God is here reasoning with Cain, to convince him of the sin and folly of his anger and discontent, and to bring him into a good temper again, that further mischief might be prevented. It is an instance of God’s patience and condescending goodness that he would deal thus tenderly with so bad a man, in so bad an affair. He is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. Thus the father of the prodigal argued the case with the elder son (Lu. 15:28, etc.), and God with those Israelites who said, The way of the Lord is not equal, Eze. 18:25.
I. God puts Cain himself upon enquiring into the cause of his discontent, and considering whether it were indeed a just cause: Why is thy countenance fallen? Observe, 1. That God takes notice of all our sinful passions and discontents. There is not an angry look, an envious look, nor a fretful look, that escapes his observing eye. 2. That most of our sinful heats and disquietudes would soon vanish before a strict and impartial enquiry into the cause of them. “Why am I wroth? Is there a real cause, a just cause, a proportionable cause for it? Why am I so soon angry? Why so very angry, and so implacable?”
II. To reduce Cain to his right mind again, it is here made evident to him,
1. That he had no reason to be angry at God, for that he had proceeded according to the settled and invariable rules of government suited to a state of probation. He sets before men life and death, the blessing and the curse, and then renders to them according to their works, and differences them according as they difference themselves—so shall their doom be. The rules are just, and therefore his ways, according to those rules, must needs be equal, and he will be justified when he speaks.
(1.) God sets before Cain life and a blessing: “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? No doubt thou shalt, nay, thou knowest thou shalt;” either, [1.] “If thou hadst done well, as thy brother did, thou shouldst have been accepted, as he was.” God is no respecter of persons, hates nothing that he had made, denies his favour to none but those who have forfeited it, and is an enemy to none but those who by sin have made him their enemy: so that if we come short of acceptance with him we must thank ourselves, the fault is wholly our own; if we had done our duty, we should not have missed of his mercy. This will justify God in the destruction of sinners, and will aggravate their ruin; there is not a damned sinner in hell, but, if he had done well, as he might have done, had been a glorious saint in heaven. Every mouth will shortly be stopped with this. Or, [2.] “If now thou do well, if thou repent of thy sin, reform thy heart and life, and bring thy sacrifice in a better manner, if thou not only do that which is good but do it well, thou shalt yet be accepted, thy sin shall be pardoned, thy comfort and honour restored, and all shall be well.” See here the effect of a Mediator’s interposal between God and man; we do not stand upon the footing of the first covenant, which left no room for repentance, but God had come upon new terms with us. Though we have offended, if we repent and return, we shall find mercy. See how early the gospel was preached, and the benefit of it here offered even to one of the chief of sinners.
(2.) He sets before him death and a curse: But if not well, that is, “Seeing thou didst not do well, didst not offer in faith and in a right manner, sin lies at the door,” that is, “sin was imputed to thee, and thou wast frowned upon and rejected as a sinner. So high a charge had not been laid at thy door, if thou hadst not brought it upon thyself, by not doing well.” Or, as it is commonly taken, “If now thou wilt not do well, if thou persist in this wrath, and, instead of humbling thyself before God, harden thyself against him, sin lies at the door,” that is,
[1.] Further sin. “Now that anger is in thy heart, murder is at the door.” The way of sin is down-hill, and men go from bad to worse. Those who do not sacrifice well, but are careless and remiss in their devotion to God, expose themselves to the worst temptations; and perhaps the most scandalous sin lies at the door. Those who do not keep God’s ordinances are in danger of committing all abominations, Lev. 18:30.
Or, [2.] The punishment of sin. So near akin are sin and punishment that the same word in Hebrew signifies both. If sin be harboured in the house, the curse waits at the door, like a bailiff, ready to arrest the sinner whenever he looks out. It lies as if it slept, but it lies at the door where it will be soon awaked, and then it will appear that the damnation slumbered not. Sin will find thee out, Num. 32:23. Yet some choose to understand this also as an intimation of mercy. “If thou doest not well, sin (that is, the sin-offering), lies at the door, and thou mayest take the benefit of it.” The same word signifies sin and a sacrifice for sin. “Though thou hast not done well, yet do not despair; the remedy is at hand; the propitiation is not far to seek; lay hold on it, and the iniquity of thy holy things shall be forgiven thee.” Christ, the great sin-offering, is said to stand at the door, Rev. 3:20. And those well deserve to perish in their sins that will not go to the door for aninterest in the sin-offering. All this considered, Cain had no reason to be angry at God, but at himself only.
2. That he had no reason to be angry at his brother: “Unto thee shall be his desire, he shall continue his respect to thee as an elder brother, and thou, as the first-born, shalt rule over him as much as ever.” God’s acceptance of Abel’s offering did not transfer the birth-right to him (which Cain was jealous of), nor put upon him that excellency of dignity and of power which is said to belong to it, ch. 49:3. God did not so intend it; Abel did not so interpret it; there was no danger of its being improved to Cain’s prejudice; why then should he be so much exasperated? Observe here, (1.) That the difference which God’s grace makes does not alter the distinctions which God’s providence makes, but preserves them, and obliges us to do the duty which results from them: believing servants must be obedient to unbelieving masters. Dominion is not founded in grace, nor will religion warrant disloyalty or disrespect in any relation.
(2.) That the jealousies which civil powers have sometimes conceived of the true worshippers of God as dangerous to their government, enemies to Caesar, and hurtful to kings and provinces (on which suspicion persecutors have grounded their rage against them) are very unjust and unreasonable. Whatever may be the case with some who call themselves Christians, it is certain that Christians indeed are the best subjects, and the quiet in the land; their desire is towards their governors, and these shall rule over them.
Henry, M. (1994). Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible: complete and unabridged in one volume (pp. 17–18). Peabody: Hendrickson.