My freshman year of college, with a little bit of never-been-away-from-home-sickness, I went to the college bookstore and purchased... my books.
(In hindsight: why did I go to the college bookstore and not Amazon or Half.com? I was young and stupid, apparently.)
And then I sat on a bench outside the library a ways and called my mom. Because of the homesickness. And to cry a little.
After a long heart-to-heart, I walked back to my dorm... without the books. It wasn't until hours later that I realized my mistake. I rushed back over to the bench, but the books were gone. I checked the lost and found, went back to the bookstore to see if they'd been returned, panicked a lot, but they were gone.
My homesickness quickly turned into anxiety-ridden flu-like symptoms, and I called my nearby aunt and crashed in her spare bedroom, eating crackers and soup until she returned my sorry self to school with the encouragement that everything would be okay and I wasn't really sick, it was just nerves (thank you, Aunt Lorraine). My dad reordered the books for me, and the semester went along just fine.
I took you on that whole rabbit trail just to tell you this: two of the books that were so unfortunately lost were nearly as scary as the price tags that accompanied them.
They were Bible Commentaries.
Aren't commentaries just for, you know, like, pastors and professors and stuff? For people who write books? For people who wear the sweaters with the elbow patches, or folks with a room in their house that they call "the library?"
I certainly thought so.
But, while many of my college books have gone to the wayside or have been resold, my commentaries still fill up an incredible amount of space on my bookshelf.
Commentaries have made themselves invaluable to me, even though I don't crack them open nearly as often as I'd like to.
I'm here to say it: Commentaries aren't really that scary. I promise.
In fact, they can be used to help you in your Bible reading time. You've probably read some commentaries and haven't even realized it!
You don't have to have a behemoth of a book on your shelf to use, and benefit from, a commentary. Trust me, if I (a nineteen-year-old girl who lost hundreds of dollars worth of books on one day of college, and then needed her auntie to take care of her) can do it, so can you.
What is A Commentary, Anyway?
Basically, a commentary is a giant book of interpretations of Scripture.
Most commentaries are written by Book of the Bible- sometimes an entire commentary will be written for one book. Me, I like the whole Bible ones- with the verses and so forth noted, so that, say, when you're reading Leviticus 10, you can look up what the commentary author has to say about Leviticus 10.
The whole-Bible approach is less in-depth than a commentary on one Book would be, but for my purposes, I've found whole-Bible commentaries to be sufficient.
Many commentaries include cultural and historical research to help us get a better, more holistic, understanding of the Bible. There are lots of different commentaries out there- online and in print versions.
Some Bibles even include their own commentaries- especially Bibles that are labeled "study Bible." See? You've seen those. Not scary.
Using A Commentary
There are few things to think about when you use a commentary for your personal Bible study.
First, remember that commentaries are written by human beings. They are not the inspired word of God. (That's also true for those notes in the margins or footnotes of your Bible, but that's another talk for another day).
That means that while people may have some great insights, great perspectives, on the Word of God, they are not actually the word of God. Take commentaries with a grain of salt.
Using a commentary should not (I repeat, should NOT) be a substitution for reading the Holy, living, inspired Word of God. You need to be reading your Bible, first and foremost. And if you don't get it, re-read. Pray. Think. Re-read again. And then consult a commentary, understanding that you're looking for new perspectives.
Secondly, commentaries (being written by people, after all) may have perspectives that differ from other commentaries.
The interpretation in one book may be very different from the interpretation in another. Personally, I really like the fact that I have two commentaries to sort of "play off each other," along with a ton of the online resources I'll share with you in a minute. Multiple commentaries really helps enrich my understanding of the text.
That professor who had me buy those commentaries for his class? He had one thing very, very right.
He asked us to buy two commentaries- one with a Western point of view, and one with a more Eastern point of view.
That. That was really cool. It was so interesting to read the thoughts of scholars from wildly different backgrounds interpreting the Word of God within the context of their own experiences. And it really brought me more insight.
I'd encourage you, when you're looking for commentaries to read, to go "out of the box" a little. Read a commentary written by someone completely different from you, as much as possible. It's amazing the gems you'll see in Scripture through the eyes of another worldview.
Ready to dig in?
These are the commentaries that I own:
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Africa Bible Commentary: A One-Volume Commentary Written by 70 African Scholars: Um, this thing is incredible. Really. Highly, highly recommended. It goes through the whole Bible, and the insights are just great.
Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible : A great, no-nonsense commentary, I go to this one when I need good overviews of Books of the Bible (this goes through the entire Bible, too). It makes an awesome companion to the Africa Bible Commentary because of the differing worldviews.
And here are some commentaries that I don't own, but wish I did:
Willmington's Guide to the Bible: This one looks really interesting- it goes through a question and answer format, and has character summaries (which would be so, so helpful). This is another whole-Bible commentary.
Pillar New Testament Commentary (Set of 16 Volumes) (The Pillar New Testament Commentary): So, I realize that this will probably never grace my bookshelves, but the Pillar Commentaries come so highly recommended... I just need to find a good theological library somewhere to borrow these when I need 'em.
Commentaries that require neither money nor a bookshelf: (I'm all about saving you a little space and latte money...)
There are tons! of! commentaries! out there with great things to say (like, check out this whole huge list of them). Most of these are older, and that's why they're free (yay, public domain!) so you may have to wade through some older language and so forth to get to the gems. But they're there!
I'd recommend John Gills Exposition of the Bible (good stuff in there).
I'd also recommend the many commentaries available on Bible.org- they tend to be really good, too- at least the ones I've looked through! They're broken down by Book of the Bible, so you can read several commentaries on the same Book, if you'd like to. Bible.org Commentaries by Passage.
So, next time you're confused about something in Scripture, or when you just want to dig a little deeper into the text, pull out a commentary. Really.
No one will force you to carry a leather briefcase or smear chalk on your tweed jacket.
Have you ever used a commentary? Which one would you recommend?
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