I’ve often said that from creation to consummation, people have had problems with proper worship. The first sins were ones of false worship, and so will the last be.
The same is true for the first murder. Cain’s brutal slaying of his brother stemmed from his anger over his offering of worship not being acceptable to God (Gen. 4:5). In the text we are simply told that God “had no regard” for Cain and his offering. So what, exactly, was Cain’s problem?
I’ve heard much speculation about why God rejected Cain’s offering, and indeed, speculate we must since the text is not clear as to the problem. However, I think a few clues in Genesis 4, as well as some additional commentary by NT authors, sheds some light on Cain’s sin.
First, in Genesis 4:5 Moses records that God “had no regard” with respect to two things: (1) Cain and (2) his offering. Already this should clue us in to a two-fold problem; something was wrong with both Cain personally and the offering itself.
Now, we have no revelation recorded for us as to what God had told Adam and Eve regarding the proper way to offer sacrifices. We have nothing, for example, that reveals God’s commands that they only offer their firstfruits, or that only lambs should be sacrificed rather than fruit of the ground. So we cannot know for certain what it was about Cain’s offering that God rejected; we just know that God had no regard for it.
Second, additional NT commentary offers similar descriptions of Cain’s problem. For example, notice Hebrews 11:4:
“By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaks.”
Here again, both the inward condition of the worshipers as well as the acts of worship themselves are in view. The author of Hebrews comments on Abel’s faith, an inward condition that revealed is righteousness. But he also mentions that Abel’s sacrifice itself was “more excellent” and that God testified of his “gifts.” We also find in John 3:12 that Cain was “wicked” and in Jude 11 that he was “corrupt,” again, both inward conditions.
So what we have from both the original Genesis 4 account and additional NT material is a focus on two aspects of Cain’s problem: his inward heart motivation was evidently wicked and corrupt, and there was something about the sacrifice itself that was somehow less “excellent” than Abel’s. Both of these problems led God to reject Cain and his offering.
This is important as we consider problems with worship throughout history and even today. Many people today try to insist that God cares not how we worship; he cares only about our heart motivation. Now, it is certainly true that heart motivation is important. Scripture gives us many examples of people worshiping in the right way but nevertheless being rejected by God because of vain hearts.
Nevertheless, what Cain’s problem teaches us (as well as other examples in Scripture) is that God cares about both the heart and the acts themselves. In fact, the reason he cares about both is that there is a direct connection between the heart and the hands. Certainly Cain’s improper attitude led him to offer something that was less excellent than it should have been. Had his heart been pure, he would have undoubtedly offered a sacrifice in accord with God’s desires.
So let us not fail to concern ourselves with both the heart and the worship acts themselves. God desires worshipers who will draw near to him with pure hearts of devotion, but he also wants to be worshiped in the ways that he has prescribed.