What Are Commentaries?
Commentaries analyze the Bible. To analyze something is to break it down into its parts and study those parts to get a better understanding of the whole. So, if a handbook surveys or introduces the parts of the Bible from a macroscopic or bird’s-eye-view, a commentary zooms in on the Bible and studies its parts microscopically.
Click here to see a list of commentaries that have been reviewed on Bite-Sized Exegesis, or else read on to learn about what commentaries are and how you use them.
Kinds of Commentaries
As with handbooks, there is a great deal of variety among commentaries, such that you cannot just assume that a commentary is a commentary is a commentary. The differences among commentaries largely fall along two axes: the first we will call “scope“, and the second we will call “depth“.
“Scope” refers to how much of the Bible is being covered within a given book. There are commentaries that cover the whole Bible in a single volume. And we might say that these kinds of commentaries have a broad scope. On the other hand, there are commentaries that cover only one book or even a portion of one book of the Bible in a single volume. These, we could say, have a narrow scope. And, it turns out, there are various scopes of commentary in between these two extremes.
Lesser Depth or “Devotional” Commentaries
“Depth“, refers to how closely the text is analyzed. On the one hand, there are commentaries with lesser depth. The purpose of these commentaries is to explain the contemporary relevance of a biblical text or its devotional significance. Because of this we call commentaries with lesser depth “devotional” commentaries. Now “lesser depth” does not mean “shallow”, since sometimes these little commentaries can be pretty profound. What I mean by lesser depth is that they will generally focus just on the English text with minimal engagement of Hebrew and Greek. There will also often be minimal engagement with history and archeology. The theological reflection may or may not be especially systematic. Reading a devotional commentary is often a lot like going to a Sunday School class taught by a retired minister or an elder in the church. Some devotional commentaries are even formatted in such a way that they can be broken down into daily readings, much like a daily devotional.
Good examples of this kind of commentary include:
- Warren Wiersbe’s “Be” series
- J. Vernon McGee’s “Thru the Bible” series
- The “Bible Speaks Today” series
- “The New Daily Study Bible”
Middle Depth or “Expository” Commentaries
Commentaries with a mid-level depth will deal primarily with the English text, but you’ll start to find discussion of Hebrew and Greek vocabulary and syntax where it is relevant. There will be a great deal more history, and there is a significant effort to assimilate the biblical text’s theological content with some larger system, to identify the contribution of the text’s theology to a larger biblical or systematic theology.
One other really important feature of commentaries of this depth and those deeper is the inclusion of bibliographies and footnotes. This is not to be overlooked, because this is a big part of how these commentaries act as a tool to help you study rather than just someone telling you what the Bible means.
All of these characteristics are motivated by one of the most important purposes of a mid-level commentary, which is to help ministers and teachers develop sermons and lessons. A sermon whose primary intent is to explain a single biblical passage is called an expository sermon. This is why we sometimes call mid-level commentaries “expository” commentaries – they perform an exposition of the text and can help the reader to develop an expository lesson or sermon.
One volume, whole Bible commentaries by a single author tend to be partially devotional, partially expository, because they are intended to be used by laity and by Bible teachers. Some typical examples of expository commentary series that you’ll find in Christian bookstores include:
- The Holman Old and New Testament Commentary series (HOTC and HNTC)
- The “New Cambridge Bible Commentary” series
- The “Expositor’s Bible Commentary”
- John MacArthur’s New Testament Commentary series
- The “New International Version Application Commentary” series (NIVAC)
- The “New American Commentary” series (NAC).
Some of these series in their best volumes actually have characteristics of both “expository” and “exegetical” commentaries.
Greater Depth or “Exegetical” Commentaries
Finally, on the deep end of the depth axis we have commentaries that deal primarily or even exclusively with the text in its original language and historical context. The purpose of these commentaries is to produce accurate translations and interpretations of biblical texts. Because of this, we refer to greater depth commentaries as “exegetical” commentaries. “Exegetical” is an adjective connected to the word “exegesis”, which is a highfalutin word you might have seen somewhere on this site. It means the critical interpretation or explanation of a text.
There are way more exegetical commentaries out there than we have time to even summarize, but I’ll pick out two that you might find useful:
- The “New International Commentary”, which is subdivided into Old and New Testament sub-series (NICOT and NICNT)
- Baker’s exegetical commentaries, which in the New Testament is called the “Baker Exegetical Commentary of the New Testament” (BECNT) and in the Old Testament is just called the “Baker Commentary on the Old Testament” (BCOT).
Even though these are commentaries are intended to be useful primarily to scholars, they still tend to be written so as to be accessible to non-specialists.
“Greater Depth” ≠ Deepest Theology
Now, you might think that because I’ve categorized “exegetical commentaries” as the commentaries with the greatest depth that they would have the most penetrating theological insight. But actually, that’s not necessarily true. See, traditional exegetical commentaries are concerned with the text in its original historical context. So while there may be penetrating theological insight, it is kind of incidental. The author of an exegetical commentary on 1 Corinthians, for example, will have been trying accurately to describe the theology of Paul without necessarily endorsing that theology or applying it to contemporary life. An exegetical commentary on the book of Esther may completely lack theological reflection except to note how the book of Esther reflected Jewish nationalist ideas or how it contributed to the Jewish religious calendar.
This means that you don’t automatically need the commentary type with the greatest depth. In fact, specialist level critical exegetical commentaries will not be of much value to you unless you are a specialist. For devotional study or for theological reflection and teaching, often devotional or expository commentaries are more useful. Generally speaking, specialist exegetical commentaries and monographs are the tools used by those people who write the devotional and expository commentaries.
So Where Does Matthew Henry Fit Into All of This?
Now, you might be wondering: where does Matthew Henry fit into all of this? Actually, a lot of the older “classic” commentaries that are included in Bible study software and online at sites like biblehub.com and studylight.org are probably best categorized as expository commentaries, or possibly as straddling the line between devotional and expository. These include:
- Matthew Henry
- Jamison, Faussett, and Brown
- Adam Clarke’s commentary
- Albert Barnes’ Notes
- many others.
Of the four named, Matthew Henry is the most devotional, while Barnes’ Notes actually have some mild characteristics of more exegetical commentaries. Spurgeon’s Treasury of David is thoroughly devotional, but you might find some inspiration for your sermons there.
Which Commentary is Right For You?
So, as you might be able to see, this tremendous variety among commentaries makes any categorization system inaccurate. In reality, it’s more like a spectrum than a set of mutually exclusive categories. You might also have noticed that there is a relationship between the axes of scope and depth: generally commentaries with a broader scope will, of necessity, have less depth. The reverse is not necessarily true: commentaries with a narrow scope can have any level of depth. You can have commentaries on Isaiah that are devotional, expository, or exegetical. For an exegetical commentary on the whole Bible, instead of a single volume you would look for a commentary series, with the individual volumes being authored by specialists in each area, rather than by a single Bible teacher.
So, what commentary or commentaries should you use? To help you with finding the right commentary for you, there do exist commentary and reference surveys. A commentary or reference survey is a book that will present a select list of commentaries, categorized by scope, along with a brief review or analysis of each commentary, possibly with a ranking system. In fact, this page with a list of commentaries reviewed by BSE is an example of a commentary survey. Other good examples of these that are in print include (click on the titles to see how you can purchase these from Christianbook.com:
- Commentary and Reference Survey, by John Glynn (not the astronaut).
- Old Testament Commentary Survey, by Tremper Longman III. Also available as an ebook.
- New Testament Commentary Survey, by D. A. Carson. Also available as an ebook.