Though it is most my concern, that I be able to give a good account to God and my own conscience, yet, perhaps, it will be expected that I give the world also some account of this bold undertaking; which I shall endeavour to do with all plainness, and as one who believes, that if men must be reckoned with in the great day, for every vain and idle word they speak, much more for every vain and idle line they write. And it may be of use, in the first place, to lay down those great and sacred principles which I go upon, and am governed by, in this endeavour to explain and improve these portions of holy writ; which endeavour I humbly offer to the service of those (and to those only I expect it will be acceptable) who agree with me in these six principles:
I. That religion is the one thing useful; and to know, and love, and fear God our Maker, and in all the instances both of devout affection, and of good conversation, to keep his commandments, (Ecclesiastes 12:13) is, without doubt, the whole of man; it is all in all to him. This the wisest of men, after a close and copious argument in his Ecclesiastes, lays down as the conclusion of his whole matter (the Quod erat demonstrandum of his whole discourse); and therefore I may be allowed to lay it down as a postulatum, and the foundation of this whole matter.
II. That divine revelation is necessary to true religion, to the being and support of it. That faith without which it is impossible to please God, cannot come to any perfection by seeing the works of God, but it must come by hearing the word of God, Romans 10:17. The rational soul, since it received that fatal shock by the fall, cannot have or maintain that just regard to the great author of its being, that observance of him, and expectation from him, which are both its duty and felicity, without some supernatural discovery made by himself of himself, and of his mind and will.
III. That divine revelation is not now to be found nor expected any where but in the scriptures of the Old and New Testament; and there it is. It is true, there were religion and divine revelation before there was any written word; but to argue from thence, that the scriptures are not now necessary, it as absurd as it would be to argue that the world might do well enough without the sun, because in the creation the world had light three days before the sun was made. Divine revelations, when first given, were confirmed by visions, miracles, and prophecy; but they were to be transmitted to distant regions and future ages, with their proofs and evidences, by writing, the surest way of conveyance, and by which the knowledge of other memorable things is preserved and propagated.
IV. That the scriptures of the Old and New Testament were purposely designed for our learning. They might have been a divine revelation to those into whose hands they were first put, and yet we, at this distance, have been no way concerned in them; but it is certain that they were intended to be of universal and perpetual use and obligation to all persons, in all places and all ages, that have the knowledge of them, even unto us upon whom the ends of the world have come. See Romans 15:4.
V. That the holy scriptures were not only designed for our learning, but are the settled standing rule of our faith and practice, by which we must be governed now and judged shortly: it is not only a book of general use (so the writings of good and wise men may be), but it is of sovereign and commanding authority, the statute-book of God's kingdom, which our oath of allegiance to him, as our supreme Lord, binds us to the observance of. Whether we will hear or whether we will forbear, we must be told that this is the oracle we are to consult and to be determined by, the touchstone we are to appeal to and try doctrines by, the rule we are to have an eye to, by which we must in every thing order our affections and conversations, and from which we must always take our measures. This is the testimony, this is the law which is bound up and sealed among the disciples, that word according to which if we do not speak, it is because there is no light in us, Isaiah 8:16, 20. The making of the light within our rule, which by nature is darkness, and by grace is but a copy of, and conformable to, the written work, is setting the judge above the law; and the making of the traditions of the church rivals with the scriptures is no better: it is making the clock, which every one concerned puts backward or forward at pleasure, to correct the sun, that faithful measurer of time and days. These are absurdities which, being once granted, thousands follow, as we see by sad experience.
VI. That therefore it is the duty of all Christians diligently to search the scriptures, and it is the office of ministers to guide and assist them therein. How useful soever this book of books is in itself, it will be of no use to us if we do not acquaint ourselves with it, by reading it daily, and meditating upon it, that we may understand the mind of God in it, and may apply what we understand to ourselves for our direction, rebuke, and comfort, as there is occasion. It is the character of the holy and happy man that his delight is in the law of the Lord; and, as an evidence thereof, he converses with it as his constant companion, and advises with it as his most wise and trusty counsellor, for in that law doth he meditate day and night, Psalm 1:2.
Being fully persuaded therefore of these things, I conclude that whatever help is offered to good Christians in searching the scriptures is real service done to the glory of God, and to the interests of his kingdom among men; and it is this that hath drawn me into this undertaking, which I have gone about in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling (1 Corinthians 2:3), lest I should be found exercising myself in things too high for me, and so laudable an undertaking should suffer damage by an unskilful management. If any desire to know how so mean and obscure a person as I am, who in learning, judgment, felicity of expression, and all advantages for such a service, am less than the least of all my Master's servants, came to venture upon so great a work, I can give no other account of it than this: It has long been my practice, what little time I had to spare in my study from the constant preparations for the pulpit, to spend it in drawing up expositions upon some parts of the New Testament, not so much for my own use as purely for my entertainment, because I knew not now to employ my thoughts and time more to my satisfaction.
