Best Commentaries on the Whole Bible
On Wednesday we looked at one verse — just one verse, the first verse of Romans. There’s so much to glean from the Bible when we slow down to study it phrase by phrase. There’s no substitute for writing a text out by hand and drawing on it and thinking and thinking and thinking over it. Such a practice echoes Paul’s words to Timothy to “think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Timothy 2:7). God gives us understanding through deep thinking. We covered that point in APJ 733. And then, Pastor John, you walked us through how you think over a text yourself. That was in APJ 1056. Those are a really helpful pair of episodes.
So we don’t run immediately to Bible commentaries. But there is a place for Bible commentaries in our study. And that raises the question today: Well, what are the best commentaries out there? That’s Sarah’s question for you today. “Hello, Pastor John, and thank you for your wonderful ministry and this podcast. I have not the time or space to tell you what it has meant to me and done in me, by God’s grace. My question is this. I’m 100 percent committed to The Discipleship Journal Bible Reading Plan. I love it and use it annually. But for the times when I simply cannot figure out the meaning of what I am reading, I would also like to have one commentary at hand to help. What is your favorite whole-Bible commentary — a resource that you would consult on any text in Scripture? Does such a resource even exist? If so, I have not heard you recommend it. Thank you!”
For years, I have resisted answering this question, for two reasons. One is that I’m so eager for people not to turn to commentaries too quickly rather than taking the time to meditate and think and pray and search the Scriptures on their own. I know that most people feel inadequate when it comes to making sense of difficult parts of Scripture. But I want to stress that even when you don’t know all that an author is trying to communicate, there is often something you can see that may turn out to be very important and precious, which you may not have seen if you let a commentary color your lens immediately by its interpretation. That’s been my first hesitation all these years to not put a commentary out there like that. I want people to pray and think and ask good questions and try to answer them for themselves before they turn to a commentary.
“I want people to pray and think and ask good questions and try to answer them before they turn to a commentary.”
Here’s my second reason that I’ve resisted answering this question, which I’m going to answer now: every commentary is fallible, including the APJ John Piper commentator. If I recommend a whole-Bible commentary for ordinary Bible readers, I could be so easily misunderstood to endorse whatever a person reads in that commentary, and that would be a mistake, and I don’t want that mistake to happen.
But the more I have thought about it, the more it seems that it will probably do more good than harm to encourage people to have a good whole-Bible commentary in their home, especially if they will take me seriously that nobody’s comments on Scripture should be assumed to be true without thinking carefully about the Scripture yourself. Even when I’m preaching, I try to show people how I got the meaning I’m asserting. I don’t want people to believe me because I say it, but because I show it, and that’s the way we should use commentaries as well. I had a wise teacher one time who said, “Don’t first value commentaries’ conclusions; value their arguments. Look for their arguments, their reasons that they give you for why they say what they say, not just what they say.” That’s really important, I think.
Three Whole-Bible Commentaries
With all that introduction, I’ll mention three whole-Bible commentaries and one whole–New Testament commentary that I have consulted with profit over the years. And by whole-Bible commentaries, I don’t mean a 61-volume set like the Word Bible Commentary on the whole Bible. That’s not what she’s asking about. The ones I will mention can fit into one big, fat (very fat) volume or three smaller volumes.
“Nobody’s comments on Scripture should be assumed to be true without thinking carefully about the Scripture yourself.”
And I’m going to leave out modern one-volume commentaries, because the only ones that I’ve used — and I’m limited — are simply too general. That is, they usually comment paragraph by paragraph rather than verse by verse or phrase by phrase or word by word, and the kinds of questions that I want help with usually aren’t addressed in a painting-with-a-broad-brush, one-volume modern commentary. This is a very narrow, limited recommendation, and here we go.
