Good ones relate the meaning of passages to the rest of Scripture and to the context of time and literary style.

Karl barth complained that recent commentators have not produced commentaries, “but merely the first step toward a commentary.” He preferred instead the model Calvin set:

“How energetically Calvin, having first established what stands in the text, sets himself to rethink the whole material and to wrestle with it, til the walls which separate the sixteenth century from the first become transparent.”

Arguments Against Using Commentaries

Opinions vary over the value of consulting commentaries. As Thomas H. Horne observed, “By some, who admire nothing but their own meditations, and who hold all human helps in contempt, commentaries are despised altogether, as tending to found our faith on the opinion of men rather than on the divine oracles: while others, on the contrary, trusting exclusively to the expositions of some favourite commentators, receive as infallible whatever views or opinions they may choose to deliver, as their expositions of the Bible.” The safest way is the middle path between these two extremes. But let us examine three different types of arguments set forth by those who reject all help offered by commentaries.

The first argument usually asserts that the Holy Spirit is the only one who can truly expound to our souls the real meaning of any text. Therefore, dependence on any man-made tools such as hermeneutical rules or commentaries is superfluous. This argument is commonly based on such texts as 1 Corinthians 2:14–16: “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness to him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned”; or 2 Corinthians 3:14–18, “But their minds were blinded … even unto this day, when Moses is read … [until they] turn to the Lord … [then] the veil shall be taken away … [for] where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”

Neither of these two texts, however (or any others, for that matter), would make the ministry of the Holy Spirit an “open sesame” for interpretation. If that were so, why did the apostle Peter find certain things in Paul’s writings “hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16)? The Greek word in 1 Corinthians 2:14 for “receive” has to do with the “welcoming” or “reception” of the teaching given. Paul is not arguing that there are two logics in this world, one pagan and one spiritual. Instead, he is saying that those who are devoid of the Holy Spirit have no realization of the value and personal application of the truths taught—that is the blind spot and the veiled mind suffered by pagans. Meanwhile, they understand enough of what is taught to reject it as foolishness. We conclude that the Holy Spirit does not impart a meaning to the text we could not get from the text itself. But he helps us overcome our sinful prejudices and pride so we see that the text is addressing us in our particular sinfulness (see Daniel P. Fuller, “Do We Need the Holy Spirit to Understand the Bible?” Eternity, Jan. 1959).

Article continues below

A second argument claims that Scripture is already intelligible to those who possess faith; accordingly, all commentaries are unnecessary crutches.

The positive side of this argument is precisely the same point we raised for the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Certainly, when one approaches the text with the understanding of faith, the text will be all the more “meaningful” (i.e., significant and personally relevant). However, faith cannot be an alternative avenue to knowledge and understanding that operates outside of the ordinary functions of human understanding. When we say the Scripture is clear even to the humblest and most unlearned of God’s servants, we refer, as did the Reformers, to the way of salvation.

But sensible readers of the Bible will observe that “the Bible is also a learned book not only because it is written in the learned languages, but also because it contains allusions to various facts, circumstances, or customs of antiquity, which, to a common and unlettered reader responds by personally applying and acting on what he has found the text inquirers who have preceded us; especially in clearing difficulties, answering objections, and reconciling passages which at first sight appear contradictory” (Horne).

Faith, then, will be evident when the reader responds by personally applying and acting on what he has found the text to mean through a prior act of understanding. In that prior act, the reader should not be embarrassed to use judiciously the assistance of carefully chosen commentators.

The last objection we will consider is that commentaries are unnecessary since the Word of God has its own compelling power. Is it not “living,” “active,” “sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12–13)? Is it not the “power of God” for believers (1 Cor. 1:18), and as effective and certain in its mission as snow and rain are to the earth (Isa. 55:10–11)? Surely it is like a hammer that breaks up hard resistance, and like a fire that consumes (Jer. 1:9–10; 5:14; 23:29). Where, then, is the need for exegesis, hermeneutics, or commentaries?

