Comments on Commentaries

A young home-schooling mother recently asked for some advice regarding which Bible commentaries in print would be helpful for her library. As to the online sort, there are many of varying quality, but some good material to be found in the public domain. But as to actual books that can be purchased, I offer the following. Please note, this guide is woefully inadequate, as I’m sure many of my collegues might point out:

  1. It is likely that a Bible commentary on the whole Bible by one man is not likely to be balanced. I prefer commentaries written by more than one person or a team of scholars and pastors.
  2. That being said, there are three “one man” commentaries I do recommend. Two are very old, and one is more current.
    1. The first is Calvin’s commentaries, which cover every book of the Bible except Revelation (and that is really sad). Calvin is a towering theologian and, while he will not be equally as helpful on every book of the Bible, he is an essential read. His works are all still in print, and available online in the public domain. I’m not sure the entire set is still available in print, but individual print volumes are available here.
    2. The second is Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible. It is known for its devotional and preaching qualities. I appreciate his outlines. It is not strictly a one-man commentary. The sixth volume, on the New Testament, was published posthumously and was edited by a number of his fellows. His six-volume set can be had for a fair price from Christian Book Distributors. Spend a little extra and get the six-volume, unabridged edition.
    3. A more current commentary on much, but not all of the Bible is by the late James Boice. Various volumes are available from online sellers.
  3. As a preacher, I have tried to build a library with two or three commentaries on each book of the Bible. I have not done so in print but have a number of online resources.
  4. Single-volume Bible commentaries can be useful but are often too brief to answer the questions you might have.
    1. The New Bible Commentary. This is also available with the New Bible Dictionary, and having a really good Bible dictionary is also essential.
    2. Holman’s Illustrated Bible Commentary
  5. Commentary sets by multiple authors are often good, but again, the entire set may not be.
    1. The NIV Application Commentary is mostly very good (there is also an Old Testament set). It is the abridged version of the more challenging New International Commentary Series. The NICS commentaries assume some knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, while the Application Commentary does not. Do not confuse the Application Commentary with the Life Application Commentary which is not as good. The NIV Application Commentary, like any other set, is uneven: I would not recommend purchasing the entire set, because authors like Peter Enns (Exodus) are not reliable scholars.
    2. The Reformed Expository Commentary is very good. The link points to the New Testament set, but a 10-volume Old Testament set is also available.
    3. The Bible Speaks Today is a set of commentaries on the Old and New Testaments that are excellent on most books (my experience is mostly with the NT volumes). It was originally edited by the late John Stott.
  6. Unless theologically trained, I would stay away from the following publishers: Abingdon, Westminster, Fortress, Augsburg. Some older titles under these imprints might be good, but there are a number of scholars who have a very low view of Scripture and that is evident in their writing. The Hermeneia Commentary Set is one example. Be aware that a publisher can publish both wheat and chaff.
  7. If I had a limited budget (and who doesn’t?), I would consider the following:
    1. Buy Matthew Henry’s unabridged set.
    2. As you are interested in various books of the Bible, add one or two on those books. For example, if studying Romans, look at John Stott’s volume in The Bible Speaks Today series and Douglas Moo’s NIV Application Commentary.
    3. Find a public-domain copy of Calvin’s commentaries online.
    4. Write to me and ask advice on other commentaries on other books. Check out https://www.bestcommentaries.com for a fairly complete list of commentaries, from devotional to scholarly.

Buying commentaries, dictionaries, and other resources is a daunting task (or at least it should be). Consultation with others who have more Biblical training is very important; don’t go it alone. There is truth to be found, but there are also those who wish to promolgate error.

Spurgeon on False Teachers (Trigger Warning: He Judges).

I would to God we had all more of such decision, for the lack of it is depriving our religious life of its backbone and substituting for honest manliness a mass of the tremulous jelly of mutual flattery. He who does not hate the false does not love the true; and he to whom it is all the same whether it be God’s word or man’s, is himself unrenewed at heart. Oh, if some of you were like your fathers you would not have tolerated in this age the wagon loads of trash under which the gospel has been of late buried by ministers of your own choosing. You would have hurled out of your pulpits the men who are enemies to the fundamental doctrines of your churches, and yet are crafty enough to become your pastors and undermine the faith of a fickle and superficial generation.

These men steal the pulpits of once orthodox churches, because otherwise they would have none at all. Their powerless theology cannot of itself arouse sufficient enthusiasm to enable them to build a mousetrap at the expense of their admirers, and therefore they profane the houses which your sires have built for the preaching of the gospel, and turn aside the organisations of once orthodox communities to help their infidelity: I call it by that name in plain English, for “modern thought” is not one whit better, and of the two evils I give infidelity the palm, for it is less deceptive.

I beg the Lord to give back to the churches such a love to his truth that they may discern the spirits, and cast out those which are not of God. I feel sometimes like John, of whom it is said that, though the most loving of all spirits, yet he was the most decided of all men for the truth; and when he went to the bath and found that the heretic, Cerinthus, was there, he hurried out of the building, and would not tarry in the same place with him. There are some with whom we should have no fellowship, nay, not so much as to eat bread; for though this conduct looks stern and hard, it is after the mind of Christ, for the apostle spake by inspiration when he said, “If we or an angel from heaven preach to you any other gospel than that ye have received, let him be accursed.” According to modern effeminacy he ought to have said, “Let him be kindly spoken with in private, but pray make no stir. No doubt the good brother has his own original modes of thought, and we must not question his liberty. Doubtless, he believes the same as we do, only there is some little difference as to terms.” This is treason to Christ, treachery to truth, and cruelty to souls. If we love our Lord we shall keep his words, and stand fast in the faith, coming out from among the false teachers; nor is this inconsistent with charity, for the truest love to those who err is not to fraternise with them in their error, but to be faithful to Jesus in all things.

C. H. Spurgeon, “Under Constraint,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 24 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1878), 247.