Reviewing commentaries is a tricky business – particularly for me as a generalist, and an in-publisher editor of commentaries! I tend to offer my review based on the format and content of the volume, and it’s utility or otherwise to preachers and pastors. Occasionally I’ll digress into particularly theological or stylistic quirks. It is worth noting that I’m now the in-house editor looking after the series this book was published in – but this volume was published in 2014, long before I started work in publishing (2016).
The Apollos Old Testament Commentary began in 2002, with the publication of J. G. McConville’s Deuteronomy and Ernest Lucas’s Daniel. It’s a solidly evangelical (in the British, confessional but non-denominational sense) critically aware commentary that aims to strike a balance between accessibility and technical engagement. Commentators produce their own translation of the book (or books, as in this case) – and it is from this that the commentary builds. In this, the focus is thus always on the text – and in general, as Wray Beal notes in her introduction, “For the most part, one chapter of biblical text is treated in each commentary chapter. Where a narrative clearly crosses chapter boundaries, the commentary treats this larger portion of Scripture in one commentary unit” (p. 59). The text of Scripture sets the shape of the commentary. Brief notes on the text (particularly where the author has made an interesting decision) follow, before an overview of the form and structure of the passage. Then, exegetical comment, working through the verses of the relevant chapter(s) in view, often with nods to wider canonical context*. Finally, an ‘Explanation’ attempts to examine meaning, for the life of the church and also touching on contact points in the New Testament.
Of the around 600 or so pages (with both books of Kings, it’s a larger volume) about 60pp covers the introduction, where Wray Beal draws together the themes of 1 and 2 Kings, and also discusses issues of authorship and historicity – the latter popping up throughout, as the text demands. The last 80pp contain indices and bibliography. The actual commentary, then, covers two relatively long books of the Bible in ‘just’ 450ish pages. This is a fair bit longer that Peter Leithart’s commentary on 1&2 Kings, which I read last year, and whilst I enjoyed it’s pace, it didn’t leave me loving the books. Wray Beal has written a commentary that succeeded in helping me understand and fall back in love with the books of Kings. With a church upbringing, I know the narrative and some of the ‘point’, but Wray Beal’s commentary is a masterclass, leading the reader through the text with plenty of detail that doesn’t (By and large) sacrifice readability. As she writes in the introduction, “In the study of Kings can be found words, actions and types that illuminate Jesus’ life, and the necessities that called forth that life” (p. 25). This is not a dusty historical tome (Kings, that is – if you are reading this in 2065, the AOTC will hopefully have been updated, or Jesus returned) but a living and active theologically charged narrative that shows the complex interplay of human sin, religious urgings, the sovereign speech and act of YHWH God, and insight into some very human characters. And, this side of Easter, Wray Beal’s comment at the end of 1 Kings 2 rings particularly true: “Within the Christian canon that king is shown to be David’s greater son, the Christ. All the dashed hopes engendered by the long years of kingship are fully met in him, the righteous King. Allowing the tension within the Solomon narrative of mundane and sinful humanity and God-ordained glorious kingship anticipates a canonical and Christological resolution” (p. 81). Elsewhere, Wray Beal expands this in a way that should galvanise the church for some difficult conversations, prayers, and ministries**: “It is from the church’s own life in the risen Christ that it proclaims what it knows to be so. Christ lives and provides life full and abundant, beginning now and extending beyond the grave. Out of this faith thechurch – individually and corporately – speaks and acts against death wherever itfinds expression in our times” (p. 328).
Solomon is just one of the kings mentioned, but the events of his reign perhaps resound through time to today in a particular way. Commenting on 1 Kings 9 Wray Beal writes: “Solomon and the people are urged to walk in covenant life so that the presence and grace of YHWH may continue to indwell and empower their national and religious life… Repeatedly in 1-2 Kings, kings, people and priests trade the deep reality of YHWH’s presence for externals” (p. 153). That exchange of ‘deep reality’ for ‘externals’ is a sobering challenge – how easily does the church do such things today? With half an eye on American ‘Christian’ politics, I wonder whether there is an irony in the rejection of God’s holiness, the chaotic ‘Christian Nationalist’ conversation, and the quiet, unremarkable revival moments at Asbury Seminary. One theme that constantly emerges throughout the books of Kings, despite the sin and error, is that “YHWH does not abandon his covenant people. Instead, in mercy he continually urges them back to covenant life. YHWH’s desire for Israel’s repentance is profoundly expressed through the prophets” (p. 206).And this raises a second theme. God’s own sovereignty is a key aspect of the theology and narrative of Kings. It sounds trite, but it is ultimately far more about God the King of kings, than any human king. In one particularly astute comment relating to this, WrayBeal writes: “None can stand against the God of Israel. The final proof of YHWH’s sovereignty appearsin the succession formula given for Esarhaddon. It is that used for Israelite kings. YHWH exercises the same sovereignty, overseeing Israelite and Assyrian succession. He truly is God of all the nations” (p. 474). For a part of the story of the people of God that seems bleak and despondent, this is a helpful reminder – whether one reads it about the events of 1 & 2 Kings, or our own time.
This is a superb commentary. Wray Beal is both focused on the word limits and aims of the series, and also theologically engaged in hopeful eschatological reading. Congruent with the aims of the AOTC, this volume is detailed and careful, but also readable and not impenetrable for the non-scholar, or those whose Hebrew is either non-existent or lacking. Of the Kings commentaries I’ve read all the way through (the aforementioned Leithart, Olley in the Bible Speaks Today, and Wiseman’s TOTC) this is now my favourite. I’d recommend it for someone looking to step up a gear devotionally, for pastors looking for a thoughtful commentary with helpful hopeful theology (And with both books of Kings in one volume), and for those interested in a technical evangelical engagement with the text. 5/5
*It’s worth noting that the AOTC is not primarily a biblical-theological commentary, like Lexham Press’s EBTC (I enjoyed David Firth’s Joshua in that series immensely – he writes 1 and 2 Samuel, and is working on Psalms, for the AOTC) – however echoing Apollos’s biblical-theological commitments (like being the origination of the New Studies in Biblical Theology series of monographs edited by D. A. Carson and now also Benjamin J. Gladd) there is deliberate biblical-theological work throughout.
**I think this life/death paradigm is eminently biblical – and complex. We should as Christians be comprehensively pro-life, against death in the womb, and death from gun attack. We should think carefully about being single issue voters, and expand the sphere of our faith to every part of our political selves. Kings is a challenge to those of us not living in theocracies, and a challenge to those seeking to build one.