I go back and forth between these two all the time. Both have very good points, and both fall down pretty hard in a couple points. Yet they’re both very close to the top of my personal choices, and I have frequently seen myself using either of these two as my main Bible.
The NKJV is very much what it’s supposed to be, the NEW King James Version. The phrasing is there, the rhythms are there. Even the manuscripts are the same. The NKJV is as comfortable as an old shoe. It’s very much like taking a trip back to my childhood home, and that’s a good thing…but it’s also a bad thing. In the same way as visiting your childhood home, some things are different; some things are actually disturbing. The NKJV is missing all the archaic “thee”s and “thou”s and “thy”s, all the really old language that is not used today and is no longer well understood by even most Bible scholars. But it still retains the old “behold!” that helps you remember it’s a Bible. But when you get beyond that stuff, you start to realize that even in this updated state, the (N)KJV is still difficult to understand. The English has not been updated enough.
The ESV seems much like the NKJV, in that it’s a word-for-word translation, and at first glance appears to have a lot of archaic words and phrases. But then you start to realize the differences. Unlike the NKJV, the ESV uses better manuscripts, the older manuscripts that do not have all the additional words, phrases and verses like the KJV/NKJV. It’s actually based on the Revised Standard Version (RSV), a translation that would be out of print except for the Catholic publishers and such publishers as Oxford and Cambridge in the UK. Evangelicals today are nearly totally unfamiliar with the RSV, but as a life-long Methodist, I grew up with it. The RSV was the Bible I received from my local church when I was in third grade. It was the “official” Bible of the mainline denominations. And many still consider it the very finest of the post-KJV translations. The RSV has even been added to the line-up of translations at BibleGateway.com, so you can read it any time and use it to compare with other translations.
And that is exactly what I did one day. I ran the ESV and the RSV along side each other to compare a couple chapters, though I don’t remember what those chapters were. But at any rate I was amazed to discover the ESV was almost word-for-word the same as the RSV. I guess it’s only logical, seeing as how the ESV used the RSV as its baseline from which it started. But then when you get away from those chapters, you discover that the ESV has been greatly updated as far as the language is concerned, with nary a “thee” or a “thou” to be found. The RSV still has a great deal of that old archaic language, which is why I decided to move away from my interest in it.
The ESV is heavily marketed by its main publisher, Crossway, and others like EvangelicalBible and Oxford, Cambridge, Schuyler, and Allan. There are lots of ESV Bibles out there to choose from, and the translation has been accepted and promoted by Christians, churches, and scholars. And to be honest, this translation is very near my top choice translation but for this one criticism I have of it: it’s wordy where the NKJV and most other translations are concise. Often the problem lies with what I consider to be poor choices when the translation was being made. It often seems to take a lot of words to say very little; it’s almost as if the editors were trying to make it sound more like a Bible by using certain words and phrases. So as good as the ESV is, and it’s really excellent, it just doesn’t quite make the cut.