Article continues below

Scripture is powerful, but not because of some supposed power that rests in the words themselves. The reason the words of Scripture will stand forever is precisely because they are words from the mouth of the Lord (Isa. 40:6–8), and they are effective since they depend on the authority and status of the one who utters them. (See Anthony C. Thiselton’s brilliant essay, “The Supposed Power of Words in Biblical Writings,” Journal of Theological Studies, 25 [1974].) Scripture is not invested with a quasi-magical force that in some mysterious or mechanical way short-circuits the need for help offered in commentaries.

Nor is it the function of the Spirit of God to impose on the reader interpretations not derivable from the text. Rather, the Spirit convinces me of its truth, enables me to interpret it properly, and guides me to apply the Word honestly once I understand it. The Spirit does not add to the understanding, meaning, or sense of the passage, but leads the devout reader into moral actions and personal decisions that represent the right response to Scripture. And finally, through all of this, the Holy Spirit creates the assurance that what this text really means and demands of me is precisely what God wishes to speak to me personally.

So not one of the three arguments against commentaries is convincing. Instead, commentaries, carefully chosen, should be like the companionship of old friends when one is traveling in a foreign country. Such companions can point out what otherwise the unaccustomed eye might miss—especially if one is not acquainted with some of the objects and parts of the road. Granted, “there are extremes … it is no less wrong to place implicit confidence in the commentators than it is to treat them with contempt: to derive advantage from them, we should treat them as commentators only, and not as inspired writers” (Horne).

Defects Of Existing Commentaries

Five defects appear in part or together in some commentaries and seriously damage their usefulness. Four of these are fisted in The Encyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature.

The first is the prolixity or great size of some. When so much is said on so little text, then “it is almost superfluous to remark that such writers wander away without confining themselves to exposition.… It is very easy to write … anything, however remotely connected with a passage, or to note down the thoughts as they rise; but to think out the meaning of a place … to apply severe and rigid examination to each sentence and paragraph of the original, is quite a different process.”

Article continues below

Another fault is to fist various opinions or passages without sifting them. This type of commentary amounts to an anthology of previous commentaries on a text. But if no textual criteria are set forth for deciding between these opinions, what benefit is this new commentary? It has served only a secretarial function.

Other commentaries are notoriously evasive when it comes to tackling difficult passages. Plain passages are treated expansively, but when a perplexity arises, the matter is glossed over or avoided. Or, the commentary may lapse into an extended discussion on the difficult passage, saying much about the problem but never penetrating the issue or suggesting the meaning of the biblical author.

A fourth and more common fault is that of superficiality. Usually this is the result of inadequate research and a failure really to live with the message of that book before the commentary was begun. Not all hens who cackle have laid eggs, and not all who write commentaries have made an original contribution.

In our day, the most serious defect can be found in a commentator’s penchant for concluding his work after he has given a descriptively accurate commentary on the text. But he fails to help the church learn what is legitimately normative from that text. Robert M. Grant likewise felt part of this problem, saying that a person “needs some help in relating the part to the whole. An historical commentary is largely analytical. He needs some synthesis as well. Therefore, there must be commentaries of the patristic type, commentaries which relate individual passages and books to the whole of Christian theology and to the needs of the modern world. The minister must start with the message then, but he must come out with a message now.”

Characteristics Of A Good Commentary

What should a thoughtful layman, interested in the sober personal study of Scripture or in specially preparing to lead a Bible study class, look for when purchasing a commentary?

First, it should exhibit the plan and scope of the biblical writer’s thought. How can an interpreter understand any of the parts until the general pattern of thought and the goal of the total book are known? It is important to see how the arguments, logic, temporal sequence, or descriptions in the book hold together. Commentators must locate the seams between the various sections in a biblical book and then show the unity, coherence, and relative degree of importance the biblical writer attached to each movement of the book.

