Have you ever wondered why it is that Abel’s sacrifice was accepted by God, yet Cain’s was not? Or why Saul was rejected by God as the king of Israel for offering the sacrifice before Samuel, yet David was not after the whole incident with Bathsheba and the issue with his son Absalom that caused a divide in the nation? I think what is going on here is less of God playing favorites, but rather something else dealing with these two men.
Let me propose that the sacrifice and worship which God accepts is that which comes from a pure heart.
In Genesis 4, we see Cain and Abel born to Adam and Eve. Cain seems to be a farmer/harvester while Abel is a shepherd. However, all different kinds of offerings were made in the Old Testament and God accepted them, so we know that the issue was not that Abel had a superior sacrifice to Abel. We are told that Cain and his offering had no regard before God, and so God asks him why he is upset and has his offering not been accepted (Gen 4:5-6, NRSV). And just like Adam and Eve in the garden, God comes before Cain with a question and asks him what he has done to give him the ability to confess. We know what happens next where Cain kills his brother Abel and again echoing the sound of the Fall again and God asks, “where is your brother?” to which Cain responds negatively to God. However, just like Adam and Eve passing the blame from themselves in Genesis 3, Cain’s feeble attempt is pointless and is not without consequences. Yet, this incident brings us back to verse 7, where God warned Cain that sin is on the horizon and he must overcome it. Before Cain committed the sin, God knew the condition of Abel’s heart and his desire to hide from him.
However, this is not to say that Cain’s offering was rejected because he was a sinner. We know that only one man lived a perfect life and his name was Jesus Christ. Rather, the purity and openness of one’s heart is what God desires for his people and is the one thing which Cain kept from God. Let us look next to David in comparison to Saul to see the stark contrast between a “pure and open” heart.
Saul was anointed king over Israel by Samuel to lead God’s people after the heart of God. Saul sinned just as Cain did and we see as 1 Samuel unfolds that Saul was not open and pure before God. In contrast, the man whom replaced Saul as king was known as a man after God’s own heart. David was by no means perfect. As you turn through the pages of David’s life and you see things such as Bathsheba, Uriah, and Absalom, it is clear that David was broken like all others. Yet, after the incident with Bathsheba, David is confronted by a prophet of God and unlike Adam, Eve, and Cain, David does not run from God or hide what he did. David opens himself before God and admits to all he has done and does not hide it. David was acceptable to be king of God’s people, and his worship was accepted because of his pure heart he kept open before God.
In Psalm 51, following the incident with Bathsheba and Uriah, David laments to say “for you do not delight in sacrifice… you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart…” (Pss 51:16-17). God does not desire for us to just offer religious rituals as we go through the motions, or something superficial, or even just good behavior. Rather, God desires for us to be open and pure before him. God does not call us to put together our brokenness and then come to him, but rather to come before him broken and offer our brokenness to him.
So, bring your brokenness to God. Be open and honest before him. Do not run and hide from God. It is pointless. God already knows everything you desire before you desire it. He knows what you have done and will do before it happens.
Want to hear a secret. None of else will ever be able to have a pure and clean heart through our own doing. Adam, Eve, Cain, David, they all sinned and fell short. Here we enter Jesus, who came to earth and lived a life of a pure heart. Jesus lived a pure and sinless life and died for our sins so that we have the chance to have a clean heart before God. As we come open and broken before God and call on the name of Jesus, his Spirit will come into us and begin the work of cleansing us and transforming us into the image of Jesus. So, let me leave you with the prayer of David in Psalm 51:
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and sustain in me a willing spirit.”