Old Testament Commentary Reviews: The Historical Books

Historical Book - Open Bible

Old Testament Commentary Reviews:

The Historical Books

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.

Joshua

My recommendation for a devotional/introductory commentary on Joshua is by Richard Hess in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (IVP, 1996). 352 pp. Hess is an expert in Ancient Near East literature and provides a wealth of historical background. One of the best volumes in the series and under ten dollars on the secondary market. Get this one if you are on a budget, or even if you’re not.

Also recommended: Readers looking for a devotional guide will appreciate the volume by Dale R. Davis in the Focus on the Bible (Christian Focus, 2000). 240 pp. A great read-alongside resource for Joshua. And like Hess’s TOTC, this book is a real value; it can be purchased for five dollars or so on the secondary market.

My recommendation for a pastoral/intermediate commentary on Joshua is by David Howard in the New American Commentary (Broadman, 1998). 464 pp. Howard, who wrote the highly regarded Introduction to the OT Historical Books (Moody, 1993), has written the premier intermediate commentary on the first of the historical books. Well-researched and thorough. All Hebrew is transliterated and technical comments are assigned to the footnotes. If I were limited to one commentary on Joshua, this would be my choice.

Also recommended: Robert Hubbard in the NIV Application Commentary (NIVAC), Zondervan. 656 pp. Hubbard’s commentary is more advanced than others in this series, but it is easy to read and understand. Good intro that discusses the book’s violence and the theme of Yahweh as warrior. Teachers and preachers will appreciate this resource.

My recommendation for an advanced/technical commentary on Joshua is by Marten Woudstra in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 1981). 410 pp. A golden oldie. Not much in the way of dialogue with higher criticism, which is a plus for those (like me) who are more interested in exegesis. Dated, but still the best technical resource on Joshua. Hebrew words are transliterated in both the text and the footnotes–very accessible.

Judges

My recommendation for a devotional/introductory commentary on Judges is by K. Lawson Younger in the NIV Application Commentary Judges/Ruth (Zondervan, 2002). 512 pp. Most NIVAC volumes are heavy on application and light on historical background; this one is more balanced. Younger’s commentary on Ruth (included in this volume) is also excellent.

Also recommended: Readers looking for a devotional guide may prefer the volume by Dale R. Davis in the Focus on the Bible (Christian Focus, 2000). 240 pp. The perfect read-alongside commentary for Judges. And given its low cost on the secondary market (less than five dollars), this should be in every library.

My recommendation for a pastoral/intermediate commentary on Judges is by Daniel Block in the New American Commentary Judges/Ruth (Broadman, 1999). 761 pp. Lucid writing, solid exegesis, and a reader-friendly format–this is the commentary I reach for first when I have a general question about a passage in Judges. All Hebrew is transliterated and technical comments are confined to the footnotes. Block’s commentary on Ruth (included in this volume) is also outstanding.

My recommendation for an advanced/technical commentary on Judges is by Barry Webb in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 2012). 575 pp. Webb wrote his doctoral dissertation on Judges, and he really knows his way around the book. Readable and reliable. Strengths are exegesis and a detailed introduction with lots of helpful info. Hebrew words are transliterated in both the text and the footnotes–a very accessible technical commentary. If I were limited to one commentary on Judges, this would be my choice.

Lagniappe: Teachers and preachers will also appreciate Webb’s sermonic exposition in Crossway’s recent (2015) Preaching the Word volume on Judges and Ruth.

Ruth

My recommendation for a devotional/introductory commentary on Ruth is by K. Lawson Younger in the NIV Application Commentary Judges/Ruth (Zondervan, 2002). 512 pp. Most NIVAC volumes are heavy on application and light on historical background; this one is more balanced. Younger’s commentary on Judges (included in this volume) is also excellent.

Also recommended: Readers looking for a devotional guide may prefer the warm exposition of Iain Diguid in the Reformed Expository Commentary, Ruth/Esther (Presbyterian and Reformed, 2005). 201 pp. Concise and filled with wonderful insights and application. If you are not familiar with this author, his sermonic expositions of Ruth and Esther are a great place to start. Both are exceptional.

My recommendation for a pastoral/intermediate commentary on Ruth is by Daniel Block in the New American Commentary Judges/Ruth (Broadman, 1999). 761 pp. Lucid writing, solid exegesis, and a reader-friendly format–lots to like here. All Hebrew is transliterated and technical comments are confined to the footnotes. Block’s commentary on Judges (included in this volume) is also outstanding.

