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Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary

Genesis 4

 

 

Verse 4-5

THE DISREGARDED AND THE ACCEPTED OFFERING

‘And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering: but unto Cain and to his offering He had not respect.’

Genesis 4:4-5

There are two things which distinguish the Bible from every other book: the view it gives us of man, and the view it gives us of God. The one is so human, the other so Divine; the one so exactly consistent with what we ourselves see of man, the other so exactly consistent with what we ourselves should expect in God—in other words, with what our own conscience, which is God’s voice within, recognises as worthy of God, and ratifies where it could not have originated.

I. ‘The Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering: but unto Cain and his offering He had not respect.’—Whence this distinction? Was there anything in the material of the two offerings which made the one acceptable and the other offensive? Have we any right to say, apart from the express language of Scripture, that by bringing an animal in sacrifice Abel showed a clear perception of the true way of atonement, and that by bringing of the fruits of the earth Cain proved himself a self-justifier, a despiser of propitiation? In the absence of express guidance we dare not assert with confidence that it was in the material of the two offerings that God saw the presence or the absence of an acceptable principle. In proportion as we lay the stress of the difference more upon the spirit and less upon the form of the sacrifice, we shall be more certainly warranted by the inspired word and more immediately within the reach of its application to ourselves.

II. It was by faith that Abel offered a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain.—It was because of the presence of faith in Abel that God had respect unto him and to his offering. And so it is now. The worship of one is accepted and the worship of another disregarded, because one has faith and another has no faith. The worship of faith is the concentrated energy of the life of faith. Where God sees this, there He has respect to our offering; where God sees not this, to that person and to his offering He has not respect.

—Dean Vaughan.

Illustrations

(1) We are only told concerning two of Adam’s sons, the first two, but there were doubtless other sons and daughters born to them during the years in which Cain and Abel were growing up to their manhood. These two men are introduced to us when they had begun to act independently, and took the responsibility of life upon themselves. Before this, in religious matters, they had done as they were told, now they began to do as they wished. Show that a time comes when, for each of us, the religion of association must be made personal; we must ‘choose for ourselves whom we will serve.’

(2) ‘We may be quite sure that Adam had some religious rites and customs; so these young men had early religious teachings and associations. They set before us types of the two attitudes men bear towards religion; some are religious because they ought to; others are religious because they love to. It is a singular fact that in every age the formalist has persecuted the spiritual man; the Cains have ever been ready to lift their hands against the Abels.’


Verse 9

THE UNBROTHERLY BROTHER

‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’

Genesis 4:9

Whether the story of Cain and Abel be literal history or profound allegory, it conveys deep and abundant lessons. In the fact that, so headlong was man’s collapse from his original innocence, of the first two born into the world the elder grew up to be a murderer, and the younger his victim, we have a terrible glimpse into that apostasy of man’s heart of which we see the bitter fruits in every walk of life. All national history; all war; every prison and penitentiary; all riot and sedition; the deadly struggles of capital and labour; anarchy and revolution; all the records of crime, brutality, suicide, and internecine strife, which crowd our newspapers from day to day—are but awful comments on these few verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis, and indications of the consequences which follow the neglect of their tremendous lessons.

The first murderer was the first liar (‘Where is thy brother?’ ‘I know not’); he was also an egotist—‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’

I. Apart from other serious considerations, this last utterance of Cain’s impresses a great principle, and a solemn duty.

We each of us ask in our words and in our lives, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ God answers us—‘You are!’ The world, with all its might, answers—‘No! I am not.’ Vast multitudes of merely nominal Christians, all the army of the compromisers and conventionalists, while they say, or half say, with reluctance, ‘Yes, I am my brother’s keeper,’ yet act and live in every respect as if they were not. There is little practical difference between their conduct and that of the godless world. Our Lord illustrated this in the parable of ‘The two sons.’ If some, like the sneering lawyer, interpose an excuse, and ask, ‘Who is my brother?’ the answer is the same as Christ gave in the parable of ‘The good Samaritan.’ Yes, all men are our brothers; and when we injure them, by lies, which cut like a sharp razor, by sneers, innuendoes, slander, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness, by want of thought or by want of heart, by neglect or by absorbing selfishness, we are inheritors of the spirit of the first murderer.

