Two Essential Bible Commentaries
Over the last 25 years, we have digitized and included nearly 30 commentaries for the Online Bible program.
Arguably, two of the greatest ever written are from the 18th century Complete Commentary of the Old and New Testaments by Matthew Henry and An Exposition of the Old and New Testaments by John Gill.
Although many of us use these every day, I thought it would be interesting to take a little glimpse into the background on how these marvelous works came to be.
John Gill – A Most Detailed Exposition
John Gill was born in 1697 and died in 1771. In 74 years he was able to acquire a scope of Biblical knowledge and enjoy a degree of usefulness seldom attained by any man.
Gill was called to pastor the Strict Baptist Church in 1720, where he continued for 51 years. Eventually the Strict Baptist Church would evolve into the Metropolitan Tabernacle which would be pastored by Charles Spurgeon for over 35 years. Spurgeon said of Gill “In some respects, he has no superior. For good, sound, massive, sober sense in commenting who can excel Gill?”.
An Exposition of the Old and New Testament consists of the unabridged version of John Gill’s nine volume commentary on the Bible originally published in 1809. One of the most comprehensive commentaries ever written.
Before Larry Pierce digitized and updated Gill’s Expositor 20 years ago most people had never heard of John Gill. This is unfortunate, since his works contain priceless gems of information that are found nowhere except in the ancient writings of the Jews. John Gill probably forgot more about the Bible than any man, now living, knows. God gave him the ability to study as few others have and he set down his results in his Expositor. If anyone approaches the character of Bunyan’s Mr. Valiant for Truth (Jer 9:3), in “Pilgrim’s Progress”, Gill does.
The witness and teaching of Dr John Gill so impressed his friends Augustus Toplady and James Hervey that they maintained that his work would still be of great importance to future generations. This also became the conviction of John Rippon and Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Gill’s better known successors to his pastorate.
In his biography of Gill, Toplady states: “Perhaps, no man, since the days of St. Augustine, has written so largely, in defense of the system of Grace; and, certainly, no man has treated that momentous subject, in all its branches, more closely, judiciously, and successfully.
This is not a devotional commentary, but the most detailed exposition of the scriptures that has ever been written. Until recently his works have been out of print and old copies were found only in large theological libraries.
The greatest value of his extensive footnotes is that they show that Gill was very well read. He knew what he was talking about. In his day, no one was his equal. Indeed, he may have been the greatest theological intellect of that century. If you disagree with Gill, be prepared to do at least as much research as he did to prove your point. Too often today, conceit passes for knowledge. Spurgeon said it so well in sermon number 239, “It is but the shallowness of his mind that permits him to see the bottom of his knowledge.” Again Job said in chapter 12 verse 2, “No doubt but [ye are] the people, and wisdom will die with you.” This century has been overrun with people that are wise in the eyes of their peers, but compared to the giants of yesterday, they are mere infants in learning.
Matthew Henry – A Deep Devotional Commentary
A Complete Commentary of the Old and New Testament consists of the unabridged version of Matthew Henry’s six volume commentary on the Bible originally published in 1721. We also have the one volume concise version updated for modern readers in the Windows Online Bible which in some ways is easier to use and more helpful for personal enrichment.
Matthew Henry’s well-known Complete Commentary was written from 1708 to 1710. It provides an exhaustive verse by verse study of the Bible covering the whole of the Old Testament, and the Gospels and Acts in the New Testament. After Henry’s death, the work was finished (Romans through Revelation) by thirteen other nonconformist ministers, partly based upon notes taken by Henry’s hearers, and eventually edited and published by George Burder and John Hughes in 1811.
These commentaries have been a great blessing to Bible students around the world. Matthew was a 17th and early 18th century minister of a Presbyterian congregation in Chester, England. He was born in 1662 into the family of Philip and Katharine Henry. Philip was able to give Matthew a good education. He began his ministry 1687 but died suddenly in 1714 after only 27 years .
Charles Spurgeon in his treatise to his theology students Commenting on Commentaries said this about Matthew Henry’s Commentary.
“First among the mighty commentators for general usefulness we are bound to mention the man whose name is a household word, Matthew Henry. He is most pious and pithy, sound and sensible, suggestive and sober, terse and trustworthy. You will find him to be glittering with metaphors, rich in analogies, overflowing with illustrations, superabundant in reflections. He delights in apposition and alliteration; he is usually plain, quaint, and full of pith; he sees right through a text directly; apparently he is not critical, but he quietly gives the result of an accurate critical knowledge of the original. He is not versed in the manners and customs of the East, for the Holy Land was not so accessible as in our day; but he is deeply spiritual, heavenly, and profitable; finding good matter in every text, and from all deducing most practical and judicious lessons. It is the poor man’s commentary, the old Christian’s companion, suitable to everybody, instructive to all.”
As compared with Gill, Henry’s commentaries are primarily exegetical, dealing with the scripture text as presented, with his prime intention being explanation, for practical and devotional purposes. While not being a work of textual research, Henry’s Exposition gives the result of a critical study of the original text with practical application. It was considered sensible and stylish, a commentary for devotional purposes.
The famous evangelical preacher, George Whitefield used and heartily commended the work. Whitefield read it through four times – the last time on his knees.
Whitefield’s friend, the hymn-writer Charles Wesley, was so moved by Henry’s comments on Leviticus 8:35 that he based one of his most famous hymns on them. Henry had written: “we have every one of us a charge to keep, an eternal God to glorify, an immortal soul to provide for, needful duty to be done, our generation to serve; and it must be our daily duty to keep this charge, for it is the charge of the Lord our Master, who will shortly call us to an account about it”. Gripped by this comment, Wesley sat down to write A Charge to Keep I Have, in which he used many of Henry’s actual phrases.
John Wesley wrote of Henry: “He is allowed by all competent judges, to have been a person of strong understanding, he does not entertain us with vain speculations, but is practical throughout and usually spiritual too, teaching us how to worship God, not in form only, but in spirit and in truth.”
Perhaps his best-known quotation is about the relationship between men and women, from the story of the creation of Eve, in the Book of Genesis often quoted today in wedding ceremonies.
“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.”
Henry himself well knew the 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 that these two Men of God helped to shape the spirituality and Christian convictions of so many eighteenth and nineteenth century readers and they continue to do so in the twenty first century.
By the way, Ron Wheeler is a Christian cartoonist who has done some great work over the years. Check out his “Learn How-to-Draw” program at Cartoonworks.com