1. Leaning on them too much.
The Bible student should first go to the Bible and dig out as much meaning as possible for himself. For this, he must get a good understanding of how to interpret the Bible. The equivalent of a Bible Institute education is the starting point to be able to use commentaries effectually and test them properly so as not to be led astray by any error that might be present. We deal with this in the course The Effectual Bible Student, which is available as a free eVideo at https://www.wayoflife.org/free-evideo/index.php
2. Despising them.
On several occasions I have heard people disdain commentaries, but I have learned to love good commentaries and I thank God for them often. I thank God that I read and understand English, because that is where most of the good commentaries are today.
When I was a young Christian, I determined to read and study the Bible alone and to forgo consulting any commentaries or study books. I did this religiously for awhile, and the Lord made it plain to me that I need help from men and that He was not going to give me everything by direct enlightenment. It is not that the Bible is insufficient; it is that I am only one weak man and can’t possibly know and understand everything without help. When I rejected the use of commentaries, I was left with my own meager resources, and though I have some gifts in understanding and teaching the Bible, I am still only a very man with limited ideas, learning, and experience when left to my own resources.
Any man who is honest before God will acknowledge that most of his knowledge and understanding is gleaned from other men. God has ordained this. That is why we start life as a child and are dependent upon parents and tutors, and even as we grow older, we remain very dependent upon the help of others.
God has given ministry-gifted men to the churches, and He uses them to edify the saints (Ephesians 4:11-14; 2 Tim. 2:2). If I were shut up on a remote island with only the Bible, I am sure the Lord would give me everything I needed for that situation directly through His Word, but that is not His normal way of operation.
I am thankful that some of the excellent teaching of past and present generations has been captured in print so I can possess it and consult it whenever I please. Such material is worth its weight in gold. It is priceless.
Many older commentaries, such as Barnes, Matthew Henry, Matthew Poole, Jamieson-Fausset-Brown, the Biblical Illustrator, and John Gill were written by men who were fluent not only in the biblical languages, but also in Latin and other languages so that they could dig out treasures from more ancient commentaries and translate them into English. For the most part, the ancient commentaries which were written in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Syriac, and other languages, have not been translated into English, and since very few people today read the ancient languages (and even if they did, those commentaries are not readily available), this material has largely disappeared from use. But by God’s grace many excellent thoughts from the ancient commentaries were captured for us by some of the older English commentators.
Some preachers seem to disdain books. I once heard a man say at a preacher’s meeting, “We don’t need more books; we need more preaching.”
That’s a statement of shocking ignorance. A good Christian book is simply good preaching and teaching in printed format.
While it is true that there are many heretical books available in the average Christian bookstore (and we have warned about that in our video presentation and free eBook “Dangers in Christian Bookstores”), and while it is true that we must weigh every book by the infallible standard of God’s Word, it is ridiculous to discount the value of good books.
The apostle Paul was a student to the end of his life. Even when in prison awaiting his death, he said to Timothy, “The cloke that I left at Troas with Carpus, when thou comest, bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments.” (2 Timothy 4:13).
“Bring the books” said the stalwart old warrior! “Bring the books” said the man whom we are told to imitate. “Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me” (1 Cor. 4:16). “Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample” (Philippians 3:17).
Men of God through the centuries have valued the written and printed page. Charles Spurgeon advised the preachers in his Bible College, “Sell your shirt and buy books.” He was talking about the value of good books in the ministry.
It has been said, “The man who doesn’t read is no better off than the man who cannot read,” and, “Five years from now you will be the same person except for the people you meet and the books you read.”
John Wesley exhorted a preacher friend as follows: “What has exceedingly hurt you in time past, nay, and I fear to this day, is want of reading. I scarce ever knew a preacher read so little. And perhaps by neglecting it you have lost the taste for it. Hence your talent in preaching does not increase. It is just the same as it was seven years ago. It is lively, but not deep: there is little variety; there is no compass of thought. Reading only can supply this, with meditation and daily prayer. You wrong yourself greatly by omitting this. You can never be a deep preacher without it any more than a thorough Christian. O begin! Fix some part of every day for private exercises. You may acquire the taste which you have not; what is tedious at first will afterwards be pleasant. Whether you like it or no; read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way; else you will be a trifler all your days, and a petty, superficial prayer” (John Wesley to John Trembeth, August 1760).
The revivalist preacher George Whitefield read Matthew Henry through four times during his lifetime. And this is a man who preached an estimated 18,000 sermons, an average of 500 a year or ten a week.
Charles Spurgeon, who has been called the Prince of Preachers, did not have a lot of patience with preachers who despise commentaries. He addressed the following statement to his Bible School students:
“Of course, you are not such wiseacres as to think or say that you can expound Scripture without assistance from the works of divines and learned men who have laboured before you in the field of exposition. If you are of that opinion, pray remain so, for you are not worth the trouble of conversion, and like a little coterie who think with you, would resent the attempt as an insult to your infallibility. 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. My chat this afternoon is not for these great originals, but for you who are content to learn of holy men, taught of God, and mighty in the Scriptures. It has been the fashion of late years to speak against the use of commentaries. If there were any fear that the expositions of Matthew Henry, Gill, Scott, and others, would be exalted into Christian Targums, we would join the chorus of objectors, but the existence or approach of such a danger we do not suspect. The temptations of our times lie rather in empty pretensions to novelty of sentiment, than in a slavish following of accepted guides. A respectable acquaintance with the opinions of the giants of the past, might have saved many an erratic thinker from wild interpretations and outrageous inferences. Usually, we have found the despisers of commentaries to be men who have no sort of acquaintance with them; in their case, it is the opposite of familiarity which has bred contempt” (Spurgeon, Two Lectures Addressed to the Students of the Pastor’s College, Metropolitan Tabernacle).
