Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Favorite Biblical Commentaries IV: The Major Prophets

The books listed in the Protestant Canon as “The Prophets” mostly coincide with the Jewish canon’s Nevi’im  (Prophets), with a few exceptions. As I mentioned before, what Jews refer to as “the Former Prophets” (Joshua, Judges, Samuel [=1 & 2 Samuel], and Kings [=1 & 2 Kings]) are placed in Christian canons together with some of the Writings (Ketuvim) as “Historical Books.”  Also, the Hebrew Bible places both Daniel and Lamentations in the Writings and not in the Prophets.  Catholic Bibles add the book of Baruch to the Prophets and Eastern Orthodox Bibles include both Baruch and The Letter of Jeremiah.  In what follows I’ll continue to follow the Protestant canon, but in the future, I may post on helpful commentaries for the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books.

There is an informal division among the Prophets into “the Major Prophets”–books large enough to take up their own scroll (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekial, Daniel, Lamentations) and the “Minor Prophets,” called in Hebrew “The Scroll of the Twelve” because all 12 books are small enough to fit on one standard-size scroll.  This post will cover the Major Prophets.

Major Prophets:


  • Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets (HarperCollins, 2007).  Originally published in 1962, this edition contains a new introduction by daughter, Susannah Heschel (a Jewish feminist theologian).  There is no better introduction anywhere.
  • Gerhard von Rad, The Message of the Prophets. (Harper & Row, 1972). German edition 1967.  A classic that is still well worth consulting.
  • James Luther Mays and Paul J. Achtemeier, eds., Interpreting the Prophets. (Augsburg-Fortress Press, 1987).
  • Joseph Blenkinsopp, A History of Prophecy in IsraelRevised and Enlarged (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996).
  • Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination. 2nd edition. (Fortress Press, 2001). 


Many modern scholars believe that this was originally not one book, but an edited scroll containing the works of two, or even three, prophets greatly separated in time.  Chapters 1-39 were written by Isaiah of Jerusalem who lived in the 8th C. B.C.E. (see 2 Kings chaps. 15-20) and ends just prior to the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon. Chapter 40 begins at the end of the Exile and looks to the soon return of the Exiles to the Land.  Those who view Isaiah as written by two authors, see chaps. 40-66 as belonging to “Second Isaiah” a convenient term for the unknown prophet of the Exile who is the author.  Those who see the book as written by three authors, assign chaps. 40-55 to “Second Isaiah” (the prophet of the Exile) and chaps. 56-66 to “Third Isaiah,” an unknown prophet of the post-exilic period.   Those seeing  2-3 authors often divide write 2 or 3 volume commentaries divided along these lines.  Isaiah is my favorite book of the Old Testament (and seems to have been Jesus’ favorite!). I agree that there are at least 2 authors, but those interpreting the book in the life of the church should focus on the redacted unity of the canonical form of the book.

  • Daniel Berrigan, S. J. Isaiah: Spirit of Courage, Gift of Tears (Augsburg-Fortress, 1996). A powerful interpretation of Isaiah to revitalize the church in imperial America.
  • Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah (Old Testament Library) (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2001).  Childs “canonical interpretation” means that while he accepts the 3-fold authorship, he finds it irrelevant for normative interpretation. The focus is on the canonical form of the book.  Best critical one volume commentary.
  • John D. W. Watts, Isaiah 1-33 (Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 24) (Thomas Nelson, 1985).
  • John D. W. Watts, Isaiah, 34-66 (Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 25) (Thomas Nelson, 1987).  Watts was my teacher. Influenced both by Childs and by the newer literary critical approaches (that put more emphasis on close reading of the text than on reconstructing historical events “behind” the text), Watts also focuses on the final form of the book. He reads the entire book from the perspective of the post-exilic redactor. (We students used to kid him that Watts didn’t believe in 1st or 2nd Isaiah, just 3rd Isaiah!) Thus, the division here is simply because of length; Watts does not break the two volumes along traditional critical lines.
  • John J. Collins, Isaiah(Collegeville Biblical Commentary, vol. 13) (Liturgical Press, 1986).  Aimed at the general reader from a contemporary critical Catholic perspective.
  • Ivan D. Friesen, Isaiah. (Believers Church Bible Commentary) (Herald Press, 2009).  Aimed at the life of the church. Especially helpful for Christian peacemaking.
  • R. E. Clements, Isaiah 1-39 (New Century Bible Commentary) (Eerdmans, 1981).
  • Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66 (Interpretation: A Commentary for Preaching and Teaching) (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1995).

