On Buying Commentaries

Luke [Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament] Having been a pastor for over seven years now (a brief time in the larger scheme of things), I’ve had to buy quite a few commentaries.  As some of you may know, it’s not overly easy to select commentaries when you’re beginning to study a book of the Bible.  Commentaries are quite expensive and there are so many of them out there.

For example, a quick look at Amazon reveals that there are well over 35 decent commentaries on the Gospel of Luke.  If one were to write up a full list that includes commentaries from the past, the number would probably exceed 50!  Books that summarize useful commentaries are out of date almost as soon as they are on the bookshelves since new commentaries are published so frequently.  How do we even begin to search for good commentaries to buy?   Here are a couple of things I think about before purchasing commentaries – things which save me money and time.

1) I don’t get commentaries that are similar; I don’t get three or four commentaries from an evangelical and/or Reformed perspective.  The first few times I purchased commentaries, I got a handful of Reformed and evangelical ones, and they all were pretty much the same.  For example, if you have Ryken on Luke, you probably don’t need Hughes’ commentary on it.  Or, if you have Derek Thomas’ commentary on Acts, you probably don’t need Sproul’s (etc.).  Quite possibly, the longer a Reformed preacher studies and preaches, the less he even needs Reformed commentaries!

2) I buy commentaries that differ in structure and style.  I always like at least one commentary that is somewhat technical in language/syntax discussions (i.e. Word Biblical Commentaries or perhaps NICOT/NICNT).  I’ll also get a commentary that is more thematic and less exegetical, like the NIV Application Commentaries or the Preach the Word series.  In other words, I get one or two technical commentaries and one or two that are not as technical but more practical.  Note: It is difficult to find technical commentaries on some books, so you may have to look hard!

3) I buy commentaries with which I might disagree.  Since many Reformed and/or evangelical commentaries sound the same, I also get commentaries from the Roman Catholic and the liberal perspectives.  For example, I like the Sacra Pagina commentaries as well as the Interpretation commentaries; I’ve also used WKJ and Abingdon commentaries (Concordia also publishes some helpful ones).  I have some Jewish commentaries on OT books and critical commentaries, which I’ve found quite helpful.  I always appreciate seeing how others look at the text, since it often makes me think and study harder.

4)  I like to round out my collection with older commentaries.  In other words, I don’t only use commentaries that have been written in the past 3o-40 years.  I like to use commentaries from the Reformers, the medieval doctors, and the church fathers.  It’s good to hear how God’s people interpreted texts before our modern era!  For example, I’ve come to appreciate commentaries by Lightfoot, Ellicott, Poole, Augustine, and Chrysostom (among others).

5) I try not to get too many commentaries.  I sometimes see pictures of a person’s shelves with ten or eleven commentaries on a certain book of the Bible.  My first thought is, “Do you have time to read all those and study the text and do pastoral visits/counseling?”  My second thought is, “Where do you get the money?”  (Thankfully, sometimes pastors receive commentaries as gifts or find used commentaries for great prices.) I’ve resisted the temptation to become a “commentary junkie,” getting every new commentary that publishing companies market so heavily.  Also, personally, I don’t feel like I *must* read every section of every commentary I using.  If my sermon studies are going well, I typically don’t read all my commentaries – else my sermons tend to get too full and detailed.

Doing the math, one might be able to benefit from five commentaries for one book of the Bible: one evangelical or Reformed commentary, one or two from another perspective, one exegetical/textual, and one or two from church history.  Granted, there is some overlap in those categories, but it may serve as a starting point – or at least something to think about!

I realize everyone is different when it comes to purchasing and using commentaries – and I could be wrong!  So feel free to disagree and/or add your own comments, suggestions, and lessons learned.

shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi

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17 comments on “On Buying Commentaries

  1. johntjeffery says:

    Thank you for putting into words what I, and undoubtedly others as well, have concluded. It seems as if each publisher in this competitive market has a “stable of scholars” with celebrity status that ensures a following. Unfortunately, those of us who come to these works for help often come away with greater confusion and/or uncertainty due to the way the “Ivory Tower” of academia handles the Word of Truth. I look for authors who are less interested in scholarly respectability and academic acceptance, who “take the gloves off”, and call a spade a spade. If they cannot clear the waters rather than muddying them further they seldom get pulled off the shelf by me. Thankfully the expenses involved in our day are decreasing due to: 1) freely available public domain older works online and often indownloadable formats, 2) cheaper digital publications such as in Kindle editions, and 3) Logos package deals.

  2. I can’t speak to the sermon-writing process, but as a sermon -recipient I can say that your approach to commentaries probably reflects your sensitivity to your flock. It’s not that we need the nuance of every linguistic inflection of the text reamed out for us, we just need the gospel preached by one who loves the Word and His church.

  3. RE: Commentaries, Shane, my thoughts exactly. Paul

  4. johntjeffery says:

    Another thing to be thankful for are those like Spurgeon in the past (“Commenting and Commentaries”) who continue to provide wise counsel in their recommendations as we wend our way through the library, catalogs, ads and book lists. I include here Tim Challies (“Best Commentaries on Each Book of the Bible” blog posts on his blog), Keith Mathison (“Top 5 Commentaries” series of blog posts on Ligonier Ministries), D. A. Carson (“New Testament Commentary Survey”), Tremper Longman (“Old Testament Commentary Survey”), and the editors who keep updating the work begun by John Glynn (“Commentary and Reference Survey”).

  5. Nevada says:

    Hi Shane,
    While I’m not a full-time pastor, I do tend to do a fair amount of preaching, and I resonate with your thoughts here.

    One of my homiletics professors in seminary used to say that one only really needs two good commentaries (if I recall correctly he meant a more critical/original languages one and a more thematic applicatory one). Our missions prof also once wryly observed that we were all deluded if we thought that we would have 30-40 hours a week to write sermons….

