How To Approach the Bible: Commentaries and Study Helps
Sir Isaac Newton popularized the phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants” regarding his success in the sciences and the debt he owed to those who laid the foundations for his work. Newton’s sentiment reminds us that we are always learning from those who came before us. We are not the first to think many of the thoughts we think, solve many of the problems we solve, or ask many of the questions we ask. C.S. Lewis expressed something similar in what he called “chronological snobbery.” Lewis challenged the idea that whatever is new must be more relevant and advanced than that which is old. This appreciation that Newton and Lewis showed for the minds of others is very much needed in modern evangelicalism.
When we pick up a Bible, we often forget that we are picking up a text that has been read for thousands of years. Whatever passage you open in your morning devotion time is undoubtedly a passage that has entered the minds and hearts of millions before you. Whatever verse confused you most recently is a verse that has confused countless readers before you. Now consider that in the time in which we live, God has providentially given us access to many of those readers’ thoughts, questions, and answers. God’s people, indwelt by God’s Spirit, have provided us with an abundance of information to help us in our own study of the Bible.
There are too many choices. How do I know where to start?
You may not need convincing that we have digital libraries of study helps at our fingertips. Perhaps you are already aware of this, and your struggle is that there is too much to choose from, and too many articles, videos, and websites to sift through. I sympathize with you. But I’d also like to challenge you.
Most of us have taken on a home improvement project with no prior experience. We googled, read blogs, and watched YouTube videos. We came across tons of information. We learned that everyone has a different opinion on the best way to tackle the project. We asked a few experienced friends when we weren’t sure. Then, finally, we put together the best combination of knowledge and felt confident enough to get started. As we went, we made adjustments, remembered what different sources said, which we previously discounted, and eventually reached our end goal.
In case you haven’t picked up on where I’m headed with this, studying scripture is a lot like that. It’s work. It’s trial and error. It’s something you do with guidance from those more experienced.
How do I know which commentaries are trustworthy?
It’s important to note that there is not one commentator out there that has everything right. In fact, most of the best commentaries will give multiple interpretations of the more difficult passages and show you why they favor the one that they do. The safest way to approach a selection of commentaries is by asking trusted leaders and pastors for recommendations. A few widely used websites for free commentaries are:
Even when using these, it is vital to remember that not all of them will agree with one another (like your home improvement videos). The goal is not to find something that will tell you precisely what a particular text means but to gain insight into the different potential meanings so that you can continue prayerfully studying.
What are the different types of commentaries and helps?
Commentaries can range from devotional-style writings meant to pull the heart from the text, like Matthew Henry, to exegetical commentaries, like Thomas R. Schreiner, meant to dig deep into the original language and authorial intent. With a handful of trusted websites, you can also easily find cross-references to repeated words and ideas, dictionaries of theological terms, and insights into the original languages. We’ve also mentioned the value of study Bibles in this series of articles listed below. A good study Bible will provide selected and condensed versions of this same type of information.
- How To Study The Bible: 66 Books, One Focus
- How To Approach Reading The Bible: The 7 Types Of Bible Literature
The work is worth the effort.
God has given us an abundance of resources to help us study, understand, and apply His Word. While it may seem overwhelming when looking at all the available information, I encourage you to give this pursuit all the diligence you can. Matthew 22:37 commands us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Most of us are familiar with that verse, but have you ever considered that last word? What does it mean to love the Lord your God with all your mind? One way you can love Him with all your mind is by giving your time and effort to the study of His Word. The Bible is written for God’s people – all of God’s people, and not just the scholars and ministers. The truths contained within its pages are accessible to you!
Nick Judd is the Kids Pastor at The Journey Church in Lebanon, TN. He is also the co-host of the "Everyday Apologetics" podcast. Nick is passionate about growing people in their knowledge of the Word of God and in their ability to defend it in the midst of a culture fighting against truth.
- Biblical Interpretation, Hermeneutics, The Bible (or “Scripture”)