On commentaries...

(Tim, w/thanks to Jeff) Have I ever said anything about commentaries? Sure, but I'll have another hack at it.

When I left seminary, we had no money, so book purchases were mostly from used bookstores and resale shops. But I felt the need to have something "substantial" on at least one of the Gospels, so I took everyone's advice and spent about 40 of our limited dollars on I. Howard Marshall's commentary on Luke. "Stupendous example of evangelical scholarship at its very best" they all said, and I took the bait.

We moved to Pardeeville and I began preaching. Immediately, I looked for an occasion to use my most-excellent new tool and it wasn't long in coming. Choosing a text in Luke, I opened Marshall and...

Blech! Talk about a chip on the shoulder! It seemed the main thrust of his writing was wrangling with fellow New Testament scholars about problems invented by other New Testament scholars, few of which would ever occur to the lover of God reading Luke's account of the life and death of our Lord. Page after page of technical discussion that wasn't difficult to understand, really, but left the text entirely unimproved. There were few helpful insights and almost no timely applications or pastoral warnings. I found myself wondering whether this was really the state of the art in evangelical New Testament scholarship? Did all the scholars spend their lives arguing amongst themselves and was the thickest and most expensive compendium of those arguments the state of the art in commentaries on God's Holy Word?

Then I discovered Calvin's commentaries and would you believe my preaching improved? Top-drawer exegetical insights galore, and yet the thrust of every sentence, every paragraph and page, was the application of God's inspired words to the Church, the Household of Faith, the pillar and foundation of the truth. Since then I've learned a few things about commentaries.

First, if your work is in a place where some in your congregation keep up with scholarship and oppose preaching to the conscience and heart, I'm saddened to have to tell you that you have to own Marshall. In such cases, you'll want to have Marshall (or his equivalent) on hand and skim him each week to stay ahead of enemies of heart religion. Marshall, F. F. Bruce, Mounce--there are a ton of options and any of the myriad of seminary professor's lists of recommended commentaries will do for which one to purchase. Occasionally these scholars will give you an oasis of soul-water along with their Sahara desert of giggling excitement over fashion, but reading them will generally be a dry exercise.

Second, buy and use Spurgeon's little work, Commenting and Commentaries. It's superb and will serve as an excellent guide for commentaries published prior to the twentieth century. Spurgeon is not afraid to warn you off particular authors and works, giving very specific reasons that, at times, will leave you laughing out loud. It's hard to imagine anything this critical, and therefore helpful, getting out the door of an evangelical publisher today.

Third, sight unseen, buy the following:

  • This 22 volume set of Calvin's Commentaries on the Bible. It's the somewhat archaic English of the old Calvin Translation Society, but it's so inexpensive that it makes no sense to buy anything else. There's nothing better than Calvin.
  • Spurgeons' commenary on the Psalms, The Treasury of David. Magnificent.
  • This 4 volume set of J. C. Ryle's Expository Thoughts on the Gospels. Ryle was the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool in the nineteenth century. Everything he ever wrote is worth its weight in gold, but for the Gospels, there's no one even close in pastoral application.
  • This inexpensive, single volume, unabridged version of Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible. Less--much less exegetical work, but more--much more pastoral application than Calvin. So much, in fact, that your principal challenge will be weeding the wheat from the wheat so you don't overwhelm your congregation.

I'll stop with those. For the vast majority of lovers of God and His Word, with the exception of a few classic commentaries on single books like Luther on Galatians, this is all you'll ever need to preach, lead devotionals, teach Sunday school classes, or lead small group Bible studies. Beyond this short list, Spurgeon's recommendations will serve you well.

One final note: Many of the best commentaries are copyright free since they were published prior to the twentieth century. Yes, there are some pious hustlers who claim they hold copyright to old Christian works because they've got a lot of sweat-of-the-brow equity in E-text versions they've scanned and OCRd, but trust me, they don't and you ought not to let them intimidate you by talk of lawyers and accusations of stealing. (For more concerning false claims of copyright by Christian businessmen, see this post from January 2006.)

Unless they've made a creative contribution to the E-text that goes far beyond such things as scanning, OCRing, footnoting, or hyperlinking the text's Scripture references, the law is clear. The E-text is copyright-free. Simply changing copyright-free material from hard copy to E-text brings no right to copyright that E-text and threaten with legal action those who use it and reproduce it without paying a royalty.

That said, many of the best commentaries are freely available for downloading to your computer. For instance, check this site out for E-text copies of J. C. Ryle's Expository Thoughts on the Gospels. This is just the beginning of what an enterprising soul will find with a little effort using Google.

