Matthew Henry: Uncommon Commentator

by Bernard R. DeRemer

Warren Wiersbe calls it "probably the best-known commentary on the Bible in the English Language…." Spurgeon declared that every minister ought to read Matthew Henry's Commentary "entirely and carefully through once at least." It is said that evangelist George Whitefield carried his set of Matthew Henry "on all his travels and read it daily on his knees."

For nearly 300 years this great classic's exposition and application have enriched enormously the lives and labors of preachers, teachers, and laymen.

Let's look at the life of the author:

Matthew Henry was born in 1662 at Broad Oak, a farm near Whitechurch, England. His father, Philip, was a distinguished minister, so Matthew grew up in a godly home with every beneficial spiritual influence from the earliest.

Weak and sickly as a child, he was still so precocious that by age three he could "read the Bible with distinctness and observation." Matthew HenryFuture years would fully reveal his strength of intellect and character, which so contributed to his outstanding ministry.

He was privately educated at home as well as in an Islington Academy. Eventually he would master Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and French.

After much "serious consideration," he was saved at 13 and began the remarkable growth in grace which later bore fruit evident to all.

In 1685 he started to study law, where he probably would have attained distinction. However, he never lost his desire to preach, so he devoted time to theological reading, prayer, and occasionally expounding Scripture to friends.

Then he began to preach wherever he could. In 1687 he was privately ordained. His "Serious Self Examination Before Ordination," which runs twelve pages, gave his remarkably detailed hopes and aspirations for the future.

In it he asked a series of penetrating questions necessary before he could give himself "to God in a peculiar manner." He outlined the necessity salvation, his own experience of saving grace, "real hatred of sin…." and love for holiness. "Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts; and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Ps. 139: 23, 24).

He went on to list failures as well as fulfillment, and emphasized that he did not "take up the ministry as a trade to live by or to enrich myself by, out of the greediness of filthy lucre. No! I hope I aim at nothing but souls…." If he gained those, he would consider it "a good bargain."

Wiersbe notes that every candidate should read this document before ordination and "it would not hurt those of us already ordained to review it on occasion."

Only then did Henry become pastor of Trinity Church, Chester, where he found "much agreeable society." It soon grew to 250 members and beyond, expanding to accommodate increased numbers. There he would labor for twenty-five fruitful years. He held services in neighboring villages and preached to prisoners, but was rarely absent from his own pulpit on the Lord's Day.

The exact date is not fixed, but around 1698-1701, Henry began the year with a devotional exercise, in part as follows:

"This New Year's Day I have solemnly renewed the resignation and surrender of my whole self to God…I have renounced the world and the flesh…and devoted my whole self to the blessed Spirit to be enlightened, and sanctified, and so recommended to the Son as qualified for an interest in His mediation…." He appropriately closed, "…let me serve Thee forever."

On the Lord's Day, Henry met his congregation at 9 a.m.; the service began with singing Psalm 100. After prayer, he "read and expounded part of the Old Testament…" beginning at Genesis.

Singing of another Psalm followed, then about half an hour of intercession, followed by the sermon-usually about an hour. After Psalm 117, he pronounced the benediction. [That day knew nothing of "sermonettes for Christianettes."]

His biographer declares that "in the exercise of public and social prayer, Mr. Henry was almost unrivaled. There was no pompous finery, no personal reproofs or compliments, no vain repetition, no preaching. He prayed, and his style was reverent, humble, simple, and devout."

Henry urged his brethren to "be plain and Scriptural. Choose for your pulpit subjects the plainest and most needful truths, and endeavor to make them plainer." He stressed seriousness in delivery, with "sound speech which cannot be condemned."

Married twice (his first wife died in childbirth), Henry had nine daughters (three did not survive infancy) and one son. Alas, his son chose not to follow his father's and grandfather's faith; what a heartbreak that must have been.

On November 12, 1704, Henry began writing his famous Commentary, asking that the Lord would help him "with great humility." Much of the material came from his own exposition of Scripture in family worship as well as church services.

A decade later, April 17, 1714, he had completed the Book of Acts, but in June sudden illness claimed him. Pastor friends, from his sermons and notes, completed the task, from Romans to Revelation.

The prestigious Dictionary of National Biography, in which Henry occupies no less than three columns, says that his classic work "for practical purposes has not been superseded." Indeed, after nearly three centuries, this work is called "perfect for devotional reading and sermon help." The six volumes have often been abridged. Various editions are listed in Books in Print, as well as five other titles by Henry.

Matthew Henry's contributions to the cause of Christ are incalculable.

"…Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors; and their works do follow them" (Rev. 14:13).