How to Choose Your Best-Fit Bible Commentary
You are looking for a Bible commentary? Awesome! I’d love to help. There are so many commentaries out there - long, short, digital, print - I can see why your head is spinning. I think it’s great you are taking this step to find one that works for you.
So in order for me to better help you, let me ask you some questions about your current quiet time habits. I promise I’m not asking to judge. Our quiet time (devotionals, whatever you’d like to call it) should never be about guilt and completing check lists. They are about building a deeper relationship with God. And I’m assuming that’s the heart behind your search for a commentary.
The reason I am asking about your Bible study habits is to gauge what type of commentary would be the best fit for you. The available variety crosses such spans, it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation. So bear with me while I ask you a few questions.
What does your Bible study look like right now? Is it basically non-existent? (It’s ok; we all started there and obviously you are here to remedy that.) Do you read most days but are at a loss for how to dig deeper? Not even sure what I mean by “dig deeper”? Or maybe you are already studying the Bible in depth.
Also, do you mostly study as part of a group? I know some Bible studies or small groups have assigned reading (sometimes the Bible, sometimes a Christian living book). So that might have you studying some on your own at home.
Then, let me ask you another set of questions: What are you hoping this Bible commentary will help you do? For example, maybe you are reading Ezekiel (definitely one of the hardest books of the Bible to understand) and you just don’t know what’s going on. Well, a Bible commentary could certainly help with that because they often interpret for you or lay out things in plain English - well more or less plain, depending on which commentary you choose.
Or maybe you are teaching or leading a connect group and you want to be extra sure you got it right before you teach some sort of heresy to your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Yup, I get that! That’s one of the biggest reasons I use commentaries - to make sure I’m not teaching you all something that’s way off base.
Do you see a common thread here though? One big thing to please, please remember with Bible commentaries of any kind: Don’t let them replace your own study of God’s Word. Bible commentaries should add to your study but not be your study. Does that make sense?
How to use Bible commentaries (and how not to)
There really are some commentaries out there that are basically fancy study guides. I am actually going to recommend a few below. So again, I'm not knocking them at all. They are great for personal studies and study groups. But here is the deal: Read the intro, get to the Bible passage. PAUSE. Study on your own: pray, ask questions, look at the context. And with those things that don’t seem quite clear, ask yourself, “What does this mean? What does it refer to?” Answer your own questions. Do your best - no peeking at the commentary.
Ok, now it’s time to keep reading the guide. See, a Bible commentary is your study companion. Let’s see what it has to say. Ohhh, what do you know?! It’s confirming what you already thought and figured out on your own. Awesome! There is no feeling like seeing your own conclusions in print. Talk about growing in confidence! That’s exactly how that happens.
Alright, so maybe it didn’t confirm what you were thinking. Maybe it’s letting you in on some historical context or showing you some other passages to consider. Now, in context of the whole and with a little more information, you totally get it. Mission accomplished. That’s how we make progress in learning!
If you are already saying, “Hold on! I know nothing about studying the Bible. I thought that’s why you were gonna help me find a commentary,” no worries; I can help. Check out my FREE guide “10 Steps to Approaching the Bible with Confidence.” It’ll get you started!
So, are we set on this? Study first, then read. Repeat after me, “I will not let a Bible commentary replace my own time in God’s Word.” Alright, good. We are ready to move on.
Three types of commentaries - which works best for you?
There are a few different types of Bible commentaries. I am going to sort them into three categories: commentaries on the whole Bible, study companion commentaries, book by book commentary series. (And no, those aren’t official terms, just the easiest way to explain the differences.)
Let’s dive in. Consider what would work best for you. I’ll give you some examples of how each type of commentary could be helpful. And I’ll list some examples and where you can find them. Again, there are so many; I couldn’t possibly review them all or even a reasonable fraction of them. So I am just showing you a few options. Each one brings a little something different to the table.
If one stands out to you and you think you may like it, take a quick look. Most of my links are to Amazon and they often have the “look inside” option - gotta love that feature - so that’ll give you a better idea.
Commentaries on the whole Bible
Obviously when one book (or a set of two) spans the entire Bible, it can’t possibly go as in depth as a commentary series that dedicates a whole volume to comment on each book of the Bible. So, you are getting a condensed version. Not every verse will be covered and not everything will be covered about the verses that are. But, on the plus side, you have a commentary on every book of the Bible by only purchasing one (or two) books. You get a little bit but for the whole.
This of course is great if you like studying themes (with verses pulled from all over the Bible) or like to jump around from Old to New Testament as your mood guides you. Maybe you just read Genesis and now you feel like studying Acts, and you want a commentary that helps you with both. Commentaries on the whole Bible are great place to start. Here are a few:
This is a two-set series - one book on the Old Testament and one on the New. Wiersbe is a respected theologian. That’s his emphasis with this series: to show you theological themes throughout the Bible.
What do I mean by theology? It’s the study of God - but really, it includes concepts about God’s character, about salvation, about worship etc. Your belief that salvation comes through faith in Christ alone, for example, is your theology on salvation - or part of it. It can get in depth. But again, as this is a 2 volume commentary on the whole Bible, it won’t go into such depth that it’ll make your head hurt.
