Commentaries on Zephaniah

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This is part of a larger project reviewing commentaries on each book of the Bible. Follow the links from that post for more information on the series, including explanations of what I mean by some of the terms and abbreviations in this post.

Waylon Bailey's NAC is probably my favorite of all the commentaries I looked at. It isn't so detailed that it's hard to wade through, but he addresses most issues most people might ask of the text unless they're working on an academic paper. He deals with historical, theological and linguistic matters fairly well, and he's also concerned about connections with the New Testament. He's coming from a conservative evangelical perspective, but he's also good at presenting various views. This is my all-around recommendation for seeking the best balance of what I look for in a commentary. It doesn't shirk anything I consider truly important.

O. Palmer Robertson's NICOT is probably my favorite Zephaniah commentary in terms of theology. His theological reflections are probing and get enough time to explore the issues, with more time than any of the other commentaries on the list given to the task of simply reflecting on what the text means for Zephaniah's view of God. It's much weaker on linguistic matters, sometimes not even addressing important issues that most of the other commentaries will spend some time on. It doesn't get first place primarily for that reason. His perspective is conservative, evangelical, and explicitly Reformed. I didn't notice anything particular to covenant theology as opposed to new covenant theology (the differences between Reformed covenant theologians and Reformed Baptists), though his expertise is in covenant theology. It's a shame that Eerdmans has contracted a replacement for his commentary in this series this early, though Thomas Renz will probably produce a good commentary that will give more detail on the things Robertson doesn't focus much on. See my more detailed review here.

Adele Berlin's Anchor Bible volume on Zephaniah is by far the best of the mainstream (i.e. non-evangelical) commentaries. Conservative evangelicals will appreciate her theological sensitivity, willingness to treat the text as it stands rather than subdivide it to no end, and commitment to intertextuality (i.e. code for interpreting the Bible in terms of other parts of the Bible among those who don't believe in the Bible as having a divine source; note that she is not Christian but does occasionally bring in Christian interpretation). She spends as much time on linguistic and historical issues as any Bible study leader of preacher will need, but she spends time on things many mainstream commentaries won't even look at, and her perspective is fairly congenial in many ways to what I prefer in a commentator. I'm less tuned in to literary sense, but she gets high marks from all the reviewers I've read on that.

Unfortunately, it's out of print, and you're not going to be able to get it used anywhere. Believe me. I've tried. I want this book, and no one who has it is willing to give it up. You can find it the way I do, though, through inter-library loan. I very much suggest doing so if you want to study Zephaniah in enough depth to merit using a scholarly commentary. This would be the one to use if you can get it. Unfortunately, she thinks the author of the book is fictitious, which I find thoroughly unmotivated. Sweeney's arguments (see below) for the authorship of almost all the book by Zephaniah, from a fairly mainstream and well-respected commentator, would thus balance out this aspect of her work. The thing I most like about his commentary is the thing I least like about hers. This commentary has the special feature of giving a lot of the history of Jewish scholarship on Zephaniah over the millenia.

Marvin A. Sweeney's Hermeneia on Zephaniah is much more detailed than Berlin's on linguistic and historical issues, perhaps with even more time spent on the overall structure of the book, one of his pet issues on which he's contributed to the field in interesting ways (though the downside of that is that his views are extremely idiosyncratic and not reflecting of the scholarly consensus). This is my favorite of the in-print scholarly commentaries. I don't really like the format of this series, but Berlin would be above Sweeney for me just because of her greater depth on theological issues and focus on intertextuality.

His work in general has been a little more willing to try to reconstruct sources and different and competing strains of theological thought in the biblical text without what seems to me to be good warrant, and he's even more likely to take parts of the text as coming from a time that the text doesn't transparently reflect, relying on circular arguments to establish which themes must be from a time later than the prophet whose name is associated with it. However, he is fairly minimalist in this as compared to others (see my comments on Vlaardingerbroeck below) on Zephaniah or his own work on Isaiah. Even in the cases when he thinks a later editor added something, he at least will talk about the final form of the text and what it transparently means, even if he also talks about things it originally meant as if they're different. His arguments for authorship of almost all the book by Zephaniah during Josiah's reign are welcome. He thus does well with what I like least about Berlin's commentary. I'm less sure his view of Zephaniah's relationship with Deuteronomy is easily reconciled with a high view of the authority of scripture, and he takes the placement of the book between Habakkuk and Haggai to allow for an interpretation more in keeping with the exile than with the time of Josiah when he thinks the book was mostly written, a hermeneutical approach that I have some hesitations about.

