“With All Plainness”—Matthew Henry’s Exposition of the Old and New Testament

Born in 1662, Matthew Henry was a premature baby and a sickly infant. His early education was provided in the family home by his father and tutors. After some theological study he turned to training for a legal career before candidating for the ministry in 1686. He was soon identified as a gifted preacher and exercised a successful pastoral calling, mainly at Chester and only later in London.

In 1704, he began work on his extraordinarily fulsome commentary on the whole Bible—Exposition of the Old and New Testament. After three years of work he published a first volume covering the five books of Moses. Later volumes, in 1708, 1710, and 1712, completed the commentary on the Old Testament. An approximate word count of the Old Testament commentary gives a total of nearly 4 million words.

The speed of his accomplishments must be placed in the context in which he worked. He did not set out to produce a novel exposition of the Scriptures. To a significant extent he relied on the vast five volume Latin commentary by Matthew Poole—Synopsis Criticorum Aliorumque Sacrae Scripturae Interpretum—“a synopsis of the critical labours of biblical commentators.”[1] Henry based his work on the best Christian scholarship, but his main intention was to write a work “with all plainness.”[2] As he explained to his first readers, his undertaking was guided by six simple principles:

  1. That religion is the one thing useful.
  2. That divine revelation is necessary to true religion . . .
  3. That divine revelation is not now to be found nor expected any where but in the scriptures of the Old and New Testament.
  4. That the scriptures of the Old and New Testament were purposely designed for our learning.
  5. That the holy scriptures were not only designed for our learning, but are the settled standing rule of our faith and practice . . .
  6. That therefore it is the duty of all Christians diligently to search the scriptures, and it is the office of ministers to guide and assist them therein.[3]

These straightforward principles provided the motivation for Henry in his great undertaking. The prefaces to the various volumes breathe a spirit of total dependence on God—Henry had a keen sense of the proportion of his task and ultimately the completion of the work proved beyond his powers. He died in 1714 as his commentary on the Gospels and Acts was sent to the press. The work that he did, and the text that he produced, was done in faith.[4]

Matthew Henry could not have foreseen the influence of his great commentary. In the nineteenth century Charles Spurgeon recommended Henry saying:

He is most pious and pithy, sound and sensible, suggestive and sober, terse and trustworthy. You will find him to be glittering with metaphors, rich in analogies, overflowing with illustrations, superabundant in reflections . . . Every minister ought to read Matthew Henry entirely and carefully through once at least.[5]

The work has remained in print for three centuries, it has been reissued in numerous abridgments and is now available to anyone with Internet access.[6] Henry began his work in faith that God would give him strength and the ability to achieve an exceptional task. His faith has been greatly rewarded, and many generations are enriched by his faithful labor.[7]

[1] Poole was a ferocious worker like Henry: “He commenced his studies for the project in 1666, and took ten years to complete it. During this time he would rise at three or four in the morning, take a raw egg at eight or nine, and another at twelve, and continue at his studies until late in the afternoon.” Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. “Poole, Matthew.”

[2] Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1991), ix. Originally published in five volumes as Exposition of the Old and New Testament. He also wrote, “I desire that I may be read with a candid, and not a critical, eye. I pretend not to gratify the curious; the top of my ambition is, to assist those who are truly serious, in searching the Scriptures daily.” See Matthew Henry, A Commentary on the Holy Bible, vol. 5 (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 187?), xix. Further, he desired to make the reading of the Scriptures “more easy, pleasant, and profitable.” Ibid., vol. 1, iv.

[3] See Matthew Henry’s Commentary, ix-x.

[4] “Having obtained help of God, I continue hitherto in it, and humbly depend upon the same good hand of my God to carry me on in that which remains, to gird my loins with needful strength, and to make my way perfect; and for this I humbly desire the prayers of my friends.” A Commentary on the Holy Bible, vol. 5, iv.

[5] C. H. Spurgeon, Commenting and Commentaries (1876; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1969), 2-3.

[6] The full text is available at Christian Classic Ethernet Library, http://ccel.org/h/henry/ (accessed June 27, 2006).

[7] See Matthew Henry’s Commentary, x.