Old Testament Commentary Reviews: Poetry & Wisdom Writings

Bible open to Job

Old Testament Commentary Reviews:

Poetry and Wisdom Writings

The Old Testament is made up of thirty-nine books that are traditionally divided into five groupings:

  • The Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy).
  • The Historical books (Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1/2 Samuel, 1/2 Kings, 1/2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther).
  • Poetry & Wisdom writings (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs).
  • The Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel).
  • The Minor Prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi).

Thousands of commentaries have been written about these books, 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. My recommendations are divided into the three most common categories:

  • Devotional/Introductory–the primary focus is application of the Word and growing in Christ. Lots of “how to” questions are answered.
  • Pastoral/Intermediate–these commentaries also contain application but are more information oriented. Some go deep into the history or cultural background of the text, while others pay more attention to linguistics. Lots of “what does it mean” questions are answered. Useful for any Christ follower and especially helpful to those who teach.
  • Technical/Advanced–primary value is to teachers and advanced students. Some technical commentaries focus on textual criticism (the reliability of the text), while others address linguistics (the text itself). Lots of minutiae. These commentaries contain Hebrew text (sometimes transliterated, sometimes not) and require familiarity with Hebrew to extract their full benefit, but even those with no knowledge of the language will find these commentaries useful.

Job

My recommendation for a devotional/introductory commentary on Job is by Francis Anderson in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (IVP, 1976). 318 pp. Anderson provides a brief but balanced analysis that considers both the text and the meaning/role of suffering. Well reasoned and easy to understand. The hardcover is out of print but readily available for less than five dollars on the secondary market.

My recommendation for a pastoral/intermediate commentary on Job is by Robert Alden in the New American Commentary (Broadman, 1994). 432 pp. Thorough and helpful introduction that takes a quick look at the book’s structure, date, author, geography, geography and culture, canonicity, translations, literary style, theology, and purpose. Alden’s verse by verse exegesis of the text is concise and usually helpful. Only twelve dollars or so on the secondary market.

My recommendation for an advanced/technical commentary on Job is by John Hartley in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 1988). 605 pp. Conservative and reliable, albeit a bit dated. Good introduction to this challenging book. Especially helpful with the theology and literary features of Job. Hebrew words are transliterated in both the text and the footnotes–very accessible. If I were limited to one commentary on Job, this would be my choice.

Psalms

My recommendation for a devotional/introductory commentary on Psalms is by Tremper Longman III in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (IVP, 2014). 479 pp. Longman does a great job of updating Kidner’s original TOTC for the 21st Century. After a brief intro, Longman considers each psalm under three headings: context, content, and meaning. A great introduction to the Psalms

Also recommended: Readers on a budget will appreciate Derek Kidner’s excellent devotional commentary in the first edition of the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (2 volumes, IVP, 1981). 492 pp. To avoid confusion with Longman’s replacement volume, IVP rebranded the earlier work as Kidner’s Classic Commentaries, but the text is the same, and Kidner’s old TOTC can be picked up in the secondary market for a few dollars.

My recommendation for a pastoral/intermediate commentary on Psalms is by Willem VanGemeren in the Expositors Bible Commentary, revised (Zondervan, 2008). 1024 pp. I do not have the revised version, but the original by VanGemeren (in a 1991 volume that also includes commentaries on Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs) has long been one of my favorite resources on Psalms. It’s thorough, well-researched, and accessible. If I were limited to one commentary on Psalms, this would be my choice. But that may change after I become more familiar with the new commentary by Bullock (read on).

Also recommended: C. Hassell Bullock in the Teach the Text Commentary Series (2 volumes, Baker, 2015 and 2017). 1200+ pp. I have only previewed volume one (Psalms 1–72), and the second volume is not scheduled for release until November, but this immediately went to the top of my wish list. Outstanding exegesis, robust theology, and lucid writing. The Book of Psalms is a target rich environment, and pastoral insights abound in Bullock’s commentary. The publisher gave these volumes the deluxe treatment (including beautiful photographs), so they are not budget-priced, but anyone who writes sermons or lessons on Psalms will love this resource.

I cannot recommend an evangelical advanced/technical commentary on the entire Book of Psalms, but Peter Craigie did a good job with Psalms 1–50 in the Word Biblical Commentary (Nelson, 1983, 2nd ed. 2004). Craigie’s death prohibited him from completing the commentary; the rest of the psalms are considered in volumes by Marvin Tate (Psalms 51–100) and Leslie Allen (Psalms 101–150). Tate also made some revisions/updates to Craigie in the 2nd edition. Tate and Allen are helpful with linguistic questions, but there is little in the way of theology and New Testament connections. Then there is the unwieldy WBC format to deal with. So my recommendation is to pick up the three WBC’s if you are a student of Hebrew; most pastors and teachers will find Bullock or VanGemeren (see above) more useful.

Proverbs

My recommendation for a devotional/introductory commentary on Proverbs is by Derek Kidner in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (IVP, 1964). 192 pp. I wish this was a fuller commentary, but Kidner provides a reliable and orthodox overview of Proverbs. Excellent for a quick reference.