Spurgeon advised his Bible students to read the entire multi-volume Matthew Henry commentary set in the twelve months after they graduated from Pastor’s College. That’s more serious reading than many Independent Baptist preachers do in their entire ministries!
Spurgeon observed that a good commentary will provide new lines of thought to the student. Of Matthew Henry, Spurgeon said,
“You will find him to be glittering with metaphors, rich in analogies, overflowing with illustrations, superabundant in reflections. ... You will acquire a vast store of sermons if you read with your note-book close at hand; and as for thoughts, they will swarm around you like twittering swallows around an old gable towards the close of autumn.”
It is obvious that many men of God of former times were more studious than the average preacher today, and wiser about the value of good books.
For forty-seven years, I have had the privilege of accessing a wealth of commentary and Bible study material and delighting as new thoughts swarm around me like twittering swallows!
SOME TIPS FOR USING COMMENTARIES EFFECTIVELY
1. Commentaries must be judged carefully by the Scriptures (Acts 17:11; 1 Co. 14:29; 1 Th. 5:21).
A commentator is simply a Bible teacher, and no commentator is infallible. The wise Bible student will carefully test everything the commentator says by comparing it to Scripture itself.
It is important for believers to be grounded in the teaching of God’s Word before they spend much time in commentaries other than those that are the most theologically sound.
In fact, as already mentioned in this report, I consider the equivalent of a Bible Institute education to be a starting point to have the foundation and discernment necessary to weigh commentaries effectively.
Beware of the presumption of commentators who try to change or add to the Word of God or who ignore the plain meaning of Scripture.
For example, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown comments on Genesis 4:3 “And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD,” as follows: “Hebrew, ‘at the end of days,’ probably on the Sabbath.” In fact, there is nothing in the Hebrew to signify that it was the sabbath, and the KJV translation is perfectly fine.
In 1 Corinthians 1:16, Jamieson-Fausset-Brown comments: “It is likely that such ‘households’ included infants (Ac 16:33). The history of the Church favors this view, as infant baptism was the usage from the earliest ages.” In fact, this is unscriptural nonsense. Though Paul baptized “the household of Stephanas” (1 Cor. 1:16), there is no mention of infants. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 16:15 we are told that this household addicted themselves to the ministry. This could not be said of infants. It is not legitimate to build doctrine on the silence of Scripture. Doctrine can only be established legitimately upon a clear “thus saith the Lord.” And what did the Lord Jesus teach: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mk. 16:16). It is obvious that an infant is incapable of believing on Christ as his Lord and Saviour and is not therefore a proper candidate for baptism.
In his commentary on Noah’s flood, Matthew Henry claims that Noah sent out the raven and dove on the sabbath. He says, “This intimates that it was done on the sabbath day, which, it should seem, Noah religiously observed in the ark.” In fact, Henry, one of my favorite commentators, was letting his imagination run wild, for there is not even a hint of such a thing in Scripture.
In the comments on Malachi 4:2, “But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings,” the Bible Knowledge Commentary says, “The phrase ‘the sun of righteousness’ appears only here in Scripture. Though many commentators have taken these words to refer to Christ, the phrase seems to refer to the day of the Lord in general. In the kingdom, righteousness will pervade like the sun.” I see zero reason in the text itself or anywhere else in Scripture to accept this position. The Sun of righteousness can be none other than Christ. The pervading of righteousness in the kingdom will originate from Christ Himself sitting on His throne in Jerusalem. I will not accept comments like this that miss the point and try to explain away the plainest meaning of the text.
In the study of Jonah, the Bible Knowledge Commentary says, “The phrase three days and three nights need not be understood as a 72-hour period, but as one 24-hour day and parts of two other days (cf. Est 4:16 with Est 5:1 and comments on Mat 12:40, where Jesus said His burial would be the same length of time as Jonah’s interment in the fish’s stomach).” The truth is that the phrase three days and three nights can mean nothing other than three days and three nights! The situation in Esther has nothing to do with the matter. If Christ said that He would be in the heart of the earth for three days, that could mean one day and a portion of two others, but three days and three nights cannot mean “one 24-hour day and parts of two other days.” The Bible Knowledge Commentary has a lot of excellent comments, but we always have to test the commentaries by God’s Word!
In the comment on Zechariah 13:7, the Zondervan King James Version Commentary says, “The Lord will smite the worthless shepherd who leads Israel astray (see 11:15-17). In the New Testament, this verse is applied to the death of Jesus and the scattering of the apostles (see Matt. 26:31; Mark 14:27, 49-50). The context of Zechariah 13, however, has in view the final judgment of Israel.” This interpretation of Zechariah 13:7 ignores the plain teaching of the New Testament and the words of the verse itself. Jehovah God calls the shepherd of this verse “my shepherd” and “my fellow.” It can be none other than Christ. As for the context of Zechariah 13, all through the concluding chapters of Zechariah, the prophesy jumps between near and far views. The gap of 2,000 years between Zechariah 13:7 and 13:8-9 is common in Bible prophecy. Again, the Zondervan King James Version Commentary is very helpful in many places, but no commentary is infallible.
