For nearly three hundred years, the most widely used and respected whole Bible commentary has been Matthew Henry’s Exposition of the Old and New Testaments. Matthew Henry teaches the Bible in simple, memorable phrases, aiming to both inform the reader and promote deeper devotion to Christ. His Christ-centered approach, clarity of thought and pastoral emphasis on applying the text have kept his work in demand these many years. Yet compared to the authors of other comparable Christian classics, we remember very little of Matthew Henry the man.
The commentaries of Martin Luther and John Calvin, the sermons of George Whitfield and Charles Spurgeon, and the writings of John Bunyan and Jonathan Edwards remain as popular among Christians as ever—and these men are remembered, with numerous biographies available for each. For Matthew Henry, only one or two reprints of old biographies are available, as any search of Amazon.com or Google Books can verify. So it was with a mixture of curiosity and interest that I picked up Matthew Henry: His Life and Influence by Allan Harman (Christian Focus, 2012).
I wasn’t sure what to expect, as I thought this book was just a brief overview of Henry’s life and a discussion of his legacy. I was pleased instead to find a thoroughly researched, well-written biography of Matthew Henry. Harman details the life of Philip Henry, Matthew’s father, and the difficulties facing nonconformist Puritan ministers in late seventeenth century England. He goes on to detail Matthew Henry’s life and ministry before focusing on his writings and lasting influence. Along the way he provides excerpts of Henry’s sermons, diary and letters, to fill out the portrait of his life.
Matthew Henry’s life and ministry
Matthew Henry was born in 1662 to a Puritan minister’s family. His father, an Oxford-trained minister, lost his church due to the Act of Uniformity, ultimately never returning to a pulpit ministry. Instead he trained his children, and conducted services for his own house and servants and took many a preacher boy under his wing. Nearly all of Matthew Henry’s schooling, which included training in Greek, Latin and Hebrew, came at his father’s hand. Matthew Henry took the pastorate of a Presbyterian church in Chester, where he ministered for 26 years, before moving near London. Henry was sickly most of his life, and endured many personal trials. He lost his first wife and several children to illness. His oldest son rejected Christianity, even taking his mother’s maiden name as his own. Henry died in 1714, just 2 years after moving to London for greater ministry opportunities. Yet in the midst of a busy ministry, which saw Henry give numerous sermons or lessons each week, he found time to write what would become the most loved commentary on Scripture in the English language.
Matthew Henry’s writings and legacy
Henry’s Exposition was published in a series of volumes, beginning in 1706 up through his death in 1714. It took him just under 8 years to write his notes on the Old Testament, and he had just finished the Gospels and Acts (in 2 years) before his death. He left detailed notes on Romans and Revelation, and since he had also preached through both testaments several times in the course of his ministry, some of his friends completed the sixth volume of the commentary after his death. Besides his commentary, Henry wrote a widely-used children’s catechism, a book of family hymns (some set to his own translations from the Hebrew), a biography of his father Philip Henry, and an influential book on prayer (A Method of Prayer). Besides these he published some pamphlets, other devotional books and some of his sermons. His last published book betrays the emphasis of his life and ministry: it’s title was The Pleasantness of a Religious Life Opened and Improved; and Recommended to the Consideration of All, Particularly of Young People. Harman’s comments on this book are worth repeating:
Modern readers have to understand that this book encompasses the Puritans’ vision of the Christian life. They were not morbid and unfeeling. Rather, serving God was with them a thing of the highest joy. Matthew Henry expressed the Christian’s pleasure in God as one ‘which has no pain attending to it, no bitterness in the latter end of it; a pleasure which God himself invites you to, and which will make you happy, truly and eternally happy, and shall not this work for you?’ (Kindle location 3263-66)
Matthew Henry’s commentary has been praised by many down through the years. Charles Spurgeon recommended that his students read it through at least once, preferrably during their first year of ministry. John Ryland, a Baptist pastor of the eighteenth century, said of Matthew Henry’s commentary “a person cannot begin to read without wishing he was shut out from all the world, and able to read it through, without stopping” (Kindle location 3507-10). Harman takes pains to demonstrate the influence of Matthew Henry on Jonathan Edwards, John and Charles Wesley, and George Whitfield. There certainly is evidence that these men drew from Henry’s expository “well” as they carried out their own ministry. The widespread availability of Henry’s commentary, in abridged or unabridged format, and online or coupled with Bible software programs such as e-sword is the definitive statement of Henry’s lasting legacy. It is arguably the most accessible commentary to the average Bible reader today, and it is indeed average Bible readers for whom Henry wrote his Exposition.
Evaluation of the book
Allan Harman has done the Church a service in refocusing attention onto Matthew Henry, whose commentary has been such a perpetual blessing for so many. The book reads easily, although at times some of the details that a researcher revels in, may get in the way of the account. Harman has written essays on various aspects of Matthew Henry’s life or writings, and at times it seems that he has strung together different pieces into one book. This leads to some noticeable repetition in a few spots.
Harman brings out quite a few interesting tidbits that are not widely known. Henry worked on the the last half of the book of Ezra for his commentary in the middle of the night when his wife was in labor!! He also brings out the fact that Charles Wesley’s hymn “A Charge to Keep I Have” is based on Henry’s comment on Leviticus 8:35. He also notes that from our perspective, Henry should have spent more of his free time with his family and looked after his health more. Harman also includes pictures of Henry’s old church, his study, and other places of interest.
Another fault of the book might be how Harman spends so much time detailing Matthew Henry’s childhood home and family life from when he was a child, but so relatively little time on Henry’s own home and his time with his children. Perhaps this is due to having less resources to work with, as Matthew Henry’s diary has not survived and we are dependent on quotes from earlier works for this information. On the whole, the book is solidly done and accomplishes what it sets out to. Henry’s life is detailed, we are transported back to seventeenth century England and the world of the Puritans, and we even imagine ourselves in the pews of his church in Chester.
This biography will encourage many, myself included, to pick up Matthew Henry’s commentary again and spend some time reading through it. And it will also lead to a greater appreciation of the lasting impact of a simple ministry in a country church—and of a life well lived. Henry himself pointed out shortly before his death “that a holy, heavenly life, spent in the service of God and communion with him, is the most pleasant and comfortable life that anyone can live in this world” (Kindle location 3706-8) Matthew Heny lived such a life, and this is why studying Henry’s life is so worthwhile. May God give us more men like Matthew Henry!
About the author
Allan Harman has had a life-time interest in exposition of the biblical text, and also in the history of interpretation. He is Research Professor of Old Testament at the Presbyterian Theological College in Melbourne, Australia. He has lectured and preached in many countries, and continues to serve as the senior editor of the Reformed Theological Review, Australia’s oldest theological journal.
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