Monday, March 20, 2006

Matthew Henry's Commentary By S. M. Houghton

A few details about Matthew Henry's life (1662 - 1714) will be of interest. His grandfather was 'keeper of the orchard' at Whitehall, London, and he took his father's Christian name for his surname 'after the Welsh manner'. The earlier surname was Williams. Philip Henry, Matthew's father, achieved fame as a nonconformist minister and diarist. He was particularly noted for his 'purity of spirit and transparency of character'. When a youth of 17 he witnessed the execution of King Charles 1 outside the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall (Jan 30, 1648) and records the matter as follows:

'On the day of his execution I stood amongst the crowds in the street before Whitehall gate, where the scaffold was erected, and saw what was done, but was not so near as to hear anything. The blow I saw given, and can truly say with a sad heart. At the instant whereof, I remember well, there was such a groan by the thousands then present as I never heard before and desire I may never hear again. A troop (of soldiers) immediately marched from Charing Cross to Westminster, and another from Westminster to Charing Cross, purposely to disperse and scatter the people; so that I had much ado amongst the rest to escape home without hurt.'

Matthew Henry was born at Broad Oak, Flintshire, two months after his father had been ejected from his 'living' under the terms of the notorious Act of Uniformity (1662). As a youth he began the study of law at Gray's Inn, London, but shortly experienced a call to the ministry of the Word of God, and entered without delay upon the pastoral charge of a Presbyterian congregation in Chester (1687). He also held monthly services in five nearby villages and preached regularly to prisoners in Chester Castle. His study was a two-storied summerhouse in the garden of his house. He remained in Chester for 25 years and then moved to Hackney, London (1712), but died two years later and was buried in Chester. He was twice married and had one son and nine daughters.

The greater part of the following account of Henry's famous Commentary is taken from James Hamilton's Our Christian Classics, Vol. III: Matthew Henry did not live to finish his great undertaking (i.e. to comment on the whole of Scripture) but to the research of his biographers we are indebted for some interesting particulars regarding the commencement and progress of the work. It was a labour of love and flowed from the abundance of the author's mind. The Commentary was all in Matthew Henry before a word of it was written down. In his father's house the Bible was expounded every day, and he and his sisters had preserved ample notes of their father's terse and aphoristic observations. Then, during his whole Chester ministry, he went over more than once the whole Bible in simple explanations to his people. Like the Spartan babe whose cradle was his father's shield, it would be scarcely a figure to say that the Bible was the pillow of his infant head; and, familiar with it from his most tender years, it dwelt richly in him all his days. It was the cynosure round which his meditations - morning, noon and evening - turned, and whatever other knowledge came in his way, he pounced on it with more or less avidity as it served to elucidate or enforce some Bible saying. What has been remarked of an enthusiast in Egyptian antiquities - that he had grown quite pyramidical - may be said of the Presbyterian minister at Chester; he had grown entirely biblical. He had no ideas which had not either been first derived from Scripture, or afterwards dissolved in it. And as his shrewd sense, his kindly nature, his devotional temperament, and his extensive information, were all thoroughly scripturalized, it needed no forcing nor straining. It was but to turn the tap, and out flowed the racy exposition. 'The work,' he said, 'has been to me its own wages, and the pleasure recompense enough for all the pains.'

The following entry in his Journal announces the commencement of the work: 'Nov. 12, 1704: This night, after many thoughts of heart, and many prayers concerning it, I began my notes on the Old Testament. It is not likely I shall live to finish it, or if I should, that it should be of public service, for I am not parnegotio (equal to), yet in the sight of God, and, I hope, with a single eye to His glory, I set about it, that I may endeavour something and spend my time to some good purpose, and let the Lord make what use He pleaseth of me. I go about it with fear and trembling, lest I exercise myself in things too high for me. The Lord help me to set about it with great humility.' Yes - 'fear and trembling' and 'many prayers' - these are the secret of its success. All the author's fitness, and all his fondness for the work, would have availed little, had not the Lord made it grow.