In Ezekiel 34:23, the Zondervan King James Version Commentary says, “My servant David is a ruler like David and from his line.” In fact, David is David, and David himself will be a prince in the kingdom where his son will be King. See Jer. 30:9; Eze. 37:24-25; Hos. 3:5. When describing the Millennial Temple in chapters 40-48, Ezekiel mentions “the prince” 18 times. This prince eats bread before the LORD (Eze. 44:3), the LORD being the Messiah. See Eze. 43:2-3. The prince will offer a sin offering “for himself” (Eze. 45:22), which is not something that the sinless Messiah will do.
These are examples of presumption and error on the part of the commentator by failing to let the Bible speak for itself.
2. The Bible student should know the theological position of the commentator.
It is important to know the theological position of the commentator, as this will usually be reflected in his notes.
For example, most of the most widely-used commentaries are written from an a-millennial perspective. As a result, they interpret prophecy allegorically and therefore falsely. This is true of Matthew Henry, Jamieson-Fausset-Brown, John Wesley, John Calvin, Adam Clarke, Albert Barnes, Abbott, Matthew Poole, and John Gill.
To help rectify this problem, we have published many of the old Pre-tribulational commentaries in the Treasury of Rare Dispensational Commentaries, available as part of the Fundamental Baptist Digital Library (www.wayoflife.org).
Most of the commentaries are written from a Protestant rather than a Baptist perspective and therefore err on the doctrine of the church, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. For example, on 1 Timothy 3:15, the Bible Knowledge Commentary says, “Paul was simply affirming the crucial role of the universal church as the support and bulwark--not the source--of God’s truth.” This is clearly false. Regardless of what position one takes on a “universal church,” it is obvious from the context that Paul is not referring to any such thing. The context is the church that has pastors and deacons, which can be nothing other than the “local” assembly. A “universal church” has no way of being the pillar and ground of the truth. What would it mean? How would it work? If the universal church is defined as all born again Christians, how do all born again Christians act as the pillar and ground of the truth, when they are scattered among many kinds of churches and hold to many different doctrines and have no practical association together? If the universal church is defined as all Christians and all denominations, as it frequently is, that makes it even more impossible that such a “church” could be the pillar and ground of the truth.
Most of the commentaries err on the doctrine of the preservation of Scripture and accept the heresy of modern textual criticism and the critical Greek text. And in many cases, they don’t even acknowledge that there is a textual issue. For example, The Preacher’s Complete Homiletical Commentary has the following comment on 1 Timothy 1:1 - “Our translation changes both the order and the language of the Greek text, presumably to be consistent with common usage. The title ‘Lord’ is not in the original, and the order that Paul used both times in verse 1 Ti. 1:1 was Christ Jesus.” This is not true. The KJV follows the Greek Received Text which reads exactly as the KJV reads. It is the critical Greek text that removes “Lord” and changes the order of Jesus Christ.
Adam Clarke, a Methodist, inserts infant baptism into his commentary on Matthew 28:19, even though there is no mention of such a thing in the Scripture: “But, certainly, no argument can be drawn from this concession against the baptism of children. When the Gentiles and Jews had received the faith and blessings of the gospel, it is natural enough to suppose they should wish to get their children incorporated with the visible Church of Christ; especially if, as many pious and learned men have believed, baptism succeeded to circumcision, which I think has never yet been disproved” (Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible).
Many evangelical commentaries today entertain liberal positions which can confuse and weaken the readers. For example, some evangelical commentaries and dictionaries give some credence to the view that there was a “natural” element in the destruction of Sodom and that the miracle pertained to the timing, or that the crossing of the Red Sea was actually through a lake or marsh, or that the backing up of the Jordan River when Israel crossed into the Promised Land was a natural event that has happened at other times, or that the judgments upon Egypt were party natural, or that Noah’s Flood was not global, or that Genesis 1 allows for evolutionary ages, or that the prophets were referring to pagan myths in passages such as Ezekiel 28:11-14.
Many evangelical commentaries also promote the unscriptural ecumenical movement. For example, The Preacher’s Complete Homiletical Commentary has this heretical note on Luke 6:38: “At the beginning of the ecumenical movement between Catholics and Protestants, I led a conference for a group of Catholic nuns. We had a marvelous week together, but at the final communion I was told that the priests had ruled I could not partake of the Eucharist because I was a Protestant. The nuns were incensed and delivered an ultimatum. ‘If our brother Bruce can't come to our Lord's table, we will not come.’ The priests were in a tizzy, but they reconsidered the matter and decided to break the rules for that one occasion. That was a long time ago, and it is unlikely such a situation would arise today. But it pointed out to me that God's law of love goes far beyond ‘keeping the rules.’”
Most evangelical commentaries quote from heretics with no warning. For example, The Preacher’s Complete Homiletical Commentary in 2 Timothy 2:3 favorably cites M. Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled. Peck is an exceedingly dangerous New Age universalist who believes in the divinity of man, and he should never be quoted favorably to God’s people. For example, Peck writes, “God wants us to become Himself (or Herself or Itself). We are growing toward God. God is the ultimate goal of evolution” (The Road Less Traveled, 1978, p. 270).
