Can Matthew Henry Help You Understand KJV English? Yes and No.

by Mar 21, 2020KJV, Linguistics8 comments

I recently read a promoter of exclusive use of the King James Version who argued that if anyone has trouble understanding KJV English, they can just go to Matthew Henry’s commentary for all the explanations they need.

I was skeptical. I still am. It’s just not the job or the concern of a turn-of-the-18th-century commentator to help turn-of-the-twenty-first-century readers understand turn-of-the-17th-century English words that have either died or changed in the last 400 years.

So I checked one of my false friends passages, Romans 5:8—and sure enough… If you know what you’re looking for, Henry nails it. 1) If you realize you don’t understand the word “commend,” and 2) if you realize that Henry’s use of the word commend is putting on display his knowledge of 17th century English, you’ll hear Henry explain the word to you.

So stop: what does commend mean in Roman 5:8 in the KJV?

But God commendeth his love toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Ask ten redheaded Christians what that word means in that context, and I think eight of them will tell you it means “demonstrates” or “shows.” That’s almost what it has to mean in a context like that, even though we never use the word to mean that today. And those are the words modern translations tend to choose.

Two, of the redheads, however, will tell you that “demonstrates” is not what the KJV translators meant when they chose that word. They had the word “demonstrateth” and the word “sheweth.” And they didn’t choose them.

One of those two redheads is me. And the other is Matthew Henry.

(Um, assuming he was a redhead—because weren’t all British people redheads back in the olden days? I like to think so.)

Here’s what he said. Can you divine the meaning of commendeth in Romans 5:8, KJV, just by reading this?

Now herein God commended his love, not only proved or evidenced his love (he might have done that at a cheaper rate), but magnified it and made it illustrious. This circumstance did greatly magnify and advance his love, not only put it past dispute, but rendered it the object of the greatest wonder and admiration: “Now my creatures shall see that I love them, I will give them such an instance of it as shall be without parallel.” Commendeth his love, as merchants commend their goods when they would put them off. This commending of his love was in order to the shedding abroad of his love in our hearts by the Holy Ghost. He evinces his love in the most winning, affecting, endearing way imaginable. While we were yet sinners, implying that we were not to be always sinners, there should be a change wrought; for he died to save us, not in our sins, but from our sins; but we were yet sinners when he died for us. (4.) Nay, which is more, we were enemies (v. 10), not only malefactors, but traitors and rebels, in arms against the government; the worst kind of malefactors and of all malefactors the most obnoxious. The carnal mind is not only an enemy to God, but enmity itself, ch. 8:7; Col. 1:21. This enmity is a mutual enmity, God loathing the sinner, and the sinner loathing God, Zec. 11:8. And that for such as these Christ should die is such a mystery, such a paradox, such an unprecedented instance of love, that it may well be our business to eternity to adore and wonder at it. This is a commendation of love indeed. Justly might he who had thus loved us make it one of the laws of his kingdom that we should love our enemies.

Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 2204–2205.

This is warm and beautiful and piquant writing. “He might have done it at a cheaper rate”! That’s wry and precious! I like Henry.

Did he help you learn the meaning of the word commendeth?

Back in 1611, in a context like Rom 5:8, the word meant, “to set off to advantage with added grace or luster.” It’s what diamond merchants do when they put their gems on black velvet cushions. The Oxford English Dictionary says so. Commend is a great word to use here—though (as I say in Authorized, in the closest I come to a negative word about the decisions of the KJV translators) a touch more eloquent than strictly necessary. The Greek word isn’t that specific; it just means “demonstrates” or “shows.”

So, yes, Henry helped here. But I think you’d have to be a pretty sophisticated reader to realize all that’s going on. And I think you’d still need to check the OED to know it with certainty. I don’t think checking Henry is a substitute for checking the OED, nor do I think checking Henry is a solution to the readability problems in the KJV caused by language change. Are you going to hand the plow boy a KJV—and a six-volume set of Matthew Henry? If you do, I think you will have just made the readability problem worse (no offense, fellow redhead).

More nerding

I can’t stop nerding here. I can’t go to sleep until my pastor’s sermon video (because of coronavirus-induced church cancellation) uploads. So let’s keep going.

KJV English, like contemporary English, uses commend in several different senses. It clearly doesn’t always mean what it meant in Rom 5:8. In Luke 16:8, for example, the KJV uses the word in a way that is just the same as we would use the word today:

And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely.

The lord praised the steward in a kind of formal way. We say the same thing.

But I think I found one other place where the KJV translators used the word commend to mean “set off with added grace or luster,” and it’s just two chapters before Rom 5:8.

But if our unrighteousness commend the righteousness of God, what shall we say? Is God unrighteous who taketh vengeance? (I speak as a man). (Rom 3:5 KJV)

That obsolete sense makes perfect sense here: “If our unrighteousness puts the righteousness of God on display for all to see and appreciate, why does God take vengeance on us?”

That’s the only other place I could find commend used by the KJV translators in the way they used it in Rom 5:8.

Last nerding

Last bit of nerding out: Lk 23:46 in the KJV uses commend also, and I’ve always found the use a bit puzzling (though, as often, the overall meaning is pretty clear from context):

When Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, he gave up the ghost.

That word choice has always seemed a bit odd to my English ears. Without even looking at the Greek, I’d expect “commit my spirit”—and that’s just what most modern translations go with (a few others instead choose “entrust my spirit”). So what did the KJV translators mean here?

I think they meant sense 1 in the OED:

To give in trust or charge, deliver to one’s care or keeping; to commit, entrust

And I don’t think we use the word this way anymore. I checked (this amateur lexicographer does his homework!), and the OED entry hasn’t changed since the 1890s.

Even then they gave hints that the sense was dying (“Formerly in such expressions as…”). And now, certainly, I don’t think we use the word commend to mean commit or entrust—not without helping words. That is, you can say, “I commend my great aunt to your care” in a (very) formal letter to a nursing home, but you can’t say to your babysitter, “I commend my children to you.” That would call up a different sense of the word; it would mean you are “presenting [your children] for approval or acceptance” (NOAD). Merriam-Webster still lists this sense that I’m saying is dead as their first sense; the New Oxford American Dictionary, correctly I think, makes this the third sense of the word and calls it “archaic or formal.”

Hey: any time a person reads this whole nerdy post, a redhead gets its wings.

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Leave a comment.

  1. Bill Lowry

    Great post. I wonder what future generations will do with “demonstrate” in the examples above. I would suspect that most usages today mean something like “forming a crowd in a public gathering in support or opposition of a current issue.” No telling what they will think it means, should one of the Bibles that uses it becomes standard of sorts.

    • Mark Ward

      Great point. We just have no idea what the future of English will look like.

  2. Charles Shanks

    I am not positive but I believe Matthew Henry passed away before he finished his commentary. And it was completed by friends and family,leaders in his church. Was it Act’s or Romans that he finished?

  3. Charles Shanks

    I should have added I use the NKJV and NASB more than the KJV. I just can’t seem to be focused enough to re memorize the KJV verses I remember at age 71 yrs.

  4. Tyler Robbins

    Charles; yes. Henry passed away and Acts – Revelation were completed by other authors from Henry’s notes.

    Mark, based on your image of the OED entry, please don’t tell me you have a PRINT edition from 1989 …

    • Mark Ward

      Ha! No, the faithful Internet Archive comes through again!

  5. Brian Collins

    However, his former roomate has a print edition from 1989 🙂

    • Mark Ward

      So do I! But I never use it. It’s a show piece. A friend got it for me at GoodWill!