The 5 Best Commentary Series
It is, of course, impossible to find the perfect commentary, and even more so when considering sets of commentaries. Invariably they have a number of different authors and thus the volumes within a set can vary greatly in quality. That said, there are numerous sets of commentaries which, on the whole, are very useful. Before I begin, please read the following notes.
- We do well to remember that commentaries are only part of a broad and varied approach to personal Bible study. There is no substitute for getting one’s hands dirty in the mechanics of the passage (check out the Five Best Bible Study Aids) before turning to the thoughts of others.
- Sadly, there is a rising tide these days which derides commentaries and those who read them. This is a frankly ludicrous position. Why would a Bible-loving Christian want to dispense with the sound, meticulous expositions of godly brethren who have mined the depths of Scripture before us, making their riches available to all who are willing to read. Yes, there must be discernment, as there should be in every ministry meeting or Bible reading. Should we dispense with them? Take some advice from Spurgeon: ‘In order to be able to expound the Scriptures … you will need to be familiar with the commentators: a glorious army, let me tell you, whose acquaintance will be your delight and profit. Of course, you are not such wiseacres as to think or say that you can expound Scripture without assistance from the works of divines and learned men who have laboured before you in the field of exposition.’
- Given the huge variety of commentaries available to the average reader, and the variety of publishing houses and sources they spring from, one must be careful. Whilst it has been difficult to whittle down the recommendations, I have decided to break them into five categories, with a recommendation and honourable mention/s in each.They are in no particular order of brilliance, but I have used and derived benefit from all of them.
- It would not necessarily be wise to purchase a complete set of those commentaries recommended. They are often very expensive (if purchasing all at once) and it would be advisable to test-drive a single volume first. If in doubt, contact me or use www.bestcommentaries.com.
1. Technical Commentary Sets
New International Commentary on the Old and New Testament (Eerdmans)
A superb, and comprehensive set of technical commentaries which, although containing detailed exegesis, are surprisingly readable. They are certainly not for the faint-hearted, but contain a detailed treatment of each verse without being too exhausting. Look out for top volumes by FF Bruce, Douglas Moo, Tremper Longman and Bruce Waltke, all experts in their respective fields.
Whilst not as extensive, a special mention must go to the relatively recent Pillar series (also from Eerdmans). Much that was said above also applies to this series, ably edited by Don Carson, whose volume on John’s gospel is not to be missed. Zondervan’sExegetical Commentary on the New Testament and Baker’sExegetical Commentary on the New Testament are also top quality series’. It is worth mixing and matching these sets. For example, if studying Galatians, Ronald Fung in the New International Commentary series is good, but Douglas Moo (Baker) and Thomas Schreiner(Zondervan) are better. Pillar’s commentary has not yet been published. Do the math!
2. Intermediate Commentary Sets
The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Moody Press)
MacArthur! I hear you cry. Yes, MacArthur. He is renowned for his consistent, verse by verse exposition week in, week out at Grace Community Church, California. His colloquial and conversational style has been readily transposed into this excellent set of commentaries. They do not run to the depth of Greek exegesis of the sets above, but are nevertheless highly expositional. MacArthur is prone to run at a tangent, and thus it sometimes takes a good deal of reading to get to the point. The practical applications and illustrations are very helpful.
Honourable mentions here must go to the Tyndale series of commentaries (InterVarsity Press), which now cover the majority of the Bible. The beauty of these volumes is their length. Words are not wasted, but short, pithy comments explain each verse with an appropriate depth of scholarship.
3. Assembly Commentary Sets
What the Bible Teaches (John Ritchie)
I didn’t have much choice in this category! There are not many commentary sets from those in assembly fellowship, but look no further than WTBT, which now covers every book of the Bible. The first volume was published in 1983 on Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon with authors such as Jack Hunter, Thomas Bentley and Albert Leckie. The series has recently been concluded by a masterly volume on Job from the pen of David Newell. Whilst some volumes are better than others, these commentaries are always a good place to start, knowing that the theology (generally speaking!) can be trusted. The only shame is that the authors of early volumes were limited in their word count and thus there is not the detail one would have liked.
Honourable mentions in this category must include the commentaries of WE Vine (occasionally writing with CF Hogg). Vine, of Expository Dictionary fame, was in fellowship in Manvers Hall, Bath for many years and an expert in the Greek language. His commentaries are therefore language based and include most of Paul’s epistles as well as John’s gospel and epistles and Isaiah. I must also mention the outstanding writings of John Riddle, presently being published by John Ritchie. They herald from many years of John’s bible class discussions in Cheshunt and are thus conversational in style. Long may they roll off the press.
4. Easy Reading Commentary Sets
John Phillips Exploring Series (Kregel)
Although a little biased, John Phillips Ministries International says ‘John Phillips is a master artist; paper is his canvas, words are his oils, and the pen is his brush.’ True enough. Phillips is doctrinally sound, having an assembly background in early years. The ‘Exploring’ series covers the whole of the New Testament and a good few books in the Old, including Psalms, Proverbs and the Minor Prophets. The volumes areeasy reading and include many helpful anecdotes and illustrations. The practical applications are excellent and Phillips is a master of alliteration. It is certainly worth having these on the shelf next to your meatier volumes of exegesis.
Alongside Phillips, the commentary series of Harry A Ironside is also well-worth reading. Again, Ironside had his roots in the ‘Brethren’, and was pastor of Moody Memorial Church from 1929-1948. I used to take his commentaries on the train when commuting to London because they do not read as a typical commentary, more as a gentle and illuminating discussion. All his commentaries are free on www.studylight.org
5. Something Different
Dr Thomas Constable Expository (Bible Study) Notes
Freely available online to download as pdf files, Constable’s Bible Study notes are well worth using. Generally speaking, the exposition is verse by verse with careful (but not overly onerous) references to the Greek or Hebrew. Each verse is simply and soundly explained followed by selective quotes from a range of other commentators. He is very good at succinctly outlining different views on controversial topics, whilst directing the reader to the best interpretation. He has written on every book in the Bible – and the notes are frequently updated. A lifetime’s work! http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes.htm
Another set of New Testament commentaries worth a mention in this category are those of William Barclay (Daily Study Bible). He was a Church of Scotland minister and Professor of Divinity and Biblical Criticism at Glasgow University, so keep an eye on his theology! But, the beauty of Barclay is his masterful word studies. He can make Greek live like no other I have read. Get him on the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5) or love (1 Cor. 13) and he’s hard to beat. For example, referring to peace in Gal. 5.22 he says: ‘Peace: in contemporary colloquial Greek, this word (eirene) had two interesting usages. It was used of the serenity which a country enjoyed under the just and generous government of a good emperor; and it was used of the good order of a town or village. Villages had an official who was called the superintendent of the village’s eirene, the keeper of the public peace. Usually in the New Testament, eirene stands for the Hebrew shalom and means not just freedom from trouble but everything that makes for a person’s highest good. Here, it means that tranquillity of heart which derives from the all-pervading consciousness that our times are in the hands of God.’ Illuminating!