How to Use a Bible Commentary
Written by Phylicia Masonheimer | May 5, 2017
When my blog readers ask me for devotional recommendations, I always reply: “A devotional is good—but a commentary is better!” While devotionals share small bits of Scripture with the author’s thoughts on it, they tend to remove verses from their historical and literary context. And because devotionals are so short, they can’t go as deep into the passages they cover. Ultimately, a devotional is not the Bible itself!
The best quiet time is made up of time in God’s Word. But many people struggle to understand what they are reading. They then get discouraged and even give up. That’s where a commentary can be so helpful! Biblical commentaries shed light on the parts of Scripture that are hard to understand. They help us bridge the gap between modern times and the historical context. To get started with a commentary of your own, here are a few “starter steps.”
- Find a trustworthy commentary online or at a bookstore. Not all commentaries are created equal. As a rule, commentaries on the whole Bible will not go as deep as commentaries on a specific book of the Bible. However, it gets expensive to buy a commentary on all 66 books! For a beginner, a commentary with an overview of the entire Bible is a sufficient start. Matthew Henry’s free online commentary is a good version, or, if you want to buy a great copy from the get-go, the Expositor’s Bible Commentary.
- Start with Scripture. To use a commentary, start by reading the passage in Scripture that you are studying. Read it a few times to grasp what’s going on, who the characters are, where and when it takes place, and even read before and after a little bit to grasp the context.
- Write out your observations, thoughts and questions. Take notes as you read. I like to use my journaling Bible with large margins to take my notes; you can also use a journal. Write out what you notice, the key words or themes, and most importantly, the questions you need to get answered about the passage.
- Read the corresponding passage in the commentary. Next, read the corresponding passage in the commentary. Read it slowly, grasping what the author shares about the author’s intent, the meaning of words and the historical context. If you don’t agree with some of what the commentary says, consider looking up alternative interpretations online. It’s good to question what you read and search out truth!
- Look for answers to your questions. As you are reading, look for answers to your questions. Sometimes the Scriptural passage itself will answer your questions; other times the commentary will provide the insight you need. Note-taking is very helpful to physically and mentally process those questions and keep track of the answers you find.
- Look up place names, cross references and word definitions as needed. Finally, do a further study of place names by using a Bible dictionary or searching online. For instance, when I was studying John 4, I looked up the city Sychar, which is where the story of the Woman at the Well takes place. I learned much about Samaria and the history of that city in the process! Also look up the cross references (those verses listed, usually between the two columns of Scripture in your Bible’s open page, that relate to the verse you’re reading). This will give you examples of other ways these words and topics have been used in various parts of the Bible. You can also look up word meanings and definitions by using Strong’s Concordance, which shares the Greek and Hebrew root words.
Becoming a student of Scripture may be intimidating, but anyone can do it! It is our call to know God the way He has revealed Himself: through Scripture. By learning to study well, we know Him even better.