Article continues below

Few commentaries can match E. Dhorme’s A Commentary on the Book of Job, (tr. Harold Knight, Nelson, 1967) in this category. While his actual comments on the text of Job are disappointingly brief and the Hebrew too technical for most, the 224 introductory pages devoted to the book’s plan, argument, and teaching are a model of excellence.

If ever a book depends on the development of the plan and design, it is Ecclesiastes, a need this writer attempted to meet in Ecclesiastes: Total Life (Moody, 1979). Instead of arguing that the purpose of Ecclesiastes is to present a negative, nihilistic, or natural man’s point of view, the writer of the book explicitly told us that his plan was to demonstrate that no single part of God’s good world in any of its mundaneness or spirituality could be enjoyed until individuals came to fear (“to believe”) God and to obey his Word. He thus designed four clear steps, set off by the stereotyped “eat, drink and enjoy your labor …,” marking the seams in his argument.

A second feature will be a clear outline of the train of thought in an entire book or epistle. This will carry out in detail a more general analysis of the plan just mentioned. When done effectively, this will indicate all digressions and subordinate details, along with the main train of thought that works out the central aim of the book. This means that the connection of one part with another, the consistency, the ultimate bearing, and the various relationships within the book will be stated incisively to the degree the biblical author developed them.

Bernard L. Ramm (His Way Out, Regal, 1974) has skillfully reduced the mass of detail for the whole book of Exodus in three deftly simple yet profound segments: Divine Redemption, Divine Morality, and Divine Worship. Even a traditionally difficult book like James has two commentaries that have shown the tie between each of its sections—an all too uncommon asset: J. A. Motyer, Tests of Faith (IVP, 1970), and James B. Adamson, The Epistle of James (The New International Commentary of the N.T.).

Motyer demonstrates that the structure of the book should not be a puzzle to Christians. The three distinctives of 1:26–27 (1) a controlled tongue, (2) a concern for the needy and helpless, and (3) a life free from worldly taint are treated in 2:1–5:6 in the order of (2): 2:1–26; (1): 3:1–18; and (3): 4:1–5:6. The conclusion to the book of James is marked by the same topics with which he began: perseverance (1:2–4) and prayer (1:5). However, this device, called inclusion (or bracketing), is put in reverse order (called chiasm): persevering until the Lord returns (5:7–12), the Christian tongue used in prayer (13–18), and Christian mutual concern (19–20)—a virtual reechoing of the three cardinal doctrines in the book of the book.

Article continues below

The third characteristic is most critical. Commentaries must now set forth the meaning of the words, phrases, and idioms of the original text. It is at this point that many commentaries fail. Some are content to deal with what they are pleased to call the underlying history of the text. They complete their comments and explanations with a statement (judged by many to be “scientific exegesis”) about the literary sources from which this word in the text was taken, or its sociological setting. Others, lauding the Scripture as the inexhaustible wisdom of God, rarely settle for a single meaning of that text but insist on finding various meanings for each word.

Calvin, while not denying this truth, affirmed, “I deny that [the Bible’s] fertility consists in the various meanings which anyone may fasten to it at his pleasure. Let us know, then, that the one meaning of Scripture is the natural and simple one. Let us boldly set aside as deadly corruptions those pretended expositions which lead us away from the literal sense.”

Without making direct reference to the Greek text, G. Campbell Morgan has given us some superb lessons in the proper use of word studies in Malachi’s Message for Today (Baker, 1972). His study of Malachi 3:16 (“They feared the Lord and thought on his name” [emphasis mine]) is a model for word studies in teaching and preaching. He traced the usage of this word “thought on his name” in Isaiah 13:17 and 33:8 and concluded that the usage that fitted this context was that the true believers “set a [high] value,” “regarded [as valuable]” the name of the Lord just as Isiaah 53:3 shows the reverse process: he had no worth in our sight, we spurned him and thought nothing of him. Rather, Morgan stresses, if we are to think on his name as Malachi urges, we must “take an inventory” of that name as Philippians 4:8 invites us, and remember Proverbs 27:7: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” These believers “thought on his name” and so were they in character and deeds.

