Who Needs Commentaries?

When I first started writing about Bible commentaries a few days ago, I did not realise it would blow out into a four-part series. But that it has. I wrote a piece on how to select good commentaries, and also had two articles on the best Old and New Testament commentaries.

But now I need to go back to square one. While perhaps one or two per cent of the Christian population will enjoy and benefit from those other three articles, most believers will be indifferent, unimpressed or even hostile to the very concept of commentaries.

Many will argue, ‘Who needs commentaries? What good are they? Just give me the Bible’. Indeed, some will argue that the Christian plus his Bible and the Holy Spirit is all one needs. Yes and no is the answer to this. Yes it is true that we have the Holy Spirit given to us to help us understand God’s Word and God’s truth.

But that is not the only gift God has given to us to equip us, train us, and help us grow. He has also given us one another in general, and teachers in particular. We need both groups. The New Testament makes it clear that we do not live the Christian life on our own.

We are part of a body of believers, and we need each other. Paul develops this theme quite clearly in places like Romans 12:3-8 and 1 Corinthians 12:12-31. We each have things to contribute to others in the Body, and others have things to contribute to us. There is no such thing as a lone wolf Christian.

We also need teachers. They are given to the Body of Christ to help teach us and instruct us in God’s truth. If the gift of teaching is one of the spiritual gifts given to the Body, then we obviously have need of teaching, hence, a need of teachers.

What does any decent pastor do on a Sunday morning? He teaches from the Word of God. He tries to explain the Word of God. He tries to exposit and illuminate Scripture. That is part of his job in shepherding the flock. Sound teaching is vitally important in the believer’s life.

Now if you are with me thus far, then you will see that commentaries are simply an extension of all this. God has called some teachers to write commentaries, to help us better understand the Bible. They do not take the place of Bible reading and study, but they supplement these things.

Have you ever used a concordance? Well, that is a teaching aid or supplement to your personal Bible study. Have you ever used a Bible atlas? That is also a tool to help us better understand the Word of God. Commentaries do the same thing.

A good commentary will provide all sorts of helpful background information to help us better understand what the text is saying. It will provide historical information. It will look at the social and cultural setting of the Bible book in question. It will tell us about authorship, dating, the occasion for a letter, or the reason for an epistle.

It will help elucidate historical texts and narrative. It will help to make sense of difficult passages. It will give us greater understanding of what the intention of the biblical author was. At least that is what a good commentary should do. It partly depends on what type of commentary you use.

As I wrote in a companion piece to this, there are different sorts of commentaries which can be used for different occasions or needs. Some are more devotional in flavour, while some are more academic and technical. Some deal directly with the original languages, such as Hebrew and Greek, while some are based on our English translations.

They are simply tools to help us better understand the 66 books of the Bible. And that is important, since the Bible was written in languages very different from ours, in times long ago, in quite different cultures, and dealing with quite different issues often.

Indeed, there are all sorts of things we will miss, or misunderstand, if we do not have a few basic study tools around, such as a Bible dictionary, a Bible atlas, and some commentaries. There are all sorts of passages which are simply not all that clear, and some background information can really help to clear things up.

Consider just one example of many. What does David mean for example in Psalm 51:7: “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean”? We will not understand the meaning of this very well if we do not know what hyssop is. Hyssop was a small plant found in the Ancient Near East that was used in the sacrifices of temple worship. It served as a brush to sprinkle blood on the worshippers. Thus it spoke of sacrifice and the atonement of sin. Having that little bit of background information can greatly help us understand what the author was trying to communicate.

The truth is, the Bible is both a human and a divine book. Because it is a human text, we can apply the same rules for interpretation that we do to other texts. But because it is a divine book, we also need the aid of the Holy Spirit to fully understand God’s truth.

As John Stott noted, God chose human language to reveal himself: “As a result, although Scripture is unlike all other books in being the word of God, it is also like all other books in being the words of men. Since it is unique because divine, we must study it like no other book, praying to the Holy Spirit for illumination. Since it is ordinary because human, we must study it like every other book, paying attention to the common rules of vocabulary, grammar and syntax.”

Commentaries can help us do this. They can especially be helpful in helping to more fully unlock the depth of the original Hebrew and Greek. And they also cite older Christian commentators, preachers and teachers, who also provide a wealth of insight and understanding.

