On Expository Commentaries

Here is some useful info on recommended expository commentaries:

‘Bill, you did it again: you picked a topic hardly anyone will be interested in!’ Yes I know. But for that rather small audience out there who may be interested, this piece might be of some benefit. Those who like biblical studies, the Old Testament, the New Testament, and especially biblical commentaries, will hopefully find this piece useful.

My plan is to talk about commentaries in general, and also talk a bit about myself as well. Let me begin with the latter. Early on after my conversion experience back in 1971 I realised that I had the gift of teaching. I have long loved to read, study, and learn, and I also love to share that knowledge and understanding with others.

And to love the Word of God should mean that you love others who do so as well, and that would include all the preachers, teachers and commentators over the centuries who have helped to elucidate and explain the Bible. Some Christians eschew commentaries and the like, but as I have discussed elsewhere, I think they are mistaken in doing so: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2010/07/14/who-needs-commentaries/

That piece discusses why commentaries are so helpful and so useful in assisting us to understand and even apply the biblical text. And in a related article I discuss the differing commentaries and commentary series that you should be aware of, and which are the best from a more or less conservative and evangelical perspective: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2010/07/14/how-to-pick-a-good-commentary/

Getting back to my personal story, early on I started to buy and enjoy commentaries. But my focus at first was a bit narrow, reflecting the theological tradition I had gotten involved in. Thus with a strong leaning to premil dispensational theology earlier on in my Christian walk, I tended to get commentaries such as John Walvoord’s on Daniel and Revelation, or even things like Clarence Larkin on Daniel.

But as I matured theologically and widened my interests a bit, I got many more commentaries from various persuasions. Thus while at a Christian college in Chicago in 1976 I bought the entire Tyndale Old and New Testament paperback commentary series.

I also started getting many in the NICOT/NICNT series, and the Word commentaries, and from other evangelical and conservative sets. For quite a while there I was especially keen on the more scholarly, academic and critical commentaries, and tended to avoid the overly devotional ones.  

Therefore large 600-, 800- and even 1000-page commentaries came to be the norm for me. They depleted both my wallet and my available bookcase space, however. And while I still steer toward those sorts of commentaries, I have found them of late to sometimes be a bit deficient in some areas.

Some of course will have little or no devotional aspects, or application, which may be fair enough, but sometimes they are so taken up with critical matters (textual, philological and linguistic issues, exegetical minutia, and detailed examinations of extra-biblical literature and the like) that they can be all rather bare in theology.

It seems a good commentary should include both. Some of the very fine scholarly commentaries just seem to be too thin on getting across the books’ actual theological message. If I may, I might put commentaries like Wanamaker on Thessalonians and Ellingworth on Hebrews (both in the NIGTC series) in this camp. Indeed, most Christian readers would likely find themselves being left rather high and dry by such volumes.

Sure, the serious student and specialist will want commentaries like this, but the average pastor and Bible teacher or serious Christian will want something that is also more theological, and even devotional. And that is where I have been especially moving to over the past few years. While I will always appreciate the more academic and critical commentaries, more and more I am desiring good expository commentaries.

Before discussing those sorts of commentaries, let me close my personal story this way: For those keen on the numbers, out of my library of over 7000 volumes, a good 770 or so are commentaries, or well over ten per cent of all my books. If one thinks that is a bit much, recall that the Bible is actually made up of 66 different books – so that works out to around a dozen commentaries per biblical book!

Expository commentary sets

For those not familiar with the term “expository,” it simply means to explain, expound on, or set forth something. So a biblical book is carefully explained or expounded on in such commentaries, and they are usually based on a series of expository sermons. I discuss this importance of such preaching here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2010/07/25/on-expository-preaching/

These sorts of commentaries seek to give the full flow and thought of a particular biblical book, picking up on plenty of detail along the way. But they are not necessarily exegetical commentaries as such, at least in the sense of commenting on every single verse and phrase. Instead they may deal with a unit of text, a passage, or a pericope.

