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.
Today I’m reviewing a volume of Crossway’s ESV Expository Commentary. This particular volume covers Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations and Ezekiel – the first two of which are among the longest books of the Bible! This means that this volume clocks in at a fairly epic 1216 pages – and the format of this means that it is very physically imposing. The ESVEC project will ultimately be 12 volumes, and in my reading (This is the 4th volume I’ve read through, though the first I’ve reviewed – I read volumes 2, 7 and 10 in 2022) it is a similar sort of level to the Tyndale Old and New Testament Commentaries, though perhaps a little lower and less technical. One distinction is that the ESVEC prints the full text of each book of the Bible, in the ESV translation, in the commentary – which likely adds to the page count, particularly for a volume like this with two very long books in it! The four books of the Bible covered, their authors, and rough page counts, are as follows:
Isaiah, by Robert Fyall, covering 400 pages.
Jeremiah, by Jerry Hwang, covering 366 pages
Lamentations, by Jonathan Gibson, covering 122 pages
Ezekiel, by Iain M. Duguid, covering 302 pages
There are 19 pages of preliminary bits and bobs (Tables, preface, contributors, abbreviations) and a lengthy scripture index adds 39 pages for a grand total of 1248! Physically, this is a beautiful chunky volume (perhaps a bit too chunky sometimes – it’s essentially A4 size) finished in the very nice ESVEC ‘Moleskin’ style, with a ribbon. I’ll now briefly review the distinct commentaries contained within this volume of the ESVEC.
Isaiah, by Robert Fyall
Fyall will be known to some readers as the author of an NSBT on Job, here he tackles Isaiah in a relatively short commentary. Commenting on the opening chapters (1-6), Fyall suggests that “these chapters blend judgement with hope” (p. 33), and following a key theme of the Prophet, reminds us of our focus needing to be more divine than human: “Isaiah begins with God and sees everything else in the light of who he is and what he does” (p. 37). This theme of focusing on God runs through his commentary: “The awesome majesty of God and his overwhelming holiness is to be at the very heart of the prophet’s ministry” (p. 61), “over it all God’s glory will shine” (p. 209), and his near closing words: “all barriers will be removed and God’s glory fully revealed” (p. 409).
This major emphasis on theology proper does not mean that Fyall’s commentary is disconnected from discipleship and mission. For example, commenting on chapter 24 he links application to concern for creation care: “We have often not been good stewards of creation… Evangelicals have often been too cavalier about this, but, while we do not believe that concern about the world and a proper stewardship of the earth’s resources are the way to salvation, they are one of the fruits of salvation” (p. 154). I‘d point to John Stott’s work/journey on this space to flesh this out. Another helpful comment on idolatry both clarifies this, and provides further challenging application: “idolatry has been a major strand in the tapesty of Isaiah 40-47… We can make idols of so many things when we take God’s gifts for granted and worship the creation rather than the Creator. Lack of concern for the weak and helpless is also characteristic of Babylon (Isa. 47:6-7)” (p 291). Fyall, in my view, does a good job of letting the challenging text of Isaiah speak to the reader – I can only hope and pray that honest preachers using this commentary to prepare sermons will pass on that, and other challenges.
Fyall closes his commentary looking ahead: “Isaiah looked to the rule of God in which Immanuel would reveal himself in all his splendour in the new Jerusalem” (p. 416). The short bibliography (un-annotated, unlike some in other ESVEC volumes I’ve read) is useful for a ‘what next’ for the pastor and preacher. Overall, then, this is a strong shorter commentary on Isaiah. I read it alongside Paul Wegner’s new Tyndale Old Testament Commentary, and found that they complemented each other: Wegner is in my view better on the technical and exegetical stuff, whilst Fyall struck a more devotional and discipleship tone. In terms of meeting the aims of the ESVEC, and being a readable and rich commentary, I’d give it 4.5/5.
Jeremiah, by Jerry Hwang
Hwang serves at Singapore Bible College, and opens his commentary with the pithy observation that “The book of Jeremiah is simultaneously perhaps the most compelling and the most confusing book of the Old Testament” (p. 421). Noting it’s length – longest in word count, and up there in terms of number of chapters – and literary complexity (I appreciate the idea that “the book is an embodiment of literary disorder that communicates the theological disorder of Judah’s last days” (p. 434)), Hwang offers a short and helpful introduction, stressing a key theme as being Yahweh’s rule. A key to Hwang’s reading – and a useful tool for those of us reading Jeremiah as God’s word – is a suggestion that “it is important for readers to think of Jeremiah more as a speaker of God’s words than as an author or writer. This reorientation is particularly necessary for hearing Jeremiah’s poetry” (p. 423). He goes on to note that “all the main themes of Jeremiah appear in Chapter 1” (p. 430), and offers some useful practical suggestions for preaching the book.