Jeremiah & Lamentations:

Before the rise of historical criticism, it was universally assumed among both Jews and Christians that the prophet Jeremiah wrote both the Book of Jeremiah and the Book of Lamentations.  Although authorship is probably more complicated, it is still obvious that the books are related.  The laments of Lamentations are written in a very similar style of Hebrew to the poetic sections of Jeremiah and seem to respond to the same events.  So, very often, commentaries are written on the two books together, rather than separately.

The relation between the prose secions and poetic sections of Jeremiah has long been a critical question.  The book went through several revisions, too and many critics wonder if the chapters are in the right order.  The book is very closely tied to political events in Judah, but the time cues are confusing.  These kinds of technical issues sometimes distract from the radical message of the book, so I look for commentaries that address the critical problems without getting lost in them. 

  • Leslie C. Allen, Jeremiah:  A Commentary. (Old Testament Library) (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008).  I bought this when working on a Bible study series for adults called “Jeremiah the War-Resister.”  This is a great volume.
  • Daniel Berrigan, Jeremiah: The World, the Wound of God(Fortress Press, 1999). Not a technical commentary, but rich in theological and ethical insights. Berrigan continues to work on curing the church’s biblical amnesia.
  • Norman C. Habel, Jeremiah, Lamentations (Concordia Commentary) (Concordia Publishing House, 1968).  Long out of print, this is still a very readable introduction.
  • R. E. Clements, Jeremiah. (Interpretation:  A Commentary for Preaching and Teaching) (John Knox Press, 1989).
  • Elmer A. Martens, Jeremiah. (Believers Church Bible Commentary) (Herald Press, 1986).
  • Jorge Pixley, Jeremiah. (Chalice Commentaries for Today) (Chalice Press, 2004).  A Liberation theology perspective.
  • Adele Berlin, Lamentations (Old Testament Library) (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004).


As one can tell from the recent publication of the commentaries below, I started delving deeply into Ezekiel comparatively recently compared to others of the Prophets.

  • Bruce Vawter, A New Heart:  A Commentary on the Book of Ezekiel.  (International Theological Commentary) (Eerdmans, 1991).
  • Walther Eichrodt, Ezekiel  (Old Testament Library) (Westminster Press,1971).  This is the classic text by one of the leaders of the old version of the Biblical Theology Movement.
  • Margaret S. Odell, Ezekiel (Smyth & Helwys Press, 2005) with CD Rom.
  • Leslie C. Allen, Ezekiel 1-19 (Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 28) (Thomas Nelson, 1984).
  • Leslie C. Allen, Ezekiel 20-48 (Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 29) (Thomas Nelson, 1990).  These two volumes probably comprise the best technical commentary that I’ve consulted which don’t forget to interpret the text for the church.
  • Daniel Berrigan, S. J.  Ezekiel:  Vision in the Dust(Orbis B ooks, 1997).  It may be that Berrigan’s late-life biblical commentaries prove to be a more lasting legacy of church renewal than his early (and continuing) political activism.
  • Millard Lind, Ezekiel (Believers Church Bible Commentary) (Herald Press, 1996).



  • John E. Goldingay, Daniel (Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 30) (Thomas Nelson, 1989).
  • Toni Craven, Ezekiel, Daniel (Collegeville Bible Commentary, Old Testament, vol. 16). (Liturgical Press, 1986).
  • Paul M. Lederach, Daniel (Believers Church Bible Commentary) (Herald Press, 1994).
  • Sharon Pace. Daniel (Smyth & Helwys Commentary) (Smyth & Helwys Press, 2008).

September 24, 2010 - Posted by | Bible, Biblical interpretation, blog series, book reviews, books

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