Article continues below

A fourth feature will be a comparison of the teachings and sentiments found in one book with (1) those that preceded it in time (the analogy of antecedent Scripture), and (2) those that followed it in the progress of revelation (the analogy of faith). Only within the last years has our generation rediscovered the significance of theological exegesis. But this must not become a ruse for sneaking in anything remotely related to the topics introduced in a book. That would only be to concede that the subject matter is something beyond the text—so far beyond it that the text often becomes an imperfect expression of it. In the hands of Karl Barth (and now, sadly, some evangelicals), this means, “If Paul was struggling to express the Sache (subject matter), why should the interpreter be subject to Paul and not rather join with him in this struggle, and say things that to the interpreter were a better way than Paul’s of expressing the Sache?” (argued by Daniel P. Fuller in Easter Faith and History).

On the contrary, the written text as it was intended by the biblical author, who first received that word as a revelation from God, must take priority over any other consideration—including subject matter and all analogies of Scripture or faith. The commentator must, however, boldly point to any “informing theology” which was antecedent in time to the present book he is explaining. He must do this when the biblical author explicitly quoted such theology, clearly alluded to it, or used it as the theological platform on which he erected the next stage of that same theological truth. For lack of a better term, we shall call this the “analogy of (antecedent) Scripture.” Only after the text has been exegeted may commentators make similar connections with the remaining body of Scripture (“analogy of faith”).

Even a superficial examination of a work like E. W. Hengstenberg’s Commentary on the Gospel of St. John (2 vols., T & T Clark, 1865; recently reprinted) will demonstrate that great advantage may be gained from observing the Old Testament antecedent theology to a section like John 1:14–18. Brevard S. Childs has also set a new standard in the field of theological exegesis in his Book of Exodus (Westminster, 1974), and recaptured the excellence of John Calvin’s commentary on Isaiah (even if he occasionally allows the analogy of faith to preempt the work of the analogy of antecedent Scripture). Ronald M. Hals’s The Theology of the Book of Ruth (Fortress, 1969), is a marvelous example of the use of theology in a narrative text, even though his work is not a commentary that gives a verse-by-verse analysis of the text.

Article continues below

Hengstenberg pleads that the translation “He is preferred before me” (John 1:15, 30) misses the point that the Greek word emprosthen is always used in the New Testament with reference to time, never to dignity or rank. Thus John’s argument is that Jesus appeared on earth before John arrived on the scene, for Jesus had always existed. John’s usage of the language of Malachi 3:1 and the clear connection between the Messiah and the angel of the Lord settle the issue. Indeed, the very “grace and truth,” which come in Jesus Christ (John 1:17), are nothing less than titles for Jehovah who mercifully spared Israel at the golden calf incident and whom Moses revealed in the law (Exod. 34:6).

Proper Use Of Commentaries

Thomas Home gives some excellent advice on the use of commentaries. In the first place, a good commentary will be a model for our own interpretation. Home cautions that “we must not accumulate and read every interpreter or commentator indiscriminately, but [we] should select one or two, or a few at most of acknowledged character for learning and piety; and by frequent perusal of them, as well as studying their manner of expounding, [we] should endeavor to form [that is, model] ourselves after them until we are completely masters of their method.”

The second use of commentaries is to help us understand what in the passage is obscure, difficult, or unknown in our culture or manner of speaking. In fact, this is one method that can be used in purchasing a new commentary. Quickly turning to a few passages, which in the biblical book are notoriously difficult, and ascertaining if anything original, penetrating, and methodologically fair is being done on those texts by this new commentary, will enable one in a very short time to decide if this commentary is worth owning.

Even more important is the function of tracing the argument of a book so that one can at once set it in its wholeness as well as appreciate the way each section contributes to that unified plan. Many commentaries assume that the mere publication of their descriptively accurate topical outline fulfills this need, but it is worth little more than a schematic survey of some of the key topics found in that book. In this case, the genius of the book still remains beyond the reach of commentator and reader alike.

