I was reading yet another commentary on Revelation recently (Steve Gregg, Revelation, Four Views : A Parallel Commentary (Nashville, Tenn.: T. Nelson Publishers, 1997). The author made what I thought was a very astute observation on the state of so many commentary sets today: they’re all repeating each other.
“I went to great expense purchasing commentaries, only to find that many of them virtually duplicated almost all of the material of many others and only occasionally presented a distinctive element”
Think about it: How many times have you reached for commentary “A” then “B” and found virtually the same material? On one level that is to be expected. When the scripture means something, it means the same thing no matter who is writing about it. But on an entirely other level I should hope for more. Where are the distinctives of scholarship and thought? What about personal applications? Scripture only has one meaning but it has thousands of applications. What about varied historical analysis? Some commentaries claim to be written with a distinctively historical bent but reading three or five commentaries on a given passage will rarely be more rewarding than just reading one really good one.
I guess that means the real problem is determining which one is the good one. One volume commentaries generally don’t offer the depth I pursue although few can really compare to Matthew Henry in terms of “devotional” reading. Mr. Henry for all his verbosity at least loved the Lord of Scripture and wasn’t afraid to let it bleed through his pen. The current trend of scholarship is to completely conceal any hint of personal faith and adoration of the One True God; and should any smidgen of it’s expression be considered necessary it is somehow apologized for. I find that tragic.
Devotional / applicational Matthew Henry aside what commentaries are best? To a certain degree I think that depends on the capacity of the reader. Not everyone will enjoy Hermeneia or WBC just as many have already scoffed at my mention of Matthew Henry.
Personally I try to find commentaries that deal with the historical and social context as well as the grammar and intricacies of the original languages. I study Greek and dabble pathetically in Hebrew but I am not a first rate scholar in those languages. I look for commentaries that will further my understanding of the original text. I prefer to read a commentary whose author in some way confesses that he believes the Bible is God’s word. Not the least of all he should believe that the book he’s writing about is God’s.
Not surprisingly I have not fallen in love with any one series but I have taken some from the mix of several large and scholarly commentaries and used them equally. My commentaries of first choice typically come from either the WBC or ICC series. I lack the gold for Hermeneia and I sincerely doubt they would add much to what I find between the fore mentioned volumes. Besides I do grow weary of filtering out some of the more liberal garbage that makes it into some of these volumes.
Then there are the classic commentaries by Calvin and others. Nothing wrong with those and in their place I consult them.
Ultimately whatever commentaries you use or don’t use – I happen to believe there is a place for commentaries in Bible study. Despite their overlap, or perhaps because of it there is room to be encouraged by them – but only after you’ve done the best you can on your own.
Personal exegesis of the text you’re studying is of primary importance. How can you claim to teach the Bible if you have not learned it yourself? Learning involves more than redigesting the predigested contents of a commentary. To learn the scriptures demands that you sit down with pen (or keyboard) in hand, open the scriptures and study it to show yourself approved.
If you do your job well at the first stages of exegesis you may well find that the commentaries you once relied so deeply upon are doing little more than repeating what you have discovered. But there will be a difference. Instead of picking here and there through commentaries to find something you can use – you will be reading commentaries to determine why they differ from your conclusions. In the first instance you have no foundation of comparison to determine the skill of the commentator, in the second you have gained the capacity to think – dare I even to say you have begun loving God with your mind?