As I say, I am increasingly gravitating toward expository commentaries. Of course anyone who knows me realises I already have some clear favourites here. Anything by “The Doctor,” Martyn Lloyd-Jones obviously comes to mind, including his 14-volume classic on Romans, and his 8-volume set on Ephesians. See this write-up for example: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2013/02/27/5000-pages-on-romans-by-the-doctor/

While there are a number of commentary series that include exegesis with application, such as the NIVAC series, or the Life Application Bible Commentary series, or the Expositor’s Bible Commentary series – along with a number of newer sets now appearing – there are two series of expository commentaries that are especially well worth being aware of.

These are the Preaching the Word series (PTW) and the Reformed Expository Commentary series (REC). These two sets I really do quite like and I use them now quite often – often as my first port of call. Let me speak a bit more to each one.

Preaching the Word series (Crossway)

Image of Revelation (Reformed Expository Commentaries)
Revelation (Reformed Expository Commentaries) by Phillips, Richard D. (Author) Amazon logo

I have around 30 of these volumes, which is a good majority of the current volumes in this series. The series is edited by R. Kent Hughes, who was the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois for 27 years. He has also written many of these commentaries. I believe that when I was a student at Wheaton College back in the mid-80s I may have attended his church a few times.

The late, great J. I. Packer has said this about the series: “Throughout the Christian centuries, working pastors have been proving themselves to be the best of all Bible expositors. Kent Hughes stands in this great tradition, and his exciting expositions uphold it worthily.”

A very short video by Hughes explaining the rationale of the series can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pv3iokpjTho

Reformed Expository Commentary series (P&R)

I have almost all of these commentaries (around 35 volumes so far). As the series title makes clear, these volumes are mainly those from a Reformed perspective. But regardless of one’s theological persuasions, there is plenty of value to be found in these books.

Richard Phillips and Philip Graham Ryken are the series editors, while Iain Duguid is the Old Testament Editor and Daniel Doriani is New Testament editor. Some of these volumes I have found to be very good indeed, and like the PTW series, the books are based on actual preached sermons by pastor-scholars.

Al Mohler said this about the REC volumes: “A rare combination of biblical insight, theological substance, and pastoral application.” And R. Kent Hughes stated, “Here, rigorous expository methodology, nuanced biblical theology, and pastoral passion combine.”

One final thing can be mentioned about this series: the 2011 volume on Acts written by Derek W. H. Thomas was pulled by the publisher a while ago after it was found that some unintentional plagiarism may have occurred. It is still a good commentary, and it can still be found in some second-hand bookshops.

So for those who want commentaries that are scholarly, theological and expository, I can highly recommend these two sets. There would be other such sets as I said, but these two are a great place to begin. Happy reading and happy study!

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11 Replies to “On Expository Commentaries”

  1. Thank you Bill for sharing these resources. I’m working my way through the Word now (up to Jeremiah) and, admittedly, am scratching my head a lot. But your article here is timely, as I have been using an online resource, ‘Biblehub’ that offers a number of commentaries and grown to appreciate the value of these…so, as said, I will take your advice and look into those you have mentioned above.
    Ron Adams

  2. Thanks Bill, sometimes it’s hard to know what resources are available and best suitable. (My brother-in-law is a relatively new Christian) – and to have options to point him towards his great.
    PS – I was at the CD prayer meeting the other night. Be assured of prayer support – love to see you again (not under ‘responsibility to be there’). Love ya brother!

  3. bestcommentaries.com offers a view on the range of old & new testament commentaries series (& other resources) that are out there. In many cases reviews are included.

  4. I have found ‘Expository Thoughts on the Gospels’ by J.C.Ryle very useful and enlightening.

  5. I have been reading and learning from the series “Preaching the Word” for several years now and find it wonderful! As I make my way through the various books of the Bible I am always inspired and blessed by what I read.
    I am glad to see you recommend them.
    Thank you, Bill.

  6. Thank you for your reviews and suggestions, and for sharing a bit about your personal journey with commentary reading, Bill. On my next visit to the book store I’ll check to see if I can find some volumes from the two series you have recommended here. I can get overwhelmed in the commentary section, so it helps to have some clear guidance.
    Much appreciated.

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