I have never met some of my best Old Testament professors. I know their names, but not their faces. Over the years, I have met a handful of them in person at conferences and seminars. Still, I have never spoken with most of them. Yet week after week, I have some rich conversations with them as I pore over Joshua or Proverbs or Malachi. They critique my thinking, challenge my conclusions, and sharpen my understanding. I thank God for these teachers who have written commentaries on the various books of the Hebrew Bible—what we Christians refer to as the Old Testament.
Pastors and Bible teachers seem to have an uneasy relationship with Old Testament commentaries, and New Testament commentaries, too. There are two extremes. When my twins, Anna and Ben, were in kindergarten, a teacher asked Ben if he could write his name. He replied, "No, but Anna will do it for me." Some approach commentaries in that fashion, letting these volumes do all their work for them. Others over-react to this approach and swear off using commentaries at all. This saddens me, except in one selfish case. When I was in seminary, I purchased a 25-volume set of Commentaries on the Old Testament by Keil and Delitzsch for $50 from a fellow student who was so committed to doing all of his own exegetical work that he proclaimed a permanent fast from commentaries. I was appalled by his approach; I was delighted by his price.
As a preacher and teacher of Scripture, I love commentaries. The best of them are friends, conversation partners, and guides. Yes, I discipline myself to do my own exegetical work before I consult them. But these commentaries contribute more to my understanding of Scripture than I can ever express.
So I was delighted recently when the afternoon mail contained a book I had long anticipated and recently ordered: Old Testament Commentary Survey, fifth edition, by Tremper Longman III (Baker Academic). I bought the first edition when it was published in 1991, and I have purchased every edition since then—1995, 2003, 2007, and now 2013. If you preach and teach Scripture and are not familiar with this volume, you need to be. It will save you time and money, helping you purchase or borrow the best commentaries for whatever Old Testament book you are studying. For each Old Testament book, Longman lists and rates the best options, using a one- to five-star scale. He also annotates his listing, providing two- to four-sentence remarks on each commentary.
As much as I love Longman's survey, highly recommend it to others, and hope to meet Longman some day to thank him for his labor of love, I did come away a bit disappointed after perusing the latest edition. I have no qualms with his ratings or choices. These reflect his personal perspective, and he says as much in the introduction to his volume. For example, I would give K. Lawson Younger's NIVAC volume on Judges/Ruth at least four and a half stars rather than three and a half stars based on its exegetical, literary, and theological insights. Personally, I would include Ronald B. Allen's fine commentary on Numbers in the Revised Expositor's Bible Commentary, and I cannot imagine leaving out J. P. Fokkelman's magisterial four volumes on Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel. But none of Longman's ratings or omissions bothers me. What disappointed me is that the volume was unnecessarily out of date the moment it hit the market. Let me explain.
I understand how publishing works, having released two books with the same publisher who issued Longman's Old Testament Commentary Survey. There is a lag time between the writer's final edits and a book's release date. So, of course, there will be new commentaries being announced or released between these points. However, I was taken back by the comments under Michael Fox's volume on Proverbs 1-9 in the Anchor-Yale Bible Commentary Series (which were exactly the same as in the fourth edition in 2007). Longman gives it five stars and writes, "The only drawback is that it covers just the first nine chapters. Hopefully, we will not have to wait too long for the rest of the commentary to appear." Uh, that commentary, Proverbs 10-31, was published four years ago—in 2009. I just pulled my volume of the shelf to check the publication date. I'm not sure why this update got overlooked.
It also seems that a volume that gets revised every five years or so could work a little harder at including soon-to-be-released commentaries. Longman actually does this with Hélène Dallaire's Revised Expositor's Bible Commentary volume on Joshua. So I'm wondering why Longman did not include Daniel Block's NIVAC volume on Deuteronomy. It was released in August 2012, and I saw part of it in draft form a couple years earlier. Longman did not give any commentaries on Deuteronomy a five-star rating, so I cannot imagine he deemed Block's commentary to be less significant than some of the others commentaries he lists. Likewise, I find it hard to believe that galleys or page proofs of Barry G. Webb's 2012 contribution to the NICOT series on The Book of Judges would not have been available for review in time for the release of the fifth edition of Old Testament Commentary Survey. In my mind, Longman's survey is so important and helpful to pastors that it makes sense for more effort to be spent on keeping each revision as current as possible.
Annual Commentary Survey
However, despite this flaw, I still recommend that pastors and teachers surf their way immediately to their favorite internet book distributor and order a copy. While you are surfing the web, be sure to check out Denver Seminary's Denver Journal for their "Annotated Old Testament Bibliography—2013." In this bibliography, M. Daniel Carroll R., Hélène Dallaire, and Richard S. Hess have provided a "commentary survey" every bit as valuable as the one provided by Tremper Longman III. In fact, because it gets updated annually, it will be even more useful in 2014, in 2015, and in each year that Longman's survey becomes more dated. The bibliography by the Denver Seminary trio of Old Testament scholars also includes recommendations on about every category you can imagine in Old Testament studies—archaeology, Hebrew lexicons, Hebrew grammars, history of Israel, Old Testament theology, and so on.
Some have found John Glynn's Commentary and Reference Survey (Kregel, 2007) helpful. But as best I can tell, it was last updated in 2007. I have not used A Guide to Biblical Commentaries and Reference Works, ninth edition, by John F. Evans (Doulos Resources, 2010), so I am not in a position to comment on it.
I am thankful for the Old Testament commentaries we have available and that they seem to be getting more useful for pastors. The more recent commentaries pay more attention to the literary and theological dimensions of the text than older ones did. Also, we are seeing more fruits of text-linguistic analysis in some of them (for example, see David Tsumura's NICOT volume on The First Book of Samuel).
There are a couple of new series to watch as well. One is the Reformation Commentary on Scripture (RCS)—a counter-part of sorts to the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series. So far, two RCS volumes on the Old Testament have been released. The first was Ezekiel, Daniel by Carl L. Beckwith, and the second was Genesis 1-11 by John L. Thompson. I have used both of these and found them helpful. Also, Baker is just beginning to release its Teach the Text series, and the first Old Testament volume—1 & 2 Samuel by Robert B. Chisholm Jr.—is outstanding. This series targets pastors and teachers. Another series to watch is the Kregel Exegetical Library. So far, one volume has been published: Psalms, Volume 1 by Allen P. Ross. The volume on Judges, Ruth by Robert B. Chisholm Jr. is due for release this mnth.
As D. A. Carson has written in his book Exegetical Fallacies, "We are dealing with God's thoughts: we are obligated to take the greatest pains to understand them truly and to explain them clearly." So the next time you teach an Old Testament book (which I pray is soon), make sure to invite three or four Old Testament professors into your study . . . via their commentaries. If you're not sure who to invite to the table, let Tremper Longman III or the Old Testament professors at Denver Seminary offer you some advice.