This commentary is extremely well-written, both lucid and readable, which is somewhat difficult to achieve with the Hermeneia format. He offers a new division of the book into two halves rather than three thirds, as most commentators divide the book. For my purposes, Berlin is a little more helpful, but it's a good commentary for a mainstream, in-depth work on this prophet to supplement one or two of my more preferred commentaries.

David Baker's Tyndale commentary lives up to everything this series intends. It's brief, but Baker uses his limited space wisely. He addresses the questions people would likely ask when reading the text. He deals with some of the most fundamental theological questions in a way many commentators won't, but he also deals with the most important of the historical and linguistic issues. He doesn't treat them in as much depth as a fuller commentary would, and there are less crucial issues that he doesn't treat at all that are interesting and worth looking into if you're preparing a Bible study or sermon, so this commentary shouldn't serve as the only or primary resource for something like that, but Baker is an enjoyable read, has a lot more than you'd expect in such a short treatment, and is probably second only to Robertson in terms of theological insight. For more information, see my review of this volume.

James Bruckner's commentary is a good example of what the NIVAC series seeks to do. It gives a very brief exegesis, briefer even than Baker's. Part two of his treatment of each passages is his reflection on the general principles for the original context that might transfer to ours. One person who has read Bruckner was not very satisfied with his Original Meaning segments. He did seem to me to have put more intensive thought into the Bridging Contexts parts. Part three moves on to suggestions for how those principles might apply in our context.

I know readers outside the U.S. complain that this series tends to focus on American examples, but the main point of the series is to model how to apply the second Bridging Contexts section in a concrete setting. Surely the author doesn't think those ways are the only ways they will apply or even the most important for every setting. If you approach this series in that way, I think it's often excellent. But I think the Bridging Contexts section is the most important part, and I think Bruckner uses that to great effect. He doesn't merely moralize, as some Old Testament commentators like to. Yet he shows good sense in his thinking through the ways each passage relies on or demonstrates deeper principles, even ones that aren't stated explicitly.

The result is that the applications aren't of the trite sort that you commonly find in sermons in evangelical churches, where the passage reminds someone of some principle that the passage isn't really about but is taught elsewhere. It's more of a finding of themes in the passage that connect with other things in scripture. Since Zephaniah in particular encapsulates many of the themes throughout the prophets, Bruckner's reflections here can sort of take the reader through the general point of the prophets and why they speak the way they do about the things they deal with. This sort of treatment is valuable for those who need help thinking through such general issues before they think about our own appropriation of what the passasge is teaching.

J. Alec Motyer wrote the Zephaniah and Haggai sections of this multi-author commentary, and his Zephaniah section is a lot briefer than I would have liked. This series is very uneven in terms of amount of space devoted to each book. Some of its treatments are lengthy and detailed. Motyer's Zephaniah commentary is not one of those. As with the whole series, he treats the exegesis and exposition separately, each running in parallel with the other, one on the top of the page and the other on the bottom. The exegesis deals with the Hebrew text and is scholarly in its approach. It's hard to read if you don't know Hebrew. The exposition is intended to be readable to anyone. Motyer, as always, is insightful, theologically keen, scholarly, and understated. His specialty is structure, and sometimes he provides helpful contributions to the structure of books he's commenting on, though sometimes his new thoughts don't win over much support. New contributions to a field are often like that.

What strikes me as thoroughly strange about this commentary is that the exegesis is on the Hebrew text and meant for scholars yet isn't too detailed. It picks out key details but isn't complete enough to count as a full-length scholarly commentary. Yet it's too difficult for someone less well-trained. The exposition is readable no matter who is reading it, but much of what supports the exposition is in the exegesis. It's for that reason that I can't recommend this commentary as a first choice for someone of any category of commentary reader. It's worth having as a supplement to a fuller and/or more readable work, but I don't put it as first place, as much as I think this commentary will be very helpful for those who can handle the detail who aren't expecting a more complete coverage of more detail.

patterrson.jpgRichard Patterson had the misfortune of writing his commentary for the WEC, a series that didn't last very long. Bible.org has seen to it to republish some of the volumes of that series, so they are now available again, but for a while this just wasn't easy to get. For that reason, it's has less of an impact than it should have in Zephaniah studies. Patterson is a careful scholar. I'd place this commentary at the same level as Robertson and Bailey. Robertson is stronger on theology, and Patterson is stronger on lexical issues and historical background. His treatment of linguistic matters seems exhaustive compared to Robertson, who in comparison seems almost to ignore it. He doesn't ignore theology, but it's not his main strength, and Robertson and Bailey both strike me as giving fuller treatments of those elements. Until Bailey came along, Robertson and Patterson complemented each other nicely. I still recommend Bailey as the best overall commentary, but if you have both of these you're doing very well.