Finally, great commentaries will specially help us discover the theological and practical relevance of the points we find in the passage.

Article continues below

No commentary may ever take the place of one’s own study of Scripture. As Spurgeon challenged his students at Pastor’s College, and in his volume Commenting and Commentaries, “A man to comment well should be able to read the Bible in the original. Every minister should aim at a tolerable proficiency both in the Hebrew and the Greek. These two languages will give him a library at a small expense, an inexhaustible thesaurus, a mine of spiritual wealth. Really, the effort of acquiring a language is not so prodigious that brethren of moderate abilities should so frequently shrink from the attempt.”

Nor, adds Home, should any interpreter be slavishly bound to commentators of one particular school. Often valuable hints for elucidating difficult passages of Scripture will be found even in those works that are read with a certain sense of caution or even suspicion.

Lay leaders of Bible studies, Sunday school teachers, or parachurch workers who do not possess extensive technical skills in Bible study and instruction may well wonder how they may best use a commentary in their own preparation of selected texts. My advice would be summarized in three admonitions.

First, neither ignore nor be overwhelmed by commentaries. They were meant to supplement and ease the burden of your study, not to supplant it or to make the study harder.

Second, neither automatically adopt nor belligerently oppose everything you learn from commentaries. Instead, test all positions championed by the commentators by the evidence of the grammar, syntax, and analogy of antecedent Scripture.

Third and finally, neither begin nor consume all of your preparation time in reading commentaries. Instead, begin by reading the passage for yourself several times with a view to establishing the goal, design, plan, and sections of the book. Next, determine how the passage you have selected fits into the line of thought for the whole book. Now take your passage and determine the paragraphs (or strophes) and single out the topic sentence or theme for each paragraph. If you have time, show how each sentence, clause, and phrase syntactically relates to that theme sentence. By now, you will have noted some difficult verses, odd expressions, unfamiliar names and locations, or diverse cultural phenomena. It is now time to consult Bible dictionaries, concordances, and commentaries before you make up your teaching outline and suggest possible applications for the contemporary believer. (This whole process with illustrations is given in my newly released book, Toward an Exegetical Theology: Preparing Texts for Teaching and Preaching, Baker, 1981.) Commentaries are to be used like dictionaries and encyclopedias once the whole scope, design, and plan of a book is understood. Students should “read into” rather than “read through” them.

Article continues below

Great commentary and commenting are invaluable gifts to the church. May we treasure what we already possess and pray that the Spirit of God may once again move his church by solid, Spirit-filled teaching of his Word.

A List of Model Commentaries

Serious students of Scripture will wish to own one complete set of commentaries for each testament. Our recommendation for the Old Testament is either the Keil and Delitzsch Commentaries on the Old Testament or John Peter Lange’s Commentary on the Holy Scriptures. The New International Commentary on the New Testament is almost complete now (Matthew, pastorals, and epistles of Peter and Jude are still outstanding), and is probably the best recent evangelical in-depth set available. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, it is hoped, under the general editorship of Frank E. Gaebelein, will prove to be as balanced in all 12 volumes covering the Old and New Testaments as volumes 1, 9, 10, and 11 have been. Volumes 8 and 12 should be off the press soon, thereby completing the New Testament.

In addition to one complete set for each testament, a good goal is to obtain an added volume on each book of the Bible. Those should be the classic volumes on the book. A few of our favorite nominees, besides those already mentioned, would be the following volumes.

Brevard S. Childs’s The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary (Westminster, 1974) is a model when it comes to theological commentary, even though evangelicals will find many reasons for differing with his critical conclusions. More commentaries should emulate his style of commentary writing.

S. H. Kellogg’s The Book of Leviticus, third edition, 1899 (reprinted by Klock & Klock, 1978). This treatise is an education in Old Testament theology itself and may be profitably read from cover to cover because of its topical arrangement, lucid style, and profound insights.

