by Kevin R. O’Brien, Study Bible and Reference Brand Manager at Tyndale
Commentaries. Not exactly thrillers. Or self-help books. In all likelihood, they are not the first titles that come to mind when you are creating a reading list. (They are definitely not the first books I think about when making those lists!)
When most of us think about commentaries (if we think about them at all), we think dry, dusty, boring, and well, they’re for pastors or professors, right? Why would I want to read one? It’s a valid question.
Let’s get one thing in the open at the outset: I, Kevin, love commentaries. I have shelves—plural—of them at home. Yes, I am the Bible reference guy at Tyndale, and yes, I have gone to seminary; but don’t think for a minute that only guys like me should be reading commentaries. It’s just not true. You may be surprised by what they offer. Let’s look at a few different commentaries and why they would make a great addition to your reading list.
Most commentaries are a part of a series. Some series cover the whole Bible and some just the Old or New Testament. Usually various authors write separate volumes depending on their areas of specialty. Sometimes one person, often a pastor, will write an entire series. Some series, such as the Word Biblical Commentary, are fairly technical. Others, such as Warren Wiersbe’s “Be” series, are not technical at all. I regularly use several series from different publishers including the Pillar New Testament Commentary Series, the New International Commentary on the Old and New Testaments, and the Baker Exegetical Commentary.
Two series published by Tyndale are also on my list—the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary and Swindoll’s Living Insights New Testament Commentary. The Cornerstone series was written by different authors, many of whom were involved in creating the New Living Translation. Their series gives a lot of background information without being overly technical. Swindoll’s series is far more application oriented and is drawn from Chuck Swindoll’s decades of preaching and teaching.
Here are my top five reasons you should read commentaries even if you’re not a pastor and never plan to be one.
5. Cut through Cultural Barriers. “The Bible was written for us, but not to us.” That statement is not original to me. I can’t recall the number of times I have heard Dr. John Walton make that simple statement. His point is well made. We live in the twenty-first century in the West—a very different time, place, language, and culture from the Biblical audience. Our assumptions about the way the world works are often very different. The problem with assumptions is that we don’t even think about them; they’re just there. That means sometimes we need help stepping back to understand a verse, a passage, or even a whole book. Commentaries can help us to peel back some of those layers so we don’t make faulty assumptions.
4. See behind the English. Even the most careful of readers can misunderstand what has been written—have you ever tried to read the instructions for putting together a bookcase from one of those big, blue European furniture stores that also sells meatballs? Then you know what I mean. The Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. It would be nice if language were “plug and play” allowing us to simply substitute an English word for the Greek or Hebrew and presto! you’re done, but it isn’t that easy. Sentence structures and idioms can be radically different from one language to another. Sometimes words can have several meanings. Commentaries do a good job of exploring some of these language issues, giving deeper insight into what the Bible is saying.
3. Discover How the Bible Is Interconnected. Most of us are used to reading a single verse or a couple of verses. We often approach the Bible topically—what does it say about a particular issue? Perhaps we read a story or a teaching. Maybe we hear a sermon series about a specific book of the Bible. All of these are worthwhile, but sometimes we can miss the fact that the Bible tells one story and that the books are all interconnected.
Maybe you have used the cross references in your Bible and been confused about the connection between the passages. Commentaries can make these connections explicit. They are great at showing how Paul’s ideas show up consistently across his writings or how a New Testament passage relates to an Old Testament passage. That last point is really important. Often people think that because we have the New Testament, the Old Testament is irrelevant. The problem with this way of thinking is that we couldn’t understand the New without the Old. Commentaries help us see the connection and give us a greater understanding of what the writer is getting at and why.
2. Identify Structures and Themes You Haven’t Explored Before. We think about the Bible in chapters and verses, but those were medieval inventions to help us find things. They were not part of the original text. Because of this, it is easy to miss the flow of a text or to see the ideas and themes that show up over and over. Commentaries look at both the individual verses and the larger structure, helping us to see things that we may not have seen before. The Biblical writers had specific audiences in mind and commentaries help us understand the ideas they wanted to communicate.
1. Connect with God. This, of course, is our ultimate goal. God has chosen to communicate to us through his Word. Commentaries are singularly focused on understanding God’s Word and are written by men and women who have dedicated their lives to it. This is not just about mastering information, it is about letting God’s message penetrate our hearts and minds so we become more like him.
I hope these reasons have convinced you to give a commentary a try. As a bonus, click here to download a free section of Chuck Swindoll’s Commentary on John and a section of Psalms from the Cornerstone series. I think you will find a new appreciation for commentaries and, more importantly, for God’s word.
Swindoll’s Living Insights New Testament Commentary by Charles R. Swindoll
The 15-volume Swindoll’s Living Insights New Testament Commentary series draws on Gold Medallion Award–winner Chuck Swindoll’s 50 years of experience with studying and preaching God’s Word. His deep insight, signature easygoing style, and humor bring a warmth and practical accessibility not often found in commentaries.
Each volume combines verse-by-verse commentary, charts, maps, photos, key terms, and background articles with practical application. The newly updated volumes now include parallel presentations of the NLT and NASB before each section. This series is a must-have for pastors, teachers, and anyone else who is seeking a deeply practical resource for exploring God’s Word.
For a limited time* Swindoll’s Living Insights are 20% off! Shop HERE>>