Peter Craigie had even less space to deal with than Baker did, something like half as many pages, and the Daily Study Bible series requires him to include the biblical text, which Baker doesn't do. For that reason he had to choose very carefully what to talk about. He did an admirable job. The commentary is suitable for devotional reading, and unlike many volumes in this series it really is suitable for that due to its more favorable attitude toward the authenticity of the text than some other writers in this series would have. Craigie raises the right sorts of theological questions. You don't see most of his exegesis, but he explains some things. You do see some arguments for some conclusions. It's much thinner in argument and explanation than would be ideal, but Craigie's volumes in this series are some of the best in it because he was so good at choosing what would be best to focus on. It's inexpensive and short enough that there's no reason not to read it in addition to whatever else you're going to read.

J.J.M. Roberts seems to me to be a fairly standard representation of one strain of biblical scholarship throughout the mid-late 20th century. The overall tendency is to break the text down into its various components, looking at the meanings of all the words and the various grammatical constructions used, focusing at times on the historical background behind what's being said, with detailed discussion of the various textual traditions and an attempt to reconstruct what the original must have said. There's usually a desire to find different sources for different parts of a work. Roberts' OTL volume on Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah fits right within that framework. He does look a little bit about connections with the New Testament and on contemporary application, but he steers away from thinking about how individual passages relate to the book as a whole, and I didn't see enough even of the former to satisfy my expectations of what a good commentary will do.

This commentary is as good as any in serving as a guide to exegesis in terms of the minutiae of the text. It isn't all that helpful for someone who wants what I want in a commentary, which is theological reflection and connections between this text and other parts of the Bible. Berlin is much better on those things and certainly good on what Roberts is good at, so I much prefer her commentary. I think I prefer Sweeney even to Roberts. I don't want to minimize the value of this book for help with exegesis, but that seems to me to be the limit of its value for a Bible study leader or preacher, at least from what I looked at. Other commentaries serve such people's needs far better. Someone doing serious academic study ought to look at Berlin, Sweeney, and Roberts just to cover all their bases. It's just not what I look for in a commentary. It doesn't even raise many of the questions I would have about the prophecy of Zephaniah.

Johannes Vlaardingerbroek has produced the most in-depth treatment of Zephaniah I know of, moreso than any of Sweeney, Roberts, or Berlin. However, what makes some of those commentaries less useful for me is magnified in his work. The format of the series is annoying, because you have to look in three or four sections within each passage's discussion to see what he might say about any given verse. He does treat theology, but the other features of this commentary make it harder to get as much out of that. He's especially keen on separating out sources. He assumes anything positive like the second half of chapter three must have been written during the exile. Even Sweeney wants to restrict the supposed additions to just a few verses. Vlaardingerbroek just assumes that an earlier prophet couldn't have written such material. His entire argument for this is circular, relying on datings of other material in books associated with earlier prophets that contemporary scholars have dated late due to the same sort of reasoning. None of it is convincing to someone who wants to give the ascription of the book the benefit of the doubt, and plenty of conservative commentators have given explanations of why someone in Zephaniah's time would have written such a chapter. That, together with the fact that the HCOT series is incredibly hard to attain and incredibly expensive, leads me to recommend all the other mainstream, detailed commentaries above this one.

I didn't look at Elizabeth Achtemeier's Interpretation volume that includes Zephaniah, and I'm sure there are other important or helpful commentaries that I didn't look at, but Achtemeier is so well-received by many people that I had to mention her book. She's not conservative on historical and some interpretive matters, but she's very good at thinking through how to preach on Old Testament books, which is what the Interpretation series is supposed to focus on. She's a good person to be doing it. I don't have anything in particular to say about her Zephaniah commentary, though, because I haven't read any of it. I have looked at her treatment of Zechariah, which is where some of these general thoughts come from.

Julia O'Brien's AOTC includes Nahum through Malachi. As with other volumes in this series, this is a popular-level exposition that tends toward the mainline, critical kind of theological perspective. For instance, she can at times consider prophecies to have been written after the fact (e.g. Haggai), and she treats some of the prophetic messages as immoral (e.g. Nahum's use of rape as part of the judgment on Assyria, Malachi's supposed patriarchy). In Zephaniah in particular, however, she defends the oracle against the nations as historically based rather than a mere literary device, as some commentators have claimed. She also defends the unity of the book against those who would fragment it. O'Brien is often hesitant about text-critical solutions. She includes a special section on the contribution of each book to the overall Book of the Twelve of the minor prophets, but she thinks each individual book is a work of its own, and thus her Zephaniah commentary focuses on Zephaniah as a book rather than as a piece of the Book of the Twelve.