SOME HELPFUL ONE-VOLUME BIBLE COMMENTARIES
BELIEVER’S BIBLE COMMENTARY by William MacDonald. This volume by a Brethren Bible teacher is one of the best one-volume commentaries. The theological position is conservative and dispensational. The introduction states that the aim of the Believer's Bible Commentary “is to help produce, not merely garden-variety, lowest-common-denominator Christians, but disciples.” This is our favorite one-volume commentary. Believer’s Bible Commentary is available in eSword and OliveTree.
BIBLE KNOWLEDGE COMMENTARY. This practical and helpful commentary on the Old and New Testaments was written by professors at Dallas Theological Seminary. It was edited by John Walvoord (1910-2002) and Roy Zuck. We are sorry that this commentary is based on the New International Version, but apart from the textual problems the comments are generally helpful. Bible Knowledge Commentary is available in eSword and OliveTree.
THE CONCISE BIBLE COMMENTARY by James M. Gray (1851-1935). This is a Bible survey. Gray was a pastor in the Reformed Episcopal Church, a hymn writer, the third president of Moody Bible Institute (1904-34), and the editor of Moody Monthly. Gray was raised in the Episcopal Church but had a conversion experience in about 1873 while reading studies on the book of Proverbs by William Arnot. His testimony later appeared in his hymn, “Only a Sinner, Saved by Grace.” That year Gray left the Episcopal Church over theological liberalism and the Romanizing Tractarian movement and joined the new Reformed Episcopal denomination founded by George Cummins. He pastored the Reformed Episcopal Church in Boston for 16 years and joined Adoniram Judson Gordon in founding the Boston Bible and Missionary Training School, which later became Gordon Divinity School. He taught there from 1889 to 1904. Gray was very evangelistic, helping establish three new churches and working with D.L. Moody in campaigns in New York, Boston, and Chicago. Gray identified himself with the fundamentalist movement and was a dispensationalist. He was one of the editors of the first edition of the Scofield Reference Bible. The Torrey-Gray Auditorium at Moody Bible Institute was named in honor of Gray and his predecessor, R.A. Torrey.
EXPLORE THE BOOK by J. (James) Sidlow Baxter (1903-1999). This is a Bible survey course. Baxter was born in Sydney, Australia, but grew up in Lancashire, England. His father was unfaithful to his mother, and she left him in Australia and returned to England with her three small children when James was only two. His mother was loving and godly and raised her children in the ways of Christ. She was a police court missionary, working with down-and-out sinners in jails, rescue missions, and slums. She taught the people about Christ and believed the only hope for such individuals is Christ’s life-changing power and not social welfare and reform. She taught her children moral and spiritual lessons from her work, warning them about the danger of liquor and illicit sex, encouraging them to trust Christ as some of her “ruined people” had done. Once she knocked on a door and a rough man answered whose legs had been amputated above the knees from a recent accident. When he took the tract she offered, he glanced at it and with quivering lips asked, “Missis, did you pick this one specially for me?” The title was “Not a Leg to Stand Upon!” and he trusted Christ as his Saviour! When James Baxter was five years old and dying of measles and meningitis, his mother prayed earnestly that he would live and become a preacher. The doctor had said the boy would not survive until morning, but the mother’s prayers were answered, and the doctor declared it a miracle. As a teenager he continued to attend church out of respect for his mother, but he was handsome and athletic and popular and had no real interest in Christ. At age 16 he was converted after reading a sermon on Charles Spurgeon and attending an evangelistic meeting. He became a Baptist and attended Spurgeon’s College in London and pastored in England and Scotland. “He authored twenty-six books and ministered in churches, Bible conferences, and missionary centers throughout the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and around the world.” Baxter shows Christ through the Scriptures. He is dispensational. He defends the infallibility of the Scriptures against modernism (defending Genesis 1-11 as literal, Mosaic authorship of Pentateuch, Jonah swallowed by whale, etc.). His article “Our Bible: The Most Critical Issue” defended the infallibility of the Scriptures: “I have said it many a time, and am surer of it than ever, that the life and death issue of Christianity is the inspiration and authority of the Bible.” He spends considerable time on the typology of the Old Testament. In his notes on Revelation, he hints at the possibility of a mid-tribulation Rapture, but he is not dogmatic on it and passes over it quickly. He treats the first part of the book of Acts as a renewed offer of the kingdom of God to Israel, which we strongly disagree with. He presents a type of gap theory between Genesis 1:1-2, which we also disagree with. He also wrongly treats Ezekiel’s vision of the Millennial Temple as at least semi-allegorical. Originally this was a six-volume work. In 1960, Zondervan published a one-volume condensation.
EXPOSITORY OUTLINES ON THE OLD AND NEW TESTAMENT by Warren Wiersbe (b. 1929). Though Dr. Wiersbe is sadly committed to the New Evangelical philosophy, he is a gifted Bible commentator. His chapter-by-chapter Expository Outlines was completed decades ago when he pastored Calvary Baptist Church of Covington, Kentucky (1961-1971). That was before he became so thoroughly committed to the New Evangelical path he walks today (as pastor of Moody Church, associate editor of Christianity Today, working with Youth for Christ, board member of the National Religious Broadcasters, preaching at Willow Creek Community Church and at Billy Graham’s “Cove” center in North Carolina, etc.). The edition of Wiersbe’s notes published by Thomas Nelson is titled Bible Commentary New Testament and Bible Commentary Old Testament. The Cook Communications edition is titled Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines on the Old and New Testaments. Wiersbe’s Outlines are available for some Bible software packages, such as Olive Tree. Wiersbe takes the position that the kingdom was offered again to Israel in the early part of the book of Acts, but we do not agree with this. Expository Outlines is available for eSword.
