Christopher Chelpka

Matthew Poole's Exegetical Humility

Matthew Poole’s honest confession teaches an important lesson in humility.

 Matthew Poole (Pole),by; after Robert White; Unknown artist

Have you ever been confused about a certain passage of the Bible and said something like this?

“I wish I could give you an answer but I can’t. I realize that I’ve had an opportunity now to answer your question more than once, but honestly, even after reading a bunch of books I still don’t know.”

This is the kind of admission you might expect to hear a student make privately in a professor’s office. But would you expect it from an eminent English Puritan in his public commentary on the Bible? Probably not. And yet, when Matthew Poole came to comment on Mark 7:31-37, this is what he said. Here’s the actual, non-paraphrased version:

“Concerning [Jesus’] charge of them not to publish it, and [the people’s] disobedience to it, I have had occasion once and again to speak, and must confess I can neither satisfy myself in the reason from my own thoughts, nor from what I read in others.”
Though I was surprised when I read this, and little disappointed not to hear him answer this question, I couldn’t help but be amazed at the humility in his comment.

Remember that Matthew Poole was no exegetical slacker and people knew it. Charles Spurgeon would later say of him: “Poole is not so pithy and witty by far as Matthew Henry, but he is perhaps more accurate, less a commentator, and more an expositor.”

In addition to his exegetical skills, Matthew Poole was known for being well-read in the works of the past. When he says he is not satisfied “from what I read in others,” you should know that he had already written and published a five-volume compilation of the exegesis biblical commentators had already done before him.

With a solid reputation in both exegesis and the history of exegesis, how easily could he have asserted something that he knew was close enough to the truth and thus save himself some embarrassment. But he didn’t do that. Instead, Poole decided to say—even “confess”—that he didn’t know.

So Poole’s admission didn’t help me much with Mark 7:31-37, but coming from him, it felt like permission to have some exegetical humility myself. Sometimes it’s okay to say, “I don’t know.”

How refreshing.