/ Matthew Henry / Sharon Sampson

Lessons from the Life of Matthew Henry

Many years ago, I wandered into a Christian book store and laid my eyes on something wonderful – a half price sticker!!  Not knowing the treasure I had purchased, I hauled home Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, and since that day, I’ve used this mammoth book with the tiny print to prepare countless Bible studies.

Today, I want to share with you a small window into the life of Matthew Henry based upon several biographies I have read.

He was born on October 18, 1662 in Wales, and his father, Philip, is also a well-known Puritan pastor. Just a few months prior to Matthew's birth, Philip was ejected from the priesthood with 2,000 other “dissenters” because he rejected the Act of Uniformity and refused to use the Book of Common Prayer.

One biography[1] notes that he was a “frail child, but spiritually robust,” and his conversion is dated to age 10. He was educated by his father and other tutors and then studied under Thomas Doolittle and Thomas Vincent. He began studying law but eventually was ordained at age 25.

His life was short, living only to age 52, and was filled with much grief. His first wife died of smallpox after childbirth. Interestingly, his first wife’s mother was much against this marriage as she thought her daughter should marry a more important person. She later confessed this as “covetousness and pride” by saying that she “admired the goodness of God in overruling her own inclinations and choosing for her daughter and herself an inheritance in all respects superior to what she would have selected.” She said that she and her husband were both blessed by his preaching, and the biographer of that particular book said that it was “in the pulpit that Mr. Henry’s talents shown with their fullest brilliance.”

Matthew married again and ultimately had nine children. One lived only 18 days and at least two died before their second birthdays. He also took in his sister’s four children. Despite the many trials of his life, it is said that the Henry household was “like unto the ‘gates of heaven’ where the parents governed all family life by the Word of God.” He so loved his parents, and both of their deaths were great blows to him. He said of his mother, “In her sphere and capacity, she was not inferior to what his father was in his.” On the day of his father’s death, his father had previously declared a public fast. Matthew fulfilled his father’s duties that day despite his own grief.

In his private life, he encouraged both morning and evening devotions saying, “As we must begin the day with God, and wait upon him all the day, so we must endeavor to close it with him.” Each night he journaled about the days events to discover, “what are the thieves of our time and what progress we make in holiness.”

One source included many of these journal entries, focusing especially on birthday entries each October and New Year entries each January 1. Reading these, one recognizes he understood that earth was not his home. He was always aware of himself as a sinner who desired to more faithfully devote himself to the work of the Lord, and he sought to have each year show an improvement in his spiritual life and devotion to the Lord. And, he thought the time before going to bed was a good time to reflect upon our deaths saying, “The more we have the foretastes of heaven, the less evil we shall see in death.”

He had a very high view of the Sabbath and kept to his Sabbath activities even with guests in the home.  He claimed that “one of the first evidences of a change wrought in the soul, is to have the mind altered with reference to the Sabbath day.”

Not surprisingly, his books focus on spiritual disciplines, such as prayer and daily devotions, but he also writes of the wonderful model for family worship he received from his father. And what he learned as a boy growing up, he passed along to his children. The basic format was to read something from the Bible and then provide an explanation. Then they would sing Psalms and pray. The time would end with a blessing for each of the children and an account from the children of what they had just learned. His goal was 30 minutes from start to finish. His father Philip had his children write notes of his expositions, and these became not only Matthew’s notes for teaching his own children but the very beginnings of his own commentary on the Bible[2] that I bought 300 years later!

So what of this man for us? Is he just another superhero of the faith who can never be emulated in today’s world? What encouragements can we receive as we begin another new year? Here are a few questions for us to consider: Do we pray with our spouse before going to bed, or are we still espousing our concerns from the day? Do our children or grandchildren take up pen and paper to record what they are learning from us concerning God’s Word, or are they too busy taking up cell phones and game controls? Do we not have time for family worship because we are rushing off to the next ball game or music concert? Or are our jobs or grades more important than our personal piety, our concern for the souls of our family members, or for observing the Sabbath?  

Like Matthew Henry, may we take time at the beginning of this new year to see our shortcomings, repent, and ask the Lord to help us to be more faithful until the Lord takes us home.

[1] J. B. Williams, The Lives of Philip and Matthew Henry (Carlisle: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974)

[2] Scott Brown, A Church in the House (San Antonio: Vision Forum, 2007)

Sharon Sampson

Sharon Sampson

Loves the Lord; married to Mark; has a married daughter (Kirby); enjoys teaching, biblical counseling, organizing anything, and serving the Kingdom.

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