Comments

You can save a couple bucks and support a good cause by buying the Calvin Commentaries from Monergismbooks.com (http://www.monergismbooks.com/Calvins-Commentaries-22-Volumes-p-16207.html)

A friend of mine in Portland, OR runs the bookstore.

Thank you for these resources Rev. Bayly. I find many Pastors get bogged down in reading too many commentaries.

Thank you for these resources Rev. Bayly. I find many Pastors get bogged down in reading too many commentaries.

Tim,

I would also highly recommend Derek Thomas' Essential Commentaries for a Preacher's Library. Derek recommends commentaries for preachers, not scholarly debate. For that reason, I find that book far more helpful than Carson's commentary survey.

I will also say that while the oldies are still goodies, there are some very good commentaries with meat on the bone coming out today. The Reformed Exposition series is good. There are very good volumes in the NAC. But you need a guide, lest you fall into the desert.

Tim,

When in Bible college I wrote a paper and at several points quoted Matthew Henry. My professor wrote on my paper asking why I quoted Henry and not someone modern. To which I thought, "it cannot be said any more truthfully or helpfully than Henry has said it." I was given a set of Henry early in my training and am so grateful for his work.

When I saw your list I thought, "I hope he mentions Ryle on the gospels" and you are so right to do so. When reading Ryle one feels that he is being challenged, fed and comforted there is something of God in those volumes. By the way, CBD has Ryle in four hardbound volumes for $29.99 right now.

Thanks Tim.

Concerning poor Bible teachers/students, I'll pass this thought along which I got from Alan Ross when learning Hebrew from him: "Never buy a book you will read only once; never buy a book you have never used. Borrow these. Buy only books you know you will resort to in the future."

That advice has saved me tens of thousands of dollars over the years since seminary.

My recommendation to add to Pr. Tim's include Derek Kidner's work in Proverbs and the Psalms, published by IVP. These are some of the pithiest, most focused, and leanest commentaries I've ever handled. The difficulties and obscurities that every other commentary will ignore, or inundate with scholar-babble, Kidner will illuminate in two or three lucid sentences.

When I helped lead a campus Bible study a few years back I almost always read Henry to help myself prepare.

I initially picked his commentary to read on the web because I didn't know anything about commentaries but I'd heard of him before and his last name was Henry so I figured he was worth a shot. Huge understatement.

Also, Mike Boles called me Matthew the first few times he met me. I was too intimidated to correct him.

May I recommended two 19th century commentators? Charles Bridges on Proverbs, Psalm 119 and Ecclesiastes and John Brown on Discourses and Sayings of our Lord, Hebrews and 1 Peter.

I second the motion to include Bridges on Proverbs- absolutely excellent.

Because Brown's commentary on Hebrews is a part of the same Banner of Truth series as Bridges on Proverbs, I had very high hopes for finding it useful recently. The truth, however, is that I found him to be fairly useless after having read Calvin. As I read Brown, I couldn't help but imagine John Cleese reading him in a Monty Python skit: "By heavenly grace here is meant grace that is heavenly. This is not to say grace that is earthly or hellish; no, rather, it is to say grace that is heavenly: that is, from heaven. Now what is meant by heavenly?" It took him a lot of words before he said much, and what he said when he got to it was better and clearer said by Calvin. But perhaps I'm being uncharitable... it was my only experience with his commentary. I would have loved to have had the time to drink from Owen on Hebrews, but he's so verbose that it was too impractical.

Thanks, Tim, this was really helpful. Though I'm not preaching, I've used the Henry commentaries often and really appreciate them. I've also looked into Spurgeon's Treasury of David, but only once. I'll definitely check into it again.

And I've had a similar experience to yours with Marshall - in reading Edward Young on Daniel I found that the first chapter or so was wonderful, but the rest immediately got bogged down in disputing other commentators on historical details. At times it was interesting, but I felt like everyone was arguing for hours in the living room while dinner was getting cold on the table.

A great resource for aspiring preachers-and active ones as well -can be found at the 'S.Lewis Johnson Institute' a site maintained by Believers Chapel in Dallas, Tx. where Dr. Johnson preached for decades. There are thousands of sermons on practically every book of the Bible plus thematic studies on major doctrines and Biblical Studies. He was my professor of Systematic theology at T.E.D.S. Before that hewas professor of NT for over 25 years at DTS.Dr Johnson was truly a great expositor of the Scriptures.

I came here looking for a commentary recommendation for Proverbs, specifically. Two authors who have been recommended are Charles Bridges and Derek Kidner. I just need help understanding some of the metaphors and context, and I am not overly academic. Any suggestion on which one (or another author) would be a better place to start?

They'd both be good, but Bridges for godly practicality. I've used his commentary on Proverbs to lead an early morning men's group for several years and it was the best. Love,

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