Thoughts on the MacArthur ESV Study Bible

MacArthur ESVI mentioned in my last Nightstand post that I had finished reading the ESV version of the MacArthur Study Bible but wasn’t planning to review it. How do you review a Bible, after all? But one friend said she’d like to hear my thoughts about it. So here goes.

I’d like to discuss it in two parts: the ESV version and then MacArthur’s notes.

The subject of Bible versions can be touchy and whole books have been written on them – I can’t possibly go into everything concerning them here. The best book I know of on the subject is From the Mind of God to the Mind of Man: A Layman’s Guide to How We Got Our Bible. A former pastor, someone whose exposition I trust more than anyone else I’ve heard or read, is one of the contributors, I knew one of the others in college, and I have heard a couple of others speak. That doesn’t mean these men are infallible, of course, but I have heard and read enough of them to generally trust them, and I have read enough elsewhere that supports what they say. Probably the biggest issue for those who are “King James Only” is the manuscripts that the different version or translated from. I think this book handles that ably, and I have read and heard enough to feel assured about reading version like the NASB (New American Standard Bible) and ESV (English Standard Version), as well, as, of course, the KJV and NKJV. (If you differ with me on this, that’s your prerogative, but I really don’t want to get into any arguments about it here. I have known some KJO people to think less of other Christians who use different versions, or even to break fellowship with people who don’t use the KJV. I think that is definitely going way too far.)

If you’ve read much about Bible translations, you’ve probably come across different theories or processes. No translation of anything from one language to another is going to be word for word exactly, literally, like the original. There are differences in syntax: for instance, Spanish puts the adjective after the noun while English usually puts it before: Casa Blanca for White House. One language may not have the exact word equivalent for every word in another language, and so on. If you’ve ever looked at a Greek interlinear New Testament, which has the Greek words and then the corresponding English above or below them, you’ll get some idea of the difficulty. (Take a look at Luke 2, for example.) Translators fall into two camps: those who try to translate word for word, staying as close as possible to the original while making ti understandable in another language, and those who translate thought for thought. The thought-for-thought translations are usually the most readable, but the least accurate.

Forgive the excess background material, but I felt I needed to go into that to explain that I think the ESV is probably my favorite translation. The KJV will always hold a special place in my heart, and I tend to think in King James, after having used it and read it for over 40 years now. But the ESV seems to me to best combine accuracy and readability.

Now on to MacArthur’s notes. I think this is the first time I have ever read through a study Bible, and I found the bulk of the notes very helpful. At the beginning are sections called Introduction to the Bible (kind of an overview), How We Got the Bible, How to Study the Bible, a preface to the ESV explaining the philosophy and style that went into this transition, an explanation of the features, especially the cross references and footnotes. Before each of the Testaments are introductions, chronologies, overviews, etc., and even the intertestamental period gets a few pages. Each book is introduced with a few pages discussing authorship, date, background and setting, historical and theological themes, interpretive challenges, and an outline. I found this especially very helpful to read before beginning a particular book. Throughout the book are applicable maps, charts, and diagrams and footnotes on most of the verses. At the end are appendices on The Character of Genuine Saving Faith, an Overview of Theology, a plan to read through the Bible in a year, an index to key Bible doctrines, Monies, Weights, and Measures, and a concordance.

The book is too bulky to carry to church, almost a little hard to handle while sitting on the couch, where I usually do my Bible reading. The print in the notes especially is very small, but if it was any larger, more pages and therefore more bulk would be required. So the size of both the print and the book itself are probably the best compromise.

I did not know much about MacArthur before reading this. I had found him to be a little terse in what things of his I had read, and that seems to come through here, but then again, that’s the nature of the verse-by-verse notes. Sometimes something I had a question about wasn’t addressed, or at least not to the extent I’d like, but I had to remind myself that this wasn’t a commentary, and the notes needed to be limited to a degree.

At first it was a little distracting to read a verse and then read the corresponding notes, but after a while it didn’t seem to be. It did help to reread or at least skim through the chapter again after reading it verse then note then verse, to put it all together.

I have multitudes of places marked, much more than I can share here, but here are a couple:

It helped to realize that Chronicles was not just a repeat of Kings, but was written when the Jews were returning to Israel after 70 years of exile to a land far different from their “glory years” of David and Solomon.

