The industry that has grown up around biblical commentary is now getting out of hand. One major bookseller in the United States lists over 150 different commentary series currently in print or production. One of the difficulties for those who are biblical scholars, ministers, preachers, teachers and those who simply want to have some guidance in interpreting a biblical text is knowing which commentary to buy. Many of them are expensive, they range from elementary and introductory, to undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate level, to highly technical exegetical tools intended for the academy and its peer groups.
One such series is published by Smyth and Helwys. Each volume is expensive; but they are beautifully produced, accompanied by a searchable C D Rom of the complete text with additional study materials, and the layout includes sidebars, illustrations, maps and charts. Like every series it is a mixture. When a series is farmed out to writers there are those who write because they’ve been asked, while others are asked because they are known experts in the text. That is the case with Patricia Tull’s volume on Isaiah 1.39 in this series. This volume is a rich, textured, exploration of Isaiah, a fine gift to the Church. It is written by a scholar for whom scholarship is rooted in an obviously deep and still learning faith.
I wanted a commentary written by someone conversant with the text, able to open up the critical and historical issues, but without allowing these to obscure or even displace the theological reflection and alertness to the enduring Word woven throughout the words of the prophet. This book is such a text opener.
Tull holds to a mainstream critical position; Isaiah is a composite work which “grew over the course of several centuries, two temples and three great empires.” Isiah is one of the alpine peaks of the Old Testament, formed by those prophets called to the “creative labour of interpreting the divine purposes” for Israel and the nations, in the wielding of political power and confronting social injustice. While not holding to the documentary unity of Isaiah, Tull is, however, persuaded that the book in its final canonical form has an overall integrity, coherence and unity, rather like the finished orchestral score for a symphony, being given its premiere, and available for performance by later generations of musicians.
One common way of checking the usefulness of a commentary for our own purposes is to review how it treats favourite or difficult passages. Does it do justice to the depth, richness or even sheer cussedness of the text? Are the hard questions considered, and the most significant information and evidence presented clearly and fairly? Are alternative interpretations allowed to be heard? Yes to all of these in the case of this commentary. The treatment of Isaiah 6, 9, and 35 are replete with theological insight, informed by judicious scholarship that knows the options, and presents the biblical text in all its specificity, context and uncompromising demand.
As a preacher I have used a number of commentaries over near 40 years of ministry. Oswalt’s two volumes in the NICOT are based on the unity of the book, and its pre-exilic completion in its canonical form. This is an unashamed conservative commentary, presented with great learning, and a support for predictive prophecy as an assumed feature of the prophetic role. The New Interpreter’s Bible coverage by Tucker and Seitz reflects the threefold division of Isaiah. The treatment of the text is, like Tull, aimed more at the preacher and teacher than the academic community, but it does not short-change the scholarship and connection of text to contemporary reader. The Interpretation volumes by Seitz and Hanson are much less detailed but good running theological commentaries.
Compared with these, I have found Tull’s commentary satisfyingly full, theologically attuned to the complexities of a multi-layered text, and written with the kind of lucidity and breadth of sympathy that is a breath of fresh air. The only drawback is the price. But in my view, what you get is a commentary of exegetical skill, theological exposition, homiletic guidance and a rich tapestry of information, all of these the consequence of long reflection and crafted writing. This is a five star commentary, that should sit with comfortable confidence alongside several others in this series; Brueggemann on Kings, Balentine on Job, Fretheim on Jeremiah and Odell on Ezekiel.