Every man that studies hath some beloved study, which is his delight above any other; and this is mine. It is that learning which it was my happiness from a child to be trained up in, by my ever honoured father, whose memory must always be very dear and precious to me: he often reminded me that a good textuary is a good divine; and that I should read other books with this in my eye, that I might be the better able to understand and apply the scripture. While I was thus employing myself came out Mr. Burkitt's Exposition, of the Gospels first, and afterwards of the Act and the Epistles, which met with very good acceptance among serious people, and no doubt, by the blessing of God, will continue to do great service to the church. Soon after he had finished that work, it pleased God to call him to his rest, upon which I was urged, by some of my friends, and was myself inclined, to attempt the like upon the Old Testament, in the strength of the grace of Christ.
This upon the Pentateuch is humbly offered as a specimen; if it find favour, and be found any way useful, it is my present purpose, in dependence upon divine aids, to go on, so long as God shall continue my life and health, and as my other work will permit. Many helps, I know, we have of this kind in our own language, which we have a great deal of reason to value, and to be very thankful to God for: but the scripture is a subject that can never be exhausted. However frequently we read it, we shall always meet with something new.
When David had amassed a vast treasure for the building of the temple, yet saith he to Solomon, Thou mayest add thereto, 1 Chronicles 22:14. Such a treasure is scripture-knowledge; it is still capable of increase, till we all come to the perfect man. The scripture is a field or vineyard which finds work for variety of hands, and about which may be employed a great diversity of gifts and operations, but all from the same Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:4,6) and for the glory of the same Lord. The learned in the languages and in ancient usages have been very serviceable to the church (the blessed occupant of this field), by their curious and elaborate searches into its various products, their anatomies of its plants, and the entertaining lectures they have read upon them.
The philology of the critics has been of much more advantage to religion, and lent more light to sacred truth, than the philosophy of the school-divines. The learned also in the arts of war have done great service in defending this garden of the Lord against the violent attacks of the powers of darkness, successfully pleading the cause of the sacred writings against the spiteful cavils of atheists, deists, and the profane scoffers of these latter days. Such as these stand in the posts of honour, and their praise is in all the churches: yet the labours of the vine-dressers and the husbandmen (2 Kings 25:12), though they are the poor of the land who till this ground, and gather in the fruits of it, are no less necessary in their place, and beneficial to the household of God, that out of these precious fruits every one may have his portion of meat in due season. These are the labours to which, according to my ability, I have here set my hand. And as the plain and practical expositors would not, for a world, say of the learned critics, There is no need of them; so, it is hoped, those eyes and heads will not say to the hands and feet, There is no need of you, 1 Corinthians 12:21.
The learned have of late received very great advantage in their searches into this part of holy writ, and the books that follow (and still hope for more), by the excellent and most valuable labours of that great and good man bishop Patrick, whom, for vast reading, solid judgment, and a most happy application to these best of studies, even in his advanced years and honours, succeeding ages no doubt will rank among the first three of commentators, and bless God for him. Mr. Pool's English Annotations (which, having had so many impressions, we may suppose, have got into most hands) are of admirable use, especially for the explaining of scripture-phrases, opening the sense, referring to parallel scriptures, and the clearing of difficulties that occur.
I have therefore all along been brief upon that which is there most largely discussed, and have industriously declined, as much as I could, what is to be found there; for I would not actum ageredo what is done; nor (if I may be allowed to borrow the apostle's words) boast of things made ready to our hand, 2 Corinthians 10:16. These and other annotations which are referred to the particular words and clauses they are designed to explain are most easy to be consulted upon occasion; but the exposition which (like this) is put into a continued discourse, digested under proper heads, is much more easy and ready to be read through for one's own or others' instruction.
And, I think, the observing of the connection of each chapter (if there be occasion) with that which goes before, and the general scope of it, with the thread of the history or discourse, and the collecting of the several parts of it, to be seen at one view, will contribute very much to the understanding of it, and will give the mind abundant satisfaction in the general intention, though there may be here and there a difficult word or expression which the best critics cannot easily account for. This, therefore, I have here attempted. But we are concerned not only to understand what we read, but to improve it to some good purpose, and, in order thereunto, to be affected with it, and to receive the impressions of it. The word of God is designed to be not only a light to our eyes, the entertaining subject of our contemplation, but a light to our feet and a lamp to our paths (Psalm 119:105), to direct us in the way of our duty, and to prevent our turning aside into any by-way: we must therefore, in searching the scriptures, enquire, not only What is this? but, What is this to us? What use may we make of it? How may we accommodate it to some of the purposes of that divine and heavenly life which, by the grace of God, we are resolved to live?