First, probably the most famous evangelical whole-Bible commentary is Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible. Matthew Henry was a British pastor who wrote his commentary between 1704 and 1714. He died when he’d only gotten through the Old Testament and up through Acts in the New Testament, and some friends completed it by using his notes. Charles Spurgeon, who died in 1892 — a pastor in London that everybody loves to read (I love to read, anyway) — loved this commentary, and he said,
First among the mighty for general usefulness, we are bound to mention the man whose name is a household word, Matthew Henry [well, that was true in 1892 in England]. He is most pious and pithy, sound and sensible, suggestive and sober, terse and trustworthy. [What he’s trying to do by all the alliteration is model Matthew Henry.] You will find him to be glittering with metaphors, rich in analogies, overflowing with illustrations, superabundant in reflections.
Now, more important than being pithy is being faithful to the inspired meaning of the Scriptures. This is a theological, devotional commentary. It tries to relate texts to the larger questions about God and life.
Now, I have open in my Bible-study layout in Logos two other old whole-Bible commentaries that I consult more than Matthew Henry, largely because Matthew Henry is dealing with big questions very often rather than with detailed questions. The reason I use these is because they all — these two I’m going to mention — deal verse by verse in a more focused, detailed way, while Henry steps back and gives you the bigger picture, usually with a great theological sweep.
But if you use Henry, you have to poke around in the paragraphs in order to find the very words of the verse that you’re working on, to find the gold that’s really there. In the middle of the big picture, the details are hidden away. They’re worth looking for.
But here are the other two. The first is Matthew Poole’s — P-O-O-L-E — commentary on the whole Bible, published in 1685. Its original title, typical of those old guys, is Annotations Upon the Holy Bible, Wherein the Sacred Text Is Inserted, and Various Readings Annexed, Together with Parallel Scriptures, the More Difficult Terms in Each Verse Are Explained, Seeming Contradictions Reconciled, Questions and Doubts Resolved, and the Whole Text Opened. I love titles that explain everything. Now, that’s probably my most common go-to whole-Bible commentary, believe it or not. So there it is.
Jamieson, Fausset & Brown
Number three is Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible by Robert Jamieson, A.R. Fausset, and David Brown, usually abbreviated to Jamieson, Fausset & Brown. Now, don’t let the word critical in the title — Commentary Critical — put you off. It doesn’t mean negative criticism. It means that among these three commentaries, this one would be the most oriented toward difficult scholarly questions. But even so, it’s quite usable by non-scholars. The authors were three ministers and professors in Britain, writing in the latter part of the 1800s. They wrote, in fact, in the front of their work, these words (I’ll give you a flavor):
It is a humble effort to make Scripture expound itself. May the blessed Lord, who has caused all holy Scripture to be written for our learning, bless this effort and make it an instrument toward the conversion of sinners and the edification of saints, to the glory of his great name and the hastening of his kingdom. Amen.
One New Testament Commentary
Now, let me mention one more, even though it’s only on the New Testament. But it is on every verse in the New Testament, and I consult this commentary several times every week, virtually without fail. It’s by Robert Gundry, who is still alive as I speak, and the title is Commentary on the New Testament: Verse-by-Verse Explanations with a Literal Translation. Now, truth in advertising: I have had serious disagreements with Dr. Gundry on several important matters over the years, and I never thought I would be recommending a whole-Bible commentary by him, but frankly, I find this commentary so useful that I would be a hypocrite, I think, not to recommend it.
In April of 2020, I wrote to Dr. Gundry. I hardly ever do this, but I was finding so much regular help that this is what I wrote:
Dear Dr. Gundry, notwithstanding any disagreements that we may have had in the past, I wanted to encourage you and thank God for your one-volume commentary on the New Testament. I am finding it both exegetically illuminating and spiritually refreshing, largely because of your disciplined, unashamed, assiduous attention to the details of the very text with straightforward explanations. This is less common among commentaries than it should be — and among preachers — so be encouraged and rejoice in the Lord that your labors are not in vain.
With thankfulness and admiration,
So, there they are — four fallible commentaries recommended by one fallible podcaster. Test all things; hold fast to what is good according to Scripture. And may your love for the Scriptures and your obedience to them grow because of your study.