Even though Spurgeon complained in his volume Commenting and Commentaries about George Bush’s habit of collecting material from everyone else and using it as if it were his own, students of the Scripture will find his reprinted Notes on Genesis (2 vols.), Notes on Exodus (2 vols.), Notes on Leviticus, Notes on Joshua, and Notes on Judges to be some of the most stimulating theological and exegetical commentary they will read, even if he does tend to be too full on some points. James and Klock have done a real service to the Christian Church in republishing these valuable volumes. I cannot recommend them too highly.

Article continues below

Derek Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah (IVP, 1979), is a good example of a balanced blend between judicious use of hard historical detail and (in an area loaded with critical snares) a clear explication of the text for the informed layman.

J. J. Stewart Perowne’s The Book of Psalms (2 vols., Zondervan, 1966) represents the height of nineteenth-century Anglican exegesis with a strong emphasis on the history of exegesis, a close scrutiny of the Hebrew, and a ready eye to note the unity of the Old Testament with the New Testament.

Derek Kidner’s The Proverbs (Tyndale Press, 1964) is filled with balanced judgments, brief comments, and essays on eight subject studies that assemble the assorted maxims and assertions of the book.

Few, if any, will ever surpass Franz Delitzsch’s two volumes on Isaiah. The Keil and Delitzsch set preserves the third and best of the four editions that this commentary went through. It is a monumental assemblage of learning, exegetical and theological insight, even though most will not find it easy reading due to the technical nature of its linguistic argument. But those who give it the serious study it deserves will be richly rewarded.

Walter K. Price’s The Prophet Joel and the Day of the Lord (Moody, 1976) is a great combination of selected comments and contemporary application of a prophetic book for preaching and teaching.

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s From Fear to Faith: Studies in the Book of Habakkuk and the Problems of History (IVP, 1966) is another gem that aids the interpreter in legitimately applying the text to our times without violating the truth-intention of Habakkuk. This slender volume is packed with excellent applications of exegetical truth.

Richard Wolff’s The Book of Haggai: A Study Manual (Baker, 1967) is an unusually fine blend of historical, exegetical, and homiletical insight. It treats two chapters of Haggai in 84 pages while other biblical books in this series must cover 40 or more chapters in a few more pages. It turns out this is a major commentary, but it also makes a major contribution to the history of exegesis of the book.

Article continues below

The best model for practical application based on hard exegesis is D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (2 vols., Eerdmans, 1962). It would be difficult to find a more judicious blend of balance and depth of theological and moral insight grounded on such solid work in the biblical text. These volumes have already achieved the status of being classics in their time.

H. P. Liddon’s Explanatory Analysis of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans of 1899 (reprinted by James and Klock, 1977) developed a type of tabular analysis of the whole book of Romans that laid out the grammar, logic, doctrine, and resulting teaching in a way that moderns would do well to imitate. The outline and progression is so clear that no reader could ever complain that the line of argumentation or teaching had eluded them, for the work is transparently lucid.

Frederic Godet, the Swiss Free Churchman of the last century, has produced several excellent commentaries, but his two volumes on I Corinthians (Epistle on the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, 1886, Zondervan, 1957) are unsurpassed by any for clarity of presentation, demonstrated links between sections, and for boldness in tackling the hard questions that most commentaries dance about before saying nothing.

A similar analysis, which is startingly profound in its use of the analytical display of the text of Jude and its teaching, is William Jenkyn’s An Exposition Upon the Epistle of Jude of 1863 (republished by James and Klock in 1976). There is such an abundance of material that most will find it tedious after many of the primary applications have been made.

The final example of a great commentary that I would cite is J. A. Seiss’s The Apocalypse: Lectures on the Book of Revelation (reprinted by Zondervan). Contemporary preachers lack the ability or the patience to give carefully thought-out conclusions to their messages. Seiss, however, excells where most of us fail. Even on paper, the text almost leaps off the page as you sense the heart and soul of an expositor who has been gripped by the Spirit of God and the text he has been expounding. Would that God would again visit us with the gift of stirring conclusions to our messages!

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.