Five Rules for Choosing a Commentary
God has blessed the church with many gifted writers and thinkers who are producing a plethora of good commentaries to help people understand the Scriptures. With so many commentaries available to Christians, how does one decide what is a worthwhile commentary? I realize that many people have their own ideas of what they look for in a commentary, but I would like to share five rules that I generally try to follow when choosing a commentary.
1.) Choose individual commentaries over entire sets. While the temptation is to purchase an entire set of commentaries; the better rule to follow is to buy individual commentaries as you need them. An entire set limits you with one perspective and are often not as thorough or up-to-date as individual volumes. I would also suggest you avoid buying a whole set of a particular series (e.g., Word), since these volumes are usually hit or miss in their quality. There are many excellent commentaries (part of a series or not) that would be missed if you purchase an entire set only. However, if you must purchase a whole set there are some worthy ones to choose from (e.g., Calvin; Kistemaker). I would recommend purchasing a one-volume commentary or a good Study Bible over a set if you want a commentary on the whole Bible.
2.) Become familiar with good authors and stick with their works as a general rule. Once you discover who the solid scholars are in the fields of Old Testament and New Testament studies, consult their commentaries first, but be careful. Some first-rate scholars can write terribly shallow commentaries that will leave you sorely disappointed. Moreover, some scholars may write the same commentary on a particular book for various series, but don’t feel compelled to purchase every commentary they write for a particular book because it’s usually the same material. Finally, if you are concerned with understanding the text from a redemptive-historical perspective then read the authors who teach from that perspective regardless of the series; however, be careful not to neglect other commentaries that may not agree with your perspective. For example, Darrell Bock is a progressive-dispensationalist, but has written superb commentaries on Luke and Acts.
3.) Choose commentaries that are balanced in exegesis and exposition. Some commentaries are heavy on exegesis (e.g., NIGTC) and some are so heavy on exposition that there is hardly any substance. I recommend finding commentaries that balance both. For example, the Pillar, Baker, and New International Series on the Old and New Testament are good at balancing both. There are some commentaries that are strictly exposition (although most do possess some exegesis) that are invaluable for preaching and application purposes such as the Reformed Expository Series and the Preach the Word Series. Again, I would find the good volumes of both sorts (exegesis and exposition) and if you can’t find a good combination purchase some solid exegetical commentaries and some good expositional commentaries.
4.) Purchase commentaries that are solid on theology. There are lot of commentaries that approach the text from a critical perspective (e.g., Anchor, ICC) and my advice is go with commentaries that are rich in sound theology. While the exegetical aspects of the text are extremely important (and even some critical aspects), I find little use for commentaries that are mostly interested in presenting theories and scholarly debates. If our goal is to understand the text and then convey the meaning of the text to the congregation then understanding the theology of the text is crucial. The same fault with critical commentaries can be found with commentaries that are heavy on application. While application is important we should want to understand the text and teach people the Bible, which involves understanding individual texts in light of the whole canon, rather than always trying to find an immediate application for modern day hearers. For example, the NIV Application series does a good job of trying to balance exegesis and application; however, some volumes are better than others.
5.) Buy Worthwhile Commentaries. This point is rather obvious, but what I mean here is buy a few select commentaries rather than many. Commentaries are grossly overpriced and so many are disappointing; therefore, spend your money wisely and only purchase a few good ones. Moreover, I would encourage you to purchase “large” commentaries. What I mean here is buy commentaries that have some substance to them. So many commentaries lack substance. I am not suggesting that the bigger the commentary the better (e.g., 860pp. is better than 160pp), but most commentaries that are short are short for a reason–they lack serious depth. In other words, shorter commentaries will always leave you wanting more. Now there are some really good short commentaries (e.g., Barry Webb on Zechariah), but in my opinion it is safer to go with larger commentaries. It is always better to have more than less.
As a final word of encouragement, remember that commentaries are wonderful tools to help us understand the text, but they are not the source or substance of our teaching. Purchase your commentaries carefully and read them regularly. Hopefully, this list helps provide a few helpful tips for purchasing these useful, but expensive commodities.