Introduction to Matthew Henry

Matthew Henry

Matthew Henry (18 October 166222 June 1714) is renowned for his Commentary or Exposition of the Scriptures. George Whitefield, and Charles Spurgeon both used and heartily commended the work, with Whitefield reading it through four times – the last time on his knees. Spurgeon stated, “Every minister ought to read it entirely and carefully through once at least.”

 

Matthew Henry’s background

His grandfather was John Henry (1590-1652), the son of Henry Williams of Briton Ferry, which lies between Swansea and Neath in South Wales.

John Henry became a courtier under James I (1603-1625) and then Charles I (1625-1649). His son — Matthew’s father, Philip (1631-1696) — had as godparents the Earls of Pembroke and Carlisle and the Countess of Salisbury. As a child, Philip used to play at St James’s Palace with the younger Princes Charles and James, later to become Charles II and James II.

Philip’s views on church government were opposed to episcopacy, and favoured the Presbyterian system which had been embraced by John Owen, who obtained his appointment as tutor to Judge John Puleston’s sons, who later appointed him to Worthenbury Chapel, Bangor Is-coed, in 1654. Philip could not comply with the Act of Uniformity (1662), and so joined more than 2000 ministers who were ejected from their livings, and took up residence on his wife Katherine’s family’s estate at Broad Oak and Bronington, Flintshire. Matthew Henry and his four sisters were all born here. Matthew was born prematurely and was a sickly child, but soon became proficient in the learned languages, especially Hebrew, and could read portions of Scripture at just three years of age. Meanwhile, his father had become a well-known preacher, even preaching at Westminster Abbey. . It was one of his father’s sermons that, in Henry’s words, ‘melted’ him and caused him to ‘enquire after Christ.’

 

A puritan education

In 1680, at the age of eighteen he attended for three years the important dissenting academy at Islington of the Puritan Thomas Doolittle (1630 – 1707), who was born at Kidderminster and converted at the age of 17 under the preaching of Richard Baxter. The Dissenters faced a period of persecution in 1683, so Doolittle had to move his academy from Islington to Battersea, and Henry returned home before proceeding in 1685 to study law at Gray’s Inn. This legal training is evident from the many forensic terms used throughout his exposition. He continued with his theological studies and attended the best preachers he could find.

 

Ordination and marriage

Henry was ordained privately in May 1687 and preached his first public sermon at White-Friars, Chester on June 2nd in some converted stables. In August 1700 the growing congregation entered their purpose-built meeting house in Crook Lane, with a gallery being added six years later. They now numbered 350 communicants, with 300 in regular attendance. He married Katherine in 1687, but she died of smallpox at age 25, leaving a daughter, also Katherine. He married Mary five months later, by whom he had eight daughters and a son, Philip, who became MP for Chester.

 

Preacher and expositor

He preached in the villages around Chester, and made annual tours to Lancashire and Staffordshire. He and his congregation were abused by high-churchmen, and an attempt was made to burn down their meeting-place in 1692. Matthew told his father in a letter that four pew doors, two on either side of the aisle, one being his wife’s seat, were opened  and the fire kindled under them. It being the middle of the night, it was a miracle it was discovered. ‘The light and roaring of it was more terrible than one could imagine.’ God also overruled in that Richard Lee, ‘tho’ an enemy to the Chapel’, was very helpful in quenching the fire, because his hay-loft adjoined it.

 

Henry’s Commentary

He began his Exposition of the Old and New Testament in 1704 with comments on the Pentateuch, completing the Old Testament in 1712. This was during the period of Queen Anne (1665-1714), daughter of James II. Several times in his Exposition, Henry gives thanks to God for this period of national peace, and freedom from persecution. Thus on Esther 10:3 he comments: ‘Thanks be to God, such a government as this we are blessed with, which seeks the welfare of our people, speaking peace to all their seed. God continue it long, very long, and grant us, under the happy protection and influence of it, to live quiet and peaceable lives, in godliness, honesty and charity!’

The same year (May 18, 1712) he commenced his call to minister in Hackney, and soon took his place among the leading ministers of his day. He published thirty other works, but only his Exposition, and now A Method for Prayer, have endured.

 

Death

He had just completed the Gospels and Acts when he died on 22 June 1714 near Nantwich, as a result of a fall from his horse while on a visit to Cheshire. So much studying and lack of exercise had made him corpulent. The sorrow at his death was universal, especially among the Dissenters in London who gave notice of ‘the great Breach that was made upon the Church of God.’ He was buried on 25th June in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church, Chester, attended by eight of the city clergy. After his death, thirteen non-conformist ministers of varying abilities completed the New Testament exposition, referring to Henry’s notes.

 

Legacy

Henry’s Exposition has been a treasure bequeathed to Christ’s church on earth. In 1736, George Whitefield, having returned to his small congregation at Oxford, recorded: ‘Oh what a delightful life did I lead there! What communion did I daily enjoy with God! How sweetly did my hours in private glide away in reading and praying over Mr Henry’s Comment upon the Scriptures.’ The fourth time he read it all through was upon his knees. Spurgeon stated, ” First among the mighty (commentaries) for general usefulness we are bound to mention the man whose name is a household word, Matthew Henry. He is the most pious and pithy, sound and sensible, suggestive and sober, terse and trustworthy . . . he is deeply spiritual, heavenly, profitable; finding good matter in every text, and from all deducting the most practical and judicious lessons . . . It is the Christian’s companion, suitable to everybody, instructive to all. Every minister ought to read it entirely and carefully through once at least…”

Henry’s Exposition was written about 100 years after Shakespeare’s plays, so the English is quite accessible. Baptists must make allowances for the occasions he underlines his paedobaptist views, but these are few and far between. Today there are many more modern commentaries to choose from, but Henry’s has stood the test of time. One of the most repeated quotations is from Genesis 2:21-23 – 2:21-23 – ‘Observe: That the woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.’

There are striking notes for every occasion. On the death of a young believer he writes:  ‘God often takes those soonest whom he loves best, and the time they lose on earth is gained in heaven, to their unspeakable advantage. Those whose conversation in the world is truly holy shall find their removal out of it truly happy’ (Gen. 5:23-24).  A comment applicable to suicide or euthanasia is: ‘Our lives are not so our own as that we may quit them at our own pleasure, but they are God’s, and we must resign them at his pleasure; if we in any way hasten our own deaths, we are accountable to God for it’ (Gen. 9:5). Concerning old age he says: ‘Old age is a blessing. It is promised in the fifth commandment; it is pleasing to nature; and it affords a great opportunity for usefulness’ (Gen. 15:15). There are hundreds more gems, some rather quaint – he coined the expression ‘creature-comforts’ (Gen.22:12), but all profitable. With single-volume unabridged editions for under £30, this great work is now within everyone’s reach.

Written by: Nigel Faithfull, author and member of St. Mellons Baptist Church

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Adapted from: Thoughts Fixed and Affections Flaming – Pithy, Interesting & Uplifting Comments from Matthew Henry’s Exposition of the Bible, by Nigel Faithfull, Day One (2012)

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