June 22nd may just be another ordinary day to many of us. Ordinary in the sense that we may have few, if any at all, significant events associated with this date. Well, I don’t know about you, but I have no family relations that were born on this day, and none of my hundreds of “friends” on Facebook took a first breath of earth’s air on this day.
But to eager and keen enthusiasts of Christian history, this day reminds them of the death of a worthy servant of the Lord, Rev. Matthew Henry, preacher and scholar. At the age of fifty-one, Matthew Henry, a faithful servant of the Saviour ended his earthly labours on June 22, 1714, and was ushered into the glorious presence of the Lord.
I first came across the name of Matthew Henry thirty-one years ago in Luanshya. Privileged to be raised in a Christian home, my late father was an avid reader who invested a lot in good books. We had three bookshelves nestled against the walls of our modest living room. My father was an educationalist, and perfectly knew the value of books. But he was also an elder in our local church, and acquired many Christian books. These many books became my close companions, having learnt to read at a very tender age.
One of the books that attracted my attention was Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible. I know that for many Christians, the name Matthew Henry is immediately associated with his Commentary on the Bible which has deservedly gained a reputation as the best and most widely used work of its kind. I was a very religious young boy, only eleven years old, when I began to read Matthew Henry. I had not yet been drawn by the loving arms of grace into union with my Saviour, Jesus Christ. From time to time, I pulled this commentary off the shelf, sat on a comfortable chair and scanned through this voluminous work. I read this volume for motives, far less honourable than I do now. Reading this book gave this proud, lost, eleven year old boy an air of importance when his reading skills became subject of discussion among peers and parents. My ego enjoyed feeding on this human approbation of my reading abilities, and Henry’s commentary, for its intimidating size won me that extra minute of attention from those that saw me with the book perched on my laps.
I also read the book for another reason, this one perhaps far nobler than the first one. There was a writing streak in me, yet undiscovered, that pulled me to Matthew Henry because of his literary brilliance. I loved his pithy, pointed sayings, and they were many in this book. I even memorized some of them, and from time to time, my prideful nature would burst forth at school, and I would unleash one or two of these statements to parade my above average knowledge of the Queen’s language. It didn’t matter whether the statements were used in the right context and at the right time or not. Who cared?
Well, now that the Lord was pleased to save me, and call me into His service as a pastor and teacher, my fondness for Henry has taken a radical change. What previously was read as food for my ego is now intensely feasted upon as food for my soul. I join countless pastors and Christians who have sat for long hours with, not only Matthew Henry’s better known monumental Commentary on the Whole Bible, but several other less known writings from the hand of this great man of God.
For twenty-five years, Henry devoted himself to proclaiming the gospel in Chester at every possible opportunity. In addition to two services on Sunday and two meetings during the week, he frequently preached in the neighbouring villages and to the prisoners in Chester Castle. His faithful exposition of the scriptures was richly blessed during these years as God opened a wider region for Henry's ministry. He was invited to hold monthly meetings at Wrexham and Beeston, and to preach in many towns including London, while at the same time the congregation attending his meeting house in Chester grew so large that a new building had to be erected in 1699.
It is perhaps significant to note that Henry maintained this intensive preaching and pastoral ministry through a period when his personal life was afflicted by tragedy. His first wife Katherine died in child-birth in 1689 after only two years of marriage, and although he remarried in 1690, he and his second wife, Mary, lost three children in infancy in the following seven years. Henry refused to blame God for these losses, for he accepted that, “the Lord is righteous, He takes and gives, and gives and takes again.” Nor did he allow his sorrows to hinder his work since he believed, “weeping must not prevent sowing,” and so he went on with perseverance and assurance.
Faithfully Served His Lord To His Dying Day
Towards the end of 1704, when Henry was forty two years old, he began to collect together the vast amount of notes and writings which he had made on the Bible during his ministry. The Lord had given him a great and keen spirit of inquiry, a profound knowledge and an ability to convey doctrinal matters in a simple yet clear form. From this emerged his “Commentary” as he gradually completed the books of the Old and New Testament over the following ten years.
In 1712, after twenty-five years in the ministry at Chester, Henry accepted a call to a dissenting Chapel at Hackney in London. He had never anticipated leaving Chester, but he trusted God’s purposes in leading him to London and faithfully obeyed. His preaching was blessed with much fruit and he made preparations to complete his “Commentary,” having reached Acts by 1714. Henry often returned to Chester to conduct services amongst his former congregation and in June 1714, while honouring a promise to preach at Chester and Nantwich, he was taken ill. As he rode back to London the next day, he fell from his horse at Tarporley and was taken to the house of a neighbouring minister where he died the following day.
The importance and value of Henry's “Commentary” was so evident to his fellow ministers that steps were soon taken to collect the notes he had prepared on the remaining books from Romans to Revelation, so that the whole of the Bible might be included in the final work. Henry's “Commentary” quickly became an indispensable work of reference for Christians.
He served his Master with great humility. Before his ordination, after so much soul-searching, he wrote:
I think I can say with as much assurance, that my design is not to get myself a name amongst men, or to be talked of in the world as one that makes somewhat of a figure. No; that is a poor business. If I have but a good name with God I think I have enough, though among men I be reviled, and have my name trampled upon as mire in the streets. I prefer the good word of my Master far before the good word of my fellow-servants.
The greatness of his monumental Commentary is summed by the Calvinistic Baptist preacher and educator John Ryland Sr (1723-1792). Writing concerning the impact that Henry’s Exposition made in the decades following its publication, Ryland says:
It is impossible for a person of piety and taste to read the Exposition of Mr. Henry without wishing to be shut out from all the world to read it through without one moment’s interruption.
Henry himself well knew this delight in good Christian books. He stated in his diary on one occasion: ‘I am always best when alone. No place is like my own study: no company like good books; especially the book of God’. Little wonder, then, that he helped to shape the spirituality and Christian convictions of so many eighteenth and nineteenth century readers, and still does today.
Charles Spurgeon required each of his sons to read Matthew Henry's full commentary through three times before he would allow them to marry; that's how much he valued Henry's insight into the Scriptures. Perhaps, not an unrealistic demand to make of the young men that may one day ask for my daughter's hand in marriage!