token of the Divine acceptance, Lev. 9:24; Psal. 20:3, margin. The order of things is worthy of notice. God first accepted Abel, and then his offering. If he had been justified on the ground of his good deeds, the order should have been reversed; but, believing in the Messiah, he was accepted for his sake; and being so, his works were well-pleasing in the sight of God. And as Abel was accepted as a believer, so Cain was rejected as an unbeliever. Being such, the Lord had no respect to him; he was under the curse, and all he did was abhorred in his eyes.
The rejection of Cain and his offering operated upon him very powerfully. If the love of God had been in him, he would have fallen before him, as Joshua and his brethren did when Israel was driven back; and have pleaded, “Show me wherefore thou contendest with me?” But “he was wroth, and his countenance fell.” This is just what might be expeoted from a self-righteous, proud spirit, who thought so highly of his offering as to imagine that God must needs be pleased with it, and with him on account of it. He was very wroth; and that no doubt against God himself, as well as against his brother. He went in high spirits, like the Pharisee to the temple, but came away dejected and full of foul passions, of which his fallen countenance was but the index.
Ver. 6, 7. Cain having returned home, the Lord, perhaps in a dream or vision of the night, expostulated with him. “Why art thou wroth?”—What cause is there for this enmity against thy Maker, and envy against thy brother?—Doubtless, he thought that he had a cause; but when interrogated of God he found none. “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.” By doing well he means doing as Abel did, offering in faith, which is the only well-doing among sinful creatures. If Cain had believed in the Messiah, there was forgiveness for him, no less than for his brother; and he should also have had the excellence attached to the first-born, which he reckoned he had a right to, and the loss of which galled him. “If thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door;”* unforgiven, to go down with thee to the grave, and to rise with thee, and appear against thee in judgment.
Observe how things are ordered in the dealings of God with men. Abel was not accepted of God for his well-doing; neither faith nor obedience was that on account of which he was justified, but the righteousness of him in whom he believed. Yet it was in well-doing that he obtained eternal life, Rom. 2:7. Though faith was not the cause of the Lord’s having respect to him, nor his having offered in faith the cause of his having respect to his works; yet each was a necessary concomitant. And this, while it secures the interests of righteousness in the righteous, serves to silence the wicked, and make them feel the justice of their condemnation. Thus, at the last judgment, though every one who is saved will be saved by grace only, yet all will be judged according to their works. Things will be so ordered that the righteous will have nothing to boast of, and the wicked nothing to complain of, inasmuch as the decision in both cases will proceed according to character.
Excerpt from: Expository Discourses on the Books of Genesis, Discourse VII, “The Offerings of Cain and Abel.”
Fuller, A. G. (1988). The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Expositions—Miscellaneous. (J. Belcher, Ed.) (Vol. 3, pp. 18–20). Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications.