Getting the Most out of Poole

Each of the volumes in this series, The Exegetical Labors of the Reverend Matthew Poole is actually composed of two separate works:  A Synopsis of Interpreters, Both Critical and Otherwise, of the Sacred Scriptures (known by its Latin title, Synopsis Criticorum, the translated text of which is printed in this regular type) and Annotations upon the Holy Bible (the text of which is printed in bold type).  In the Synopsis, written primarily for students, ministers, and scholars, Poole presents something of a verse-by-verse history of interpretation, setting forth the most important interpreters and interpretative positions.  The Annotations, on the other hand, are written for the use of the common man, giving a summary of the most important interpretive issues and Poole’s own, most mature (being written in the years immediately prior to his death), judgment.  In these volumes, the Annotations have been interspliced into the translation of the Synopsis, creating an omnibus ofPoole’s exegetical efforts.

It may already be apparent from this brief description of these volumes that they are intended for study; they are certainly not a light read.  So that every reader, from the unlearned to the scholar, might get the most profit from these volumes, these directions are proffered:


1.  Read and study the prefatory material, especially the “Preface to the Synopsis:  Genesis-Esther.”


In the “Preface to the Synopsis:  Genesis-Esther,” the reader is introduced to the interpreters, writing on these Books of the Bible, that, in Poole’s judgment, are of the greatest significance.  Whereas the Synopsis is primarily about the history of interpretation, an acquaintance with the interpreters is of the utmost importance.  The translator has provided additional information about these men in the footnotes to aid the reader.  Paul taught the Ephesian Christians that the ascended Lord Jesus provides teachers for the edification His Church in all ages;[1] this is a synopsis of their teaching and testimony, a thing of surpassing value.


2.  Note that a brief summary of each book and an outline of each chapter has been provided.[2]


This will help the reader get and keep the entire context in view as he studies particular verses.


3.  Study the cross-references.


The Authorized Version of the text has been provided at the beginning of each verse.  In the Annotations, Poole provided a great many cross-references in the printing of the verse itself.[3]  These should not be neglected; they are of great value in gaining an understanding of the verse being studied, and it will be found that the verse being studied has implications for the right interpretation of other texts.[4]  Furthermore, the reader will find the verses, referenced in the Synopsis portion for the illustration of grammatical principles, to be of great help and use.  When the reason for the citation of a particular verse is not clear in English, the translator has provided annotations in the footnotes to aid understanding.


4.  Begin the study of the commentary portion under each verse with the Annotations portion (printed in bold).


Remember that the Annotations were written for the common man, and in them Poole summarizes and gives his most mature evaluation of the most important matters.  Reading the Annotations portion will frequently shed much light upon the mass of raw exegetical material in the Synopsis portion.


5.  Note that Poole often presents a wide variety of interpretive positions in a short space.


In the Synopsis portion, contradictory positions can be presented without any transition.  The intepreters who held a certain view are usually given in parentheses after the presentation of the interpretive position, and this is frequently all that the reader is given with respect to a transition from one position to another.


6.  Be patient and persevere.


Solomon the Wise teaches in the Proverbs that in some things knowledge and wisdom come only with effort,[5] and penetrating beyond a superficial understanding of the Scriptures will require hard work; but let the Christian give himself to this labor in the assurance of faith, that Jesus Christ is speaking to him through the Word,[6] and that in this study he will taste of the Lord that He is good.[7]


[1] Ephesians 4:11-13.

[2] Poole composed the book outlines from Genesis to Isaiah, but the chapter outlines were not added until the third edition of the Annotations, 1696, by Samuel Clarke and Edward Veale.  Samuel Clarke (1626-1701), one of the ejected ministers under the Act of Uniformity, was well-qualified for this editorial work, having composed his own The Old and New Testament, with Annotations and Parallel Scriptures (1690) and A Survey of the Bible; or, an Analytical Account of the Holy Scriptures, Containing the Division of Every Book and Chapter, thereby Shewing the Frame and Contexture of the Whole (1693).  Edward Veale was one of the divines called upon to complete Poole’s Annotations, writing the portions on Ephesians, James, 1 and 2 Peter, and Jude.  He will be discussed at greater length in conjunction with those portions.

