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.