Personal Thoughts about Commentaries (1)

There are many commentary booklists around nowadays. Some are very useful, others less so. This series of posts will contain my personal appraisals of Bible commentaries on individual books, beginning in the next installment with the Gospel of John. I have in view the God-called preacher, not the would-be scholar. For this reason my opinions will at times cross those of such luminaries as D.A. Carson and Craig A. Evans. I could not hold a candle to these men as a scholar, but, for all that, and since it has been requested of me, I shall give my halfpenny’s worth.

 

What Kind of Commentaries Should I Use and How Many?

If a preacher is going to study a book of the Bible seriously he needs good commentaries. Assuming his familiarity with Scripture and his prior study of a book or passage, he will need two different kinds of commentaries: exegetical, and expositional/theological.

 

Exegetical Commentaries: He will, of course, need good exegesis. He has to be able to know what a passage is saying, or at least, what it could be saying. For this he must have access to sound exegetical tools. But I do not think he needs (or can afford) to tarry over exquisite analysis of every conceivable possibility that scholars have wrung out of the text. He needs to know what reliable guides have written, but he does not have to concern himself with a thousand and one exegetical niceties (or their opposites) to be able to come away with solidly grounded conclusions.

 

Expositional/Theological Commentaries: Then, despite what some would say, he will do well to read good expositions of a book. These will always display their exegetical decisions when necessary, though they will not plunge the reader into their exegesis. They will seek to explain what the Word of God is saying and what it means. Such works will often show the truth to the mind better than the purely exegetical works. At their best they express the truth persuasively, reliably and practically.

 

We might also mention Homiletical Commentaries, but these are generally not as helpful as the ones above and may be ignored, as the studied preacher can make progress without them. What are known as Devotional Commentaries can, except in a few instances, be dispensed with.

 

As far as how many of these books one should have, the answer varies from Bible book to Bible book.  A book such as Genesis, which is so foundational to the Christian worldview, needs more commentators than the Song of Solomon or the Book of Amos.  In the case of Genesis it is wise to have at least four or five studied opinions on hand.  Likewise with the Gospels, especially Matthew and John, or Romans and Revelation.  I shall indicate those commentaries which I consider “essential” and those I believe are “desirable” in the lists that follow.

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17 comments

  1. Paul:

    I am thinking of purchasing Stuart Custer’s commentary on the gospel of Mathew.

    Realizing that you are now dealing with commentaries, I thought I would ask if you are familiar with this commentary, and what you see in its strengths and weaknesses.

    Sincerely,
    Ray Metcalfe
    Toronto, Canada

  2. Hello Ray,

    I would recommend Custer’s commentary to you. His commentaries combine solid exegesis with reverence for the text and its Author. He is also premil. The annotated bibliographies he usually provides at the end of his books are useful.

    For myself, I think I would buy Custer, and then add Lenski and Glasscock. If you want more contemporary exegesis then look at Carson and Hagner (though you will have to pick through the Q material throughout the latter).

    God bless,

    Paul

  3. Paul,

    What about a seminary student learning the original languages for doing their own exegesis? Instead of depending on someone else’s interpretation of the Word.

    Thanks,
    Ray

  4. Good question Ray. A good grasp of the original languages is desirable and profitable. It helps the preacher appreciate the exegetical discussions far better (as well as making them more interesting). It is also good to translate passages for oneself, as this shows one the individuality of the writer and the kind of connections, emphases, etc. he is making.
    It also makes one less dependent upon the scholar.

    But there is a downside! It shouldn’t be this way, but some of the very worse interpreters of an inspired author’s thought are those who rely too much on their own translations. Sometimes they seek out novelty instead of safe conformity. Sometimes they allow the lexicon to overrule the context. Still, very often, they commit the fallacy of what James Barr called ‘Illegitimate Totality Transfer’ where a word’s meaning in a foreign context is allowed to dictate its meaning in another passage.

    So my answer is that you are never free from some reliance on others. And this is a good thing. For unless one is a Greek or Hebrew scholar who lives in the world of Greek grammarians, it is a sign of arrogance to rely upon ones own knowledge and ignore those who have thought through these matters far deeper than we ever will. This isn’t to say we must follow scholars lock-step. I am just asserting that we translate in conference with them and not without them.

    Nice to hear from you brother!

  5. Dr. paul have you read william kelly’s commetaries? Such as Isaiah? I kbow that they are old and dry vut good. Or CHAFERS SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY?

  6. Sorry this is belated Garland, I’ve been doing things like buying furniture and then assembling it!

    I haven’t read Kelly on Isaiah. I read him on Galatians and, I think, 1 Corinthians years ago. I recall I found his style a bit difficult (this is not uncommon for 19th Century authors).

    His Isaiah is meant to be good by all accounts. You will learn from Kelly. Just beware of typological teachings as they are tendentious.

    I used to teach through Chafer at Seminary so I am pretty familiar with him. I recommend his systematics, although I would be careful on his two new covenant teaching.

    God bless,

    P.

  7. Thank you for replying!! Kelly is good I have is Isaiah and Hebrews commetaries and because of style and greek causes difficulties in my understanding and interest but I found him to be good. Another question sir what is a sovereigntist…i heard you say that you are one and where can I find more (hopefully) dt sovereigntist writings? You have my interest. Bless you on the furniture!!

  8. I’m starting to get good at it after assembling a few items of furniture. it’s a great feeling of satisfaction. My wife is much better than I am at it, though.

    Next will be the desks, but they’ll have to wait till I get back from my trip to Australia to visit family.

  9. I personally like the following dispensational commentaries which I believe are very helpful for the use in bible study. 1 ) The Bible Knowledge Commentary OT and NT 2 volumes Edited by Dr. John Walvoord and Dr. Roy Zuck 2 ) Unger’s Commentary On The Old Testament by Merrill Unger 3 ) The Mac Arthur New Testament Commentary Series 29 volumes by Dr. John Mac Arthur 4 ) Daniel The Key To Prophetic Revelation by Dr. John Walvoord 5 ) The Revelation Of Jesus Christ by Dr. John Walvoord .

    1. Dave,

      The best one is still Eugene Merrill’s “Kingdom of Priests”. Lots of detail, doesn’t skirt issues but doesn’t compromise and keeps the interest. Walter Kaiser’s “History of Israel” comes in second.

      A compromising but very useful book is I. Provan, V. P. Long & T. Longman, ‘A Biblical History of Israel’. This book makes concessions to higher scholarship (e.g. cutting short Saul’s reign to make space for the Judges), but it is well written, includes lots of info, and it has Provan’s superb essay “Knowing and Believing: Faith in the Past” which is a terrific piece of writing.

      God bless and Happy New Year

  10. Prof Henebury:
    Have you suggestions for
    Exegetical and Expositional commentaries on Revelation?

    Are you preparing a list of recommended commentaries on the entire New Testament?

    I am enjoying reading your comments on Ephesians and several other books

    1. Well, I was in the middle of doing the NT but I got distracted by biblical theology. I have two or three unfinished ones which I ought to complete. Revelation is, of course, controversial because of the different interpretative approaches (the popular one today is the eclectic one, which seems the worse of all options to me).

      Thanks for your comment. I’ll take another look

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