Book Review: Zephaniah – Malachi [Kerux]

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.

kerus zephaniah-malachi book review

In a world with many commentary series – don’t get me started on standalone commentaries, which are confusing – I’m always interested in road-testing and reading a new commentary, particularly if it’s from a series I don’t know. Today I’m reviewing a volume of four of the ‘minor’ Prophets, Zephaniah/Haggai/Zechariah/Malachi in Kregel Ministry‘s new ‘Kerux’ series. The series intends to ‘enable pastors and teachers to understand and effectively present the main message in every biblical text’ (from the back cover) and are squarely aimed at pastors and preachers. In this, they are arguably competing with classic series like IVP’s Tyndale Commentaries, the New International Commentary on the OT/NT from Eerdmans, and so on – however having read through this volume I think there is a key difference and that is in the words ‘effectively present’. This means that the commentary offers illustration and fellowship ideas to ‘land’ the message of the sermon – and this is a nice little innovation that should make this series of interest to preachers. The near-square format, too, is quite interesting (Though in my view not as well used by the book as the Zondervant Exegetical Commentary [I recently reviewed and highly recommend the volume on John’s Gospel]) – with an echo of the higher-level (And more expensive and more nicely-produced) Hermeneia series from Fortress. Whilst this review is not my exhaustive opinion on the series, I’m optimistic that the format does do something new, and the ‘presentation’ aids are useful, particularly for the average preacher without a vast team! One with some comments on the commentary proper.

The format of the commentary opens rather clunkily – with separate ‘exegetical author’s preface’ and ‘theological author’s preface’ – but fortunately this separation is largely ignored and the resulting commentary reasonably well integrated. Pages 11-30 contain a helpful resource, ‘Overview of All Preaching Passages’, which follows the pattern of Exegetical idea > Theological focus > Preaching idea > Preaching points. This is a good introduction to the books, and a handy ‘grab bag’ for the very busy preacher/pastor. 4 pages of abbreviations (With some notable omissions perhaps showing a narrow focus or constituency for the authors) precedes the commentary proper. Zephaniah gets 40 pages, Haggai 46, Zechariah 172, and Malachi 76. This averages out as reasonable given the relative lengths of the book. I simultaneously was reading Anthony Petterson’s excellent Apollos Old Testament Commentary on Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi (which the Kerux didn’t reference, despite it being published in 2015), and the ESV Expository Commentary volume on these and other prophets, which also wasn’t referenced, from 2018. Both seemed to me to be omissions given the primary readership and general evangelical slant of Kregel’s output.

Each commentary on each book follows the same structure and layout – a helpful ‘Overview of Introductory Issues’ box at the start offers a quick snapshot of Author/Place/Date/Readers/Historical Setting/Occasion for Writing/Genre/Theological Emphasis. These snapshots are then extended out, and in Zephaniah’s case offers six pages of readable introduction peppered with a helpful chronological chart of the prophets, maps and other imagery. Each of the ‘preaching units’ (as described and delineated for the books on p. 11-30) is then explored by examining Literary Structure and Themes/Exposition/Theological Focus/Preaching and Teaching Strategies. Images of historical artefacts pepper these pages, though the layout and links could be stronger and clearer. The exegesis and theological work is classic evangelical stuff – with occasional nuggets: “People who seek God will be transformed and dwell in God’s presence” (p. 71).

The commentary on Haggai was more memorable, in my reading, than that on Zephaniah. For example, commenting on 2:1-9, the authors note “The central truth to communicate is this: God’s people are to persevere in caryying out God’s expectations while depending on and trusting in his ability to supply all their needs. Thus we should beat the ‘good old days’ blues by trusting God today” (p. 104). On 2:10-19, “real holiness involved the heart, not just touching something holy (The temple)” (p. 108) is a thoughtful comment given the historical context and contemporary relevance of Haggai’s message. Personally, I was encouraged and challenged by a comment in their section on 2:20-23, titled ‘God’s Priorities for a Faithful Leader’, “Finally, trust grows out of obedient risk… Trust means taking a step toward an uncertain future with certainty that God will not leave us. At other times, the obedient risk is not situational but moral, where God asks us to speak truth, even if it costs us a promotion, or stop a sinful behaviour, even if it means losing a friend” (p. 119).

Zechariah is a ‘minor’ prophet that in my reading always feels more ‘major – with 14 chapters compared 2/3/4 for Zephaniah, Haggai and Malachi – and the lions share of this volume’s pages engage with this prophet. The introductory comments describing the first section of the book (1:1-6:15 in their schema) was very helpful (p. 129) in my view, as was their observation about repentance, which is a core theme of Zechariah: “Repentancy is not a one-time decision but a way of life… redirecting our focus from self toward God requires constant attention” (p. 133). One misstep is a box – that might be helpful in an American context but was alien to me as a Brit – with a short ‘Excursus: name that imperfect leader’ (p. 173). This is a minor quibble, but it was highlighted in a way that made it hard to skip over. It is always refreshing to read that “Evil has a divine expiration date” (p. 183). A key theme in the prophets is that of false worship, or worship that is not accepted by God – the authors pick this up well in their comment on Zechariah 7:1-14, “God does not accept worship from insincere people who refuse to follow his ethical standards” (p. 208). Linked to this is the rebuke of idolatry, something that can seem alien to modern disciples (the authors here draw on Keller and Smith, helpfully), but has a positive outcome: “Deththroning our idols keeps God at the centre of our lives and allows us to recieve his goods as gifts. It may also mean accepting singleness, setting limits on work hours and screen time, or embracing a low metabolism” (p. 277). I felt that Smith and Sprankle generally did a good job of relating the concerns of Zechariah to issues of discipleship on the radar of the preacher today.

The short commentary on the short book of Malachi is similar in tone and level to the preceding prophetic books – this commentary is consistent throughout, though it is only rarely exceptionally helpful. Sometimes the text of the commentary can be relatively simplistic, for example “God loved his people Israel. His deep love should stir our dull senses” (p. 306). This is not wrong, per se (Though the first sentence touches on all sorts of complex theological issues that are not explored here) but it is simplistic and arguably not that helpful. However, when the authors observe (as a ‘Preaching Idea’ on Malachi 1:6-2:9) that “Shortcuts in worship can come back to bite us” (p. 317) the explanation is actually quite good. A mixed bag.

This volume of the Kerux commentary series is a mixed bag – it contains distinctly average (if very readable, and peppered with both nuggets and useful information that you wouldn’t find in some commentaries, images especially) commentary in a potentially interesting format which isn’t fully exploited. As a tool for preachers it has some potential merit – though this volume on Zephaniah-Malachi didn’t make my heart sing, except for very briefly at points. As a commentary, it is probably not suitable for students and scholars – other than completists who must own/read simply everything published – though it might be an interesting secondary source for a pastoral/preaching/homiletics course on the Prophets. Overall, I was edified by it, and learnt some new things, but I wasn’t excited. I hope to examine more Kerux volumes, in both New and Old Testament books, and explore whether that is down to a series ‘vibe’, or perhaps just this volume. 3/5

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