[3] Samuel Clarke and Edward Veale appear to be responsible for supplemental cross-references, added to Poole’s own.  All of the cross-references have been provided in this text.

[4]Westminster Confession of Faith 1:9:  “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself:  and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one) it must be search and known by other places that speak more clearly.”

[5] Proverbs 2:1-5.

[6] 1 Peter 1:11.

[7] 1 Peter 2:3.

Reading Difficult Books: A Personal Reminiscence (by Dr. Steven Dilday)

Shortly after my conversion to Christ, I became a regular listener to the radio broadcast of Dr. R.C. Sproul.  Through Dr. Sproul I was exposed to Reformed theology for the first time, and, from the first, I was captivated.  I was quite interested, of course, when he mentioned that he thought that Jonathan Edwards’ Freedom of the Will was the most important, most theologically formative, book that he had ever read.  I ordered it immediately and waited anxiously for its arrival.  When the book arrived, I could not get the wrapping off fast enough.  I started into it immediately, but was more than a little surprised by what I found.  I discovered that I was not able to read it.  Well, I was able to read and pronounce all the words, but I had never before seen a single sentence continue for a page and a half.  By the time I reached the end of a sentence, I could not remember how it started.  Moreover, he spent the first quarter of the book simply discussing the definition of the terms that he would be using (not the most exciting reading), definitions which were formulated through a sophisticated interaction with Puritan theology and early eighteenth century European philosophy (of which I knew nothing).  Difficulties crowded in on every side, but my determination was roused.  I had Dr. Sproul’s testimony that the reading of this volume would be profitable, so I prepared myself for the labor.  It was hard work; sometimes I would spend a whole afternoon just trying to understand a single page.  If memory serves, it took me the better part of a year to work through the whole.  And what profit had I for my effort?  Much in every way.  First, I really learned to read; I have not since had that difficulty in reading.  Second, I developed a love for the literature of the Puritans which has consumed most of my waking hours since that time.  Third, the book did more to shape my general theological method than anything else that I have read.  Fourth, I have never forgotten the contents of the book, Edwards’ striking harmonization of divine sovereignty and human freedom.  In the final evaluation, the hours spent in the reading of that difficult book were among the most well-spent of my entire life.

Currently, I am laboring to translate Matthew Poole’s Synopsis Criticorum (a massive Biblical commentary and verse-by-verse history of interpretation).  This is difficult reading, but I have undertaken the labor because I am firmly convinced that Christian people will profit immeasurably, if they will but do the hard work of reading it.  In this day and age, it seems that few Christians want to struggle with the difficult books, preferring the lighter devotional books.  Although I have nothing against devotional books, to leave off the reading of difficult books is, in my estimation, a great mistake.  Why?  Because some truths are difficult and can only be mastered through difficulty.  Soren Kierkegaard once observed that, if a man can have a thing in an easier way, then he should take it in an easier way.  Indeed, it is a great convenience to have water from the faucet rather than having to pump it from the well.  But some things cannot be had in an easy way, and some truths concerning God, God’s Christ, and God’s Scripture will not be mastered easily.  Although such truths are attained in difficulty and discomfort, they are frequently among the most edifying and nourishing.  This has been my experience, but not just mine.  C.S. Lewis, in his preface to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word of God, said, “For my own part, I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await others.  I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.”

So, if you desire to know the Scriptures better, I commend Poole’s Synopsis to you.  It is not easy reading, but, should you give the requisite effort, I believe that you will find yourself well-recompensed for your labor.

Why Study the History of Interpretation?

Matthew Poole’s Synopsis Criticorum (Synopsis of Interpreters) is nothing less than a verse-by-verse summary of the history of interpretation.  Poole covers the entire gamut:  the old Jewish doctors, the early Church Fathers, Medieval Rabbis, Reformation-era Romanists, Lutherans, and the Reformed.  But this raises a question:  Why should I exert so much effort in the study of the history of interpretation?

It seems that many in Evangelicalism have adopted the “me-and-my Bible” approach to the study of the Word of God.  The general idea seems to be that, if I spend time reading my Bible, the Spirit of God will help me to interpret it correctly.  I am not in need of the help of human teachers.  Consequently, the preaching of the Word of God is held in little regard (a mere formality) and the great commentary books are largely neglected.

