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. Trahit sua quemque voluptas—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.
In fact, his father Philip Henry had exposited a portion of Genesis, the transcript we have for the first eleven chapters from Matthew's own hand (dated 1682) (there is a separate exposition by Philip Henry of Gen. 22 dated October 1658, also written in Matthew's hand, included in Matthew's biography of his father, as edited by J.B. Williams). It was published in 1839 and is available to read online here. The editor of this work, John Lee, writes:
In Matthew Henry's interesting life of his father, it is stated that the latter always expounded the portion of scripture which he read in his family, and made it a part of the employment of his children, while they were with him, to write those expositions. And it is added, that the collections thus formed by the children of that good man in their younger days, were afterwards of great use to them and their families.
There are very satisfactory reasons for believing that the manuscript from which the following pages are taken, forms one of the expositions of Philip Henry, written by his son under these circumstances.
...Independent of its intrinsic excellence, it cannot but be regarded with interest, from the consideration that by this and other similar productions of Philip Henry, was probably first suggested to his son the idea of writing the Commentary which bears his name; a Commentary, -- to say the least of it, -- as useful as any which has yet been submitted to the Christian world.
J.B. Williams, in his memoir of Matthew Henry (3rd ed., 1829), has provided fascinating background to and extracted edifying notes from his diary, to enlighten the reader on how Henry's commentary came to be and how it progressed from day to day and year to year. I have abridged some of the diary entries, but the whole of Williams' work is worth reading. It is particularly noteworthy that 1) Henry wrote an exposition of Revelation which has never seen the light of day (Williams' memoir references an exposition of the Gospel of John written some years before he started writing his Commentary as well); and 2) "Henry devoutly acted upon the maxim of [John Wycliff], that the interpreter of Scripture 'must be a man of prayer'" (William Lindsay Alexander).
Some years before Mr. Henry commenced his general Exposition of the Bible for the press, he had, as we have seen, employed himself in the "pleasant work" of commentating. Upon the Apocalypse he appears to have bestowed particular attention: the circumstance is the rather noticed because it has not been mentioned by Mr. [William] Tong, either in his life of Mr. Henry, or in his prefatory remarks to that portion: of the Exposition which, it will be observed, he completed after Mr. Henry's decease.
Noticing his labours in the difficult part of scripture just mentioned, and mentioning Dr. [John] Lightfoot, and Mr. [Richard] Baxter, he says, "I am far from taking them to be the best interpreters of the Apocalypse, and greatly prefer [James] Durham; when I have sometimes had occasion to expound the Revelation, with all tenderness to the application of it to particular events which I doubt not of, its pointing to, I have attempted a moral or practical exposition of it; using it as a general key to God's providences concerning the church, and suppossing by way of accommodation, that it hath many fulfillings, (as Hos. xi. I .)
The foregoing extract will explain the reason why, in Mr. Henry's Exposition, there is no attempt to fix the definite sense of prophecy. Mr. [Edward] Bickersteth, in his introductory remarks, (ut supra, p. 239,) has noticed the circumstance; and in connexion with it, accurately states, that every commentator must fail of giving a sure view of the full meaning till events furnish the only certain exposition. "There is, however," he adds, "in Mr. Henry the edification and comfort of a spiritual lesson, if there be not with that the high advantage of an exact elucidation of the prophecy." And this, evidently, is what Mr. Henry intended.
In the year 1700, four years before the commencement of the Exposition, many of those commentaries were submitted to the perusal of his friend, the Reverend Samuel Clark, who seems in rather strong terms to hare advised the publication. Why it was that the counsel was not followed is uncertain. Mr. Henry, in a letter to that gentleman, dated Chester, 4th of December, 1700, says, "I leave it [the publishing] to you, and resolve to follow Providence, having often reflected with most comfort upon that which has been least my own doings. The work has been, and still is, to me its own wages, and the pleasure recompence enough for all the pains." He adds, "You will please to let me know, as there is occasion, what is done concerning them; if they return to the place from whence they came, they shall be heartily welcome. I shall not repent my writing of them, and I hope you will not repent the reading of them, though they go no further."
The probability, therefore, is, that the booksellers shrunk from the risk.
Many of those manuscripts are now in the possession of Mr. Joshua Wilson, of Highbury Place.
In the year 1704, the work was renewed upon a more extended scale, and in 1706, the design was announced to the public, in an advertisement, prefixed to Mr. Henry's funeral sermon for the Rev. James Owen. It is as follows, — " There is now in the press, and will shortly be published, an Exposition, with Practical Observations, on the Five Books of Moses, by the same author."
The following selections, almost entirely compiled from the Orig. MSS. of Mr. Henry's diary, will detail the progress, and illustrate the spirit, of the undertaking.
Vol. I. 1704. Nov. 12. This night, after many thoughts of heart, and many prayers concerning it, I began my Notes on the Old Testament. It is not likely I should live to finish it, or if I should, that it should be of publick service, for I am not par negotio; yet in the strength of God, and I hope with a single eye to his glory, 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. I go about it with fear and trembling, lest I exercise myself in things too high for me, &c. The Lord help me to set about it with great humility.
January 17, 1705. Studied in Gen. xiv.
July 19. Through the good hand of my God upon me, I finished Genesis. The Lord still go on with me.
