I have always loved books. When I was called to preach at age 16, a retired minister gave me 400 volumes from his library. Since then, I have been something of a collector of theological books, including hundreds of commentaries. These have served as treasured resources for my own personal Bible study, preaching, and teaching over the past 45 years.
The Bible is the primary source of study for sermon preparation. If preachers are to fulfill Paul’s mandate to “preach the Word,” they must be as conversant with the Scriptures as possible. Though there is no substitute for the direct study of the primary source, nevertheless, commentaries are indispensable tools of the trade for every preacher, teacher, and Bible student. Someone once remarked that he could look at a pastor’s library and tell immediately what kind of preacher he was. If you are a pastor, your longevity at your church may very well be related to the number and quality of the books on your study shelves.
Commentators write for a variety of reasons and their books are useful for a variety of reasons. Most are valuable simply because they present the needed information to understand textual meaning. Others excel in crafting clarity such that complex issues become intelligible. Others provide the invaluable service of lending themselves to the homiletical needs of the preacher. Still others stir and move the heart and soul to love Jesus more and follow him more fully.
Sometimes we suffer from the mistaken notion if it is old, it is not helpful, and if it is new, it must be true. Granted, many of the older commentaries of a century or more in age have indeed been mercifully buried in the commentary graveyard. They should not be resurrected. Yet some older commentaries are still very valuable. They need to be rescued from the undeserved oblivion to which they have been relegated simply because they are out of print or are unknown. In the digital age, locating some of these resources is easier than ever. Once found, these old treasures await your download.
It is a great mistake to read only your brand of theology or only from within the confines of your own denomination. The wise man or woman will read broadly. After all, even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
Reading a commentary is like panning for gold. You have to sift through lots of dust and sludge to acquire that precious nugget. Sometimes the nugget is a section, a paragraph, or a single sentence. But once discovered, its value in the truth market and the preaching market is priceless.
Here are 5 reasons why you should consult commentaries.
- To be blunt, you need help!
No one is an expert on Scripture. When it comes to the Bible, the horizons of your knowledge are always the frontiers of your ignorance. Spurgeon spoke of those preachers who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves and yet think so little of what He has revealed to others. As Arthur Gossip once said: “The greatest natural genius cannot subsist on its own stock: he who resolves never to ransack any brain but his own will soon be reduced, from mere barrenness, to the poorest of all imitations.” To think one can preach or teach the Bible without consulting commentaries is the height of ignorance and arrogance.
- Important background information.
Commentaries usually provide background information to Bible books such as authorship, date, recipients, theme, purpose, and outline. These are necessary for every Bible student.
- An aid to understand the meaning of the text.
You can’t teach or preach what you do not understand. Commentaries help us identify and understand textual meaning.
- Useable material for preaching and teaching.
Commentaries provide helpful information that you can use in the actual exposition, illustration, and application of the text.
- Devotional and application value.
Though not all commentaries are devotional and/or applicational in nature, even those that aren’t sometimes warm the heart and feed the soul as there is nothing more satisfying than accurately grasping God’s meaning in his Word.
Now, a final word to pastors. In today’s busy world, most pastor’s meet themselves coming. As a result, the pressures of the pastorate restrict time for study and sermon preparation. Some pastor’s rationalize their lack of study time accordingly. While understandable, I consider such to be inexcusable. You don’t have time to study; you make time to study. I challenge you to be a voracious reader. “Reading makes a broad man” said Francis Bacon. It also contributes to helping one do great preaching! Make your acquaintance with some of these authors, as Brevard Childs puts it, “on whose creased brows eternity stands written.”