Ironically, this is not a Biblical approach to the study of the Scriptures.  God has superabounded to His people in blessing them with the Word and the Spirit, blessings surpassing sublimity.  But God has also blessed His people with faithful preachers and teachers, and that in all ages.

Under the Mosaic administration, the priests and Levites were set apart to teach God’s people.  This was their commission and charge from the Lord; Deuteronomy 33:10a:  “They shall teach Jacob thy judgments, and Israelthy law.”  During the time of Malachi, the priests had been unfaithful in this their sacred charge; but their duty remained the same.  Malachi 2:7:  “For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth:  for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts.”  There are actually two duties here expressed:  1.  the priest’s duty, his lips should preserve and dispense the knowledge of the Law of God; 2.  the people’s duty, they should seek instruction in the Law from the priest’s mouth.  So, we see that God set apart teachers and instructed the people to have recourse unto them to the end that they might learn the Scriptures.

This situation has not changed under the new administration.  We find the Lord Jesus Himself and His apostles preaching and teaching.  This was the charge given to the apostles and to all of those succeeding them in the teaching office until the end of the world.  Matthew 28:18-20:  “And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.  Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:  Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.”  It is not surprising then to find Paul, as He discusses the gifts that the ascended Christ has given to His Church, focusing upon the teaching offices.  Ephesians 4:11-13:  “And he [the ascended Christ] gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:  Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ…”  Three of these teaching offices were extraordinary for that first age of the Church, namely, apostles, prophets, and evangelists; but the offices of the pastor and teacher continue and will continue “till we all come in the unity of the faith…unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”  Here, the Church is likened unto a man advancing from infancy unto maturity.  Pastors and teachers have a God-ordained role in pressing the Church forward in growth.  This process will not be complete until the Church is perfected by Christ at His return.

What does this have to do with the study of the history of interpretation and reading Poole’s Synopsis?  Everything.  Poole’s Synopsis is a verse-by-verse record of what these teachers, the gift of our ascended Lord, believed and taught.  It only remains for us tolle, lege, to take up and read.

About the Matthew Poole Project

Two series of books concerning the life, labors, and times of the Reverend Matthew Poole are currently in production.  They will include the complete text of the Synopsis Criticorum translated into English.

The first series, The Literary Labors of the Reverend Matthew Poole, focuses upon the life and literary efforts of Matthew Poole.  These volumes have been arranged chronologically; each book will provide a biographical treatment of a period of Poole’s life, coupled with a republication of the works that Poole produced during that time.

The second series, The Exegetical Labors of the Reverend Matthew Poole, is devoted to his work as a student of the history of interpretation and as a commentator.  For the first time, Matthew Poole’s massive and scholarly Latin Synopsis Criticorum (Synopsis of Critical Interpreters) will be available in English.  Poole’s beloved English Annotations for the common man have been spliced into the translation of the Synopsis in the appropriate places for ease of reference and study.

The Literary Labors of the Reverend Matthew Poole will be of great interest to all those interested in the Second Reformation, Westminster Presbyterianism among the English Puritans, and the tribulations of the faithful Presbyterian ministers ejected after the Restoration.  However, these works are of more than historical interest; they give the reader the opportunity to observe this master of exegesis apply the fruits of that exegesis to issues theological (the deity of the Holy Spirit, the satisfaction theory of the atonement), ecclesiastical (the problem of unordained preaching, the maintenance of students for the ministry, the purity of gospel worship), polemical (against Quakerism, Romanism, the Restoration church), and practical (ministering to the sick).  The modeling of the movement from exegesis to application is invaluable.

The Exegetical Labors of the Reverend Matthew Poole will be of surpassing value to any student of the Word, but particularly to the man who would understand the theology of the Westminster Assembly and its Standards.  Happily, the theology of that reverend Assembly has been retained in its Standards, certainly the high-water mark of confessional orthodoxy; unhappily, much of underlying exegesis, the heart and power of the theology, has been lost or neglected.  The Puritan theology books continue to receive some attention, but the Puritan commentary books are largely neglected.  Few remember the names of Willet, Attersoll, Patrick, Jackson, or Mayer; their commentaries have fallen into disuse, and even the books themselves have become rare.  Moreover, much of the exegetical fruit of the Reformation remains locked-up in Latin commentaries, inaccessible to most English-speaking Christians.  The consequent disconnect in the minds of many between the Standards and the Scripture-proofs is a situation most undesirable.

