How to Use Bible Commentaries More Effectively

Commentaries are a huge blessing to those who study the Bible. From them we can glean from the years of hard study of thousands of Christians who have come before us. Their knowledge of culture, language, grammar, background information, and theology can fill out our understanding of the biblical writers. For pastors, Bible students, and scholars, Bible commentaries act as a check on their own study, allowing them to see if they are coming to similar conclusions as those who have studied the same passage. This helps to make sure that our own conclusions aren’t going off in a direction that might lead to error, or even worse. But there are a wide variety of commentaries out there, and it is often difficult even for those trained in seminary to know which to use and when to use it. I thought it would be helpful to describe each type of commentary commonly available, how it is helpful, and then what order I use commentaries to best help me develop my sermons and Bible studies.

Like a lot of Christians, my first experiences with Bible commentaries were mixed. Some seemed to be written in a foreign language, even when they were written in English. They were so complicated and hard to understand that they were frustrating and useless to me. Others were understandable, but they often read like sermons. This made them enjoyable to read, but they often skipped over large portions or failed to explain the one verse I was needing help with!

Later, after attending seminary, I learned that there are different categories of commentaries for different purposes. And I learned an incredibly important lesson: commentaries should be used after I have done my own study. The temptation can be to take a great teacher’s study and sermon outline from their commentary and teach or preach it as if it was my own. Not only is that unethical, it robs you of the blessing of encountering the Word for yourself when you do the hard work of studying.

To help myself, I came up with a simple system of when to read the types of commentaries I use in a specific order. I’ll give you that system a little later, but first I think it would be helpful for me to lay out some of the different types of commentaries out there. This will help you know what you already own, their strengths and weaknesses, and hopefully it will give you a better idea of what you should buy the next time you purchase a new commentary.

Types of Commentaries [1]

  1. Devotional-These commentaries are written for the average Christian and are heavy with application. They are broad in scope, meaning they cover a lot of Bible in a little space. Often, they are a short book written to cover a whole Bible book. Warren Wiersbe’s “Be” series and J. Vernon McGee’s Thru the Bible Commentaries are of this kind.
  2. Expositional-These commentaries are based upon the preaching of a particular pastor’s sermons. They may or may not be heavily edited, but they often include coverage of a preaching portion: illustrations, application, and explanation of the text. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary series and James Montgomery Boice’s commentaries are good examples of this type.
  3. Exegetical– These commentaries rely upon the original languages of the biblical text, and aid the Bible student in understanding the significance of the language, grammar, and syntax. Additionally, the exegetical commentary will give large sections of study to introductory matters, translational issues, contextual matters, and interpretive challenges. Although useful without the knowledge of biblical languages, they are most helpful to those who have a working knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. The Hendriksen New Testament Commentary set and Word Biblical Commentaries are representative of this type of commentary.
  4. Critical/Technical– As far as traditional commentaries go, these are the most specialized. These commentaries deal with original languages, biblical manuscripts, and many other issues that are important to biblical scholars. Many (although not all) of the contributors to these commentaries are theologically liberal, and they are usually very expensive, although they often contain gold when the student knows how to use them profitably. Some examples of these commentaries would include the International Critical Commentary (ICC) series and Hermeneia Commentaries.
  5. Background-Normally biblical background information is included in most commentaries, but there are some commentaries that focus on this aspect in a commentary format (using book, chapters, and verses divisions). An example would be the IVP Bible Background Commentary.

So, how do I choose which commentary to use first, and does it really matter?

My System for Choosing Which Commentary To Use First

After I have studied the passage for myself, I usually will have several questions and observations about the text. But because of my study, I will have a good general understanding of the main idea. If this is the case, I will choose commentaries from the above categories and read them in this order:

  1. Critical/Technical
  2. Exegetical
  3. Background
  4. Expositional
  5. Devotional

I may not read any commentaries in categories 4 and 5 (Expositional and Devotional) every time. I’ll explain in a moment why.

The reason I begin with the harder and more technical commentaries and move toward the easier and more popular ones is because when I turn to my commentaries I am still wrestling with the text and any unanswered questions. I want to find the answers for myself from my work with the language, grammar, and syntax. If I move too fast to the expositional commentaries, I will be tempted to adopt the interpretation of the writer. And since they are human, they might be wrong. Until I have answered these questions for myself and my interaction with the biblical text, I need help with exegesis before moving on to interpretation.

After I have successfully understood the hardest ideas in the text, I move to the next level of commentaries. The expositional commentaries will help me understand how another pastor has preached and outlined the text I am studying, and a devotional commentary will show me how it has been illustrated and applied. If I understand the text well enough, application and illustration may begin to form easily for me and I won’t need to look at the devotional or expositional commentaries I have.

So, why not flip the order? Because I consider it “cheating” for me, since I will be given an explanation, outline, illustrations, and applications of a passage that I did not myself discover for myself. Additionally and most importantly, I am not trusting the Bible and the Spirit to inform my study, but instead am giving another human author a great amount of influence in my understanding of the Bible. When I teach the Bible, I want to have the confidence to say, “Thus says the Lord” because I have done the hard labor of study. If I cheat and simply read the fruit of someone else’s study, then I am not truly being a biblical expositor; I am simply a parrot.

But there is one exception to my rule when I will actually begin with either an expositional commentary or a devotional commentary. That is when I have studied the text in-depth for myself and I am left completely without a clue as to how I would preach or teach this particular text. I may understand the words, sentences, and paragraphs, but how I can teach this particular passage has stumped me. At this point, I will choose a faithful devotional or expositional commentary and read the section I am studying. This will usually help me see how the author taught it and clarifies for me the main idea to teach. At this point, I stop reading and begin going through the list as I gave it above, beginning with the more technical commentaries and moving down the list.

I don’t necessarily think that this method is the only way of using commentaries, but it works for me and helps guard my heart against taking the route which might cause me to shortcut my study. What about you? How have you used commentaries that have helped your study? What are your favorites and why? If you have any followup questions about how I use commentaries, let me know. I’d love to help.

Footnote:

[1] I’ve added the Amazon.com links to each of these commentary series’ to help you identify them. I have done this for reference only and don’t necessarily endorse everything in them. Also, I don’t gain anything from you purchasing a book through the link. Shop around, you might find great deals elsewhere. More money saved means more money for books!

One thought on “How to Use Bible Commentaries More Effectively

  1. Pingback: Weekly Expose: Word Usage Edition ~ Links You Should Know This Week (February 12, 2021) - Soli Deo Gloria

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