I’ve noticed two things about nineteenth-century commentaries that make me very cautious about ignoring them as most modern commentaries do (with the exception of a very few that are still quoted). The first thing is that they often have a much better grasp of the flow of the book of the Bible than modern commentaries, which tend to atomize the text rather a lot. And yet, the nineteenth-century commentaries are still more up-to-date on text-critical issues than the earlier commentaries (although sometimes hopelessly one-sided!). In fact, the older commentaries require the modern reader to wrestle with the flow a great deal more than their modern counterparts tend to do. I’m thinking especially of the Word Biblical Commentary, which not only atomizes the text in almost every place imaginable, but further atomizes its own understanding of the text, dividing up its sections into text-critical, form-critical, exegetical, and application sections. This drives me crazy, and I know I’m not the only one. D.A. Carson hates it, too.
The older commentaries also tend to require a greater attention span to follow the thread of their reasoning. Modern commentaries are written in the television age. Like it or not, this affects the way that the commentator grasps the text. Now, I am far from disparaging modern commentaries, as some of my persuasion do. I tend to pursue the most recent commentaries as well, knowing that there are things in them that the older commentaries do not have. However, it is amazing to me that the more I read, the fewer new things I find in the modern commentaries that have not already been said.
Also, I find that the older commentaries still say many things that the modern commentaries do not. I say these things to prevent chronological snobbery in either direction when it comes to commentaries.
The second major thing I find about nineteenth-century commentaries is their ability to see the big picture. They are often much more synthetic in their approach to the exegetical enterprise, and as a result, they don’t get lost in the forest. It must be said that these are generalizations. There are a fairly decent number of exceptions on both sides. For instance, there are nineteenth-century commentaries that atomize, and there are good modern commentaries that don’t. Similarly, there are nineteenth-century commentaries that lose the forest, and there are modern commentaries that don’t. However, this is what I’ve discovered in reading them. Therefore, I am planning on reading the nineteenth-century commentaries, so that I don’t fall into the same traps that modern commentaries often do. I have and would recommend Lange’s commentary, the Pulpit Commentary, Meyer’s Commentary, and Barnes’ Notes.