22. I began Exodus.
September 14. Studied in Exodus xxi. I am now come to the less pleasant part of the Mosaick writings; but thanks be to God all scripture is profitable.
November 7. I finished Exodus, and entered on Leviticus.
30. Leviticus xvi. O that I may find Christ in the Old Testament, and may be led into the mystery of godliness. God was manifested by degrees.
December 7. Finished Leviticus xix. The Lord make me learned in his laws.
December 31. I have pleasure in my study; for which I praise my God. Having obtained help from him I go on with much comfort to myself in my Notes on the Pentateuch. Whether ever they will be of use to any other and be accepted, He only knows who knows the hearts of all the children of men.
[1706.] January 2. Wrote Numbers ii. for a specimen of my Exposition, and sent it to Mr. Parkhurst, he desiring it, that if any thing be amiss in the model I may be advertised of it.
15. Numbers viii. and ix. Mr. Parkhurst writes to me that he will undertake the printing of the Exposition of the Pentateuch. The Lord direct in it.
March 8. Numbers 24. I had letters from the booksellers, and my friends at London, to urge me to send up what I have done of the Pentateuch.
1706. April 15. I finished Numbers through the good hand of my God.
August 18. Lord's-day. I almost finished Deuteronomy xxxiv. It is about a year and nine months since I began with Genesis. Blessed be God who has helped me. I have written it with a great deal of pleasure, but my thoughts of publishing it have been with fear and trembling.
20. I finished the review of Deuteronomy, and thanked God for his assistance; ashamed of my own defects and follies. The Lord grant they may not be a prejudice to my design, which is, to contribute something to that great divine intention -- to magnify the law and make it honourable.
September 9. Read eighteen or twenty sheets on Genesis to mark the errata. I have reason to be ashamed of my own errata.
24. Went on with the preface, in which I desired that every word may be a true copy of my heart.
27. Studied, preparing to begin Joshua in the strength of God.
Vol. II. 1706. October 4. I began Joshua i.
[December] 31. I who am unworthy to be employed for God at all, have been enabled by his free grace, to finish and publish, this year, the Exposition of the Pentateuch, with some hope of its being serviceable to the church of God. The glory of which I desire to give entirely to God. I have nothing in it to boast of.
[1707.] August 21. Finished 2 Sam. Blessed be God who has carried me on thus far, and makes my work a delight.
November 17. 2 Kings xi. to v. 16. I find that just here Peter Martyr was in his learned Expositions when he fell sick and died; Lord my times are in thy hand.
. [February] 9. Finished 2 Chron. In reading I meet with much that I have reason to be ashamed of, yet some which I hope I may give God thanks for, and recommend to him.
Vol. III. 1708. June 1. After earnest prayers to God for his presence, I this morning began the 3rd volume of Expositions: did the argument of the Book of Job.
[1709.] January 25. Psalm xxvi. and xxvii: a letter from one Mr Samuel Bere, unknown, dated from Exeter, owning good got by my Exposition, and encouraging me to proceed, for which I praise my God. It is an encouragement to me to continue here, for what reason have I to think that I should be more useful than I am, when God has been pleased to make me so much more useful than I worthy to be.
September 23. I finished the Book of Psalms, for which I bless the Lord. I computed when I began, it would be eighty sheets, and so it is, and not half a sheet more. Through God's goodness I have done just one hundred and four sheets in fifty-two weeks. Not unto me, O Lord.
30. I have reason to be ashamed in reviewing what I have written, that I have not myself been affected with these great things.
[December] 27. Finished the review of Proverbs. The Lord write in my heart all these lessons of wisdom.
[1710.] February 16. Canticles viii. ad finem. This day through the good hand of my God upon me, I finished the 3rd volume. Hitherto the Lord has helped me.
[Vol. IV.] December 31. And now through the good hand of my God upon me, I am brought to the end of another year. It has been a year of much mercy; the coming out of the 3rd volume, and the method for prayer, for which I desire to bless God, and give him all the glory of both; for what am I? I have reason to be ashamed of myself that I have not done my work better.
1711. January 1. What work I have to do for thee, O God, this year, I depend upon thy grace thoroughly to furnish me for it, and to work all my works in me; particularly to assist me in the great work of my Expositions, that I may write nothing that is frivolous, or foreign, or foolish, or flat, that may give just offence, or lead any into mistakes; but that all may be clear, and pertinent, and affecting: that I may find out genuine expositions; useful observations; profitable matter; and acceptable words; if it shall please God to spare me to go on with it.
6. Finished Isaiah through God's goodness. O that I might retain the tincture of it.
September 29. Ezekiel xxi. The excellent [John] Calvin died at the end of his expounding Ezekiel xx.
[1712.] [May] 29. Malachi iv. Through the good hand of God I have this day finished the Exposition of the Old Testament. Blessed be God.
Vol. VI. 1713. December 12. Began Acts, having first made an errand to the throne of grace for assistance.
1714. April 17. Finished Acts, and with it the 5th volume. Blessed be God that has helped me, and spared me. All the praise be to God.
19. Reviewed some sheets of the Acts.
April 21. Began the Preface, but did little in it.
23. Studied in the Preface.
24. Went on in the Preface.
Matthew Henry died on June 22, 1714, having completed his Commentary through Acts. He had begun work on Romans, which was completed by Dr. John Evans, and the rest of the (ultimately) six-volume work was completed by other friends. For more information on his continuators, see here.