GUIDE TO THE BIBLE by Harold L. Willmington (b. 1932). This volume contains the heart of the Bible school course developed in the early 1970s by Willmington for Jerry Falwell’s correspondence school. As for 2012, Willmington was still at Liberty University. We do not recommend this school, and it is sad to see men who should know better aligned with that type of compromise (hosting a Promise Keepers conference, promoting Billy Graham and his ecumenical evangelism, promoting the most radical charismatic ministries such as The Rock Church in Virginia Beach, promoting Christian rock, etc.). In his Guide to the Bible, which was first published in 1981, Willmington warned about “Christ-dishonoring methods used by some” and among these he listed “rock-and-roll sessions” (p. 50). Yet today he countenances this type of carnal methodology at Liberty and at churches associated with Liberty. Be that as it may, Willmington’s Guide to the Bible is a helpful volume. It is divided into two major sections: A chapter-by-chapter commentary on or survey of the entire Bible, and a section on Bible doctrine. The doctrinal studies are thorough and practical (though I have not gone through them carefully enough to note my disagreements).
HALLEY’S BIBLE HANDBOOK by Henry Hampton Halley (1874-1965). He was a pastor and Bible lecturer who was ordained in 1898. Halley memorized entire books of the Bible and frequently quoted these in churches. He desired to see every Christian read the Bible daily, systematically, and fruitfully, and for these reasons he produced his Bible handbook. The first edition was a 16-page booklet, but it continued to grow until today it is 864 pages. It has gone through 24 editions. More than five million copies have been sold in many languages, including Spanish, French, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Thai, Russian, Greek, Tagalog, Cebuano, Indonesian, and Romanian. It contains a wide variety of helps in addition to the survey on the Old and New Testaments. These include maps and charts; archaeological notes; tables of weights, measures, and money; outline of Bible history; and comments on reading and memorizing the Bible. Halley approached Bible prophecy from a non-committal position, presenting the literal interpretation as well as other interpretations, but he leaned toward the non-literal.
THE UNFOLDING DRAMA OF REDEMPTION by W. Graham Scroggie (1877-1958). Scroggie was educated at Spurgeon’s Pastors’ College in London and at the University of Edinburgh (D.D.). To his credit he was forced to leave two pastorates because of his opposition to theological modernism. He had a wide-ranging itinerant ministry throughout the English-speaking world and spent his final years as lecturer in English Bible at the Pastors’ College. His survey of the Bible was first published in three volumes. It has since been made available in a one-volume edition. Scroggie traces the theme of redemption through the Bible, showing how each book and segment of the Bible fits into the whole. The commentary is concise but rich in thought. As with many of the other commentators listed here, Scroggie was off base on Bible prophecy. His approach to Revelation, for example, is half-way between the literal and the allegorical approach. In my opinion, he ends up with little of profit from either system. He says, “If one makes a creed of literalism he may miss the enriching power of larger views.” To the contrary, if one does not interpret Bible prophecy literally he has no firm basis by which to interpret it. William Tyndale was the translator of the first English Bible from the Greek and Hebrew in the early 1500s and was put to death by Rome for his noble work. He said: “Thou shalt understand, therefore, that the Scripture hath but one sense, which is the literal sense. And that literal sense is the root and ground of all, and the anchor that never faileth whereunto if thou cleave, thou canst never err or go out of the way. And if thou leave the literal sense, thou canst not but go out of the way. Neverthelater, the Scripture useth proverbs, similitudes, riddles, or allegories, as all other speeches do; but that which the proverbs, similitude, riddle, or allegory signifieth, is over the literal sense, which thou must seek out diligently…” (William Tyndale, cited by Charles Briggs, General Introduction to the Study of Holy Scripture, pp. 456-57). The Unfolding Drama of Redemption is available in the Treasury of Rare Dispensational Commentaries which is part of the Fundamental Baptist Digital Library available from Way of Life Literature.
UNGER’S COMMENTARY ON THE OLD TESTAMENT by Merrill F. Unger (1909-80). Unger was professor of Old Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary for many years and his commentary on the Old Testament is packed with helpful comments. One reviewer said, “The book will be most appreciated by those searching for a true grace-oriented scholar who glorifies the Lord, not himself, in his writings. Words cannot describe how inspirational this work is. Unger’s pedigree is outstanding, his scholarship supreme and his style easy-going and understandable.” It was published in two volumes by Moody Press in 1981 but was out of print by the 1990s. A one-volume edition was printed by AMG Publishers in 2002. Unger’s Commentary on the O.T. is available for OliveTree.
UNGER’S BIBLE HANDBOOK by Merrill F. Unger (1909-80). One reviewer said: “The New Unger’s Bible Handbook is not a random collection of miscellaneous facts. It is carefully organized to form a commentary on God’s Word, with an introduction, outline, and discussion of each book and its relationship to the complete biblical revelation. It gives a comprehensive yet concise introduction to the Bible, including its historical and archaeological background. It provides a history of the formation and preservation of the Bible, an outline of the intertestamental period, pertinent statistics, a synopsis of church history, and a survey of other religions.”
