Review of the ESV Expository Commentary – Volume 4

ESV Expository Commentary - Volume 4 cover

The great preacher once said, “Of the writing of books there is no end” (Eccl 12:12). This is no more evident than in the case of commentaries. Given the sheer volume of commentaries that have been written since the days of the early church, it would seem hard to justify a new commentary—let alone a new series. Yet commentaries and series continued to be published—and I am guilty in this regard. There can be many good reasons for a new commentary: sometimes it is the cost, making long accepted research accessible; the size, reducing a lengthy technical discussion to an accessible level; the audience, making an inaccessible insight available; or the need to continually address the shifting language and the needs of any culture. There are also times when the prevailing commentary tradition is in error and needs to be revised. I was pleased to receive a review copy of volume 4 in Crossway’s ESV Expository commentary. The following review will address the series as a whole and then the specific books covered in this volume, namely, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, and Job.

ESV Expository Commentary

The series preface does not seek to justify the decision to publish a new commentary series, but several reasons could be drawn from the decisions made in the volume. First, it achieves the desirable goal of reducing the space and cost of having a pastor’s library, having four books covered in a single work (though 50 USD is not cheap). It is also tailored to congregations using the ESV and is sheered of much of the technical detail of the larger, single-volume editions, being oriented to the perceived needs of the pastor or the “serious students of God’s Word” (9).  To highlight several of features noted in the preface (see here for a full list), the series is grounded in a broad reformed worldview and oriented to Biblical theology and application. The format used is commendable, providing the ESV translation, a section overview, comments, and then response.

As a general comment on all four books in this volume, the response is sometimes spot-on, sketching a broad theological or biblical-theological reflection on the text, but sometimes falls into the trap of being too specific to aid the pastor in discerning the appropriate application to his congregation (which is the problem, as I perceive it, with the NIV application commentary). The comments range from quite helpful comments on the imagery, symbolic background, or meaning to generic paraphrases of what is said clearly enough in the translation. This is a general problem with commentaries that seek to avoid getting caught up in questions of syntax and word use, for if you are not resolving the difficulties leading to a specific translation nor offering a new translation, all you have left to “comment” on is a translation that should be clear enough, if it was translated well in the first place. To be sure, there are some places in the books included in this volume where a clarifying comment is necessary, but for an audience of pastors and serious students, the points explained are often quite basic. This brings us to the books in question

Ezra-Nehemiah

I was quite pleased with W. Brian Aucker’s commentary on Ezra and Nehemiah. For one, he treats them as a unified whole, which is a great start. The presentation of the narrative of these books is generally helpful. A year or so ago I preached a sermon on Nehemiah at a friend’s church; I know I would have found the narrative focus of this commentary quite helpful in my preparation.

On a more critical note, as a student of Hebrew, I am always saddened by a lack of discussion concerning the syntactical, text-critical, or lexical issues around a book. Though this is beyond the stated purpose of the series, such discussion is essential for any Evangelical interpretation of the Old Testament, yet is so rarely provided. Also, despite the series’ stated intentions, there was a surprising lack of biblical-theological integration. I was left without an answer to many key biblical-theological questions resulting from these books; what is the status of the restored community? how does this restoration relate to Deuteronomy 30 and the prophets? what is the significance of the diminished glory of the temple? It is particularly conspicuous that Aucker does not comment on the lack of fidelity among the restored community; this was to be the defining feature of God’s returned people (e.g. Deut 30:1-6). The absence of the faithful heart is a strong biblical-theological clue that this restoration and its temple is not the true restoration and restored temple promised in the prophets. However, I think there is much help for the pastor to be found in this commentary.

Esther

I was less enthused by Eric Ortlund’s take on Esther. His approach is generally negative towards Esther and Mordecai, and all the Jews, drawing on the silence concerning God as a conspicuous absence. He identifies their Jewishness as merely cultural, devoid of a genuine orientation towards God. Thus, God is presented by the narrator as at work, but His people are not aware of his work nor oriented towards him. This perspective leads to broadly negative evaluations of most actions taken by Esther and Mordecai. This interpretation is not novel, yet it is not easily defended. Broadly speaking, the tone struck by Ortlund in his comments suggests that he is reading from a modern perspective and not looking at the book through Old Testament eyes. His approach lacks canonical integration, namely, consideration of why the book is in the canon and how that placement shapes our interpretation of it. He repeatedly reads the actions of Xerxes from a modern perspective without clearly displaying how someone from ancient Israel or Persian influenced cultures would interpret Xerxes actions. He does not show much sympathy for the difficult situations which Esther and Mordecai repeatedly find themselves in. When it comes time for the Jews to turn the tables on their enemies, he says there is no justification for the request of Esther to lengthen the period of defence but does not discuss or defend this claim. He does not discuss how the narrative, for example, repeatedly identifies the objects of the Jews actions as “the enemies of the Jews,” lifting these events beyond the level of merely cultural disagreement to the divine metanarrative, where the seed of Satan is always trying to extinguish the seed of the woman. It is also hard to square his “secular” reading of the Jews in Persia with an ancient worldview, where religiosity was intertwined with cultural identity. Overall, his reading fails to persuade.

Job

On the other hand, Douglas Sean O’Donnell’s take on Job was quite solid. It is missing a detailed syntactical and lexical discussion, which is even more necessary when it comes to the book of Job. However, his broad interpretation of the book is quite helpful, including his take on Job 28, Elihu, and God’s response. More so than the other books—probably because of the length and poetic nature of Job—I found that O’Donnell fell into the trap of over-explanation in his comments. Given the highly poetic nature of Job, the introduction could also have used an overview of Hebrew poetry. This may have resolved some issues I encountered throughout the book. It seemed from O’Donnell’s discussion that he treated parallelism in the overly restrictive manner of the mid-twentieth century, namely, as synonymous, antithetical, or synthetic. This distinction has been rightly dismissed in recent discussion. He also seemed to restrict “parallelism” to those lines that have strict syntactical correspondence (i.e. the blue dog ran vigorously / the large retriever moved quickly), instead of identifying its as the multifaceted core of Hebrew poetry that takes many shapes, as recent discussion would seem to have it.

Summary

In sum, the commentaries on Ezra, Nehemiah and Job will aid the pastor because of their fine overviews of the books and their helpful response sections. However, I would not recommend relying on the Esther commentary.

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