II. But let us confine our thoughts to those who most pressingly need our services—to the great masses of the poor, the oppressed, the wretched, the hungry, the lost, the outcast. Among them lies, in some form or other, a great sphere of our duty, which, if we neglect, we neglect at our peril.

There is an almost shoreless sea of misery around us, which rolls up its dark waves to our very doors; thousands live and die in the dim borderland of destitution; little children wail, starve, and perish, and soak and blacken soul and sense in our streets; there are thousands of unemployed, not all of whom are lazy impostors; the Demon of Drink is the cause of daily horrors which would disgrace Dahomey or Ashantee; these are facts patent to every eye. Now God will work no miracle to mend these miseries. If we neglect them, they will be left uncured, but He will hold us responsible for the neglect. To the callous and slothful He will say—‘What hast thou done?’ and it will be vain to answer—‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’

III. There are many ways of asking the question of Cain.

(a) There is that of coarse ignorance; of men steeped in greed, who say outright that ‘the poor in the lump are bad.’

(b) There is that of the spirit which robs even charity of its compassionateness, and makes a gift more odious than a blow.

(c) There is that of the spirit of indifferent despair; those who cry—‘What good can we do?’ and ‘Of what earthly use is it?’; who find an excuse for doing practically nothing by quoting the words of Deuteronomy: ‘The poor shall never cease out of the land’; but (conveniently) forget the words which follow (Deuteronomy 15:11). This despair of social problems is ignoble and unchristian.

(d) There is that of unfaithfulness, domestic sloth (of narrow-mindedness and narrow-heartedness); if such do not challenge God with the question—‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ they act as if they were not. There is a danger lest our narrow domesticity should enervate many of our nobler instincts by teaching indifference to the public weal as a sort of languid virtue. God has made us citizens of His Kingdom. Many a man, in his affection and service to his family, forgets that he belongs also to the collective being; that he cannot, without guilt, sever himself from the needs of his parish, his nation, his race, from the claims of the poor, the miserable, and the oppressed. If he is to do his duty in this life, he must help, think for, sympathise with, give to, them. The Christian must man the lifeboat to help life’s shipwrecked mariners; if he cannot row, he must steer; if he cannot steer, he must help to launch; if he have not strength to do that, then—

As one who stands upon the shore

And sees the lifeboat go to save,

And all too weak to take an oar,

I send a cheer across the wave.

At the very least, he must solace, shelter, and supply the needs of those rescued from the wreck. The meanest position of all is to stand and criticise, to say that the lifeboat is a bad one, or that it is being wrongly launched, or wrongly manned. Worst and wickedest of all is to stand still and call those fools and fanatics who are bearing the burden and heat of the day. The best men suffer with those whom they see suffer. They cannot allay the storm, but they would at least aid those who are doing more than themselves to rescue the perishing. They would sympathise, help, and, at the lowest, give. It is love which is the fulfilling of the Law. There is but one test with God of true orthodoxy, of membership of the kingdom of Heaven. It is given in the last utterance of Revelation by the beloved disciple. It sweeps away with one breath nine-tenths of the fictions and falsities of artificial orthodoxy and fanatical religionism. It is ‘He that doeth righteousness is righteous,’ and ‘He that doeth righteousness is born of God.’ It is only by keeping the commandments that we can enter into life.

—Dean Farrar.

Illustrations

(1) ‘Of the dangers which are partly rooted in our animal nature and partly fostered and intensified by the drift of our time, the one likely to press most heavily on us is that of exaggerated individualism. Where this is not tempered by an infusion of the religious spirit, we find it working with a disintegrating power, and in various ways vitiating both our personal and social life. Almost every advance of civilisation which distinguishes our century has tended to give this principle some new hold on the common life. There is no corner of society, commercial or social, political or artistic, which it does not invade.’