One way in which Jeremiah and Isaiah overlap – though also reflecting the reformed sympathies of the commentators/commentary here – is God’s kingship/sovereignty: “The past and future of Yahweh’s people lie in his sovereign hands” (p. 440, commenting on the opening chapters). Elsewhere this is clarified, as Hwang comments on 18:7-10: “The image used for Yahweh shifts from potter to gardener as part of a broadening of the manner of his dealings with Israel into a case study for all nations… Yahweh says that he is also like a patient gardener who waits for the plant’s response” (p. 569). That nuance and complexity extends even to the medium of the message, with Hwang making the interesting comment that “Jeremiah 6 provides the best example in the book of knowing one’s audience – the most basic element in communication… the how of involving Jeremiah’s audience in communication is just as important as the what of Jeremiah’s content that is being communicated” (p. 486). It is interesting, then, that amongst the focus on theology proper, and literary/communicative issues, Hwang also manages to bring out some of the deep pastoral resources of Jeremiah.
Hwang suggests that “Jeremiah 9 offers a comprehensive theology of grief” (p. 507), offering an interesting comparison to Lamentations as Jeremiah includes ‘divine emotions’. He also suggests that Jeremiah offers a resource for teaching biblical theology and explaining the whole Bible: “Jeremiah 31 is one of the most important passages in all Scripture. The entire sweep of the biblical narrative is here” (p. 649). From that metanarrative scale to intimate human concerns Hwang focuses in on his comments on Jeremiah 32, moving from the events of the chapter to the person of Christ: “in showing us why obedience and honesty belong together, Jeremiah’s example points to Jesus… There has never been anyone more human than Jesus. He shows us that to be weak is to be human, and we are most human when we pray to God in our weakness” (p. 667). This is a beautifuly piece of biblical theology – I was moved by it all over again in my devotions, not necessarily expecting to find it in Jeremiah!
Another interesting, if perhaps unexpected, set of application and comment comes in terms of political theology and engagement with culture. For example, commenting on Jeremiah 40, Hwang closes by noting that “In a world where ‘spin’ and ‘fake news’ continue to be more common than not, the people of God must remain countercultural in highlighting their own failures so that the truthfulness of God takes centre stage” (p. 706). Intimately linked to that truthfulness is of course the idea of hope, which provides a motivation to look beyond the power struggles of this world: “Through eyes of faith, the people of God must see the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven withotu tears, pain, or striving. But when Christians lack vision of this image, of our ultimate citizenship and highest loyalty, then there is only Babel/Babylon to live for” (p. 776). It was sobering to be reading this in a year when so-called ‘Christian Nationalism’ has reared it’s head – I believe Jeremiah shows us a better way.
The sovereignty of God throughout the book of Jeremiah is well summarised in chapter 52, where Hwang notes that “This chapter thus offers an apt summary of the book by demonstrating Yahweh’s faithfulness to his promises to judge and to deliver” (p. 779). That is a key theme of Jeremiah’s message, and something that Hwang brings out sensitively amidst all the literary cacophony of the book of Jeremiah. With his interesting method of thinking about the communcative style of Jeremiah, I think Hwang has written an excellent commentary on this compelling and confusing book. It certainly inspired me to dig a little deeper into the text, and that is not always the case for commentaries! I read this alongside the standalone commentary on Jeremiah from Lexham Press by Kaiser and Rata, and felt that Hwang made more sense of the book as a whole, as well as being readable and rich. Overall, a 5/5 for me.
Lamentations, by Jonathan Gibson
Gibson is perhaps well known in the UK as the brother of David Gibson, but also happens to be a serious writer in his own right – I’ve appreciated his devotional work, and the Gibson and Gibson book on limited atonement. I was interested, then, particularly knowing that Jonathan is an Old Testament scholar and teacher, to see what he’d do in a commentary. I appreciated particularly his emphasis on biblical theology and on application – neither of which came at the expense of what is a soldi commentary. I read this alongside the underwhelming new NICOT by John Goldingay, and as well as the rather odd but interesting ‘Wisdom Commentary’ by Hens-Giazza Pia. Gibson resonated more with my own spirituality and theology – whilst he engages with the technical stuff, it’s use and power as Christian scripture is never more than a few paragraphs away: “God does respond to the prayers of his people – but in his own time” (p. 813).
