Updating Matthew Henry's Commentary
The English Nonconformist minister Matthew Henry wrote his Commentary over 300 years ago; he began writing in November 1704.
Before he died at the age of 52 in 1714, he had completed volume 6 up to Acts. After his death, the New Testament Letters and Revelation were prepared by 13 Nonconformist ministers. He wrote in his journal, on November 12 1704, soon after he began his Commentary: ‘I set about it, that I may endeavour something and spend my time to some good purpose and let the Lord make what use he pleaseth of me’.
Matthew Henry’s original work has had a significant influence on many ministers and individual Christians in the last 300 years, and so, when the publishers approached me in 2002 about editing a version in contemporary English, I immediately felt humbled at the sheer privilege of the task. The work itself was immense: the original text contained over eight million words: on average, Matthew Henry’s comments take up more than 200 words on every verse of the Bible.
My task was to update the wording of the original to make it read clearly in contemporary natural-sounding English, so that it is, in effect, a modern, practical, and devotional commentary on the KJV. I had to make the original more readable and understandable to present-day and future generations.
This meant, for example, shortening his lengthy sentences and updating his language. I sought to ensure that this commentary would have the same impact on contemporary readers that Matthew Henry would have had on his original readers in terms of clarity of expression. Where his text was clear but awkward by today's standards, I edited his text. On other occasions, when his original text was unclear, I have provided a thought-for-thought recasting of his original sense. I asked myself many times day after day for years, ‘If Matthew Henry were here today, how would he have expressed this?’ I did not, generally speaking, seek to update the scholarship on which the text was originally based: in many cases, he draws out points that are timeless.
One example of a phrase which was difficult to understand was: ‘Abraham had a good bottom’. My Oxford English Dictionary for the phrase ‘good bottom’ showed that it referred to ‘the bottom of a ship’, and from there the meaning transferred to ‘a ship’, then ‘passage through life’ or ‘circumstances’. That took some working out!
Many phrases seemed old, but sometimes I was surprised by how contemporary early 18th-century English was, e.g.: ‘sponge off someone’, ‘break the ice’ and ‘turn the tables on someone’.
The task was humbling. As I attempted to present Matthew Henry’s text in contemporary English, I realised I was standing on the shoulders of a giant and, inwardly at least, I also knelt alongside this giant in adoration of the Lamb.