WILLMINGTON’S BIBLE HANDBOOK by Harold Willmington. The heart of this handbook is a chapter-by-chapter commentary on the Bible, with an introductions to each book. The volume also contains many other helpful studies, such as how we got the Bible, archaeology and the Bible, units of money and measurement in the Bible, and ancient nations of Bible times.
SOME HELPFUL MULTI-VOLUME COMMENTARIES
THE ANNOTATED BIBLE by Arno Clemens Gaebelein (1861-1945), a fundamentalist Methodist, is a helpful commentary series that was published in nine volumes in 1913 by Van Kempen Press of Wheaton, Illinois. It is dispensational, and we have found many of the comments to be thoughtful and helpful. The Annotated Bible is available in the Treasury of Rare Dispensational Commentaries which is part of the Fundamental Baptist Digital Library available from Way of Life Literature.
THE BIBLICAL ILLUSTRATOR (1889). This massive commentary series consists of 34,000 pages of text in 54 volumes. It features quotes from a wide variety of preachers, including Charles Spurgeon, Alexander MacLaren, Matthew Henry, J.C. Ryle, and Charles Hodge, plus ‘lesser known authors published in periodicals and smaller publications popular in that era.” The editor, Joseph Exell (1849-1910), co-editor of the Pulpit Commentary, was assisted by a “small army of helpers.” This commentary is not dispensational. Prophecy is misinterpreted allegorically rather than literally. We would also warn that the Biblical Illustrator contains unsound comments like the following from the introduction to Ezekiel: “... the serious difficulties which the book presents are mostly due to the imperfect condition of the text. Of the higher qualities of Ezekiel's genius, the most striking is a powerful and grandiose imagination, which reveals itself in a variety of directions--now revelling in weird mythological conceptions, and at other times clothing itself in artificial realism” (John Skinner, Biblical Illustrator, Ezekiel). This is a direct and foolish assault on the divine inspiration and preservation of Ezekiel. The Biblical Illustrator is available in eSword and Swordsearcher.
COMMENTARY ON THE HOLY BIBLE by Matthew Poole (1624-1679). Poole was a Puritan. “He graduated from Emmanuel College in Cambridge in 1645, and succeeded the great Anthony Tuckney at St. Michael-le-Querne church. This was the only pastorate Poole would hold. A strict Presbyterian, he resigned his living rather than conform to the Act of Uniformity.” His commentary, which was originally called a “Synopsis,” required 10 years of earnest labor. He awoke at 3 or 4 a.m. and studied and wrote until the afternoon. His work was first written in Latin, and its translation into English was finished after his death. Poole’s commentaries are not as extensive as that of Matthew Henry, but the tone and approach is similar. It is a helpful, concise commentary on the entire Bible. Poole’s commentary was originally published in 1685, not long after the completion of the King James Bible. He ransacked the commentary material of his day, incorporating the best of it into his work. A lot of thought is packed into the concise language of this commentary. Charles Spurgeon wrote, “... having read Matthew Henry as I have, I would rather have none other commentary beside that of Matthew Poole.”
ENDURING WORD BIBLE COMMENTARY by David Guzik. Guzik is a Calvary Chapel pastor who has made his commentary available for free online. It is also available in various Bible search software packages (such as Logos and eSword). I only recently began using it, but I have found it to be helpful. It is dispensational and fairly conservative, though he accepts the faulty positions of modern textual criticism.
EVERYMAN’S BIBLE COMMENTARY. This 42-volume set is written by various conservative evangelical authors such as John C. Whitcomb, Roy Zuck, Charles Ryrie, and Howard Vos, and is published by Moody Press. It is dispensational, practical, and conservative, though the authors are committed to the faulty principles of modern textual criticism. It is available for Olivetree Bible software and Logos.
EXPOSITION OF THE OLD AND NEW TESTAMENTS by John Gill (1697-1771). The New Testament was published in 1748 and the Old Testament in 1763. Gill was a renowned British biblical scholar and Baptist pastor. For over 50 years he pastored the Particular Baptist Church of Horselydown, Southwark, London, the church that later moved its location and became known as the Metropolitan Baptist Tabernacle of Charles Haddon Spurgeon fame. His knowledge of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew was equal to that of the greatest scholars of his day, and he diligently searched out and studied ancient materials relating to the Bible. The Baptist Encyclopedia observes that “no man in the eighteenth century was as well versed in the literature and customs of the ancient Jews as John Gill.” Spurgeon ranked Gill fifth among all commentators of the whole Bible and stated, “He is always worth consulting. ... for good, sound, massive, sober sense in commenting, who can excel Gill?” Personally, we overlook Gill’s complete capitulation to the most extreme TULIP Calvinism and glean from the riches of knowledge he passed on via his commentaries. Gill is available in Swordsearcher and eSword.
EXPOSITION OF THE OLD AND NEW TESTAMENTS by Matthew Henry (1662-1714). This set of early 18th-century commentaries (first published in part in 1708-10) remains one of the most helpful in print, in my estimation. In some areas we disagree with Matthew Henry’s doctrinal position (e.g., his allegorical interpretation of prophecy and his Protestant universal church), but rarely do we regret having consulted him. Henry, a nonconformist Presbyterian pastor, was a master of biblical languages and a diligent Bible student who ransacked the old commentary material of his day to pass the meat along to us. He had a lovely gift for organizing and expressing his thoughts. He died before completing the full commentary, having finished his work only through the book of Acts. The New Testament commentary from Romans to Revelation was completed by 14 other preachers of that day, all dissenters from the Church of England. We agree with Baptist pastor Charles Spurgeon’s assessment of Matthew Henry: “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. You will acquire a vast store of sermons if you read with your note-book close at hand; and as for thoughts, they will swarm around you like twittering swallows around an old gable towards the close of autumn.” Spurgeon says that George Whitefield read Matthew Henry through four times during his life. All of this reminds us that men of God used to study the Bible far more diligently than most preachers today, and the evidence is the biblical shallowness that characterizes so many pulpits.
