Favorite 1&2 Samuel Commentaries
From time to time I am asked by students and others what my favorite Bible commentaries are. I thought I would start with my favorite books to teach (1&2 Samuel) and list the commentaries that have had the greatest impact on me. In the future I will list favorite commentaries from other Old and New Testament books. I’ve decided not to limit myself to a certain number (5, or 10–although this particular post has 5!) because the number may be different with each book of the Bible. If you are interested in purchasing any of these commentaries, I have provided links to Amazon (USA =.com and UK =.co.uk) under the book images. In no particular order, here are my favorite 1&2 Samuel commentaries.
1. Robert Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, The New American Commentary, (Broaman & Holman, 1996), 512 pp.
The New American Commentary is a solid evangelical commentary series. The NIV version is used, followed by a verse by verse commentary by the author. Bergen’s commentary begins with approximately a 40 page introduction to the books of Samuel. Like many modern commentaries, Bergen is sensitive to the literary art of the ancient biblical writer, which means he looks at the final form of the bibical text and focuses on its message. For me, the main strength of this commentary is Bergen’s knowledge of the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy) and how the authority of the “Books of Moses” are reflected in 1&2 Samuel. At every turn, Bergen gives examples of how a knowledge of the Law of Moses deepens the reader’s understanding of 1&2 Samuel. For example, in the introductory material, Bergen provides two charts (historical interconnections and legal interconnections, pp. 47-50) which demonstrate the interconnections between the Pentateuch and 1&2 Samuel. In my opinion, one of Bergen’s weaknesses is that David can seemingly do no wrong (except of course in the case of Bathsheba and Uriah!). For example, when David asks the priest Ahimelech for bread and a sword, he lies to the priest by telling him that he is on secret business for the king (1 Sam. 21:2). To save David from an obvious lie Bergen suggests that the king David has in mind is Yahweh (p. 221). That’s a small criticism, however. Bergen’s commentary is sure to increase your understanding of the books of Samuel. I would give it 4 1/4 stars out of 5.
2. J. Robert Vannoy, 1-2 Samuel, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, (Tyndale House, 2009), 452 pp.
Vannoy’s 1&2 Samuel commentary is also the work of an evangelical scholar. He begins with a 38 page introduction discussing such topics as date and occasion of writing in which he challenges some of the long-held presuppositions of some scholars regarding the so-called “Deuteronomistic History” (Many scholars contend that Deuteronomy was written in two instalments: 1] during the time of Josiah; and 2] during the exile). He argues that moving the date of Deuteronomy from the Mosaic era and placing it at the end of the kingdom period “has far-reaching implications for the literature of the Old Testament.” This, of course, includes the books of Samuel. Vannoy argues for an early date of writing for the books of Samuel (about 931 B.C. following the division of the kingdom, p. 9). Vannoy also approaches the text with a literary sensitivity. He calls attention to the structure of different parts of 1&2 Samuel and his comments are based on the final form of the text. This commentary uses the NLT. Each section consists of the NLT, followed by a “Notes” section which comments on significant Hebrew words and textual issues. Next is the author’s verse by verse commentary followed by “Endnotes.” Vannoy’s greatest strength, in my opinion, is his ability to relate the text of 1&2 Samuel to Christological concerns. For example, he states, “…while Christian interpreters should take their point of departure, as much as is possible, from the perspective of the original author and his audience, they must also read every narrative of Scripture in the ever-widening context of the growth of revelation and redemption as it is disclosed in the entirety of the Christian canon” (p. 10). I would give this commentary 4 1/2 out of 5 stars.
3. Dale Ralph Davis, 1 Samuel: Looking on the Heart, and 2 Samuel: Out of Every Adversity, Focus on the Bible (Christian Focus, 1999 & 2000), 336 pp. each.
If you’re looking for someone who knows all of the scholarly issues, is evangelical, and communicates in a common-sense, down-to-earth style, then Dale Ralph Davis is your commentator! These two Samuel commentaries form part of a six-commentary series by Davis, extending from Joshua-2 Kings. Davis is a former seminary professor (Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Ms.), and a current pastor (Woodland Presbyterian Church, Hattiesburg, Ms.). His pastor’s perspective will speak to the average Christian who enjoys good commentary interspersed with homey illustrations (warning–be prepared to learn a lot of American Civil War history–a favourite topic of Davis’s illustrations).
