Matthew Henry: Commentator for the Common Person
I have long been interested in the biographical details of some of the great commentators of the past. How was their fascination with the Scriptures developed? What were their study habits? What were their approaches to Bible study—critical, textual, devotional, etc.?
These are intriguing areas of exploration. In this brief article, I will share some stimulating information regarding the life of a highly respected English Bible student.
One of the most influential commentators over the past three centuries was Matthew Henry. He began writing his commentaries on the Old Testament in November of 1704, and his labor continued until his death in 1714. He had finished the Old Testament and covered the New Testament through the book of Acts at the time of his death, at the age of fifty-two. (Friends later concluded the commentary project by consulting his notes, sermons, etc.).
Henry was born in 1662 to a clergyman, Phillip Henry. The elder Henry had been expelled from the Church of England because he had dissented from some of the strict religious laws that had been imposed to enforce the liturgy and doctrines of the Anglican Church upon its members. Eventually, Mr. Henry would identify with the Presbyterians.
As a youngster, Matthew Henry was of frail health, but he had a strong constitution, and obviously was a precocious child. It is reported that he read aloud a chapter of the Bible when he was but three years old. His parents were deeply religious, their home frequently being depicted as a “house of God and a gate of heaven.” A faith in God was planted in the lad at a very early age, and his sincerity was evident throughout the balance of his life. It was said that during his ministry his prayers were a half-hour long and his sermons an hour. And people thronged to hear him.
It is apparent that Henry’s parents instilled within him a love for God from the earliest days of his developing perception. He had a depth of piety that was quite uncommon for a youth of his age, particularly compared to the children one observes nowadays—even among Christian folk. Consider the following paragraph composed by Henry on December 7, 1673, when he was eleven years old.
“I love the Word of God, I esteem it above all, I find my heart so inclined, I desire it as the food of my soul, I greatly delight in it, both in reading and hearing it and my soul can witness subjection to it in some measure. I think I love the Word of God for the purity of it; I love the ministers and messengers of the Word; I am often reading it; I rejoice in the good success of it; all which were given as marks of true love to the Word in a sermon that I lately heard on Psalm 119:140, ‘Thy word is very pure, therefore thy servant loveth it’.”
Matthew Henry was a dedicated student. He arose at four or five o’clock in the morning to pursue his studies. It was his custom to preach expository lessons from the texts of Scripture. In the mornings he would discourse from the Old Testament, beginning in Genesis and proceeding onward in those narratives throughout the year. In the afternoons he expounded from the New Testament narratives. Many of the charming illustrations that punctuated his warm comments had been learned at the feet of his father and written down as notes when he was a youngster.
One writer has characterized his writings in the following way:
“Although his publications furnish much less to gratification, in a literary point of view, than do the works of many who are justly designated ‘fine writers,’ they possess a vigor which, without the least endeavor to attract, awakens and sustains the attention in an uncommon degree. In a single sentence he often pours upon Scripture a flood of light; and the palpableness he gives to the wonders contained in God’s law occasions excitement not unlike that which is produced by looking through a microscope (quoted in McClintock & Strong. Vol. 4. Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature. p. 188).
Perhaps a couple of illustrations from his commentary would be rewarding and generate interest in this venerable work.
In commenting upon Nathan’s rebuke of David, following the king’s infamous affair with Bathsheba, Henry notes that
“those who have been overtaken in any fault ought to reckon a faithful reproof the greatest kindness that can be done them and a wise reprover their best friend. Let the righteous strike me and it shall be excellent oil” [Psalm 141:5].
Regarding Jesus’ charge to seek “first” the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33), Mr. Henry observed:
“We must seek the things of Christ more than our own things. ‘Seek these things first; first in thy days; let the morning of youth be dedicated to God. Seek this first every day; let waking thoughts be of God.’ Let him that is the First, have the first.”
I once read a comment from Matthew Henry that made a profound impression on me, though I cannot remember at the moment the location of these words of encouragement. But they were to this effect. After a thief had robbed the minister of his money, rather than harboring rage over the awful injustice, he merely commented.
“I am glad that I was the victim, and not the robber. I thank God that the thief took only my money, and not my life. I am gratified that I had prosperity enough to have something to be taken.
Such sentiments reflect a spiritual insight that is rare among men.
Matthew Henry died June 22, 1714. During the illness that preceded his demise, he commented to a friend:
“You have been used to take notice of the sayings of dying men; this is mine: that a life spent in the service of God, and communion with him, is the most pleasant life that anyone can live in this world.”
One does not have to agree with all of a man’s theological ideas (some of which may be seriously in error) to appreciate his virtue, admire his wisdom, and learn from his instruction.
The conscientious Bible student who reads Matthew Henry with a discerning eye will be blessed immeasurably for his effort.