Commentaries are an interesting thing. Preacher's offices are full of old commentaries like Calvin's many volumes, Matthew Henry, and any number of sets from the 1970's, 80's, and 90's. They are expensive until they're outdated, which is probably why preachers have older sets. But in the academic world (and probably the world of the preacher too) the better commentaries are ten years old or less.
"Wait just a minute!" you might shout, "aren't some of the classics still the leading thoughts on the matter?" Yes, don't panic. Those older commentaries aren't bad because they're older any more than newer ones better because they're new. However, good commentary writers will have consulted a slew of older commentaries and affirmed or refuted the older work with additional material. Maybe even quoted the older stuff.
It's also helpful to understand how different commentaries work. Some commentaries are extremely technical. They dive into the languages (and assume the reader reads Greek and/or Hebrew). Some commentary writers deal with the historical context. Some deal with application. Some examine more theology while others are focused on the transmission of the text. There are commentaries that approach the biblical material from a preacher's perspective. And there are devotional commentaries. So it's helpful to know what kind of commentary you are consulting because the specific type of commentary was written for a specific purpose.
Take for example, Dr. Gordon Fee. Fee is an expert on the book of Philippians. If you consult BestCommentaries.com, you'll see that Fee has two commentaries on the list. Fee's commentaries on Philippians are:
Fee, Gordon D. Paul's Letter to the Philippians (The New International Commentary on the New Testament). Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1995.
Fee, Gordon D. Philippians(The IVP New Testament Commentary Series). Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1999.
You might also see that the better Philippians commentaries are more than 10 years old. (Oops! This one is an exception.) A couple publishers have produced something in the past few years, but it's hard to outsell Fee, especially when he has two commentaries on the list!
Now, you might be asking how the same guy could have two commentaries on the same book. Why would anybody own both copies?
In Fee's case, he was first asked by IVP to write a commentary for their series and agreed to write Philippians when he had time. Shortly thereafter, Eerdmans asked him to write for the New International Commentary on the New Testament. Understanding the different focus, both publishers agreed to allow Fee to write Philippines in their series. But why own both copies? Fee answers that question in the introduction of the IVP publication, writing,
"The reader, however, should not assume by these acknowledgments of indebtedness that this is simply a small version of the larger one. In many ways, of course, it is that, since I changed my mind only a couple times in the course of this writing. But I have had the reader of this series in view at every turn, which has meant that the exposition has 'lightened up' a bit and the many footnotes of 'Big Phil' have been all but eliminated. What remain are those few that are necessary to help the reader know where to go for alternative views on many tests" (Fee, 1999, 10).
I own both copies. I love both copies for entirely different reasons. The IVP version is quicker, punchier, and easier to get right into the points. It can be read devotionally and is less distracting. If I'm looking for the background on something for a sermon and don't need to spend an hour reading, I pick up the IVP version. It's 200 pages; whereas, the Eerdmans print is 500.
On the other hand, when I was studying for a preaching series in Philippians, I enjoyed the heavier material and language notes of the Eerdmans' version. It is rather academic and a little stuffy, but very helpful in the technical matters.
If someone were wanting to learn more about the book of Philippians but have no need to write academic papers, I would recommend the IVP copy. Why not? It's full of illustrations, easy reading, and it's backed by the amazing mind of Gordon Fee. And for the ambitious types, the Eerdmans copy is outstanding too!
*If you're interested in either of these commentaries, purchasing them with the links above helps support this ministry.