Forthcoming Commentaries:

On the academic level, Kevin Cathcart's ICC will be a serious contender for the position of being the academic standard on this work, altjhough he'll have a lot to compete with.

Douglas Stuart's replacement WBC on Micah-Malachi may well produce the new evangelical standard. Thomas Renz's replacement for the NICOT on Nahum-Zephaniah will also be an important upper-mid level evangelical commentary. I expect most of the Apollos series to be excellent. Boyd Luter is contracted for Zephaniah for that series. I know nothing about Renz or Luter. I'm very impressed by Stuart's work in the past. All three will probably be at least largely conservative and evangelical, judging be series expectations.

At the popular level, several commentaries on Nahum are in development. Larry Walker is revising his EBC contribution, which will be packaged with Daniel and the other eleven minor prophets. This is one of the most useful volumes in the original EBC, and I think the revisions and replacements are going to improve it even more. Walker's may not be one of the best entries in the volume, however.

The NIBC volume on Nahum-Malachi will be co-authored by Duane Christensen and Pamela Scalise. I don't know if they are actually co-writing or if they will each separately author some of the commentaries on individual books. I suspect it's the latter. Christensen is well-known for his WBC on Deuteronomy, and he has been working on Nahum for AB. Scalise was well-received in her contributions to the six-author treatment of Jeremiah for WBC. She is also working on Jeremiah for NICOT.

Richard Patterson is doing a popular-level commentary for the CBC. It will almost certainly be bound with other minor prophets, many of which are being written by Patterson. James Nogalski is doing the commentary for Smyth & Helwys, a series that I do not recommend because of its outrageous price for thin content with lots of bells and whistles. I don't know if the Pentecostal Commentaries series counts as mid-level or popular-level, but Rebecca Idestrom is contributing Habakkuk for that series.

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Jeremy Pierce has a fantastic post on forthcoming commentaries. This details who is down to write missing or replacement volumes for a large number of excellent commentary series. It has also been slowly developing into the authoratitive resource on forth Read More

8 Comments

Keep this up and you'll have something that may be publishing worthy. Great descriptions. I wish Carson was this detailed in his NT Commentary survey.

Unfortunately, I doubt they'll all be like this one. I decided to start with some books that I'd spent lots of time reading commentaries on. Eventually I'll run out of those, and I'll have to rely more on book reviews and commentary reviews like Carson's, which will mean saying less.

In some cases they'll be formatted differently also. I'm planning on doing Ephesians next, and it seems easier to talk about a few commentaries in each class at a time or perhaps to talk about issues separately, e.g. which ones affirm Pauline authorship, which ones take which views on gender roles, which ones occupy which theological positions, etc. Some of what I want to say would involve, at the very least, some asides on those issues.

How about Nahum and Habakkuk (Zephaniah is almost published into one book with Nahum and Habakkuk)? Does your explanations can be used for Nahum and Habakkuk?

Many commentaries treat all three together, and some of the ones I talked about above do. Much of what I say about their treatments of Zephaniah do apply to the other two. The reason I picked out Zephaniah is simpy because I studied Zephaniah and have looked at the commentaries on that book. I haven't done so with the other two. When I get to that, I can include entries on those books. Anchor Bible, HCOT, and Hermeneia publish them in different volumes by different authors, and EBC and the McComiskey volume above have different authors for each book but bind them together in one volume. I wanted to keep them separate myself for that reason.

I'm going to treat Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, and Ezra-Nehemiah each as one book, and I'll group the letters of John and also the Thessalonian letters together. I'll probably do II Peter and Jude together, and I might do the pastoral epistles in one shot. I expect every other book will get its own entry in this series.

This is a series in process. I'm just now working on the third post on Psalms commentaries. With a work in process, you don't have all the components. That's just how this sort of thing works.

You might like to know that Patterson's commentary is now available on the web at http://www.biblecentre.net/comment/ot/nhz/nhz-Index.html

The link for Johannes Vlaardingerbroek's book should actually be:

http://www.eisenbrauns.com/wconnect/wc.dll?ebGate~EIS~~I~VLAZEPHAN

Thanks, Andy. I don't have the time to check back on all my old links to see if they've changed the URL. It's nice when people do that for me.

The entire HCOT is available at Dove Booksellers:

www.dovebook.com

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