Updated: Mar 3, 2021
It is no secret that the American church struggles with biblical literacy. Recently, I wrote a blog article addressing the difficulties in reading the Bible, and one of the suggestions I made in order to facilitate a devotional life involved biblical commentaries. Supplementary material, though written by flawed man, offers invaluable insight into the underlying factors that compose scripture. Those in the church who academically study the Bible open a window into the cultural context of the passages found throughout God's Word. In this post, I am going to discuss the different factors in finding and applying a solid biblical commentary to your everyday Bible reading.
Finding a Commentary
There are countless commentaries with countless authors with countless backgrounds and viewpoints, so it may seem to be a daunting task to find a commentary that is theologically sound and addresses your particular needs. Doing your research, however, is vital in supplementing your devotional life. Consulting your local pastor is a great way to find these valuable resources without working too hard in the search. I will provide a link below to a bible commentary I find to be helpful, easily accessible, and theologically sound.
It is important to, if possible, quickly skim through a commentary in order to ascertain whether or not the commentary is worth reading. Good commentators will often discuss multiple views on points of contention throughout scripture. If you are reading a commentary that only addresses one particular view and avoids referencing other commentators, then the commentary is probably not worth reading. Important to note as well is the language used. Some writers are simply better at communicating the point concisely without using dense language. If you have a harder time understanding the commentary than you do scripture, then it is probably best that you look elsewhere.
It is also important to make sure that you pick up a commentary and not something that focuses on hermeneutics or homiletics. Though these other resouraces are valuable in their own right, commentaries help in Bible reading because they give you a glimpse at the historical and literary context of scripture. Remember, you want to read the Bible yourself and allow the Holy Spirit to guide you in the right direction. A good commentary will not interfere with that guidance.
There are commentaries that focus on specific books of the Bible whereas others offer a general view of all of scripture. The type of commentary you pick is the depth of understanding you will receive. Once you find one commentary, the task becomes increasingly easier, as commentators will often reference other commentators and their works, offering a bibliography of countless other valid commentaries that may suite your needs.
I always recommend reading the Bible before doing any supplemental reading. Reading through the introduction of your commentary is the one exception to this rule, but I will talk about that more below. As I mentioned earlier, you want the Holy Spirit to guide you towards the truth. As wonderful as some preachers, teachers, and writers are, it is important to not allow a man or woman’s words influence you to think one way or another. Allow God’s word to speak to you before you listen to someone else’s interpretation.
Sometimes, the most difficult part of reading the Bible is deciding what to read. I suggest picking a particular book of the Bible to study. Some people follow yearly Bible reading plans, but I don't personally believe that readers garner as much by reading bits and pieces of different books. At the end of the day, however, if you find a plan that actively encourages you in bible reading and engages you with the truth of God's word, then I suggest following it. Ultimately, however, I encourage Bible readers to read through a single book one at a time.
If you are reading through a book, reading the introduction of your commentary is incredibly beneficial, as it will point you in the right direction in terms of overarching themes, symbols, and ideas. It will explain the book’s literary genre which may shift your approach to your studies, and it will offer invaluable historical context to the book. If you are unfamiliar with the different contexts found throughout scripture, this information could be life changing in your devotional studies.
After reading through a section of the book, perhaps a chapter, it could be beneficial to take a break and reflect on what you just read. What was the author saying? Did anything stand out to you? Did anything confuse you? This would be an excellent time to consult your commentary. Sometimes your commentary will clarify something. Sometimes your commentary will reaffirm what you already believed about scripture. Sometimes your commentary will correct something you misunderstood. Sometimes, and this is important, your commentary will disagree with you. You do not have to alter your viewpoints due to someone else’s opinion. If a commentator disagrees with you and you have thoroughly studied and meditated on God’s Word and still disagree, continue to disagree. This is why it is beneficial to find a commentary that addresses the different viewpoints on different parts of scripture. Make sure you are being honest with yourself. If you are holding on to a belief that does not seem to be supported by scripture after studying God’s Word, then it is possible you are incorrect in holding that belief. This is part of growing in understanding God’s character and the Bible.
There may be times where commentaries don’t offer enough insight into a difficult passage. This is where you may want to consult your pastor about a problematic verse or passage. Talking about these obstacles with someone else will offer a lot of insight into the particular difficulties you may be facing. Just remember, you are most likely not the only person to struggle in understanding that part of the Bible.
If you are reading different books concurrently, it is important to understand that everything has a context. Every verse is connected to an entire book, letter, or poem, and it is important to take this context into consideration. This is why it is difficult to study the Bible piecemeal. There are many powerful verses throughout scripture, but they are part of a unified whole. You may find yourself spending more time focusing on the context of the different passages than you do on actually reading and meditating, and this could take away from the experience of studying the Bible.
Also keep in mind that the Bible is full of thoughts and ideas that are not condoned by scripture. For example, the book of Job is littered with bad theological takes on Job’s situation. Reading different chapters out of context may lead someone to believe something that is not actually supported by Scripture. If you are reading the Bible piecemeal, it is important to be on the lookout for similar situations. If something sounds wrong, you may need to take some time and look into who is speaking and whether or not the rest of the book supports them.
At the end of the day, it is important that you read your Bible. Equally important, however, is guarding yourself against any incorrect interpretations. Make no mistake, the Bible is one of the most difficult, if not most rewarding, books you can pick up to read. There is no shame in seeking out assistance in your studies. In fact, any pastor worth his or her salt would agree that it is important to use the resources made available to anyone who is genuinely looking to read God’s Word. We mould our entire lives around this book. It is worth the effort.
How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth - https://www.amazon.com/How-Read-Bible-All-Worth/dp/0310246040/ref=nodl_
This is a really useful tool on a general approach to the different literary genres found throughout the Bible. Much of the content found in this article was derived from one of the chapters of this book, and the authors also offer a list of biblical commnetaries they recommend for each book of the Bible. If you are new to reading God’s Word or need a refresher, I highly recommend picking up this book.
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary - https://www.amazon.com/Expositors-Bible-Commentary-Revised-13-Commentary/dp/0310491967/ref=sr_1_2?crid=17Z08F38JEW2&dchild=1&keywords=the+expositors+bible+commentary&qid=1614209583&s=books&sprefix=The+expositor%2Cstripbooks%2C159&sr=1-2
This is the commentary I use almost every day. Its easily accessible in regards to the language they use and their writing style, and the commentary itself is concise and informative. Understandably, the entire thirteen volume set is expensive; however, you can purchase the individual volume you need depending on what book you are currently studying.