5 Ways to Misuse a Commentary

A Helpful Tool

I first used a commentary in my teenage years. I was reading through the Bible and asked my mom if there was something that could help me with questions. She had a two-volume commentary on the Bible that she pointed me to and my use of commentaries began. Since that time I’ve used hundreds of commentaries (and written a couple) and have learned a lot of lessons along the way. Below is a list of the top five ways to misuse a commentary (and suggestions for how to use them better).

1. Not using a bookmark.

This simple trick could save you literal hours (or days) of time. Every time you have to find your place again in a commentary burns 10-20 seconds or longer. Multiply that 5-6 times a week for 50 weeks a year and you’re wasting an hour or more just flipping pages! Then multiply that over a lifetime of ministry and you’ve spent a day or more of your life just trying to find your place in a book—all because you didn’t use a bookmark! Who would choose to do that?

2. Failing to read commentaries in chronological order.

Good commentators are standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before them. That means that there is a dialogue taking place in commentaries and, like any dialogue, it is best understood in chronological order. If you’re using more than one commentary when working through a passage, read them in the order they were written so that you can see how that dialogue develops and unfolds.

[Commentators] are not the Bible; they are fallen human beings trying to explain the Bible.

3. Using the technical language of the commentary when preaching or teaching—and failing to get practical.

Many commentaries use technical or theological terminology that is not common outside of the theological guild. Words like hermeneutical, exegetical, and pericope are simply not used in everyday language by most people in your church. That’s not because they’re unintelligent; it’s because that’s the language of a very specific guild. Remember: Jesus said profound things simply; we should seek to do the same. That often means translating the language of the commentary to the language of the people sitting right in front of us.

It also means explaining why this matters for everyday life. Some commentaries do a good job of this but many are focused on explaining things at a theoretical level and not showing how a text applies to us today. The danger is for us to do the same. Don’t think you’ve done your job teaching or preaching if you haven’t answered the question, “What difference does this make for how I live my life for God?”

4. Treating the commentary as infallible.

Commentators make mistakes. Sometimes they are working to meet tight deadlines and writing quickly. Sometimes they’re tired. Sometimes their own context blinds them to things. Sometimes they’ve just had a bad day. In other words, like every other human being, they are finite, fallible, and prone to err. Granted, if you’re reading a commentator who is well-trained and theologically orthodox, they can be incredibly helpful, but they will never escape their fallen humanity. They are not the Bible; they are fallen human beings trying to explain the Bible. Yes, read them with the respect due to those who have labored hard to understand the text, but read them critically. Ask yourself, “Does their explanation do justice to the text? Does it do so in as simple and straightforward a way as possible, or does it seem overly complex and speculative? Are the arguments strong and well-ordered? Does the writer provide support for the claims being made?”

ESV Expository Commentary

Thirteen contributors explain the shorter Prophetic Books of the Old Testament—Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi—with biblical insight and pastoral wisdom, showing readers the hope that is offered even amidst judgment.

5. Starting with the commentary, not with the Bible.

Every time I begin class, my students and I go through the same greeting. It begins like this:

Me: Shalom, class!
Students: Shalom, Jay!
Me: Start with the Bible. . .
Students: . . . not with the commentary!

Why repeat this every class? Because in preparing to teach or preach, we face a strong temptation to start by reading the commentary instead of digging into the text, and when we do that, we are much more likely to see only what the commentary has led us to see. Stated differently, we are much more likely NOT to see certain things we would have noticed if we had begun by carefully thinking through the text on our own.

By all means, turn to a commentary at some point! They are wonderful friends, debating partners, and theological mentors. But start with the Bible; spend time soaking in it, meditating on it, praying over it, reading and rereading it, outlining it, explaining its ideas in your own words. When you do, you will be able to think about the passage much more objectively and therefore interact with the commentary much more thoughtfully–and critically. After all, it is the Lord’s Word you want to deliver, not the commentator’s.

So say it out loud with me: “Start with the Bible, not with the commentary!”

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