    I’ve found these comments to be true. Most of the time I only go above a few commentaries when I’m having trouble nailing down the sermon’s theme. Otherwise, (as you noted) the commentaries get repetitious.

    At the practical level, one simply does not have the time to pour over several commentaries.

  6. Rev. Bryant J. Williams III says:

    3) I buy commentaries with which I might disagree. I wholeheartedly agree.
    Most importantly, though, is “intellectual honesty” By obtainig several commentaries of your side of the argument and several from the other side of the argument, then one will less likely quote a person “OUT OF CONTEXT.” One is also able to “give credit when credit is due;” and “to condemn when condemnation is due.” That is intellectual honesty.

    I have a habit of quoting the opposing argument by quoting the paragraph before and after the main sentence or paragraph that is in question. This gives the reader the opportunity to recognize the context that an author’s viewpoint is being commented on.

    An example is taken from Matthew 23 in which Jesus admits that the “scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.” Jesus admits that the scribes and Pharisees sat in the seat of authority. That is intellectual honesty, but Jesus then condemns them with Seven Woes. We could do no better than follow Jesus’ example. “A broken clock is right twice a day.”

    4) I like to round out my collection with older commentaries.
    Some older commentaries or editions have the habit of having information in them that are no longer available in the newer commentaries or editions.

  7. Ron says:

    LOL: “had to” buy them! Too funny.

  8. Doug Wallace says:

    Thanks, Shane. Very helpful remarks as are some of the comments.

    Your approach seems reasonable and well-balanced; it makes good sense for those who are somewhat pious, biblically deep, and theologically sound.

    It’s very easy to misuse time, money, or both on inferior or somewhat duplicated products as urged on us vs. what’s optimally helpful for personal / congregational / church edification.

    We probably edify others only to the extent we ourselves, as divinely illuminated, are edified in the truth.

  9. matt says:

    Your bullet points are very helpful, Shane. I will keep them in consideration as I have just begun buying commentaries of books of the Bible. Literally, just started; I have two books. One is Leviticus by Rooker and the other I got at a garage sale for $1, a Genesis commentary by Stuart Brisco. I don’t plan to buy more than 2 or 3 for each book. I’m just a laydude.

  10. Dante says:

    Good insight here as always. And you can’t simply judge by a series. For instance, 1 John is not well served by commentaries. The scholarly volumes – Brown, AB and Schnackenberg – I do not find helpful and those in the standard series – Smalley, WBC, Kruse, PNTC – are disappointing. Marshall in NICNT is not only rather dated but is an Arminian, yet I prefer to interact with him over Kruse. The “best” on 1 Jn is also dated and is in TNTC – Stott. If TNTC is the best offering, you know there is a weakness. Carson in NIGTC has been said to be “coming out” since 2000. Just checked my calendar… I’ve been waiting 14 years! The 19th century Candlish reprinted by Banner in Geneva series is remarkably good at important points even if wordy. Calvin is far superior to the modern reformed and wannabe “reformed” comms. You have Garland on Lk pictured here – he is outstanding on 1 and 2 Cor.

    • Doug Wallace says:

      Thanks for those specifics, Dante, they are helpful.

      I will also look into the Garland commentaries.

      I had Dr. Garland for Greek at SBTS in the early 90’s before he moved on, I suppose pushed out and / or uncomfortable with the conservative / somewhat reformed direction the seminary was starting to take in the transition from Drs. Honeycutt to Mohler. (I think I was in the last group to graduate under Dr. Honeycutt, summer of ’93).

      When I was there, Garland was considered to be a 1st rate NT guy. But based on my experiences at seminary, I would not have considered buying anything from anyone in the former (pre-1994) faculty.

      At that time, the seminary as a whole, was in very bad theological / spiritual shape – generally neo-orthodox, liberal, higher critical, feminist, leaning toward paganism, etc., and so not a particularly edifying or comfortable experience.

      I’m no longer Southern Baptist, but now more in the Dutch Reformed heritage stream of things – a superb heritage I think.

    • Alan Beagley says:

      Just a brief comment on the TNTC. Why was the US edition of TNTC series published by Eerdmans rather than by InterVarsity when it was an IVP publication in the UK? Because InterVarsity in the US thought those commentaries were too highbrow! (Heard this from a UK IVP rep. visiting Australia many years ago.)

  11. Steve Bloem says:

    I would like to recommend some commentaries. First, Spurgeon’ Commenting on Commentaries. Second, Lloyd Jones, on Romans, Ephesians, 1 John, the Beatitudes, Philippians, and others. These are not technical but great expositions of the texts of Scripture. Third, since I moved, I have most of my books in storage. But if you go to crosswalk bible studies on the web, you can read Spurgeon’s predecessor, John Gill were you will find wonderful expositions on every book in the Bible. On that site, you can also get Jamison, Fawcett and Brown’s commentary, Treasury of David (Spurgeon) and Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary and the Expanded Commentary.
    And of course A.W. Robertson’s word pictures in the Greek. And both Hebrew and Greek, lexicons and interlinear.
    For great commentaries which have no copyright; (For instance Calvin’s commentaries, and many of the Puritans, you will find them at, http://www.ccel.org/ ).
    For dispensational commentaries, you can get Hiebert, Leon Wood, John Walvoord, and Lewis Sperry Chafer’s works of theology. http://www.amazon.com/Lewis-Sperry-Chafer/e/B001KMI4D2. Keil and Deliztch have a great commentary on Old Testament books. And finally, the Pulpit commentary has expositions of every Bible book and in them helps for the pastor, etc.
    I know the books should be under lined but because of time, I did not do so.

  12. Thanks for all the comments, everyone! shane

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