Lagniappe: Block recently revisited Ruth in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament (2015). 304 pp. I have not read it, but I’ve seen some great reviews that say it goes deeper and is more technical than Block’s NAC, while remaining easy to read. It’s on my wish list.

Also recommended: 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 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 Ruth is by Robert Hubbard in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 1989). 331 pp. Balanced and thorough. Hebrew words are transliterated in both the text and the footnotes–a very accessible technical resource. Hubbard’s analysis is a bit dated, but if I were limited to one commentary on Judges, this would be my choice. That may change once I get Block’s new ZECOT. Be sure to check both out when looking for an advanced commentary.

1 and 2 Samuel

My recommendation for a devotional/introductory commentary on 1/2 Samuel is by Joyce Baldwin in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (IVP, 1988). 299 pp. Compact but theologically dense. Excellent quick reference and reasonably priced.

Also recommended: Readers looking for a devotional guide will appreciate the two volumes by Dale R. Davis in the Focus on the Bible (Christian Focus, 1988 and 1999). 550 pp. Perceptive and lucid. A great read-alongside resource for 1/2 Samuel.

My recommendation for a pastoral/intermediate commentary on 1/2 Samuel is by Robert Bergen in the New American Commentary (Broadman, 1996). 512 pp. My go-to commentary when I have a general question about a passage in Samuel. Bergen is especially helpful with theological issues and historical background. Easy to read and understand.

Also recommended: Ronald Youngblood in the Expositors Bible Commentary revised, 1&2 Samuel/1&2 Kings (Zondervan, 2009). 590 pp. I have not purchased this updated version, but my 1992 version is a balanced and well-reasoned analysis. I have read that the revision is slight, so you can get 2009 revision or pick up the inexpensive older version in the secondary market (the 1992 version consists of Deuteronomy/Joshua/Judges/Ruth/1&2 Samuel).

Also recommended: Bill Arnold in the NIV Application Commentary (Zondervan, 2003). 681 pp. Massive and filled with info that teachers, pastors, and students will appreciate.

My recommendation for an advanced/technical commentary on 1/2 Samuel is by J. Robert Vannoy in the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary (Tyndale, 2009). 464 pp. Scholarly, but balanced and accessible. Vannoy has spent a lot of time in 1/2 Samuel, and his prowess is obvious. Solid exegesis, exposition, and application. And don’t skip his extensive endnotes at the end of each chapter; they are just as valuable as the primary text. If I were limited to one commentary on 1/2 Samuel, this would be my choice.

Also recommended: David Tsumura’s analysis of 1 Samuel in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 2007). 720 pp. Emphasis is on linguistics. Students of Hebrew will appreciate this. Others, not so much.

1 and 2 Kings

My recommendation for a devotional/introductory commentary on 1/2 Kings is by Iain Provan in Understanding the Bible Old Testament (Hendrickson, 1995). 320 pp. Brief, but theologically rich. Provan is engaging, and he does a great job of explaining and applying the truths of 1/2 Kings.

Also recommended: Readers looking for a devotional guide will appreciate the warm sermonic exposition by Dale R. Davis in Focus on the Bible (two volumes, Christian Focus, 2003). 352 pp. and 368 pp. Great read-alongside resources for 1/2 Kings. This completes Davis’s series on the Former Prophets. Check out his excellent expositions of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, and 1/2 Samuel. All are budget priced on the secondary market and all are worth having.

My recommendation for a pastoral/intermediate commentary on 1/2 Kings is by Paul House in the New American Commentary (Broadman, 1995). 432 pp. Good theology and exegesis in an easy to read format. This is the commentary I reach for first when I have a general question about a passage in Kings. I recently did a study on the life of David and often turned to House’s helpful analysis. If I were limited to one commentary on 1/2 Kings, this would be my choice.

Also recommended: Raymond Dillard’s concise (184 pp.) entry, Faith in the Face of Apostasy: The Gospel According to Elijah and Elisha. Not a commentary per se, but helpful when studying or teaching about the life of these two important prophets. Less than two dollars on the secondary market–a phenomenal value.

I cannot recommend an evangelical advanced/technical commentary on 1/2 Kings. Linguistic help can be found in T. R. Hobbs’s analysis of 1 Kings in the Word Biblical Commentary (Nelson, 1985). More critical and less helpful is the volume on 2 Kings by Simon DeVries in the Word Biblical Commentary (Nelson, 1985, revised 2003). The revision is slight, and the 1985 version is available for under ten dollars, so budget-conscious students can have both Hobbs and DeVries in their library for less than twenty bucks.