Even though Davis is coming from a Reformed background, his commentary is balanced and it is rare to see (though not impossible) Calvinistic coloring bleed over into his interpretation. Davis wastes no time with introductory matters in his 1&2 Samuel commentaries; he allots all of 2 pages in each one! Instead, he dives right into the text. Even though reading both volumes amounts to a little over 700 pages of reading, Davis is one of my students’ favourite commentators. Some prefer his style (which is very colloquial) to that of other, more formal, commentators. To give you a flavor for Davis’s style, here are a few quotes: “Amnon has far more glands than brains” (2 Sam., p. 167). Speaking of Joab’s murder of Amasa, Davis writes, “It was business as usual. No need to cry over spilled blood. It’s merely a clinical matter for Joab” (2 Sam., p. 254). Davis is colorful, but he is also very knowledgeable. His 1&2 Samuel commentaries will definitely increase your understanding of these books. I would give Davis 4 1/2 out of 5 stars.
4. David Firth, 1&2 Samuel, Apollos Old Testament Commentary (IVP & Apollos, 2009), 614 pp.
Of all the commentaries I recommended to this point, Firth’s is the most comprehensive. This is due largely to the format of the Apollos Old Testament Commentary Series. Firth’s commentary consists of an original translation of the Hebrew text, followed by notes on the text, a section on “Form and Structure,” followed by the verse by verse commentary section, and finally, an “Explanation” section which consists of further reflections on the passage (for a fuller breakdown of the format followed by the Apollos OT series, see my review of 1&2 Kings). Usually a commentary that has notes on the Hebrew text explaining the author’s translation is very technical and only for scholars and those who know the original language. However, Firth’s textual notes are very readable and quite interesting. I often pulled out my yellow highlighter to note a point he was making. Firth’s commentary is solid and insightful with one exception: his interpretation of the David and Bathsheba episode (which he argues is not the best title for this incident, and he is probably right). Firth attempts to incorporate some sociological insights into why the incident happened using the values of honor and shame. Although a knowledge of cultural values can prove extremely enlightening (as I frequently argue in my posts on this blog), in this case I think that it has led Firth astray in his understanding of the narrative. Briefly, his argument is that David does not send for Bathsheba because she is beautiful (and he lusts after her), but in order to “claim authority from Uriah” and ultimately to kill him (p. 416). Firth says that the text gives no reason for David’s desire to kill Uriah and suggests that perhaps Uriah is a threat to David like David was to Saul. He emphasizes, however that this is only a supposition. In my opinion, this interpretation completely distorts things that we know about David and, perhaps most importantly, misses the parallels between David and his son Amnon (who clearly has a lust problem with his sister–2 Sam. 13). Other than this one unusual interpretation, I find Firth’s commentary to be very insightful and a rewarding read. I would give it 4 1/4 stars out of 5.
5. Robert B. Chisholm Jr., 1&2 Samuel, Teach the Text Commentary (BakerBooks, 2013), 337 pp.
I won’t say a lot about Chisholm’s commentary here because I have reviewed it elsewhere (click here to see the review, click here to see an interview with Chisholm), and I will be reviewing the Logos Bible Software version of it in a future post. I will simply say that if someone wants a good introduction to the books of 1&2 Samuel, this is one of the best. It is clearly written, and Chisholm is a knowledgeable evangelical scholar. The book includes pictures, charts, and sidebars which are of the highest quality and add to the overall presentation. Chisholm seeks to provide readers with the “Big Picture” and key themes of 1&2 Samuel and he admirably succeeds. The only shortcoming of the book is its brevity and some of the “application sections” (not added by Chisholm, but by the publisher). The brevity, however, is part of the overall design of the “Teach the Text Commentary” series. The fact that I am using it as one of the main textbooks in my 1&2 Samuel class should let you know how highly I think of it. I would give it 4 1/2 stars out of 5.
The temptation at this point is to go on and name a few other favorite Samuel commentaries, but I believe this is a good stopping point and so I will leave you with these 5. Feel free to suggest your own favorite Samuel commentaries in the comments, or to ask me a question about these or others.