The temptation for many students of the Bible, especially those newer to studying the Word of God, is to begin with the next step of the Bible study process. But consulting Bible commentaries or referring to what others have written in explanation of the Scriptures should never precede the steps to effective Bible study that we have already looked at (prayer, reading, studying, and meditating on the Word of God).
The problem with too quickly referring to the comments and explanations of others is that doing so will inevitably influence how we look at the passage we are studying. We will no doubt intertwine the exposition of our favorite Bible commentator with the passage every time we read it thereafter and it will be very difficult to look at the passage in any other way.
Additionally, there is nothing that can compare with the elation and joy that comes from the seemingly serendipitous “discoveries” that the Spirit of God leads us to dig out from His Word through our own dedicated study. No, it isn’t very likely that any of us in this day and age will unearth some profound Scriptural truth that has escaped the detection of all of God’s people over the past two millenia, but there is something deeply satisfying and much more meaningful about finding these hidden gems on our own.
Having said this, let me add that the consulting of commentaries is, however, a truly invaluable practice for any student of the Bible and is essential for anyone who wishes to teach others about the Word of God (which should be everyone who studies the Bible, as we will see in the final part of this series). Reading the sound observations of gifted expositors can serve as a wonderful verification and confirmation of the conclusions we have reached through our own personal study. Careful comparison of our own interpretations with that of trusted Bible teachers can keep us grounded and prevent us from embracing (or even creating) unorthodox doctrines.
It is astounding to hear some of the bizarre and wild interpretations of Scripture that are preached in certain pulpits and written in books by people with enough Biblical education to know better. But this is a very real danger for any of us if we become prideful and make ourselves unaccountable to anyone else doctrinally. Yes, it is possible (and even likely) that the Holy Spirit will show us things from His Word a little differently than He has shown them to others; at times we might even catch a detail that few or no commentators have written about. But if the “message” we are getting from a particular passage is in total conflict with the general consensus of conservative, fundamental Evangelical Bible interpreters, we do well to start the study process over again with prayer before we run with our own conclusions.
So what are some good Bible commentaries to use after we have prayed, read, studied, and meditated on a particular passage? In my opinion, there seems to be at least three main types of Bible commentary: 1.) Those focusing on language, 2.) Those offering brief comments/definitions/comparisons, and 3.) Those which teach through narrative.
Bible commentaries focusing on language and grammar are easily identifiable because a good portion of the commentary is devoted to defining and explaining the etymology of the original Greek or Hebrew text behind each verse. While most commentaries get into the original Bible languages to a certain extent, those with a focus on semantics seem to do so in practically every verse of the Bible. Many are written by scholars with a background specialty in Biblical languages and some go so far that one begins to wonder if the purpose of the commentary is to expound the Scriptures or educate the reader in Ancient Greek. These commentaries can be helpful during exegesis (the examination of Bible verses word-by-word by comparing the translated terms with the original language), but rarely offer much more insight than that obtained by referring to a few solid concordances.
The second category of commentary, and this group seems by far to be the most common, is the “verse-by-verse” commentary or the “brief comments” commentary. These commentaries quickly cut to the chase in each verse, offering a brief definition, explanation, or reference that typically puts the spotlight on just that verse within a chapter. Looking almost like a dictionary or encyclopedia in appearance, commentaries with this approach can be very useful in dissecting a particular passage into each of its parts. Here is an example of this sort of approach taken from the “Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible” covering John 3:17-20:
“17. not to condemn, &c.—A statement of vast importance. Though “condemnation” is to many the issue of Christ’s mission (Jn 3:19), it is not the object of His mission, which is purely a saving one.
18. is not condemned—Having, immediately on his believing, “passed from death unto life” (Jn 5:24).
condemned already—Rejecting the one way of deliverance from that “condemnation” which God gave His Son to remove, and so wilfully remaining condemned.
19. this is the condemnation, &c.—emphatically so, revealing the condemnation already existing, and sealing up under it those who will not be delivered from it.
light is come into the world—in the Person of Him to whom Nicodemus was listening.
loved darkness, &c.—This can only be known by the deliberate rejection of Christ, but that does fearfully reveal it.
20. reproved—by detection.”
(Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., Fausset, A. R., Brown, D., & Brown, D. (1997). A commentary, critical and explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments (Jn 3:17–20). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.)
Some excellent commentaries in this group include: “The Bible Knowledge Commentary“, “The Believer’s Bible Commentary“, and “The MacArthur Bible Commentary.” Commentaries such as these can be beneficial for quickly getting a feel for how a particular verse has been interpreted.
