I wouldn’t presume to tell other lay preachers how to prepare their sermons, or how to use commentaries. But here’s the first in what might turn out to be an occasional series of posts on my own approach.
The best one-sentence defense of biblical commentaries I have seen comes from the excellent C.H. Spurgeon:-
It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others. (Commenting and Commentaries, p1).
There are four published guides I am acquainted with:-
1. Commentary and Reference Survey, by John Glynn, published by Kregel (10th edition, 2007). As a catalogue of biblical and theological literature, it is very comprehensive. It offers little by way of evaluation of the works cited, but it does classify works in the following kinds of ways: (a) there are separate listings for technical and expositional works (although the distinction between the two is sometimes slightly unclear); (b) recommended works are listed in Bold type; (c) each commentary is designated as ‘Evangelical’, ‘Evangelical/Critical’, ‘Conservative/Moderate’, or ‘Liberal/Critical’ (but this classification is based primarily on the authors’ supposed attitude towards inerrancy, which is rather limiting). It is overwhelmingly slanted in favour of contemporary literature. For Romans, for example, there is not only no mention of Calvin or Hodge, but not even Murray.
2. Old Testament Commentary Survey, by Tremper Longman III, published by IVP (3rd edition, 2003). This provides brief descriptive/evaluative comments on each work cited, uses a five-star system to indicate its quality, and identifies it as suitable for a Layperson, Minister, or Scholar. I would give this Survey 3 stars (out of a possible five) for usefulness. It not only ignores older works, but also neglects some contemporary commentaries too. The failure to mention the works by Dale Ralph Davis on the historical books of the Old Testament is inexcusable.
3. New Testament Commentary Survey, by D.A. Carson, published by Baker Academic (6th edition, 2007). Carson is, of course, a well-known evangelical scholar and speaker. His opinions are wise and well-balanced, even if – with so much ground to cover – they are sometimes expressed with such brevity as scarcely begins to do justice to the works being evaluated. Although Carson focuses mainly on contemporary literature, he does mention some of the older, classic commentaries.
4. Commenting and Commentaries, by C.H. Spurgeon, published by the Banner of Truth Trust (originally published in 1876). Especially in view of the general neglect of older works in the three guides mentioned above, Spurgeon’s work is invaluable. He has an amazing gift for summing up the value of a work in a memorable phrase or two. When evaluating works of lesser usefulness to the preacher, he gives reign to his celebrated wit. For example, of one set of expository sermons, he writes, ‘They will not make the hearers lie awake at nights, or cause them palpitations of heart through excess of original and striking thought.’ A commentary by one Thomas Pyle is described as, ‘a pile of paper, valuable to housemaids for lighting fires.’
More importantly, he expresses an infectious enthusiasm for the works of Calvin, Matthew Henry, John Trapp, and a host of Puritan and more recent commentators, and his comments on such works have kept the memory (and the reading) of these men very much alive in more recent years.
Of Matthew Henry, Spurgeon says, ‘He is most pious and pithy, sound and sensible, suggestive and sober, terse and trustworthy. You will find him to be glittering with metaphors, rich in analogies, overflowing with illustrations, superabundant in reflections…Every minister ought to read Matthew Henry entirely and carefully through once at least.’
Spurgeon recommends the commentaries of John Calvin as being ‘worth their weight in gold. Of all commentators I believe John Calvin to be the most candid. In his expositions he is not always what moderns would call Calvinistic; that is to say, where Scripture maintains the doctrine of predestination and grace he flinches in no degree, but inasmuch as some Scriptures bear the impress of human free action and responsibility, he does not shun to expound their meaning in all fairness and integrity.’
And Spurgeon is very fair. Of a book by a high churchman (John Mason Neale), he says, ‘These sermons smell of popery, yet the savour of our Lord’s good ointment cannot be hid. Our Protestantism is not of so questionable a character that we are afraid to do justice to Papists and Anglicans, and therefore we do not hesitate to say that many a devout thought has come to us while reading these “sermons by a Priest of the Church of England”.’