The chronicler’s selective genealogy and history of Israel…was intended to remind the Jews of God’s promises and intentions about: 1) the land; 2) the nation; 3) the Davidic king; 4) the Levitical priests; 5) the temple; and 6) true worship, none of which had been abrogated because of the Babylonian captivity. All of this was to remind them of their spiritual heritage during the difficult times they faced, and to encourage them to be faithful to God (p. 557).

Of Exodus 20:5-6, which speaks of God “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me,” MacArthur says:

Moses had made it clear that children were not punished for the sins of their parents (Deut. 24:16; see Ezek. 18:19-32), but children would feel the impact of breaches of God’s law by their parents’ generation as a natural consequence of its disobedience, its hatred of God. Children reared in such an environment would imbibe and then practice similar idolatry, thus themselves expressing hateful disobedience. The difference in consequence served as both a warning and a motivation. The effect of a disobedient generation was to plant wickedness so deeply that it took several generations to reverse (p. 123).

Re the imprecatory prayers in the psalms: “As God’s mediatorial representative on earth, David prayed for judgement on his enemies, since these enemies were not only hurting him, but were primarily hurting God’s people. Ultimately, they challenged the King of kings, the God of Israel” (p. 734).

There were a few places I disagree with him, some minor, such as whether David was wrong to mourn Absalom in the way he did (MacArthur thought it was “melancholy,” “weak, ” and “unwarranted zeal for such a worthless son”; I thought it was perfectly natural to deeply grieve not only his loss of life but his state at the end of it). Some differences were major, particularity a Calvinistic bent which I had not known he possessed.

Calvinism is another issue too large for one blog post. I agree with parts of it but seriously disagree with other parts. But for just one example, one of the ares where I most disagree with it is with the “I” in the TULIP” acronym: Irresistible Grace, the idea that if God calls you to salvation, you can’t say no. One passage that particularly counteracts that idea, in my opinion, is where Jesus laments, ““O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34). That sounds pretty much like they resisted His overtures and attempts to gather them to Himself. Here’s what MacArthur says of the Matthew passage:

God is utterly sovereign and therefore fully capable of bringing to pass whatever he desires (cf. Isa.46:10)–including the salvation of whomever he chooses (Eph. 1:4-5). Yet, he sometimes expresses a wish for that which he does not sovereignly bring to pass (cf. Gen. 6:6; Deut. 5:29; Ps. 81:13; Isa. 48:18). Such expressions in no way suggest a limitation on the sovereignty of God or imply any actual change in him (Num. 23:19). But these statements do reveal essential aspects of the divine character: he is full of compassion, sincerely good to all,  desirous of good, not evil–and therefore not delighting in the destruction of the wicked… (p. 1403).

This passage makes sense to me if Christ is lamenting that people turned away from His attempts to draw them, because He knows what it will ultimately mean for them (if you turn away from Him, there is nowhere else to go. If you won’t accept his grace, there’s nothing left but wrath). But it doesn’t make sense if He is saying, “I didn’t elect you, and you don’t have any chance, but I feel bad about that.”

The Bible itself is inspired by God: no man’s notes and commentaries are. But someone else’s intense study of the Word of God can be greatly beneficial to us in our own study, and, though I disagreed with MacArthur in a few places here and there, I was greatly helped by the majority of his notes.

(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday,
Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books,
Carole’s Books You Loved)



11 thoughts on “Thoughts on the MacArthur ESV Study Bible

  1. I want a MacArthur study Bible. Might have to put it on the Christmas list!! Thank you for your comments.

    I use MacArthur’s commentaries when doing personal Bible study, and they have been very, very helpful, especially when going through tough chapters such as some of the ones in Romans.

    When my husband was a brand new Christian, he didn’t know much about the Bible. Somehow he discovered MacArthur on the radio, and instinctively knew that this was a good man to listen to. He considers MacArthur to be his first pastor, because he was studying with MacArthur even before getting into a church. My sister in law has said that they knew not to call him between 8:00 and 8:30 on weeknights, because he was busy with his Bible, notebook, pen, and radio!!