1 and 2 Chronicles

My recommendation for a devotional/introductory commentary on 1/2 Chronicles is by Martin Selman in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (2 volumes, IVP, 1994). 274 pp. and 292 pp. A clear and straightforward exposition of the text. Lots of good background info and theology, but little in the way of application. Purchase this as a set; the intro to both 1 and 2 Chronicles is in volume one, and it is a throughly helpful introduction.

My recommendation for a pastoral/intermediate commentary on 1/2 Chronicles is by Andrew Hill in the NIV Application Commentary (Zondervan, 2003). 704 pp. The emphasis is on application, and Hill offers valuable insights on how Chronicles speaks to today’s postmodern culture. This volume is larger than most NIVAC’s, and Hill fills it with info that busy pastors and teachers will appreciate.

Also recommended: John Thompson in the New American Commentary (Broadman, 1994). 416 pp. One of the best intros to Chronicles. The rest of the commentary is workmanlike and reliable, but not very exciting.

My recommendation for an advanced/technical commentary on 1/2 Chronicles is by Mark Boda in the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary (Tyndale, 2010). 456 pp. Solid exegesis and perceptive theology. The extensive technical endnotes at the end of each chapter are as valuable as the primary text. If I were limited to one commentary on 1/2 Chronicles, this would be my choice.

Also recommended: Raymond Dillard’s analysis of 2 Chronicles in the Word Biblical Commentary (Nelson, 1988). 330 pp. Dillard is excellent for theological insights as well as language help.

Ezra and Nehemiah

My recommendation for a devotional/introductory commentary on Ezra and Nehemiah is by Derek Kidner in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (IVP, 1981). 174 pp. Brief but overflowing with helpful insights. A great introduction to these two books. Available on the secondary market for three dollars or so.

My recommendation for a pastoral/intermediate commentary on Ezra and Nehemiah is by Mervin Breneman in New American Commentary Ezra/Nehemiah/Esther (Broadman, 1993). 384 pp. Conservative, well-researched, and balanced, this is the first resource I reach for when I have a general question about Ezra or Nehemiah. Budget-priced on the secondary market.

My recommendation for an advanced/technical commentary on Ezra and Nehemiah is by H.G.M. Williamson in the Word Biblical Commentary (Nelson, 1985). 472 pp. Williamson’s analysis is dated, the WBC format is challenging, and the commentary makes more concessions to higher criticism than I believe are warranted, but this is my first choice for a technical commentary on Ezra and Nehemiah. Williamson’s grasp of the language is unsurpassed, and his “explanation sections” contain a wealth of sermonic insights. The Hebrew is not transliterated, but don’t let that stop you from considering this resource–an English translation is always provided alongside the Hebrew text. Pastors, teachers, intermediate students, and advanced lay readers will find a lot to like here, and if I were limited to one commentary on Ezra and Nehemiah, this would be my choice.

Esther

My recommendation for a devotional/introductory commentary on Esther is by Joyce Baldwin in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (IVP, 1984). 126 pp. Brief but full of helpful insights. Out of print but widely available on the secondary market for a few dollars.

Also recommended: Readers looking for a devotional guide may prefer the warm exposition of Iain Diguid in the Reformed Expository Commentary, Ruth/Esther (Presbyterian and Reformed, 2005). 201 pp. Concise and filled with wonderful insights and application. If you are not familiar with this author, his sermonic expositions of Ruth and Esther are a great place to start. Both are exceptional. Less than ten dollars on the secondary market.

My recommendation for a pastoral/intermediate commentary on Esther is by Karen Jobes in the NIV Application Commentary (Zondervan, 1999). 256 pp. Jobes is one of today’s best exegetes, and her analysis of the book of Esther is a good example of why she is so respected. It’s a balanced examination that explores both historical background and theology, and Jobes doesn’t avoid the tough questions about the heroine’s questionable morality. Her writing is lucid and engaging, and if I were limited to one commentary on Esther, this would be my choice.

Also recommended: 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. Only twenty-one pages are devoted to Esther, but there is more helpful info here than in commentaries several times larger. Highly recommended, and just a few dollars on the secondary market. I love the way Webb distills the essence of each book in just a few pages. Indispensable.

My recommendation for an advanced/technical commentary on Esther is by Frederic Bush in the Word Biblical Commentary Ruth/Esther (Nelson, 1996). 908 pp. More technical than other volumes in this series, this is the place to go with a question about the text. Bush has a strong grasp of the language and provides lots of linguistic help. The Hebrew is not transliterated, but there is an English translation alongside the Hebrew text. Intermediate and advanced students will appreciate this commentary.

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