Also recommended: Readers looking for a devotional guide should check out Ray Ortland’s Proverbs: Wisdom That Works (Crossway, 2012). 224 pp. Sermonic exposition that is warm, Christ-centered, and filled with insights and application. A great book to keep nearby when reading Proverbs.

My recommendation for a pastoral/intermediate commentary on Proverbs is by Tremper Longman III in the Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms (Baker, 2006). 608 pp. Well-researched and accessible, Longman has written a model intermediate commentary. His interaction with the views of other commentators provides a good overview of current scholarship on Proverbs. Filled with theological insights. There is also a helpful topical index of the proverbs. An ideal resource for teachers and pastors.

Also recommended: Paul Koptak in the NIV Application Commentary (Zondervan, 2001). 720 pp. This is more comprehensive than most NIVAC volumes, and some may find it overwhelming, but Koptak does a great job of explaining and applying the text. This commentary is written more for pastors and teachers, but all readers will benefit from Koptak’s insights and applications.

My recommendation for an advanced/technical commentary on Proverbs is by Bruce Waltke in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament (two volumes, Eerdmans, 2004 and 2005). 1353 pp. Waltke worked in Proverbs for 25 years before he wrote this massive commentary, and his familiarity with the material is evident. Extensive introduction followed by in-depth exegesis and many theological insights. Hebrew words are transliterated in both the text and the footnotes. Waltke’s analysis is scholarly but accessible, and if I were limited to one commentary on Proverbs, this would be my choice.

Ecclesiastes

My recommendation for a devotional/introductory commentary on Ecclesiastes is by Derek Kidner in the Bible Speaks Today (IVP, 1991). 110 pp. Clear and concise introductory study. Kidner’s specialty is Old Testament Wisdom Literature, and his commentary on Ecclesiastes is one of his best. Available on the secondary market for five dollars or so.

My recommendation for a pastoral/intermediate commentary on Ecclesiastes is by Duane Garrett in the New American Commentary: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (Broadman, 1993). 448 pp. (94 pp. are devoted to Ecclesiastes). Conservative, well-researched, and workmanlike. Intro is thorough and helpful. Terrific discussion on the meaning of the word, hebel (often translated “vanity”). This is the first commentary I reach for when I have a general question about a passage in Ecclesiastes. This volume also contains an excellent commentary on Proverbs and a passable analysis of the Song of Songs.

Also recommended: Barry Webb in Five Festal Garments: Christian Reflections on the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations , Ecclesiastes and Esther (IVP Academic, 2000). 192 pp. Webb is a highly respected scholar and exegete, but in this volume he presents a concise and clear overview of the Megilloth (scrolls), five of the Old Testament’s shortest and most challenging books. I love the way Webb distills the essence of each book in just a few pages. Indispensable, and just a few dollars on the secondary market.

My recommendation for an advanced/technical commentary on Ecclesiastes is by Craig Bartholomew in the Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms (Baker, 2014). 448 pp. Advanced students looking for linguistic help will prefer Seow (see below), but most pastors and teachers will be better served by Bartholomew. Thorough and helpful 84-page introduction. The text is considered in twenty-one pericopes. Excellent exegesis and theology. Bartholomew’s writing is both learned and lucid–a rare find in scholarly studies. If I were limited to one commentary on Ecclesiastes, this would be my choice.

Also recommended: C. L. Seow in the Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries (Yale University Press, 1997). 419 pp. Expensive and overly enamored with higher criticism, but advanced language students will want this resource. Pastors and teachers, not so much.

Song of Songs

My recommendation for a devotional/introductory commentary on the Song of Songs is by Tom Gledhill in the Bible Speaks Today (IVP, 1994). 254 pp. A comprehensive non-allegorical introductory study. Gledhill spends little time interacting with other commentators; he focuses on explaining the text, and he does a great job. Includes a study guide. Available on the secondary market for less than two dollars.

My recommendation for a pastoral/intermediate commentary on the Song of Songs is by Iain Daguid in the Reformed Expository Commentary (P & R Publishing, 2016). 216 pp. A conservative, well-reasoned, and exceptionally lucid analysis. Daguid provides solid exegesis and theology and has lots of dialogue with other commentators. Pastors and teachers will love this resource.

Also recommended: Barry Webb in Five Festal Garments: Christian Reflections on the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations , Ecclesiastes and Esther (IVP Academic, 2000). 192 pp. Webb is a highly respected scholar and exegete, but in this volume he presents a concise and clear overview of the Megilloth (scrolls), five of the Old Testament’s shortest and most challenging books. I love the way Webb distills the essence of each book in just a few pages. Indispensable, and just a few dollars on the secondary market.

My recommendation for an advanced/technical commentary on the Song of Songs is by Richard Hess, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms (Baker, 2005). 288 pp. Hess is an expert in Ancient Near Eastern literature, and this is the book to consult for deep background info. Outstanding exegesis and lots of helpful theological insights. If I were limited to one commentary on the Song of Songs, this would be my choice.

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