  2. I’ve used a MacArthur Study Bible for many years and enjoy it. However, I, too, don’t believe all his commentary comments are exact or correct; but he has an assurance in his presentation that often reminds me of Elizabeth Elliott! I have a very few part of his comments that I have x-ed out of put NO! beside them – ha, ha! No earthly person has it all right, but I appreciate that he doesn’t skip over hard passages, too.

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  5. I have heard John MacArthur on the radio a few times and liked what I heard. He was explaining how the gift of tongues has died out. In this Youtube video, he rebukes Joel Osteen. Here, i think MacArthur is right, too. Where I disagree with him, is on Calvinism. I think people can resist grace and therefore I disagree with the “I” in Tulip. What about Hebrews chapter 6? Is it Galations chapter 5 verse 4 (or nearby) that talks about “falling from Grace”? So, it must be possible. What about “falling away”? What about “Apostasy”? What about “backsliding”? I am also curious to find out more about what Greek Orthodox Christians believe (I am not Greek orthodox) about Total Depravity, the “T” in Tulip. Some years ago Dave Hunt wrote a book called What Love is This? which I haven’t read but I think it takes on Calvinism. will likely have it.

    Another doctrine I strongly disagree with is: “Once saved, always saved.” I believe this is directly responsible for so much of today’s lackluster, loose and lazy christianity we see these days. Yes, Christianity teaches you can become a Christian and get your sins forgiven. But then Heaven is not an automatic guarantee. You have a clean slate and a fresh start. But you could still blow it later. Now, it’s a Daily Walk and one needs to “walk the walk”. And “he that endureth to the end” and all that. Paul talked about fighting the good fight and running the race. He didn’t talk about getting saved and just coasting into heaven because you and God are old college frat-buddies.

    But people don’t like this. Too much work they might say. Don’t expect Joel Osteen to preach this. Too “negative.” And bad for business. Won’t get money in the collection plate that way. But to talk more about the Bible—

    I wish there were a study bible that was:
    a NEW Testament, plus Genesis, with book introductions and also a large Dictionary/Concordance, all in a 12pt. or 14pt. font. and the whole thing with a Black bonded leather cover.
    Easier to take with you anywhere. Easier to read print. I’ll bet people would spend more time “in the Word” that way! Especially when they are new to the faith. They can always read the rest of the old testament later. On another note, I bought my first NEW King James Study Bible, and I like it. I also like the NASB version.

    #Bible #Theology #Christianity #Christians #StudyBibles #Church

    • I like the NKJ and the NASB, too. I’ve read the NASB all the way through – can’t remember if I have the NKJ – I think so.

      I’ve read posts about MacArthur’s arguments about tongues, and I imagine he’d pretty much disagree with Olsteen categorically. I’ve never heard Olsteen preach, but from everything I’ve read, I’d disagree with him on many things.One good article is

      I’d have to disagree with you on “once saved always saved,” though. If we’re “born again” (John 3, 1 Peter 1:23), we don’t get unborn when we mess up. But God’s children don’t “get away with” not living for Him: as a father, He chastens His children. People who sin without any compunction are likely not God’s children in the first place (Hebrews 12:5-15).

      • Some additional thoughts:
        1. For a refutation of Calvinism, look up Dr. Jerry Walls and Calvinism on Youtube.
        2. After getting saved, It is possible for Christians to continue to sin. They can be forgiven, but they also need to ask for it. It’s an ongoing effort and daily walk. It has nothing to do with with “getting UN-born”, no one is claiming that. It’s a matter of “continuing in his word” and not turning away once we’ve gotten saved. But people can do that, as they still have free-will. For people to claim that if one turns away, that they were never really saved in the first place, sounds a little-too-convenient. (my opinion). It also sounds like defending Calvinism. John Calvin got alot of his ideas from Augustine, but Augustine may have been wrong about several things. What do the Greek Orthodox people think of Augustine? (I am not Greek Orthodox). Some interesting questions: how was Christian Theology different both before, and after, Augustine? Who was Origen? Who was Arius? What was Pelagianism?
        3. On a different note, I wonder how the ESV might compare with the NEW King James version in how passages are worded.
        4. One more thing, I have heard about something called “Open Theism”. This is new to me. If I remember right, there was a Youtube debate, I think it was was between Dr. James White and Dr. Michael Brown. Not sure about that one, yet, but I may look further into it.
        At least you are getting into the Word. Good for you!

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