A translation of Matthew Poole’s Synopsis is a very economical way of recovering much of this inaccessible exegetical material and reestablishing the connection between the Word of God and the Standards.  In the Synopsis, Poole has undertaken to provide a summary or digest of the best of the critical interpreters, men specializing in the linguistic (lexical, syntactical, macro-syntactical) and historical (cultural and geographical) issues that effect interpretation, on every verse of the Bible.  He focuses on Reformation-era interpreters (Jewish, Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran), but, through those interpreters, he also sets forth the best of the thought of the old Rabbis, Church Fathers, and Medieval Schoolmen.  So, although English translations of these Latin commentaries might be hoped for and desired, the Synopsis provides what is, in the judgment of Poole, the very best of that material.

A careful study of the Synopsis yields an important truth, that the Church’s highest attainments in theology, immortalized in the Westminster Standards, grew out of the Church’s highest attainments in Biblical exegesis.

Who Was Matthew Poole?

From Lives of Eminent and Illustrious Englishmen, from Alfred the Great to the Latest Times, on an Original Plan.  Edited by George Godfrey Cunningham.  Vol. III, pp. 173-176 (1837).

Matthew Poole, M.A.

(Born A.D. 1624.  Died A.D. 1679.)

Matthew Poole, born in the year 1624, was the son of Francis Poole, Esq. of the city of York.  He received an excellent grammar-education, most probably in his native city, and at the usual age was entered at Emmanuel college, Cambridge, under the tuition of Dr. John Worthington.  During his college residence, he was distinguished by laborious study, by his grave demeanour, and scriptural knowledge.  He does not appear to have proceeded M.A. till some years after he entered upon the ministry.

He most probably embraced the principles of non-conformity before he left the university, but without becoming a violent party man.  He was yet in his youth when the national contentions and troubles commenced.  But though he was decidedly opposed to episcopacy as then established, and of course embraced the side of the parliament, yet he continued at college diligently and zealously pursuing the most important and useful studies.

In the year 1648, however, and at the age of 24, he entered upon the regular duties of the ministry as the successor to Dr. Tuckney who was made vice-chancellor to the university of Cambridge in the rectory of St. Michael le Querne, in London.  In the year 1654 he first appeared as author in a defense of the orthodox doctrine concerning the Holy Spirit, against the famous John Biddle.  The work was entitled, The Blasphemer Slain by the Sword of the Spirit, etc.  In the year 1657 Cromwell resigned the chancellorship of Cambridge in favour of his son Richard, and in that act Mr Poole was incorporated M.A. of that university.

The next year he formed and promoted the useful design of maintaining some divinity students of distinguished talents and piety, during their studies at both universities.  This plan met with the approbation of the heads of houses, and in a short time the sum of #900 was contributed towards the object.  Dr. Sherlock, dean of St. Paul’s, was educated on this foundation.  But the design was quashed by the restoration.  In 1659, he addressed a printed letter to Lord Charles Fleetwood, relating to the critical juncture of affairs at that time.  The same year he also published a work, entitled, Quo Warranto, a work designed to support the authority of an ordained ministry, against a work, entitled, The Preacher Sent.  This work was written by the appointment of the provincial assembly at London.

He continued in his rectory till the passing of the Bartholomew Act, when he resigned his living, rather than conform against his conscience.  During the fourteen years in which he was a parochial minister, he is described as having been a most faithful, diligent, and affectionate preacher:  laborious in his studies to the highest degree, which his stupendous work, entitled, Synopsis Criticorum, in 5 vols. folio, amply testifies.  This undertaking occupied his attention for ten years, and is a monument, not only of his extensive reading, but of his critical acumen, and sobriety of judgment.

Mr. Anthony Wood always jealous of praising divines of Mr Poole’s class owns that it is an admirable and useful work, and adds, that “the author left behind him the character of a celebrated critic and casuist.”  His industry in compiling his great work is well worthy of record.  He rose at three or four o’clock, took a raw egg at intervals, and kept on labouring all day till towards evening, when he usually sought for a short time the relaxation and enjoyment of society at some friend’s house.

