Commentaries– The Most Versatile Tool in the Box

Bible study tools part 3

Bible Study Tools: Part 3

Thousands of commentaries have been written about the Bible, and it’s easy to become confused because these resources are written to various audiences. Choosing the “best” will depend upon the kind of analysis you desire. Commentaries are often divided into three categories:

  • Devotional–target audience is everyday Christians; most devotional commentaries are introductory level and designed to help readers better understand God’s Word and how to apply it.

  • Pastoral–target audience is pastors, teachers and students; most are intermediate level and designed to help teachers better understand and communicate Bible truths.

  • Technical–target audience is pastors, teachers, and students; advanced level with various sub-categories (e.g., textual criticism); some require a basic knowledge of Hebrew and/or Koine Greek.

Most commentaries fall into one of these three categories. A second distinction is depth. Some commentaries cover the entire Bible in one volume, while others devote four volumes to analyzing one book of the Bible.

Best one-volume commentary on the Bible?
Adequately surveying the Bible in one volume is impossible, but two that make an admirable attempt are the New Bible Commentary (IVP) and the Believer’s Bible Commentary (Nelson). Both are a combination of devotional and pastoral insights. The abridged two-volume Expositors Bible Commentary (Zondervan) is also valued by many. I can only recommend these brief commentaries to people (like me) who prefer their Bible to be without notes; for most folks, contemporary study Bibles provide enough information to make single volume commentaries unnecessary.

Best commentary set?
Multi-volume sets look nice on the library shelf, but most sets are written by numerous authors and vary in quality from book to book. Below are the most popular sets in each category and a few comments.

Devotional commentary sets, Old Testament:

  • Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (TOTC), IVP. A classic set that provides concise but valuable insights. Consistent quality. Highly recommended. I frequently see volumes from this series in used book stores for a dollar or two. Grab any of these you can find for a good price. You will not be disappointed.

  • NIV Application Commentary (NIVAC) Zondervan. Designed for teachers and preachers, but any follower of Jesus will find them useful. Some entries are outstanding (Exodus, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Malachi); others are less valuable.

  • Bible Speaks Today (BST), IVP. A few strong entries, but not enough to warrant the purchase of the entire set. Exodus, Leviticus, Ruth, Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea and Zechariah are very good.

Devotional commentary sets, New Testament:

  • Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (TNTC) IVP. Much weaker than Tyndale’s Old Testament set. You can cherry pick this set, but the pickings are slim. Luke, Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, and 1–3 John are good.

  • NIV Application Commentary (NIVAC) Zondervan. Another set that is inferior to its Old Testament counterpart. Matthew, 1 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, Hebrews, 2 Peter, Jude, and Revelation are good.

  • Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary (ZIBBC), 4 volumes, Zondervan. I love this set, but it is a specialized commentary and should not be a first purchase; the volumes address the cultural and historical setting of the text. Lots of photos and helpful explanations.

  • Bible Speaks Today (BST), IVP. Another hit and miss set. Acts, Romans, Galatians, 1–2 Timothy, Titus, and James are good.

Pastoral commentary sets, Old Testament:

  • New American Commentary (NAC), Broadman. A set of exceptional quality and consistency. Advanced students, teachers, and pastors will find much of value. Try to purchase the entire NAC Old Testament set on sale.

  • Expositors Bible Commentary, revised 2012 (EBCr), Zondervan. Cherry pick this set. Genesis, 1–2 Samuel, and Psalms are excellent.

Pastoral commentary sets, New Testament:

  • Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (BECNT), Baker. This series is almost complete and one of my favorites. The commentaries on Luke and 1 Peter are unsurpassed, and those on John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Philippians, and Revelation are very good.

  • Pillar New Testament Commentary (PNTC), Eerdmans. A newer set that is still in progress and promises to be one of the best intermediate commentaries available. The volumes on John by Don Carson and James by Doug Moo are my favorites for those books. PNTC also has the top-rated commentaries on Ephesians and 1–3 John. Other strong entries: Matthew, Mark, and 1–2 Thessalonians.

  • New American Commentary (NAC), Broadman. Some strong entries, but overall the NAC New Testament set is inconsistent. 2 Corinthians, Luke, and 2 Peter/Jude are excellent. Matthew, Mark, Galatians, and 1 Peter are good.

  • Expositors Bible Commentary, revised 2012 (EBCr), Zondervan. The commentary on Matthew by Carson is one of the very best on that Gospel. The rest of the New Testament set is unexceptional.

Technical commentary sets, Old Testament:

  • New International Commentary on the Old Testament (NICOT), Eerdmans. My favorite Old Testament commentary set. It is still a work in progress, but NICOT’s Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, and Malachi are the best technical commentaries available. Also excellent volumes on Genesis, Joshua, Ruth, 1–2 Samuel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, and Haggai.

  • Word Biblical Commentary (WBC). Exemplary scholarship, but many complain about the WBC’s layout. Nevertheless, there is general agreement among Bible scholars that the volumes on Genesis, 1–2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Lamentations, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, and Jonah are best technical commentaries on those books. Leviticus, Job, Psalms, and Song of Songs are also good. This set is especially useful for those who want to dig deep into the Hebrew text.

Technical commentary sets, New Testament:

  • New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT), Eerdmans. A work in progress that maintains the high standard of the Old Testament set. Top-ranked volumes include Mark, Acts, Romans, and 1 Corinthians. There are also strong entries for Matthew, Luke, John, 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1–2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, 1–3 John, and Revelation.

  • New International Greek Testament Commentary (NIGTC), Eerdmans. These commentaries address the Greek text, and some knowledge of Koine Greek is required to get the full value of the NIGTC. But the quality of this set is inconsistent. Commentaries on Mark, 1–2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, and Hebrews are excellent, and Greg Beale’s Revelation is widely acknowledged as the best amillennial commentary available on that book.

  • Word Biblical Commentary (WBC). My observations on the WBC Old Testament set also apply to the New Testament volumes–amazing scholarship but often difficult to follow because of the layout. Top-rated commentaries include Colossians, 1–2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, 2 Peter, and Jude.

I have several of the sets mentioned above on my bookshelves, but I never recommend purchasing an entire set unless it is deeply discounted–you can build a better library for less money by taking a more eclectic approach. You can put together a collection that contains the best of the best!

Next: the best introductory, intermediate, and technical commentaries for each book of the New Testament

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