How to Buy a Commentary

So you have just been given a leadership position or small group to care for.  You know the book of the Bible you are going to work through, you know you need resources, but how do you find the right one?

There are lots of different types of commentaries: exegetical, technical, devotional, application, etc.  But they usually end up in one of two categories. They can be incredibly helpful or they can be a great waste of money. There are lots out there so how do you decide which one to buy?

1. Don’t trust a series or an author just because you have used them before

If you have used a series or an author before they may be helpful again, but not necessarily.  Don’t work on the assumption that just because one is good the rest are too.  Commentary series will be aiming to do different things.  Tyndale do a great job of exegetical commentaries. New International series, Pillar and Baker are good technical ones but different ones will be better than others.  NIV Application and BST are good applications series.  But these are guides not rules. Don’t assume.

2. Get someone else to pay your dumb tax

I recently heard someone say “dumb tax always has to be paid, but it doesn’t have to be paid by you”. There are lots of other people out there who have already shopped.  Some people have already wasted their money on bad commentaries.  Ask around for what is good.

It’s important you ask people who are doing a similar task to you.  I once asked an academic and his advice for a commentary would have been perfect….if I were lecturing at postgraduate level, not preaching to a Sunday congregation.   In fact I did this recently and someone suggested instead of buying a commentary on the book refer to another book I happen to have in my library that was even more helpful for theological insights into the book.

3. Do the test case

The job of a good commentary is to save you time.  So you need to test to see if it will.   Start with a passage of the book you are looking at.  Work out do you need to know about this passage, is it theology or application or role in Biblical theology?  Create a list of questions that took you time to work out to use to see if this commentary will help you with the rest of the book.

Once you have worked over your passage go to a bookshop, library or get onto Google books and try few out.  Here are a few questions that you should be able to answer using the test case:

  • What sort of commentary do you need?  One with more exegetical information, more theological contribution or more dealing with application issues?
  • Did it answer your questions or skate over the issues?
  • Was there information that you missed in your working over the passage that is in the commentary?
  • Was it giving information that was actually helpful for you to preach or teach the passage or was it full of things that would be only helpful in a Bible trivia competition?
  • Is it worth the money or does a cheaper one do the same job? (Just because it is expensive does not mean it is useful to you).

Do you need a commentary?

I know there will be at least one person gearing up with a comment that we shouldn’t even need commentaries.  They are written by people who can be wrong.  We should be able to do all the work that a commentator does without relying on them.

Both assertions are true.  Commentators can be wrong, we should be able to do get to the same point as them.  But as I said above the purpose of a commentary is to save you time.  The problem with starting from scratch is that it would take hours and hours of time to get to the same point that a commentary does and that time could be used loving God’s people.  A commentary writer has taken time to develop a resource so it will help you steward your time better, at least that was what they were supposed to do which is why you need to be discerning in buying one.

Do you need to agree with a commentary?

There are lots of commentaries that have been published with different points of views and presuppositions, not all of which you will share.   If you are getting to know a book for the first time it is good to have a trustworthy commentary to guide you through the book, with presuppositions you share, so you can get to know the book well.

But if you have been doing this for a while and it is a book you know well, having a commentator you don’t agree with can force you to make decisions that you have previously ignored and will help you get to know the nuances of the book.

How do you buy a commentary?  What have I missed?

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