AN INTERPRETATION OF THE ENGLISH BIBLE by Benajah Harvey Carroll (1843-1914). This 13-volume set of commentaries on the entire Bible by the famous Baptist preacher B.H. Carroll was edited and published by J.B. Carnfill between the years 1913-16. Carnfill, who was associated with Carroll for many years and who taught Bible for more than 30 years at the seminary level, said that Carroll was “one of the greatest Bible scholars and exegetes living in the world today.” The Wycliffe Biographical Dictionary says Carroll “was a powerful preacher, keen debater, ready writer, widely-read historian.” Carroll pastored the First Baptist Church of Waco, Texas, from 1871 to 1899. In 1894, he became the Principal of the Bible department at Baylor University and was professor of English Bible there from 1901 to 1910. He was influential in creating the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1910 and was first president of Southwestern until his death in 1914. He published 33 books, including a volume on Baptist Doctrine and many influential pamphlets on such topics as “Communion from a Bible Standpoint” and “The Modern Social Dance.” Calvary Publications in Fort Worth, Texas still carries 200 of Carroll’s sermons in booklet format. An Interpretation of the English Bible is long out of print and is rare. Carroll’s commentary series is filled with helpful thoughts, quotations, and interesting and relevant illustrations. In fact, his gift of illustrating was nearly as fascinating as Spurgeon’s. He was refreshingly bold and outspoken for what he believed. Consider this comment in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 - “The custom in some congregations of having a woman as pastor is in flat contradiction to this apostolic teaching and is open rebellion against Christ our King, and high treason against his sovereignty, and against nature as well as grace. It unsexes both the woman who usurps this authority and the men who submit to it. Under no circumstances conceivable is it justifiable” (An Interpretation of the English Bible). Sadly, Carroll approached Bible prophecy from the allegorical perspective. He was also led astray by modern textual criticism, even trying to correct the Hebrew with the Greek Septuagint. Consider, for example, the following statement from Carroll’s introduction to Jeremiah: “There are more difficulties in the study of the text than in the study of almost any other book of the Bible. In the third century B.C. a Greek translation was made in Egypt by many scholars from the original Jewish manuscripts that they might have the Scriptures in Greek. That translation was called the Septuagint. From this it appears that the book of Jeremiah has more corruptions in the text than any other book of the Bible; 2,700 words were left out of the Septuagint Version, or about one-eighth of the book.” The truth is that the Septuagint was an extremely poor translation which has zero authority over the Hebrew. Carroll’s Interpretation of the English Bible is available for SwordSearcher.
IRONSIDE COMMENTARIES by Henry A. Ironside (1878-1951). These commentaries are devotional, practical, and Christ-centered. Ironside worked with the Salvation Army in his early Christian years, and he earnestly sought the “entire sanctification” experience promoted by the Army and the Methodists of that day. It was the turn of the century and a “holiness” fervor was sweeping across North America. The problem was that it was a false view of holiness that promised various degrees of sinless perfection. From this fervor, the Pentecostal movement arose in the early part of the 20th century. Ironside became so discouraged by his failure to achieve an experience of sinlessness that he ended up in a hospital with an emotional and physical breakdown. There God began to teach him the truth of biblical justification and sanctification through some literature that he found, and he was led out of the confusion and doctrinal error of the holiness movement. He joined the Plymouth Brethren and conducted a long and fruitful ministry as a pastor and Bible teacher. His experiences were recorded in the book Holiness: The False and the True. I have found Ironside to be especially helpful in the Old Testament prophets. Ironside held a literal pre-millennial, pre-tribulational approach to Bible prophecy in contrast to most of the well-known commentators. The Ironside Commentaries are available electronically in the Treasury of Rare Dispensational Commentaries which is part of the the Fundamental Baptist Digital Library available from Way of Life Literature.
JAMIESON-FAUSSET-BROWN COMPLETE COMMENTARY by Robert Jamieson (1802-1880), Andrew Robert Fausset (1821-1910), and David Brown. First published in 1871, this three-volume set is frequently critical to the Greek Received Text and the King James Bible, but it contains many helpful thoughts. Spurgeon said: “We consult it continually, and with growing interest. It contains so great a variety of information that if a man had no other exposition he would find himself at no great loss if he possessed this and used it diligently.” It must also be noted that the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown commentary is prejudiced against a fundamentalist position on doctrine and biblical separation. For example, in Romans 14 this commentary warns against “setting up narrow standards of Christian fellowship” and claims that we should overlook “lesser differences.” In fact, Romans 14 is only referring to matters on which the Bible is silent and is not talking about doctrine that is based on Scripture. The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown commentary also teaches that the believer can lose his salvation in 1 Corinthians 3:17.