Indeed, we need to learn from those who have gone before. It is arrogant in the extreme to simply ignore two thousand years of church history, and all that God has taught his people over the centuries. In fact, problems often arise when we separate ourselves from history and tradition.

Knowledge of church history shows the history of faulty interpretation and heretical teachings. We need to learn from history. As Santayana once said, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. Or as Alister McGrath has noted: “Evangelicals have always been prone to read Scripture as if they were the first to do so. We need to be reminded that others have been there before us, and have read it before us.”

Thus commentaries, if wisely used, can be a real aid to the Christian life. As mentioned, the use of commentaries is not to take the place of careful Bible reading and study. But they can serve as an invaluable supplement to our reading and study.

The three other articles I wrote in this series will help you in selecting some helpful commentaries to meet your needs, as well as point you to some of the cream of the crop in terms of valuable commentaries on each of the 66 books of the Bible.

So, meet you at the Christian bookshop!

[1252 words]

5 Replies to “Who Needs Commentaries?”

  1. Hi Bill,
    I noticed in one of the quotes you used from John Stott where he says “praying to the Holy Spirit for illumination”. I remember quite clearly during on of my quiet times God pulled me up on this as being inappropriate.
    After that I have always asked the Father or the Son to use the Holy Spirit for illumination.
    I would like to know you take on this. As I cant find anywhere in scripture where believers pray to the Holy Spirit.
    Jeffrey Carl

  2. Bill, I would just like to add to what you said in the article. I recently started with David Pawson’s Unlocking the Bible dvd series together with friends. It is basic yet gives a very good big picture view of each book in the Bible and the surrounding culture, the author and his motives, etc. After I started watching it I thought to myself how could I have read the Bible without, at least, some background knowledge before. It is so easy to completely misunderstand pieces of scripture or form some weird opinion about something if you don’t check it against the basic intention of the writer. We do live in a time where scriptures get thrown around at random and from that we deduct meanings from it.

    The one that stood out so far for me was Phillipians 4:13, a verse which sportsman, in particular, quote a lot or anyone who wants to take on the impossible. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”. Pawson points out that Paul was discussing the fact that he can manage and stick to his financial budget, in both the easy and tough financial times. It is not such a serious example but just shows one how certain scriptures could be misinterpreted or misused (generalised as is the case here) when one is not familiar with the background surrounding it.

    Servaas Hofmeyr, South Africa

  3. Yes, the expense of good commentaries can be an issue, but there are some good theological libraries out there and our local Koorong store has placed comfy seats in the theological/commentary section (though I haven’t been in for a while, so I hope it is still the same). I have been known to gradually graze my way through some books there, a chapter a visit!
    Kerry Letheby

  4. What does any decent pastor do on a Sunday morning? He teaches from the Word of God. He tries to explain the Word of God. He tries to exposit and illuminate Scripture. That is part of his job in shepherding the flock. Sound teaching is vitally important in the believer’s life.

    Bill, I have taken this quote from your article because I have some problems with it. The word “pastor” is not in scripture. It is the word “shepherd.” A shepherd watches over and cares for the needs of the sheep. He is their watchman and guardian.

    Too many churches have a shepherd in charge who tries to be a teacher as well. The end result is comforting homilies that lead nowhere. I have asked people who have made a comment about a “good” sermon, what can you do with it?


    I believe one of the reasons that there is a dearh of scriptual knowledge in the church is due to us not recognising and using the ministry of teachers. The system demands that the “pastor” does everything important.

    The benchmark is you have to be ordained to fulfil the five ministries of Ephesians 4. If you are not, then you don’t have a ministry.

    When I compare the depth of teaching given by Derek Prince and the average shepherd, they are not in the same league.

    Whilst we are beholden to professional christians who are doing what they are not anointed to do, we will be jelly backs, satisfied with the lowest common denominator because that is what the denomination is happy with.

    If Jesus gave the church five ministries then that is what we need. If we choose to ignore three of the five (apostle, prophet and teacher) we have only ourselves to blame for the end results or should I say, lack of results.

    There are 10,000 ex-pastors in Australia which is not surprising as the church expects them to be all five ministries and they end up burnt out because of unscriptual expectations.

    Roger Marks

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