I have several shelves filled with Bible commentaries and Christian Book Distributors lists with 5,924 Bible commentaries in its catalog. So, what is a Bible commentary? What are they used for? And what is their relationship with the Bible?
This article will take a brief look into the world of Bible commentaries and attempt to answer these questions.
What Is the Bible?
The Bible is the inspired and authoritative word of God, without error in all it teaches and affirms. The Bible is the story of God’s dealing with humanity from the time of creation up until the time of the early church. The Bible is not a systematic theology text answering all the questions we might have about God.
But it does contain, within its pages, all that we need to know to be in relationship with and to serve God. The Bible is a collection of writings from a variety of authors that took over a thousand years to complete.
This makes the Bible unique among the world’s literature. There are certainly other ancient collections of writings, but none of them speak with the authority of God. None of them contain God’s revelation of himself and his plan of redemption to a fallen humanity.
What Is Bible Commentary?
The Bible can be challenging to understand at times. The culture that it was written by, and to, is different than ours today. Many of the customs and practices of that time are meaningless to us today and, at other times, it is just difficult to come to grips with what a biblical author is saying.
Commentaries are written to address these challenges. A commentary may cover the whole Bible, a single testament, a single book, or even a portion of a book. But in all cases, commentaries seek to provide understanding into what the Bible is teaching.
If you have ever watched football, or any other sport, on TV, you will have noticed that there are usually one or more people talking most of the time. These folks are commentators, explaining to the audience what they are watching. This is similar to the role of Bible commentaries. They seek to explain to the reader what the Bible is teaching.
The sports commentators are experts in the sport that they are explaining. In the same way, those who write Bible commentaries have invested countless hours in study and research into that portion of the Bible they are commenting on. They might be considered experts on that portion of Scripture.
Is Bible Commentary Inspired?
There are two ways of looking at inspiration. When we speak of the Bible as being inspired, we mean that the Holy Spirit spoke to the human authors and what they recorded was what the Spirit wanted recorded. There is debate as to the form that inspiration took, but whatever it was, the result was without error and what God wanted us to have.
We might also speak of inspiration in the sense of the Holy Spirit leading or guiding. I frequently feel that the Spirit is leading me in my writing, but the Holy Spirit is not controlling me. In the end, I am responsible for what I write, and because I am human, my work, unlike the Scripture, is subject to error.
Return for a moment to the analogy of a sports commentator. The commentator was not with the coach when they drew up the plays, nor with the players as they practiced them. And when the plays are executed on the field of play, he cannot watch every player to see what each is doing during a play. He is limited in his abilities. Abilities that will grow with practice and study. But, nonetheless, limited.
The Bible commentator has the same limitations. Our finite minds cannot fully grasp the depth of God’s Word and his purpose. All we can do is to describe his Word as we understand it, to the best of our abilities. The more time spent in study, the better our understanding can become, but it will never be complete.
The Proper Use of Bible Commentary
A good Bible commentary can be an invaluable aid in your study of the Bible. A commentary can help you to understand the culture and customs that are reflected in the Bible. A culture and customs that are often foreign to us today.
But it is important to remember that the commentary you use, no matter who wrote it, is not an inspired work of the Holy Spirit. It reflects a human understanding of Scripture. An understanding that is fallible and is flavored by the doctrinal positions held by the author.
In your study, the Bible should be your primary authority. Use one, or more, commentaries to gain insight from the studies of other men — to provide clarification for challenging passages. And for an explanation as to the cultural background of the passage under study.
But always remember the distinction between the Bible and any commentary you use. It can be tempting to elevate the words of a commentary to the level of Scripture. And that is especially tempting when using a study Bible with commentary included on the same pages as Scripture. Be careful not to fall into that trap.
Recognize the role of the commentary. It is a study aid. Use multiple commentaries to see multiple perspectives, evaluate what they say, and seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance as you study. He should be your primary guide in studying Scripture and evaluating the words of any commentary.
Why Does This Matter?
Good commentaries can be a helpful, and sometimes essential, tool for rigorous Bible study. They can give us needed insight into the culture and customs of the Bible. As well as insight into a different way of understanding passages, even those that are quite familiar. But it is always important not to mistake the fallible work of a human commentator for the infallible work of the Holy Spirit.
Ed Jarrett is a long-time follower of Jesus and a member of Sylvan Way Baptist Church. He has been a Bible teacher for over 40 years and regularly blogs at A Clay Jar. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook. Ed is married, the father of two, and grandfather of three. He is retired and currently enjoys his gardens and backpacking.