Echoing again the theological slant of the ESVEC, and the message of the book in question, Gibson notes that Lamentations “confronts us with a portrait of God as both terrifying and sovereign” (p. 843). In the light of this, in a helpful section on lament, he suggests that “This is what God-inspired lament is – godly complaint” (p. 849). This is actually a remarkably rich and refreshing pastoral resource – not just that God understand when things are awry, no matter the scale, but that God desires that we recognise that in prayer. This is a helpful lesson from Lamentations that Gibson draws out well, in my view.
Whilst the ESVEC is generally position as being a help to preachers and pastors, Gibson helpfully (in the light of the text of Lamentations!) takes this further. Commenting on the first part of chapter 4, he notes that “A timeless principle has proven itself true over several millennia: as goes the leader, so goes the nation” (p. 884). Indeed, “What the nation needed – what we all need – is a perfect, godly leader” (p. 885). Gibson rightly takes us straight to Christ – bypassing our own need to lead and be in charge, contrasting Jesus with human leaders: “Everything that Judah’s king was not for them, Jesus was and still is for us” (p. 888). Here is the contrast that Gibson draws out of Lamentations, between us sinful humans, and our good God. “The litany of losses outlined in Lamentations 5:1-18 reflects a basic biblical principle that sin has consequences, and miserable ones at that” (p. 897).
This is a helpful shortish commentary on Lamentations – and I think offers a pastoral Reformed perspective that would be very valuable to preachers and pastors. The way that Gibson weaves in biblical theology and application is particularly good, and I give this commentary 5/5.
Ezekiel, by Ian Duguid
Ian Duguid has written a good commentary on the Song of Songs for the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary, as well as a commentary on Numbers in Crossway’s ‘Preach the Word’ series. I was interested to see how he’d engage with Ezekiel, and I was not disappointed! Duguid is focused on the text and what it says – leading to an enriching devotional read for me. As he writes, “The book of Ezekiel begins and ends with visions of the glory of God” (p. 909) which is something God’s people require all the time, and at the same time Ezekiel the prophet had a challenging ministry, leading Duguid to observe that “Ezekiel is called to be faithful, whether or not people listen to him” (p. 929). There is a strong resonance for us today.
Duguid helpfully and theologically explains the ‘sign-acts’ that are a hallmark of the book, as “designed to reach people’s wills and hearts, enabling people not just to see the truth but to feel it” (p. 940). There’s an echo here of Hwang’s interest in Jeremiah’s ‘how’. “Ezekiel’s literary versatility is remarkable. Following on parables, proverbs, and other metaphorical speech, God calls the prophet to utter a lament” (p. 1033). This literary versatility meets an able interpreter in Duguid, who brings good engagement with biblical theology to bear on the text, for example noting that “Lament is never the end of the story with God” (p. 1036). Indeed, the contrast of where Jerusalem is and should be – “Jerusalem was called to be a holy city; instead it has become a bloody city…” (p. 1057) – is resolved in God’s self: “True security lies only in the LORD himself” (p. 1085).
My reading of Ezekiel was one that was profoundly soul-searching – perhaps an echo of the reality that Duguid notes in his observation that “Israel’s fundamental problems throughout her history have been internal not external” (p. 1130). Rather than looking in, Duguid shows that Ezekiel encourages us to look out, and up, commenting on 40:48-42:20 that “The purpose of such a vision is to reveal a world that is not in order to critique and expose the failings of the world that is. Ezekiel’s visionary temple is the epitome of ordered space, in contrast to the lived experience of the prophet (and the rest of us), in which it often seems as if the dominant reality is chaos” (p. 1167). The tension of living in the now and not yet, and that “As Christians we can still take comfort as well as challenge from the words of the ancient prophet” (p. 1207) is well brought out by Duguid.
This is an excellent commentary on the book of Ezekiel, and perhaps the most cohesive of the four commentaries in this volume. I also appreciated the fact that the short bibliography that Duguid includes has comments on most of the commentaries he refers to, a feature I enjoyed in other ESVEC volumes. Overall, 5/5.
Closing comments on the volume overall.
In attempting this review, I hope to have drawn out some of the strong points of four very good commentaries on four similar but different books of the Old Testament. Crossway have provided an excellent resource for pastors and preachers – though not perhaps comprehensive enough for some. The ESV Expository Commentary is a resource that I will recommend, and also keep close to my desk for work purposes, whilst continuing to use it devotionally. Overall, this volume gets 5/5 from me.