Enquiries of this kind I have here aimed to answer. When the stone is rolled from the well's mouth by a critical explication of the text, still there are those who would both drink themselves and water their flocks? but they complain that the well is deep, and they have nothing to draw with; how then shall they come by this living water? Some such may, perhaps, find a bucket here, or water drawn to their hands; and pleased enough shall I be with this office of the Gibeonites, to draw water for the congregation of the Lord out of these wells of salvation. That which I aim at in the exposition is to give what I thought the genuine sense, and to make it as plain as I could to ordinary capacities, not troubling my readers with the different sentiments of expositors, which would have been to transcribe Mr. Pool's Latin Synopsis, where this is done abundantly to our satisfaction and advantage.
As to the practical observations, I have not obliged myself to raise doctrines out of every verse or paragraph, but only have endeavoured to mix with the exposition such hints or remarks as I thought profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, aiming in all to promote practical godliness, and carefully avoiding matters of doubtful disputation and strifes of words. It is only the prevalency of the power of religion in the hearts and lives of Christians that will redress our grievances, and turn our wilderness into a fruitful field. And since our Lord Jesus Christ is the true treasure hidden in the field of the Old Testament, and was the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, I have been careful to observe what Moses wrote of him, to which he himself oft appealed. In the writings of the prophets we meet with more of the plain and express promises of the Messiah, and the grace of the gospel; but here, in the books of Moses, we find more of the types, both real and personal figures of him that was to comeshadows, of which the substance is Christ, Romans 5:14.
Those to whom to live is Christ will find in these that which is very instructive and affecting, and which will give great assistance to their faith, and love, and holy joy. This, in a particular manner, we search the scriptures forto find what they testify of Christ and eternal life, John 5:39. Nor is it any objection against the application of the ceremonial institutions to Christ and his grace that those to whom they were given could not discern this sense or use of them; but it is rather a reason why we should be very thankful that the veil which was upon their minds in the reading of the Old Testament is done away in Christ, 2 Corinthians 3:13, 14, 18. Though they then could not stedfastly look to the end of that which is abolished, it does not therefore follow but that we who are happily furnished with a key to these mysteries may in them, as in a glass, behold the glory of the Lord Jesus.
And yet, perhaps, the pious Jews saw more of the gospel in their ritual than we think they did; they had at least a general expectation of good things to come, by faith in the promises made to the fathers, as we have of the happiness of heaven, though they could not of that world to come, any more than we can of this, form any distinct or certain idea. Our conceptions of the future state, perhaps, are as dark and confused, as short of the truth and as wide from it, as theirs then were of the kingdom of the Messiah: but God requires faith only according to the revelation he gives. They then were accountable for no more light than they had; and we now are accountable for that greater light which we have in the gospel, by the help of which we may find much more of Christ in the Old Testament than they could.
If any think our observations sometimes take rise from that which to them seems too minute, let them remember that maxim of the Rabbin, The law contains not a letter but what bears the weight of mountains. We are sure there is not an idle word in the Bible. I would desire the reader not only to read the text entire, before he reads the exposition, but, as the several verses are referred to in the exposition, to cast his eye upon them again, and then he will the better understand what he reads. And, if he have leisure, he will find it of use to him to turn to the scriptures which are sometimes only referred to for brevity's sake, comparing spiritual things with spiritual.
It is the declared purpose of the Eternal Mind, in all the operations both of providence and grace, to magnify the law and to make it honourable (Isaiah 42:21), nay to magnify his word above all his name (Psalm 138:2), so that when we pray, Father, glorify thy name, we mean this, among other things, Father, magnify the holy Scriptures; and to that prayer, made in faith, we may be sure of that answer which was given to our blessed Saviour when he prayed it, with particular respect to the fulfilling of the scriptures in his own sufferings, I have both glorified it, and I will glorify it yet again, John 12:28.
To this great design I humbly desire to be some way serviceable, in the strength of that grace by which I am what I am, hoping that what may help to make the reading of the scripture more easy, pleasant, and profitable, will be graciously accepted by him that smiled on the widow's two mites cast into the treasury, as an intention to magnify it and make it honourable; and if I can but gain that point, in any measure, with some, I shall think my endeavours abundantly recompensed, however, by others, I and my performances may be vilified and made contemptible. I have now nothing more to add than to recommend myself to the prayers of my friends, and them to the grace of the Lord Jesus; and so rest an unworthy dependent upon that grace, and, through that, an expectant of the glory to be revealed.
Matthew Henry, 2nd October 1706, Chester.