KELLY (WILLIAM) COMMENTARIES (1821-1906) were published on most books of the Bible in the late 1800s and republished in the first half of the 20th century. Kelly was born in Ireland and graduated from Trinity College, Dublin. He was converted at age 20 and joined the Plymouth Brethren and became one of their most able preachers. He wrote boldly against a wide variety of errors, including Popery. One of his last statements was this: “There are three things real--the Cross, the enmity of the world, and the love of God.” The commentaries are dispensational and fundamentalist, and we have found many of the comments to be thoughtful and helpful. The Kelly commentaries are available in the Treasury of Rare Dispensational Commentaries which is part of the Fundamental Baptist Digital Library available from Way of Life Literature.
NOTES ON THE HOLY BIBLE by Joseph Benson (1749-1821). Benson was the most influential Methodist leader after the death of John Wesley. He was a scholarly man who was a master in the classics (Latin, Greek). He was a circuit riding preacher and edited The Methodist magazine. He devoted nearly tens years to writing the five-volume commentary. Benson’s commentary reflects his Methodist doctrine and is a-millennial, so that his understanding of prophecy is pitiful, but the commentary as a whole contains many spiritual insights and helpful quotations from other sources.
NOTES ON THE OLD AND NEW TESTAMENT by Albert Barnes (1798-1870), Frederic C. Cook (1810-1889), and James Murphy. There are 14 volumes in this invaluable set of commentaries. Barnes was a Presbyterian preacher and Bible expositor. He was brought to trial in 1835 for his rejection of the unscriptural doctrine of limited atonement. He advocated total abstinence of alcoholic beverages, was a soul winner, and promoted Sunday Schools.
THE NUMERICAL BIBLE by Frederick William Grant (1834-1902) was first published the late 1800s. It is dispensational and fundamentalist, and we have found many of the comments to be thoughtful and helpful. Grant was a Brethren preacher who was born in England but ministered in Canada and the United States beginning at age 21. Like the Brethren in general and John Darby in particular, Grant accepted the critical Greek text and corrected the King James Bible. Not long before his death he pointed to the Bible and exclaimed to a friend: “Oh, the Book, the Book, the BOOK!” The Numerical Bible is available in the Treasury of Rare Dispensational Commentaries which is part of the Fundamental Baptist Digital Library available from Way of Life Literature.
JOHN PHILLIPS COMMENTARY SERIES. This series covers every book of the New Testament and 17 of the Old (Genesis, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi). Written from a conservative, dispensational, Christ-centered viewpoint, the commentaries are practical and filled with rich nuggets of spiritual truth. It is one of my favorite commentary sets, and I only wish that Dr. Phillips could have completed all of the Old Testament books. At times he quotes unsound men such as C.S. Lewis and J.B. Phillips, and he seems to make allowance for evolutionary ages in Genesis 1 and “billions of years” in Colossians 1:11, but the value of his commentaries far outweighs the problems. Born in Britain, Phillips served in the British Army in Palestine until the rebirth of Israel in 1948. After the war, he moved to Canada and later to the States where he obtained a Doctor of Ministry degree from Luther Rice Seminary. He was assistant director of the Moody Correspondence School and also directed the Emmaus Correspondence School. Toward the end of his life he joined an independent Baptist church. He died in July 2010 at age 83. The digital copyright is held by WordSearch, and it can be purchased for OliveTree. On November 15, 2017, I was told by a member of the board of directors for John Phillips Ministries that his commentaries were published by Kregel “because they were the only major publisher that would agree to retain the King James text as the Scripture base.”
PREACHER’S COMMENTARY edited by Lloyd Ogilvie. There are multiple authors of the 35 volumes of this commentary, and not all of them are sound. For example, David Hubbard, former head of Fuller Seminary who weakened the school’s doctrinal statement on biblical inspiration in 1972. (See New Evangelicalism: Its History, Error, and Fruit, available as a free eBook from www.wayoflife.org.) But most of the portions I have examined are written from a “conservative evangelical” position (some more conservative than others), prophecy is interpreted literally, and there are many helpful comments. It is available in eSword.
SPURGEON’S EXPOSITORY ENCYCLOPEDIA by Charles Haddon Spurgeon. This is the only collection of Spurgeon’s sermons classified by topic and alphabetically arranged. The 750 sermons are comprehensively indexed. There are also a number of other sets of Spurgeon’s sermons with indexes. Spurgeon has been called “the prince of preachers.” The main problem is his allegorical interpretation of prophecy, but he is always worth reading.
THRU THE BIBLE by J. Vernon McGee (1904-1988). This five-volume set contains the messages preached by the late J. Vernon McGee on his Thru the Bible radio broadcasts. Though I was saddened by McGee’s New Evangelical compromise in many areas, he always gladdened my heart with his warm, Christ-centered commentary on the Word of God. I particularly recommend his commentaries on the Old Testament prophets, because he maintained a literal pre-millennial, pre-tribulational approach in contrast to most of the well-known Bible commentators.
UNDERSTANDING THE BIBLE BY David Sorenson (2004). Dr. Sorenson labored on this project for over ten years. He is a third-generation fundamental Baptist preacher who, in preparation for this work, read the Bible through over 200 times. He is a pastor, church planter, soul winner, church builder, and a widely-read author. Understanding the Bible was not written for academia but for pastors and Christian workers. Dr. Sorenson’s commentaries are conservative, practical, and dispensational. There is also an electronic edition available. Northstar Ministries 1820 West Morgan Street Duluth, MN 55811, 218-726-0209, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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