Most of us know the context in which this question was asked, far back in time near the dawn of human history. Cain spoke these words after killing his brother Abel, and after blatantly lying to God when he was asked: “Where is Abel thy brother?” (Genesis 4:9). What might have been going through Cain’s mind, in addition to that carnal impulse to deny culpability for his brutal act? He was asserting his independence, both as to being accountable to God, and as to any accountability for his brother’s welfare.
Asserting or defending one’s independence in moral and spiritual matters is never commended by God. Spiritual independence is the rejection of the idea of accountability to God. Moral independence is the refusal to be accountable to another person or group for your actions, and often includes despising God-given accountability for the welfare of others. We find manifestations of this spirit of independence in the heart of the natural man in many other Bible characters, and we will briefly notice just two more of them.
Pharaoh shows his character and begins his downward spiral toward destruction by uttering this contemptuous question: “Who is the Lord, that I should obey Him to let Israel go?” (Exodus 5:2) He immediately answers the question to his own condemnation: “I know not the Lord.” There is no doubt that Pharaoh’s conscience spoke to him of God’s claims upon him, but he scorned all accountability to his Creator, and all accountability for the well-being of Jehovah’s people.
Nabal was a “churlish and evil” man, the very opposite of his good and beautiful wife, Abigail (I Samuel 25). When David and his men rightly desired some consideration from Nabal, he retorts with a question very similar to Pharaoh’s: “Who is David? and who is the son of Jesse?” And not content to leave it there, he adds insult to injury and opines as to David’s motives: “There be many servants now a days that break away every man from his master.” In other words, Nabal casts David as a rebel who achieved independence from Saul, and if David requires some sustenance for himself and his followers, let him return and subject himself to his former master. But David was a fugitive, not a rebel.
Now David is a lovely picture for us of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the account just mentioned, Nabal reproached David just as the Pharisees much later, and in the same proud spirit, reproached Jesus, accusing Him of having an independent mission, saying “Thou barest record of Thyself; Thy record is not true!” (John 8:13-14) But there never was a more dependent man on this earth than our blessed Lord, so that the Pharisees’ accusations against David’s greater Son just serve to manifest their own estrangement from God and His truth (John 5:30-38; 6:38-40).
It is not surprising to us that sinners would insist upon their moral and spiritual independence, but what is the lesson for Christians in pictures such as these? “For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself” (Romans 14:7-9). Let our hearts and consciences always exercise themselves in dependence upon God, with the Lord Jesus as our example, and let us own and act upon our accountability to and for others in the body of Christ. He came not to please Himself, but “took upon Him the form of a servant”. An independent spirit may be acceptable in a society that values political independence, but what ought to characterize the spirits of the godly? Our God is certain to honor and reward the life that is dependent and accountable, conformed to the image of His Son.