(2) ‘No character in the Old Testament represents to us guilt and infamy so readily as Cain; he is surpassed only by Judas in all the Bible. For to the heart of man it is not incredible that at so short a distance from Paradise, or even at the still shorter distance from Cain’s glad childhood, so foul a deed as this was done. The heart of man knows its own deceitfulness, and how soon sin brings forth death.

And besides all this, there is no possibility of understanding the punishment that Cain had to endure if he were not a murderer in intention as well as fact. “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” Certainly He will never err on the side of vengeance, for it is mercy, not vengeance, He is said to delight in. If Cain receives his punishment, it may seem to him greater than he can bear, but it is not greater than he deserves.’


Verses 19-24

AN EARLY CHAUVINIST

‘And Lamech took unto him two wives,’ etc.

Genesis 4:19-24

Here we have I. A violator of the Divine law of marriage.—Monogamy was the Divine law of marriage, and in all likelihood this rule had been observed till Lamech’s time. The general opinion is, that Lamech was the first to disobey this law by taking ‘two wives.’ The fact would scarcely have been recorded, had it not been intended to note a new departure from the established order of things. ‘This was his invention, his legacy to the human race—a legacy which perhaps the larger half of men still inherit to their cost and ours.’ Kitto quaintly remarks, ‘Lamech had his troubles, as a man with two wives was likely to have, and always has had: but whether or not his troubles grew directly out of his polygamy is not clearly disclosed.’ Some scholars think that it was this infraction of the monogamic law that brought Lamech into the danger of punishment by his fellows, and that he here vaunts his power to meet any objector to his conduct. This, however, is only matter of conjecture. His sinfulness in the matter is more apparent. The marriage-law lies at the foundation of family happiness and social order. Compare monogamic with polygamic peoples. Mahometanism in the Eastern and Mormonism in the Western world.

II. A proof that worldly prosperity is no necessary sign of the Divine favour.—Lamech was a prosperous man, as things went in those primitive times. His family was numerous and rarely gifted. Jabal was the inventor, so to speak, of the nomadic pastoral life, and the possessor of flocks and herds; Jubal was the inventor, in their first rude forms, of ‘harp and organ’—stringed and wind instruments; whilst Tubal-Cain was the inventor of edged tools for domestic and military purposes, of such use and service to mankind as to make him equally famous with his brothers. According to Josephus, he was also of great strength and distinguished for martial performances. His sister, Naamah, is one of the four women of antediluvian times mentioned in Scripture; and according to the Rabbis, was the ‘mistress of lamenters and singers.’ But gifts and graces do not necessarily go together. The Cainite race was an ungodly one, and the family of Lamech was no exception to the general rule. Worldly fame, wealth, accomplishments may all exist, without being sanctified by the smile of God. To Lamech ‘the Divine grace of poesy seems to have been given, but his Parnassus was a hot volcano.’ He sings not God’s praise, but his own; not of peace, but of bloodshed. Are not worldly prosperity and spiritual leanness often to be found together still? Are there no rich paupers, millionaire bankrupts, well-housed wanderers ‘enjoying life’ in a materialistic way, and yet of whom it is sadly true, in a higher sense, that ‘there is no life in them’? Twentieth century Lamechs are not so very rare.

