Habakkuk Commentaries

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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.

This post in particular is heavily reliant on my earlier review of Zephaniah commentaries, since most commentaries on either of these books include the other. One Habakkuk-specific commentary appears here, just as there were some Zephaniah-specific commentaries in that post. I have tried to key my discussion of each commentary here to the Habakkuk section in the commentaries that deal with more than one book.

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 Habakkuk 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 Habakkuk's view of God and Habakkuk's view of faith in 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. His expertise is in covenant theology, and he has a keen eye for seeing New Testament connections, although on occasion I think he reads a NT perspective into a text that may not have originally gone quite so far. I appreciated his willingness to defend Paul's appropriation of the justification by faith text in ch.2, although I found him too eager to rule out the possibility that faith and faithfulness are both in mind. 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 of Robertson here.

Francis Andersen's Anchor Bible volume on Habakkuk is the best of the mainstream academic commentaries. Anderson co-wrote the Anchor Bible volumes on Hosea, Amos, and Micah with David Noel Freedman, and he wrote the TOTC volume on Job by himself. Andersen is more conservative than most authors in this series and less conservative than most authors in the Tyndale series.

As with most Anchor Bible volumes, it is intended to be readable by non-scholars, using only transliteration and translation of Hebrew terms. However, it is extremely detailed on matters related to poetic structure, literary devices, word meanings, textual variants, and so on. It is hard to follow if you don't know a lot about the forms and features of Hebrew poetry, grammar, etc. On some matters, it is far more detailed than most pastors would want for use in sermon preparation. He uses lots of technical terminology without defining or explaining most of it. To a scholar, this is a great resource, with full argumentation as to his reasoning process. However, it should be left in the hands of scholars, since others will have a hard time understanding most of that reasoning.

Often the focus is just on producing the correct translation of the text, without connecting it up with the historical setting or theological meaning. Andersen does ultimately ground his theological reading in later revelation through Jesus Christ, and thus his interpretation of the book is Christian. However, it isn't much of a focus even in such a large volume. Andersen ultimately defends the unity of the book and the reality of predictive prophecy in the book. He strangely thinks "the righteous" in the book is just Habakkuk, and "the wicked" in the book are only Babylon and never Judeans, a conclusion I find hard to fit with the book (and indeed seems to me to miss one of the major points of the book).

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 had less of an impact than it should have had in Habakkuk 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 the others you're doing very well.

David Baker's Tyndale commentary lives up to everything this series intends. It's brief, but Baker uses his limited space wisely. He addresses many of the questions non-scholars might ask when reading the text. He deals with some of the more fundamental theological questions in a way many commentators won't, but he also deals with the more important of the historical and linguistic issues. He doesn't treat them in much depth, 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 decent 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 passage is his reflection on the general principles from the original context that might transfer to ours. Part three for each unit moves on to suggestions for how those principles might apply in our context. I only looked at the Zephaniah part of this commentary, but someone I know who read the whole book was considerably disappointed with his Original Meaning sections. I liked some of what I read in the Bridging Contexts sections. He doesn't simply moralize but rather spends time thinking through what principles in the text can be generalized to move toward other contexts. I didn't come away with a strong positive or negative impression of his Contemporary Application discussions. 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.

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. I was particularly impressed at his treatment of the justification by faith issue in ch.2, which avoids a kind of disjunctive thinking that I found in Robertson (who wants to remove any sense of faithfulness justifying, thinking that to contradict justification by faith). See the comments on my longer review of Robertson for more on that issue.

You don't see most of Craigie's exegesis, but he does explain some of his reasoning. It's much thinner in argument and explanation than would be ideal even for a popular-level commentary, 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. Roberts likes to emend the text rather than work hard to explain any coherent meaning in its current form.

There's usually a desire to find different sources for different parts of a work, although he is more conservative in defending the unity of Habakkuk than he is with the other two books he covers. He does consider the possibility that ch.3 is an earlier Psalm that the prophet incorporated, but he has little patience with the more common assertion that it was a later poem added to Habakkuk's work by a later hand. He does sometimes make connections with the New Testament and contemporary application, but he spends very little time even on how individual passages relate to the book as a whole, never mind moving to an even larger context than that.

This book is about as good as any in serving as a guide to exegesis in terms of the minutiae of the text, although Andersen has more detail. Like Andersen, however, the series is intended to be readable by non-scholars, and the level of detail on Hebrew language in this commentary is daunting for those who don't know the language, even if it's not quite as intimidating as Andersen. All told, this book is heavy wading for those who don't know Hebrew, and 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. It is nonetheless the standard critical commentary on the three prophets together, although I think Andersen takes that spot if you consider just commentaries on Habakkuk alone.

F.F. Bruce wrote the Habakkuk section of this multi-author commentary. Bruce was primarily a New Testament scholar, but he did occasionally write on the Old Testament. 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. I have been told by someone who knows Hebrew fairly well that he wasn't all that impressed at Bruce's exegesis. The exposition is intended to be readable to anyone. As with other commentaries by Bruce, theology is going to be a weakness.

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.

C.F. Keil's work in the Keil-Delitzsch commentary on the Old Testament is extremely outdated, but it's theologically penetrating in ways that many of the more recent commentaries are not. I wouldn't buy this commentary just for Habakkuk, but if you have the series, which is worth having, why not look at Keil on Habakkuk if you're looking at Habakkuk commentaries?
I didn't look at Elizabeth Achtemeier's Interpretation volume that includes Habakkuk, 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 Habakkuk 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). She seems very excited about Habakkuk's questions against God at the beginning of the book, with less attention to his later faith and trust in God. I can't complain about a lack of theological reflection, but it's not always theology sympathetic to the prophet's concerns.

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 Habakkuk commentary focuses on Habakkuk as a book rather than as a piece of the Book of the Twelve. O'Brien and Achtemeier will probably be the main choices for expositions among those who accept more critical views. My impression is that Achtemeier will be the more conservative of the two, while O'Brien will be the more thought-provoking.

Forthcoming Commentaries:

On the academic level, Gert Prinsloo's HCOT,  David Vanderhooft's Hermeneia, and Kevin Cathcart's ICC will be serious contenders for the position of being the academic standard on this work.

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. David Hartzfeld is contracted for Habakkuk for that series. I know nothing about Renz or Hartzfeld. 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 Habakkuk are in development. Carl Armerding 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. Armerding is well-regarded among evangelical reviewers of commentaries. The only reason I didn't list Armerding above is because it's worth waiting for his revision.

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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