Matthew Henry’s six-volume Commentary on the Whole Bible has long been an evangelical favorite for its combination of thoroughness, specific detail, and price: It’s never been hugely expensive, and its Kindle edition now sells for 99 cents. Those who relish it—I’m one—will profit from Allan Harman’s readable new biography, Matthew Henry: His Life and Influence (Christian Focus, 2012).
Henry was a DPK, a dissenting preacher’s kid: In 1662, the year Henry was born, a London government edict ejected from the pulpit Philip Henry and 2,000 other Puritan-oriented pastors who refused to take an oath of conformity to Anglicanism. Matthew was close to his father, and learning to preach well was the best revenge, so when regulations eased in 1687 six Presbyterian ministers ordained him. He was soon preaching in Chester, a town 200 miles northwest of London.
Henry knew affliction, losing to death a young wife and three daughters. Henry also had professional problems: Arsonists who didn’t like his Reformed preaching tried to burn down his chapel in 1694, and Harman writes that “from within his congregation he was discouraged when he tried to carry out any reproof or discipline.” He maintained a sense of God’s providence, and when robbed in 1713 wrote of his thankfulness to God that having “travel’d so much, yet I was never Rob’d before now.”
Henry died in 1714 of a stroke, while on a preaching tour, but left behind his almost-completed Commentary. Other pastors, working off his notes, finished it. That year also saw the birth of the greatest 18th-century preacher, George Whitefield, who later wrote of how he read through the six volumes four times, the last time on his knees. The leading 19th-century preacher, Charles Spurgeon, said, “Every minister ought to read it entirely and carefully through once at least.”
One fan in 1879 praised Henry’s combination of “brevity and wit that makes his Commentary such racy and delightful reading, and so memorable.” The word racy then meant a book filled with specific detail, although Henry’s exegesis of chapter 2 of Genesis shows why “the war between the sexes” should be a benevolent peace: “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.”
The one time I went in person on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show, a producer pleaded with me to “get him mad.” Should the bestseller Killing Jesus, by O’Reilly and Martin Dugard (Holt, 2013), make Christians mad? I think not, although the authors underplay Jesus’ miracles, state that before the Last Supper “panic is overtaking” Jesus, and leave out most of the last words spoken from the cross. The good news is that O’Reilly and Dugard tell the story dramatically enough that some book buyers may want to learn more by reading the real good news brought out by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
If Killing Jesus helps imbibers of atheism to realize that something extraordinary happened two millennia ago, it serves a useful purpose—but a much better book to give curious people is Tim Keller’s Encounters with Jesus (Dutton, 2013). Keller takes aim at the ideas that we should will ourselves to faith in Jesus, then follow in His steps, then have lives that go well. No, Keller writes: Faith in Christ is “impossible for anyone without outside intervention,” Jesus does not “model for us the answers to the big questions” (for He is the answer), and Jesus, after being “loved and affirmed and empowered by God … is ushered into the clutches of the devil. … No one is exempt from trials and tribulations.” —M.O.