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THE EPISTLE OF PAUL THE APOSTLE TO THE HEBREWS - Chapter 11 - Verse 4

Verse 4. By faith Abel offered. See Ge 4:4,5. In the account in Genesis of the offering made by Abel, there is no mention of faith —as is true also indeed of most of the instances referred to by the apostle. The account in Genesis is, simply, that Abel "brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering." Men have speculated much as to the reason why the offering of Abel was accepted, and that of Cain rejected; but such speculation rests on no certain basis, and the solution of the apostle should be regarded as decisive and satisfactory, that in the one case there was faith, in the other not. It could not have been because an offering of the fruits of the ground was not pleasing to God, for such an offering was commanded under the Jewish law, and was not in itself improper. Both the brothers selected that which was to them most obvious; which they had reared with their own hands; which they regarded as most valuable. Cain had cultivated the earth, and he naturally brought what had grown under his care; Abel kept a flock, and he as naturally brought what he had raised: and had the temper of mind in both been the same, there is no reason to doubt that the offering of each would have been accepted. To this conclusion we are led by the nature of the case, and the apostle advances substantially the same sentiment—for he says that the particular state of mind on which the whole turned was, that the one had faith and the other not. How the apostle himself was informed of the fact, that it was faith which made the difference, he has not informed us. The belief that he was inspired will, however, relieve the subject of this difficulty—for, according to such a belief, all his statements here, whether recorded in the Old Testament or not, are founded in truth. It is equally impossible to tell with certainty what was the nature of the faith of Abel. It has been commonly asserted that it was faith in Christ—-looking forward to his coming, and depending on his sacrifice when offering that which was to be a type of him. But of this there is no positive evidence, though, from Heb 12:24, it seems to be not improbable. Sacrifice, as a type of the Redeemer's great offering, was instituted early in the history of the world. There can be no reason assigned for the offering of blood as an atonement for sin, except that it had originally a reference to the great atonement which was to be made by blood; and as the salvation of man depended on this entirely, it is probable that that would be one of the truths which would be first communicated to man after the fall. The bloody offering of Abel is the first of the kind which is definitely mentioned in the Scriptures, (though it is not improbable that such sacrifices were offered by Adam, comp. Ge 3:21,) and consequently Abel may be regarded as the recorded head of the whole typical system, of which Christ was the antitype and the fulfilment. See Barnes "Heb 12:24".

 

A more excellent sacrifice. pleiona yusian -as rendered by Tindal, "more plenteous sacrifice;" or as Wickliffe renders it, more literally, "a much more sacrifice;" that is, a more full or complete sacrifice; a better sacrifice. The meaning is, that it had in it much more to render it acceptable to God. In the estimate of its value, the views of him who offered it would be more to be regarded than the nature of the offering itself

By which. By which sacrifice so offered. The way in which he obtained the testimony of Divine approbation was by the sacrifice offered in this manner. It was not merely by faith; it was by the offering of a sacrifice in connexion with, and under the influence of faith.

He obtained witness that he was righteous. That is, from God. His offering, made in faith, was the means of his obtaining the Divine testimonial that he was a righteous man. See Barnes "Heb 11:2".

This is implied in what is said in Ge 4:4: "And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering;" that is, he regarded it as the offering of a righteous man.

God testifying of his gifts. In what way this was done is not mentioned either here or in Genesis. Commentators have usually supposed that it was by fire descending from heaven to consume the sacrifice. But there is no evidence of this, for there is no intimation of it in the Bible. It is true that this frequently occurred when an offering was made to God, (see Ge 15:17; Le 9:24; Jud 6:21; 1 Ki 18:38; ) but the sacred writers give us no hint that this happened in the case of the sacrifice made by Abel; and since it is expressly mentioned in other cases and not here, the presumption rather is that no such miracle occurred on the occasion. So remarkable a fact—the first one in all history if it were so—could hardly have failed to be noticed by the sacred writer. It seems to me, therefore, that there was some method by which God "testified" his approbation of the offering of Abel which is unknown to us, but in regard to what it was conjecture is vain.

And by it he, being dead, yet speaketh. Marg. Is yet spoken of. This difference of translation arises from a difference of reading in the MSS. That from which the translation in the text is derived, is laleihe speaketh. That from which the rendering in the margin is derived, is laleitai is spoken of; that is, is praised or commended. The latter is the common reading in the Greek text, and is found in Walton, Wetstein, Matthaei, Tittman, and Mill; the former is adopted by Griesbach, Koppe, Knapp, Grotius, Hammond, Storr, Rosenmuller, Prof. Stuart, Bloomfield, and Hahn, and is found in the Syriac and Coptic, and is that which is favoured by most of the Fathers. See Wetstein. The authority of Mss. is in favour of the reading laleitaiis spoken of. It is impossible, in this variety of opinion, to determine which is the true reading, and this is one of the cases where the original text must probably be for ever undecided. Happily, no important doctrine or duty is depending on it. Either of the modes of reading will give a good sense. The apostle is saying that it is by faith that the "elders have obtained a good report," (Heb 11:2;) he had said, (Heb 11:4,) that it was by faith that Abel obtained the testimony of God in his favour; and if the reading "is spoken of" be adopted, the apostle means that, in consequence of that offering thus made, Abel continued even to his time to receive an honourable mention. This act was commended still; and the "good report," of which it had been the occasion, had been transmitted from age to age. A sentiment thus of great beauty and value may be derived from the passage —that true piety is the occasion of transmitting a good report, or an honourable reputation, even down to the latest generation. It is that which will embalm the memory in the grateful recollection of mankind; that on which they will reflect with pleasure, and which they will love to transmit to future ages. But, after all, it seems to me to be probable that the true sentiment in this passage is that which is expressed in the common version, "he yet speaketh." The reasons are briefly these:

(1.) The authority of Mss., versions, editions, and critics, is so nearly equal, that it is impossible from this source to determine the true reading; and we must, therefore, form our judgment from the connexion.