III. An instance of cultured and civilised ungodliness.—Lamech argues, that if God avenged Cain sevenfold (Genesis 4:15) he, with his new weapon, the sword, will not need, nor ask a Divine avenger. He will act for himself on the principle, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ and that not merely sevenfold but seventy and seven times. His vengeance will be more dire than that of God Himself. The song thus ‘breathes a spirit of boastful defiance, of trust in his own strength, of violence, and of murder. Of God there is no further acknowledgment than that in a reference to the avenging of Cain, from which Lamech argues his own safety.’ Looked at in the light of this savage ‘sword-song,’ we cannot but see that the culture and civilisation introduced by Lamech and his family were essentially godless; ‘of the earth, earthy.’ These fathers of mankind were not rude barbarians, but cultured to a degree which it is too often the custom to underrate. And yet these were godless times. ‘The wickedness of man was great in the earth.’ God was ignored. ‘He was not in all the thoughts’ of these old-world denizens. Morally and spiritually the race was degenerating with fearful rapidity, until, the climax of wickedness having been reached, ‘the Flood came and swept them all away.’ Are there none who, in the midst of the civilisation, culture, and luxury of the twentieth century are living merely sensuous lives, ignoring or forgetting God? Is not this pre-eminently a materialistic age? The ‘creature’ is by many worshipped more than the ‘Creator.’ Satisfaction is sought in art, science, literature, politics. Communion with God, the grace of Christ, the sure hope of heaven, are to many ‘idle tales.’ Multitudes, without being profligate or abandoned, are yet ‘without God’ in the most literal sense of the term. Do not many try to find in pleasure, money-making, social position, political power, scientific attainments, what Lamech found in his son’s glittering blade—a solace and a defence? His song also bears witness to the fierceness of his passions as well as to his powers of intellect, which went down to his family. In him the race of Cain disappears. His words are ‘the song of the dying swan.’ The sinful, but clever family, founders amid its own corruptions. Crime haunted it from Cain to Lamech. The former broke from his kindred, and the latter broke through a law which is the only guarantee of a happy family life—the law which allows to a man one wife to be his equal associate, his partner and helper in all things.

Illustration

‘The seventh generation after godless Cain produced the fiery-tempered, voluptuous, self-pleasing, poetical, ingenious Lamech: the seventh after pious Seth was headed by Enoch, who “walked with God, and was not, for God took him.” The contrast is striking.’


Verse 26

THE FIRST TRUE WORSHIPPERS

‘Then began men to call upon the name of the Lord.’

Genesis 4:26

Prayer is speaking to God—on any subject, with any object, in any place, and in any way.

I. Prayer so regarded is an instinct.—It seems to be natural to man to look upwards and address himself to his God. Even in the depth of lost knowledge and depraved feeling, the instinct of prayer will assert itself. A nation going to war with another nation will call upon its God for success and victory; and an individual man, from the bedside of a dying wife or child, will invoke the aid of one supposed to be mighty, to stay the course of a disease which the earthly physician has pronounced incurable and mortal. Just as the instinct of nature brings the child in distress or hunger to a father’s knee or to a mother’s bosom, even so does created man turn in great misery to a faithful Creator, and throw himself upon His compassion and invoke His aid.

II. But prayer is a mystery too.—The mysteriousness of prayer is an argument for its reasonableness. It is not a thing which common men would have thought of or gone after for themselves. The idea of holding a communication with a distant, an unseen, a spiritual being, is an idea too sublime, too ethereal for any but poets or philosophers to have dreamed of, had it not been made instinctive by the original Designer of our spiritual frame.

III. Prayer is also a revelation.—Many things waited for the coming of Christ to reveal them, but prayer waited not. Piety without knowledge there might be; piety without prayer could not be. And so Christ had no need to teach as a novelty the duty or the privilege of prayer. He was able to assume that all pious men, however ignorant, prayed; and to say therefore only this,—‘When ye pray, say after this manner.’

Dean Vaughan.

Illustration

‘Unfallen man held communion with his Maker of a more direct and confidential character than a being spoilt and deformed by sin is at present capable of. But some communication and intercourse with God remained or was reinstituted after the first transgression. Even Cain, much more Abel, addresses and is answered by the Lord his God. There seems to have been after them some revival in the form of ritual and sacrifice of an open quest and search for God by His sinful children.’

 


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Bibliography Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Genesis 4:4". Church Pulpit Commentary. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/cpc/genesis-4.html. 1876.

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