I have a confession to make. Sometimes I use commentaries during my personal devotions.
That probably marks me as a theolo-geek. As would trying to create a new word to describe it. But using commentaries has actually helped me hugely and I think it might help you too. Here’s why.
1. Not all commentaries are for theolo-geeks.
Start here. Commentaries are completely not the same. You don’t pull out garden shears to open an envelope; get the right tool for the job. Commentaries are made for all kinds of purposes, including a quick 1-2 page read to understand a passage better. One of my favorite commentaries averages 3 pages per Psalm. There are whole sets on every book of the Bible like this. They’re made for normal people; not theolo-geeks, and they’re compact enough that you can afford to browse 3-4 pages together with your normal reading without getting lost in a sea of details.
2. It’s like having your own personal answer-guy.
No matter how long you’ve been reading the Bible, you will encounter things you don’t understand—maybe nearly every day. In fact here’s a secret—even card-carrying theolo-geeks constantly read stuff in the Bible they don’t get. That’s because nobody is smart enough or has enough time to understand everything.
So what do you do? A commentary is like having someone who spent weeks studying the passage out and can help give you background. Who’s “the King of the North” (Dan. 11) or how do you do the math on 70 weeks (Dan. 9)? What’s an oak of Bashan, where is it and why does it matter (Isa. 2:13)? Why did Jesus tell people not to tell others about the miracles He did for them (Mark 1)? There’s an easy way to find out. Don’t just go it alone and don’t accept not knowing. In the process of finding out, you’ll discover these passages opening up.
3. It isn’t adding to the Bible.
We might be tempted to say that pulling out your commentary takes you away from the Bible. If that means chasing down some bit of trivia curiosity, yes. But a good commentary will just point you back to the Bible. Really, it’s not all that different from a good study Bible; just a bit more thorough.
And there’s biblical basis for that too. Good men read the Scripture and then “they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Neh. 8:8). Since when do we think it doesn’t count unless we go it alone? More than that, this is a basic recognition that God speaks to other people besides me. Getting their help is a confession that I’m not self-sufficient. It even points to the grander reality that God has given spiritual gifts to many people in His body and I can benefit from them.
4. Okay. Maybe I’ll give it a try. Where to start?
You’ll probably find this suggestion most helpful when you’re studying a specific book. Let’s say you want to finally understand Daniel. Every day you could read one chapter in the Bible and that section in the commentary. If you use this short one, that gives you less than 20 small pages per chapter. You could even read the same chapter twice and split the commentary between two days.
Or another really great way to use the tool is just for backup. It’s kind of like “call a friend.” When you hit something you’re confused about, check a slightly larger resource like this (it’s still not too technical) to answer your question and then move on. In fact, I would highly recommend that you not get bogged down in details.
But which commentary should you choose!? It’s probably the question I get asked most. For most books, a compact, inexpensive choice like the Tyndale commentaries is a great place to start. You can also take a look at one of these resources (but warning—many of these recommendations can be more technical). Or just ask in the comments below and we’ll give you a specific recommendation! We’d love to help in any way we can.
The more we study the Bible the more we’ll be amazed at its wisdom and depth. Gathering insights from good people that have studied a passage for years is a great way to get started. The good news is you don’t have to be a theolo-geek to study Scripture. Take advantage of the great resources that exist and get your questions answered.