Let’s be honest: a good Bible commentary is awesome. A scholar spends years studying a book of the Bible, gathering wisdom both from centuries of Christian history and from his own encounters with God in his Word. Then you get a chance to peek over his shoulder! Commentaries can be a great blessing from God.
While they can be terrific as a reference, commentaries are a poor substitute for studying the Bible yourself. I understand the temptation to rely on commentaries. The research! The analysis! The footnotes! But when we become enamored with the work of a Bible scholar, we miss out on the beauty of the Bible’s author.
The Lure of the Instant Fix
In this era of the smart phone, we’re used to getting everything quickly, from weather forecasts to bank transactions to pizza delivery. We think waiting five seconds for our email to load is an eternity. So if we feel stuck or lost when studying the Bible, we naturally want immediate aid. Study Bibles appeal to this desire by printing explanations and commentary on the same page as the Bible text. Just shift your eyes three inches for your answer.
But this need for instant gratification can short-circuit our Bible learning. You’d be troubled if your eight-year-old completed her math homework with the answer guide next to her, right? We’re not that much different from the math cheat if we camp out in a Bible commentary without poring over the Bible itself first.
Answers are not the Ultimate Goal
But we need to be careful here. An obsession with answering interpretive questions can reveal a misplaced goal. Why are you studying the Bible? If you want to figure everything out, solve tricky theological puzzles, and generally become a Bible genius, you’re pointed in the wrong direction.
The aim of Bible study is love—love for God through his son Jesus, and love for others made in God’s image. Jesus said that all the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matt 22:35–40) If you’re not growing in love as a result of studying the Bible, you’re doing it wrong.
If you skip right to the commentary, you might acquire some temporary knowledge. But if you take a shot at the interpretation first, you are more likely to internalize the author’s main point. This will lead to deeper, Spirit-fueled application.
Used in the right way, Bible commentaries can be tremendously valuable. We’ve published two excellent posts which caution against the misuse of commentaries and study Bibles. Let me offer five additional suggestions.
- Don’t treat a commentary as an infallible expert. Bible commentaries are written by imperfect sinners like you and me. Always weigh the commentary against the Bible.
- Watch out for speculation. A good number of Bible commentators seem prone to this error.
- Take advantage of the strengths. Commentaries are usually helpful in developing a book overview and in answering interpretation questions. On the whole, they tend to be less helpful in the realms of observation and application. (Though there are exceptions!)
- Recognize the weaknesses. Commentators often have different priorities than you. Don’t be frustrated when a commentary doesn’t address your entire list of unanswered questions.
- Choose good commentaries. Though the most trustworthy recommendations come from friends, I’ve found Best Commentaries to be a helpful resource.