Let a Commentary Be Your Guide (3)

Mark Minnick

This article follows on an article “That Glorious Company: The Commentators!” published in three parts, here, here and here.

This article is likewise published in three parts. This is part three, part one is here, part two is here.

Dr. Minnick began this article by telling the story of George Whitfield’s discovery of commentaries and the training they offered him. He used this to continue a discussion of commentaries and their value. The first point he considered was the value of Contextual Analysis. The second value of commentaries was their Historical Analysis. Part threefollows.

Grammatical Analysis

This is the commenting that answers our questions as to what the text actually says. For instance, does what God breathed out actually say, “thou wilt not leave my soul in hell?” (Ps. 16:10; Acts 2:27). If it does, then exegetical honesty compels me to grapple with the almost unthinkable theological implications of the Messiah’s going to hell, but before I commit myself to trying to defend that position to my people, I want to know if the Hebrew text of Psalm 16 actually says this. Here, then, is a sample of the kind of commentating I find valuable.

He does not say “leave in” but “to”, i.e. abandon to, give up to the dominion or possession of another. The same Hebrew phrase occurs, with the same sense, in Lev. xix.10, Job xxxix. 14, and in Ps. xlix. 11 (10) below.—“Hell” is here to be taken in its wide old English sense, as corresponding to the Hebrew “Sheol” and the Greek “Hades,” the invisible world or state of the dead (Joseph Addison Alexander).

I like the way he distinguishes things from one another. I like his resort to the original Hebrew and Greek terms. I especially like the cross-references. This is an example of a commentator’s helpfully clarifying the meaning of words.

But in the New Testament, especially, getting an answer as to what the text actually says requires a commentator who discusses the inspired connections between those words. That is, he discusses syntax, or grammar if you will. Please don’t be offended at what I’m about to say, but it must be pressed upon those of us who handle the sacred text. No one can be completely accurate in his interpretation if he does not inform himself on the grammatical issues in the text.

It’s hard enough to be accurate, even after the most painstaking grammatical analysis. In many things we offend all. But the preacher who takes no trouble whatsoever on this point is unwittingly inaccurate. At the very least, he perpetuates generalities that obscure the precision with which the text speaks. At the very worst he does the kind of thing a student once did with that great text of Hebrews 2:3, “How shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation.” His homiletics professor asked, “How did you treat that text?”

The student replied, “I took the two obvious points. First, the greatness of our salvation. Second, a little advice on how to escape if we neglect it.”

What I find myself needing in a commentator is the careful analysis of all the grammatical possibilities. For instance, when our Lord commanded “Abide in me and I in you” (John 15:4), what is the connection between the two clauses? There is only one verb, abide, for both of them, but it seems nonsensical to us for the Lord to command, “abide … I in you.” A good commentator, such as D. A. Carson, will discuss the three grammatical possibilities too involved to repeat here.

Some of my favorite New Testament commentators who have given us this kind of analysis on more than one book are R. C. H. Lenski (whose Lutheran bias shines but whose grammatical discussions are often unexcelled), William Hendriksen, John Eadie (Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians), B. F. Westcott (John, Hebrews, and the Johannine epistles; G. Campbell Morgan said he would rather have Westcott’s work on John than a whole shelf full of devotional works on the same book), Frederic Louis Godet (Luke, Romans, and the Corinthians), Charles Hodge (Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians), John Brown of Edinburgh (Discourses and Sayings of our Lord, John 17, Romans, Galatians, Hebrews, 1 Peter; of Brown Spurgeon said, “Everything he has left us is massive gold.”), and, more recently, D. Edmond Hiebert (Mark, Thessalonians, James, the Petrine epistles, and Jude).

Furthermore, in addition to the word-by-word exegesis, the best commentators continue by relating individual phrases and words back to their sections’ primary themes. Commentators who fail to do this may hand us the fruit of a cluster but not a cluster of fruit. There’s an immense difference.

For instance, compare the opening sentences of these three commentaries on 1 Peter 3:5 and then 3:6—“For after this manner in the old time the holy women also” (vs. 5) … “Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord” (vs. 6).

v. 5 The words signify the women who pre-eminently represented the holiness of Israel’s calling, i.e. its “saints,” cf. Matt. xxvii. 52…

v. 6 The mother par excellence of the Hebrew race as a chosen people, cf. Is. li.2, which is perhaps our author’s immediate source. The occasion alluded to here is that described in Gen. xviii. 1–15, when Abraham told her that they were to have a child despite her age (Edward Gordon Selwyn).

v. 5 The appeal for proper adornment is undergirded by the example of godly women in the past… v. 6 From among those holy women Peter singled out one example (D. Edmond Hiebert).

v. 5 The second motive presented by the apostle to Christian wives to stimulate and encourage them in the performance of their conjugal duties is, that in doing so they would follow the example of holy women in former ages… v. 6 Sarah is particularly noticed as having obeyed Abraham, and as having shown her respect for him by calling him lord (John Brown).

In this example, Selwyn’s opening statements offer no explanation of the connections between either verses 5 and 6, or the unit of verses 5–6 and the verses preceding them. Hiebert’s first lines, however, succinctly explain both. Brown does so as well, and perhaps even better, by enumerating (second motive) the relationship of these verses to the entire thrust of the passage (wives performing their conjugal duties) rather than to only the preceding two verses (as Hiebert does).

This kind of help requires more pages from the commentator and thus more expense of the purchaser. Brown’s commentary, for instance, fills three volumes averaging some 450 pages apiece. But just as carpenters have a better chance of doing top quality work if they own the best tools, so preachers put themselves in a better position to clearly explain God’s Word when they put out the money to purchase and the time to read the best books.

To Conclude

What is it, then, that we are looking for in a commentary? We need a commentary that answers our questions about the text. We want it to answer those questions literally, contextually, historically, and grammatically. And if, in addition, it goes the extra mile and tells us what the text means (applicationally) by what it says, that volume would be one in a hundred and, as Spurgeon once said of some books, “worth selling your coat to buy.”

One other mark of a great commentator is his thorough acquaintance with others who have written before him. J. C. Ryle, for instance, gave 12 years to his Expository Thoughts on John. They included, as he himself writes, “a patient study of about seventy Commentators, both ancient and modern, of almost every Church and theological school in Christendom.” It shows. And as I’ve mentioned Ryle, let me conclude with his wise observation.

The conclusion I arrive at, after a diligent examination of many Commentators, is always one and the same. I trust none of them unreservedly, and I expect nowhere to find perfection. All must be read with caution. They are good helps, but they are not infallible. They are useful assistants, but they are not the pillar of cloud and fire. … Use commentaries; but be a slave to none. Call no man master.

Dr. Mark Minnick is the pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and serves as adjunct professor of preaching and exposition at Bob Jones Seminary.

(Originally published in FrontLine • November/December 2001. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)