(2.) The apostle had twice in this verse expressed substantially the idea that he was honourably testified of by his faith, and it is hardly probable that he would again repeat it so soon.

(3.) There seems to be an allusion here to the language used respecting Abel, (Ge 4:10,) "The voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground;"—or utters a distinct voice—and the apostle seems to design to represent Abel as still speaking.

(4.) In Heb 12:24, he represents both Abel and Christ as still speaking—as if Abel continued to utter a voice of admonition. The reference there is to the fact that he continued to proclaim from age to age, even to the time of the apostle, the great truth that salvation was only by blood. He had proclaimed it at first by his faith when he offered the sacrifice of the lamb; he continued to speak from generation to generation, and to show that it was one of the earliest principles of religion that there could be redemption from sin in no other way.

(5.) The expression "yet speaketh" accords better with the connexion. The other interpretation is cold compared with this, and less fits the case before us. Of the faith of Noah, Abraham, and Moses, it might be said with equal propriety that it is still commended or celebrated as well as that of Abel, but the apostle evidently means to say that there was a voice in that of Abel which was peculiar; there was something in his life and character which continued to speak from age to age. His sacrifice, his faith, his death, his blood, all continued to lift up the voice, and to proclaim the excellence and value of confidence in God, and to admonish the world how to live.

(6.) This accords with usage in classic writers, where it is common to say of the dead that they continue to speak. Comp. Virg. AEn. vi. 618

Et magna testafur voce per umbras:

Discite justitiam moniti, et non tetonere Divos.

If this be the true meaning, then the sense is, that there is an influence from the piety of Abel which continues to admonish all coming ages of the value of religion, and especially of the great doctrine of the necessity of an atonement by blood. His faith and his sacrifice proclaimed from age to age that this was one of the first great truths made known to fallen man; and on this he continues to address the world as if he were still living. Thus all who are pious continue to exert an influence in favour of religion long after the soul is removed to heaven, and the body consigned to the grave. This is true in the following respects,

(1.) They speak by their example. The example of a pious father, mother, neighbour, will be remembered. It will often have an effect after their death in influencing those over whom it had little control while living.

(2.) They continue to speak by their precepts. The precepts of a father may be remembered, with profit, when he is in his grave, though they were heard with indifference when he lived; the counsels of a minister may be recollected with benefit, though they were heard with scorn.

(3.) They continued to speak from the fact that the good are remembered with increasing respect and honour as long as they are remembered at all. The character of Abel, Noah, and Abraham, is brighter now than it was when they lived, and will continue to grow brighter to the end of time. "The name of the wicked will rot," and the influence which they had when living will grow feebler and feebler, till it wholly dies away. Howard will be remembered, and will proclaim from age to age the excellence of a life of benevolence; the character of Nero, Caligula, and Richard III., has long since ceased to exert any influence whatever in favour of evil, but rather shows the world, by contrast, the excellence of virtue; and the same will yet be true of Paine, and Voltaire, and Byron, and Gibbon, and Hume. The time will come when they shall cease to exert any influence in favour of infidelity and sin; and when the world shall be so satisfied of the error of their sentiments, and the abuse of their talents, and the corruption of their hearts, that their names, by contrast, will be made to promote the cause of piety and virtue. If a man wishes to exert any permanent influence after he is dead, he should be a good man. The strength of the faith of Abel, here commended, will be seen by a reference to a few circumstances.

(1.) It was manifested shortly after the apostasy, and not long after the fearful sentence had been pronounced in view of the sin of man. The serpent had been cursed; the earth had been cursed; woe had been denounced on the mother of mankind; and the father of the apostate race, and all his posterity, doomed to toil and death. The thunder of this curse had scarcely died away; man had been ejected from Paradise, and sent out to enter on his career of woes, and the earth was trembling under the malediction, and yet Abel maintained his confidence in God.

(2.) There was then little truth revealed, and only the slightest intimation of mercy. The promise in Ge 3:5, that the seed of the woman should bruise the head of the serpent, is so enigmatical and obscure, that it is not easy even now to see its exact meaning —-and it cannot be supposed that Abel could have had a full understanding of what was denoted by it. Yet this appears to have been all the truth respecting the salvation of man then revealed, and on this Abel maintained his faith steadfast in God.

(3.) Abel had an elder brother, undoubtedly an infidel, a scoffer, a mocker of religion. He was evidently endowed with a talent for sarcasm, (Ge 4:9;) and there is no reason to doubt, that, like other infidels and scoffers, he would be disposed to use that talent when occasion offered, to hold up religion to contempt. The power with which he used this, and the talent with which he did this, may be seen illustrated, probably with melancholy fidelity, in Lord Byron's, "Cain." No man ever lived who could more forcibly express the feelings that passed through the mind of Cain—for there is too much reason to think that his extraordinary talents were employed, on this occasion, to give vent to the feelings of his own heart, in the sentiments put into the mouth of Cain. Yet, notwithstanding the infidelity of his elder brother, Abel adhered to God and his cause. Whatever influence that infidel brother might have sought to use over him—and there can be no reason to doubt that such an influence would be attempted—yet he never swelled, but maintained with steadfastness his belief in religion, and his faith in God.

{a} "Abel offered" Ge 4:4,5 {1} "yet speaketh" "is yet spoken of"

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