When I first started attending a Bible study group as a new believer, one or two of the members of the group often made profound contributions to the discussion, always making reference to what their “commentaries” had said about the passage we were reading. Being completely new and unfamiliar with the jargon of Christian circles, I thought they meant the footnotes of their Bibles – those teeny tiny words at the bottom of the page.
I would look at the bottom of the page in my Bible, though, and all I would see were one- or two-word notes: “Hebrew Sheol” or “That is, from the upper Nile region.”
I think it goes without saying that those were not particularly helpful in my newbie studying, and I wanted a Bible that said what theirs apparently did. It wasn’t until later that I learned that the profound insights they shared weren’t just from the footnotes of their Bibles (though many Bibles do have study aids like that built in), but from a wholly separate book: a commentary.
Commentaries, as I found out, are books that contain comments and observations from Biblical scholars on the text of the Bible. They come in different varieties for different target audiences, levels of depth of study, and topics (some commentators only tackle one book of the Bible). Some are part of a set, like the New American Commentary (which has a whopping 42 volumes!), while others have less in-depth coverage of the entire Bible in only one or two volumes.
Scholars use one variety of commentary, while pastors – in preparation for sermons, especially – will use another variety. For the purpose of individual study, though, it’s more helpful to find commentaries that are less technical (with fewer references to the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, for example) and more application-based (for answering the question, “How does this apply to my life?”).
There are literally hundreds of commentaries of each style, and it’s important for you – should you choose to use one – to find the commentary that best matches your style of study and your current level of Biblical knowledge.
If you decide to buy a commentary to have of your own, I strongly recommend going to a bookstore and thumbing through them in order to get a real feel for what they contain. (Peronally, I use Zondervan’s New International Bible Commentary a lot. It has always worked well for me and is the only paper copy of a commentary that I use.) There are also commentaries online, which are obviously more economical and can be extremely convenient when you need to compare observations or go more deeply into a particular passage.
Which brings me to what is probably your next question: How and why would I use a commentary in my personal Bible study?
There is no one perfect answer to those questions. Great news, huh?
There are a lot of different opinions about the use of commentaries. Some scholars (even those who are studying for personal purposes) are 100% opposed to the use of these references, preferring instead to rely solely on what the Holy Spirit reveals to them personally. Others use the commentaries as study guides, and others scarcely read a passage without immediately turning to a commentary.
I would caution strongly against the latter. Remember: commentaries are the observations of people on sacred, divinely-inspired text. Humans are fallible, with biases and experiences that color their take on Scripture. Yes, the Holy Spirit can and does reveal His truths to people today, but it is with great discernment that we must accept what they have written on any particular subject.
Having said that, commentaries can be extremely helpful for understanding complicated verses or sections of the Word. They can be used to check your own understanding of what you’ve read (“Did I understand that right?”), to check historical and cultural references that we aren’t familiar with (“Why does Jesus talk so much about farming and growing things?”), and understanding the general flow of a section or book instead of one or two verses as they stand alone (“Do these verses apply to the rest of this section? How? They seem so random!”).
If you are concerned about being overly influenced by one interpretation of the Word, I would recommend looking at several commentators’ views on any particular passage. (This is where it is wonderful to have so many commentaries available on the internet. Believe me – there are a lot, and it can become overwhelming. Matthew Henry’s commentaries are personal favorites.)
Regarding your decision whether or not to use a commentary, I would simply urge you to consider this: while it is true that the Holy Spirit enables us to understand things in God’s Word that we wouldn’t understand on our own, it is also true that He has given those revelations to other people, as well. The full depth of meaning of the entirety of Scripture is far too much for any one person to grasp. The fullness of God is too much for any one person to understand. While using commentaries to research and compare notes is not mandatory or essential for personal study, it can be powerful in growing in our personal relationships with the Lord.
Ultimately, regardless of whether we choose to use a commentary, I think we can all agree that that is the common goal.