In September, 1706, Henry finished the Pentateuch, and on the 21st November that year he writes: 'This evening I received a parcel of the Exposition of the Pentateuch. I desire to bless God that He has given me to see it finished. I had comfort from that promise, "Thou shalt find favour and good understanding in the sight of God and man".' That volume came out separately, and though near her 80th year, his mother lived to see it, and, scarcely hoping to read all the volume, the good old lady began with Deuteronomy. The zest with which he began lasted all along. It was not easy to divert him from the employment; each possible moment was devoted to it. Even when roused from slumber by illness in the family, his eye would brighten at the sight of it, and he would draw in his study chair 'to do a little at the exposition'. Every second year produced another volume, till on April 17th, 1714, he records, 'Finished Acts, and with it the fifth volume. Blessed be God that has helped me and spared me. All the praise be to God'. Two months thereafter he ceased from all his labours. Dr. Evans and others took up the fallen pen; they completed a sixth volume but did not continue Matthew Henry.

It would be easy to name commentators more critical, more philosophical, or more severely erudite, but none so successful in making the Bible understood. And the question with sensible readers will always be, not, What did the commentator bring to the Bible? but, What has he brought out of it? And tried by this test, Henry will bear the perpetual palm. His curious inferences, and his just, though ingenious practical observations, are such as could only have occurred to one mighty in the Scriptures, and minute in the particular text; and to the eager Bible student, they often present themselves with as welcome surprise as the basket of unexpected ore which a skilful miner sends up from a deserted shaft. Nor must we admire them the less because detected in passages where our duller eye or blunter hammer has often explored in vain. Quaint old John Berridge calls a preacher a 'gospel baker'; in the same idiom, a commentator should be a 'Bible-miller'. Bread corn must be bruised; and it is the business of the skilful interpreter to enunciate the meaning, and make it palpable to every reader. This was what Matthew Henry did, and he left it to 'gospel bakers' to add the salt and leaven, or mayhap the spice and the exotic condiments, and make a sermon or an essay as the case may be.

It is not only through the glass doors of stately book cases that the gilt folios of the Commentary shine, nor on the Study shelves of manses and evangelical parsonages that its brown symbol of orthodoxy may be recognized; but in the parlour of many a quiet tradesman, and in the cupboard of many a little farmer, and on the drawers' head of many a mechanic or day labourer, the well-conned quartos hold their ancestral station, themselves an abundant library, and hallowed as the heirloom of a bygone piety. In the words of a beloved relative, 'it bids fair to be The Comment for all coming time. True to God, true to nature, true to common sense, and true to the text, how can it ever be superseded? Waiting pilgrims will be reading it when the last trumpet sounds, Come to judgment'.

As Appendix to the above, we quote remarks by George Whitefield on Henry's Commentary; (1736). But oh! what a delightful life did I lead there! (Oxford). What communion did I enjoy daily with God! How sweetly did my hours in private glide away in reading and praying over Mr. Henry's Comment upon the Scriptures! Whilst I am musing on and writing about it, the fire I then felt again kindles in my soul.

(1738: mid-Atlantic): "Had this sentence out of Henry much pressed upon my heart to comfort me in my retirement: 'The mower loses no time whilst he is whetting his scythe.'"

And again, remarks by C. H. Spurgeon: 'First among the mighty for general usefulness ... is Matthew Henry. He is most pious and pithy, sound and sensible, suggestive and sober, terse and trustworthy ... glittering with metaphors, rich in analogies, overflowing with illustrations, superabundant in reflections. He delights in apposition and alliteration ... he sees right through a text directly; apparently he is not critical, but he quietly gives the result of an accurate critical knowledge of the original fully up to the best critics of his time ... He is deeply spiritual, heavenly and profitable; finding good matter in every text, and from all deducing most practical and judicious lessons ...Every minister ought to read Matthew Henry entirely and carefully through once at least. Begin at the beginning and resolve that you will traverse the goodly land from Dan to Beersheba... As for thoughts they will swarm around you like twittering swallows around an old gable towards the close of autumn. If you publicly expound the chapter you have just been reading, your people will wonder at the novelty of your remarks and the depth of your thoughts, and then you may tell them what a treasure Henry is.'

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