Commentaries are one of the best ways to dive into the details of Scripture. But maybe you’ve been intimidated by the sheer number or sizes of commentaries (some are over a thousand pages).
What’s a commentary?
Commentaries contain observations and interpretations surrounding a biblical text, typically organized according to the text’s sequential flow. Many times, commentaries cover a single book of the Bible, but sometimes they focus on a particular section (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount) or they include several books of the same genre (e.g., the Minor Prophets).
Most commentaries open with an introduction, which discusses who wrote the book and when, the historical background, the intended audience, and how that book fits into the main storyline and themes of the whole Bible. The introduction typically also highlights the structure and major themes of the book.
From there, most commentaries move through the book verse-by-verse or section-by-section, discussing important insights in the text. Discussion within a commentary can focus on scholarly analysis, lay-level exposition and application, or anywhere in between.
How can a commentary help me?
One way to use a commentary is to read it side by side Scripture. Start by studying a passage and considering any questions or takeaways, then turn to the commentary to see what other treasures you can find in that passage.
Another way to use commentaries is to use them as a reference when you have questions about a passage. For example, you may come across a theological word, cultural concept, or biblical event you don’t know about it—gaps between the original reader’s world and yours. A commentary can help you fill that gap by teaching you how the original audience would have understood those references. From there, you can apply the meaning of the text to your context.
Commentaries are one of the best tools to check your own interpretation of Scripture against other respected pastors, scholars, and church leaders. They can help you avoid errors and misunderstandings about the Bible while improving your understanding of biblical passages and themes.
What kinds of commentaries are there?
Commentaries come in all different kinds, from highly technical analysis of Greek and Hebrew to devotional guides. Most can be classified as critical, exegetical, expositional, or application commentary. There’s a lot of overlap in these categories, but here’s what they mean:
Critical commentaries, or “technical commentaries,” delve into the Bible’s original languages and offer a scholarly perspective on Scripture. They dig into text criticism and other academic research methods, and they are often theologically neutral or agnostic—they don’t argue for a certain interpretation. A good example of this is the International Critical Commentary New Testament (ICC) (33 vols.).
Exegetical commentaries bridge the gap between critical and expositional commentaries. Typically, these go verse by verse through a passage and are selective about what critical issues they engage and original language observations they include. They typically venture from observation to interpretation, often with a clear theological position. You can see what this looks like in the Exegetical Summaries Series (31 vols.).
Expositional commentaries, sometimes called “pastoral” commentaries, are primarily focused on how to teach and preach the biblical text. Often, expositional commentaries like the Pulpit Commentary Series are taken from real sermons and refer to other commentaries for further research.
Application commentaries, also called “devotional” or “popular” commentaries, offer biblical insight that doesn’t require years of theological training. These commentaries are designed to help laypeople take their Bible study to a new depth. The Bible Knowledge Commentary (2 vols.) is a great place to start.
If you’re wondering what kind of commentary something is, it’s often right there in the name: for example, International Critical Commentary New Testament (ICC) (33 vols.). When it’s not, you can typically tell from the commentary’s description or endorsements whether it’s for academics, pastors, or lay leaders. (Or you can look inside. If you see a lot of Greek, Hebrew, and footnotes, you can pretty well rule out an application commentary.)
Which commentaries should I start with?
If you’re just starting out, start slow. Pick a few commentaries from pastors and theologians you respect, and see what they have to say on particular passages. From there, you can begin using commentaries more regularly in your Bible study.
Wait to use a critical commentary until you’re established in your knowledge of biblical Greek or Hebrew; otherwise, you won’t be able to engage with the author’s arguments. Critical commentaries are highly valuable, but only if you know how to handle them.
August’s back-to-school sale is a great time to pick up some commentaries. Here are a few we recommend:
The Bible Knowledge Commentary (2 vols.) – 40% off
Exegetical Summaries Series (31 vols.) – 30% off