He is represented by his biographer as being of an exceedingly merry disposition, though always within the limits of reason and innocence.  His conversation is said to have been diverting and facetious in a very high degree.  How great then must have been the restraints he exercised in so severe and continued a seclusion from society, and so close an application of mind to the very driest and dullest of studies, criticism!  Mr. Poole, however, appears to have enjoyed the happy art of both exciting and regulating innocent mirth.

He seems to have entertained a strict sense of what was decorous and of what was useful in facetious and entertaining, or even in mirthful discourse; but when he found that the strain was likely to be too long continued, or surpass the due limit, he would say, “Now let us call for a reckoning,” and then would begin some very serious conversation, and endeavour thereby to leave upon his company some useful and valuable impression.

It is highly probable, that the habit of passing his evenings with his friends, and in so cheerful a manner, greatly contributed to relieve both body and mind from the ill effects of those severe and protracted studies in which he engaged.  It happened more fortunately for Mr. Poole than for most of his ejected brethren, that he had a provision of about #100 per annum, independent of his rectory, so that he was enabled to live in comfort and pursue his studies, without much inconvenience, after he became a non-conformist.  He appears, however, to have once been, or to have thought himself, in danger of being murdered on account of his zeal against popery.

In the year 1679, his name appeared in the list of persons who were to have been cut off, printed in the depositions of Titus Oates.  Soon after, he was spending an evening at Mr. Alderman Ashurst’s, and was returning home with a Mr. Chorley, who had gone with him for the sake of company; when coming near the narrow passage which leads from Clerkenwell to St John’s court, they saw two men standing at the entrance; one of whom, as Mr. Poole approached, said to the other, “there he is;” upon which the other replied, “let him alone, there is somebody with him.” As soon as they were passed, Mr. Poole asked his friend if he had heard what passed between the two men; and, upon his answering that he had, “Well,” replied Mr Poole, “I had been murdered tonight had you not been with me.”

It is said, that prior to this incident, he had given not the slightest credit to what was said in Oates’ depositions; but he appears to have been greatly alarmed by this occurrence, for he soon after made up his mind to quit England, and accordingly removed to Holland, and fixed his residence at Amsterdam.  He died the same year (1679), in the month of October, aged fifty-six.  It was generally supposed he was poisoned, but the matter remained doubtful, and no discovery was ever made.  His body was interred in the vault belonging to the English merchants in that city.

Mr Poole is chiefly known to posterity by his two works on the Bible.  The one in Latin, his Synopsis, the other, English Annotations.  He was greatly encouraged in his Synopsis by the promised assistance of the great Dr. Lightfoot, and the patronage both of Bishop Lloyd and Archbishop Tillotson.  It first appeared in 1669, and following years.  His English Annotations was in progress when he died, and of course was left in manuscript.  He had completed it down to the 58th of Isaiah.  The remainder was supplied by several other persons, viz. Mr. Jackson, Dr. Collins, Mr. Hurst, Mr. Cooper, Mr. Vinke, Mr. Mayo, Mr. Veal, Mr. Adams, Mr. Barker, Mr. Ob. Hughes, and Mr. Howe.  The whole appeared in 2 vols. fol. 1685.  Both these works are of great value, and are in general request and high estimation among divines to the present day.

Mr Poole’s other works are the following:

  1. The Blasphemer Slain with the Sword of the Spirit.
  2. A Model for Maintaining Students in the University.
  3. A Letter to Lord C. Fleetwood.
  4. Quo Warranto, etc.
  5. Evangelical Worship.
  6. Vox Clamantis in Deserto, respecting the ejection of the ministers.
  7. The Nullity of the Romish Faith.
  8. A Seasonable Apology for Religion.
  9. Four Sermons in the morning exercises, for 1660.
  10. A Poem and two Epitaphs, on Mr. Jer. Whitaker.
  11. Two on the death of Mr. R. Vines.
  12. Another on Mr. Jacob Stock.
  13. A Preface to Sermons of Mr. Nalton, with some account of his character.
  14. Dialogues between a Popish Priest and an English Protestant, etc.

Mr Poole bore throughout his life the reputation of an amiable man, a devout and charitable Christian.  When his non-conformity exposed him to deprivation, and enforced upon him silence, he resigned himself patiently to his trial, and most usefully for the church of Christ, employed at his leisure in completing those important works, which will perpetuate his name among those of the ablest biblical critics.

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