Finally, we come to the third category: the narrative style commentary. By far, these are my favorite and most relied on commentaries. Rather than just focusing in on each verse by itself, these commentaries look at the bigger picture; examining each verse in the context of the passage, each chapter in the context of the book it appears in, and each book in context of the entire Bible. The Word of God is not just a collection of one and two line “sayings” and quotes; it tells a complete story from start to finish, a story that relates every passage, in some way, to every other; each book to every other book. The Bible unfolds majestically from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21 with each portion of Scripture building on the previous. The Bible itself is a narrative, and we sometimes can lose sight of this when we only examine the Word one single verse at a time.
This website/blog is, really, itself a type of narrative style commentary. With a trembling hand and a keen awareness of my own insufficiency for the task at hand, I have sought to model my own ministry after the giants of Biblical insight from whom I have learned so much. There are many resources from which I have drawn, but let me just quickly mention two which I unhesitatingly recommend:
“Thru the Bible” radio broadcast/commentary by Dr. J. Vernon McGee. The late Dr. McGee’s deep Texas drawl can still be heard on radio stations worldwide (mostly on the A.M. stations and lower numbered F.M. stations here in the United States). Though he was the Pastor of the Church of the Open Door in Los Angeles, CA for over twenty years, McGee never lost touch with his simple, Southern roots. Practicing the words of advice from one of his own spiritual mentors, Dr. Harry Ironside, McGee never failed to “keep the cookies on the bottom shelf so the kiddies could reach ‘em” by using simple, everyday stories and illustrations to deliver profound spiritual truths. His entire “5-year radio program” can be downloaded free of charge at TTB.org (though donations are accepted to help keep the program on the air and available for download).
In a time when traditional, conservative Christianity was under attack from within the walls of the Church itself by newly emerging liberal Theology (influenced by 19th Century “Rationalism”, “Spiritism”, and Darwinian Evolution), The Expositor’s Bible stands as a beacon of Scripturally based, sound Bible interpretation in an otherwise gloomy age in Church history. Compiled around the turn of the 20th Century by the brilliant Sir William Nicoll, this commentary is the work of 29 of the most gifted Theologians in Great Britain at the time. Not only were these men scholars of the highest order, they were all experienced preachers with a firm grasp on the practical application of the truths they expounded upon.
The Reverend Oscar L. Joseph, Litt.D astutely observes about the team of contributors:
“It must be acknowledged that a company of writers of the same caliber and qualifications could hardly be brought together at the present day…”
I must agree. There have been subsequent Bible commentaries with identical or similar titles, but the resource to which I am referring can be downloaded at an extremely modest price (about $15 for more than 40 volumes in digital format!) from Ageslibrary.com. Out of print for much of the 20th Century, Dr. McGee (mentioned above) once commented on his program that if a person ever came across just the volume on Leviticus by Dr. Samuel H. Kellogg for sale, and they found it necessary to sale their car and mortgage their home in order to acquire it, then they should do so without a second thought. After reading this book, I’m not sure that he was really exaggerating all that much! This entire commentary is outstanding.
There are many, many wonderful commentaries available to aid us in our study of the Word of God; space does not permit me to really make an exhaustive list. Many of the classic commentaries can provide outstanding insight into the thoughts of interpreters of the past, revealing spiritual gems that seem to have been forgotten over the centuries. Commentaries by Luther, Calvin, and Spurgeon’s works on the Psalms are among some of these windows into the great minds of Christian history. Additionally, since the age of these writings obviously exceeds copyright statutes, many of them can be found and either read online or downloaded free of charge (ccel.org has an excellent online library that can be readily used at no cost).
Any discussion of good Bible commentaries would not be complete without mentioning the classic work of Matthew Henry. Tedious at times for the modern reader, dry as bones in many places, filled with unfamiliar antiquated Latin quotes (fortunately, Henry does normally interpret these references after he gives them!), Henry’s commentaries provide a very thorough dealing with each and every verse of the Bible, often tying in the verse with others and lifting out wonderful lessons and doctrines as he goes along. For those looking for a good, reliable, low cost (free) commentary, and are not averse to reading 18th Century English, Henry’s works are quite remarkable.
Whatever commentary we choose to use for Bible study (ideally we should refer to several trustworthy commentaries), we must remember that they are just tools to help us, they are not a substitute for our own diligent study. As Bob Utley writes in his commentary on the books of James and Jude:
“This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.”
(Utley, R. J. D. (2000). Vol. Volume 11: Jesus’ Half-Brothers Speak: James and Jude. Study Guide Commentary Series (8). Marshall, Texas: Bible Lessons International.)
Sage advice, indeed. Next time, Lord willing, we will look at the next step in effective Bible study: Responding to the Word of God.
To God goes all glory. In service to Him,