Saturday, January 27, 2018

The Pastor and His Commentaries

Since part of the work of the pastor is to preach the biblical text, commentaries can make up a large part of a pastor’s library. There are pertinent questions to ask relative to commentaries: Which commentaries? And When? The second question is easier to answer.

When to Buy

My recommendation is that you hold off on buying commentaries on a particular book until you are ready to begin preparing to preach that book. My reasoning is as follows: first, new commentaries are always coming out. That means that what is a really good commentary now may be superseded five years down the road. For example, the two top-rated commentaries on Genesis on are those by Gordon Wenham and Victor Hamilton. Both are a generation old. Hamilton was published in 1990 and Wenham in 1987. There are seventeen commentaries on Genesis listed as forthcoming, with several of them being candidates to replace Wenham and Hamilton. If you are not planning on preaching on Genesis any time soon, you are better off waiting to buy.

Second, for most pastors, commentaries can be a significant part of the budget. You need to ask yourself if you can afford to have several thousand dollars’ worth of unused books sitting on your shelves.

To sum up: my recommendation on when to buy commentaries is shortly before you are ready to begin preparing a series on a specific book of the Bible.

Which to Buy?

You’ll get different advice from different people on this. My approach is minimalistic. I recommend that you buy no more than five commentaries on any particular book. You should have one technical commentary based on the Hebrew or Greek text of the book. You should have one somewhat less technical commentary that deals with selected matters related to the original languages and that goes through the book passage by passage. A third commentary should be expositional, not necessarily dealing with the original languages, but explaining the movement of the book. A fourth commentary should be a pre-critical commentary, which would generally be any pre-1850 commentary. My rationale for this is that those commentaries are coming to the biblical material from a different cultural setting, and therefore with a different set of questions to ask of the text. This can make the pastor aware of some of the breadth of issues that the biblical text addresses. A good source for identifying these commentaries is Spurgeon’s Commenting and Commentaries ( Reading Spurgeon’s comments on the various commentaries is an education in itself. Many of these older commentaries are now available online at A fifth commentary can be something of a duplicate of one of the other four.

My own sense is that when you move beyond this minimum, you find yourself reading material that has already been covered in another commentary.

What Not To Buy

Don’t buy sets. The quality and usefulness of the commentaries in a set vary from one author to another. Commentary sets look nice on the shelf, but you end up with books you never use.

Don’t buy older commentaries that are available online. Yes, I know, that set of Keil & Delitzsch, or of Calvin, can look nice on the shelf. But they are available free online. Commentaries are for consultation and you will not be reading much at a time, so reading them online should not be too difficult.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

While I agree in the main with the author, I think he ignores having a basic commentary set on the Hebrew and Greek texts. While they may be dated, I recommend Keil and Delisch for the Hebrew text and The Greek New Testament, Williamson's or Lenski's for the Greek text.