Think about it this way. In Genesis 3, you learn about sin entering the world through one single event. You know all about it, but did you know it informs your theology?! What do you learn about the nature of sin in Genesis 3? It entered the world through one man; the rest of us are now born with a sin nature; the result of sin is death and separation from God. (And of course, God is gracious even in this event; but that’s a story for another day.) Those are some examples of the theology you may find in this or similar commentaries.
It’s a little older, but you know what? It’s available for FREE online. That’s a plus, especially if you are not quite ready to invest in one of the other options. It’s only one of several free options you may find. In my experience, a lot of them are a little older and can be a little harder to read for that reason. But of course the Bible has been around for much longer than any commentary and its truths have remained, so it’s not like any commentary will ever be outdated.
Anyway, this commentary is set up differently from Wiersbe’s above. Wiersbe writes full passages and paragraphs on a number of verses, pulling out theological truths. Jamieson pulls out key words or phrases and writes a brief explanation for those. So, yes, everything is still organized by books of the Bible, chapter by chapter; but as you read along, he will provide you with information on certain words.
If you are thinking, “What is this crazy lady talking about?”, click on the link above real quick to check it out. Click through to a random verse to see how the book is structured. Again, it’s a free resource, so take a quick look so we are on the same page.
A commentary like this should be pretty attractive to you if you love studying the Bible on your own, are pretty secure in your own conclusions, and are screaming, “Yes, this is exactly what I’m looking for - those extra notes that tell me stuff I wouldn’t otherwise know about that word, that historical context, that reference.”
If you like that concept, here is another similar one with an exciting twist for the digital age:
What? Study Bible? Isn’t that different from a commentary? Well, actually, a study Bible could be a basic alternative to a Bible commentary. It’s basically the full Word of God with occasional notes on the bottom of the page, similar in nature to this and the last commentary example. But again, of course, a study Bible will have less information even than a commentary on the whole Bible because, well..., it’s a space issue.
This is where the Faithlife Study Bible is actually a little different - because it’s not a Bible; it’s just the study notes that would accompany a study Bible. So, in essence, it’s a commentary. The structure is similar to Jamieson’s commentary, and this one is also available for FREE.
Here is the fun twist: It’s an app. Since more and more believers are primarily reading the Bible on their phone or tablet, this should be pretty exciting. It’s a FREE app, so hop on over to your app store and download it. What a great study companion. It has lots of great graphics and photos along with the information too.
These three give you a range and some great options to get started with commentaries. Is that what you were looking for, or am I completely off? Well, let me tell you about the next set.
Commentary Study Guides
These usually come in many volumes corresponding to books of the Bible. They are pretty thin in nature as well as affordable. And, as the title suggests, they are built to help you engage with the Bible on a deeper level. They are usually conversational. Some of them have study questions or even group questions so they are great for a group study. They are great for individual studies, too - but you know how I love studying the Bible with a group!
Yes, same guy, different commentary style. It honestly reads like a Christian living book, full- fledged with personal examples and intros. But it also gives you all kinds of background information, explains words like the other commentaries, and showers you with cross-references. That combination makes Bible study engaging, fun, informational, and easy to apply.
If your group enjoys reading books together but would like to take a step towards reading the Bible, this would be a great transition: a conversational, easy read but all the info you need to dig in. This series is available for Kindle as well as in print. The individual books are inexpensive, and there are usually used copies available for dirt-cheap. Choose one book and check out how you like it.
Again, this series has a volume for every book of the Bible. (“Opening Up Genesis” etc.) Each volume is written by a different author. That can be a good thing because, let’s face it, it’s easier to become an expert on a specific book than on the whole Bible. It’s just a lot to master. You may be getting insight from somebody who has spent a lot of time studying that particular book of the Bible.
The structure of this series is different from Wiersbe’s. It feels a little more like a typical commentary; it takes the text section by section and presents you with historical background, cross-references, word explanations, etc. Then it’ll encourage you to dig deeper on your own with brief “for further study” tips - yeah, no wonder I’m telling you to go check it out. Plus, as a bonus, it has some study questions to use in your group.
So, seriously, it can’t get easier than this if you are looking to lead a study group to dig into the Word together. You’ve got your commentary, you have your “homework assignment” that’ll have everyone gaining Scripture confidence throughout the week, and your group time is already planned out with discussion questions.
It's perfect even if you and your friends want to study more in depth, but none of you feel confident or equipped to take on the “teacher” role. With this option, you can let the commentator do the teaching, each of you do the studying, and then bring it all together as a group.
Still not what you had in mind? How about these…
Book by book commentary series
Now we are kicking it up a notch - or two. If you would consider yourself a seasoned Bible student - fairly Scripture confident, as I would say - this may be what you are looking for. Nothing but meat here: more historical background, different options for interpretation, word studies, original language references, theological terminology, long-winded explanations.
Have I scared you off yet? No, that’s really not my intention. If you are not there yet, that’s fine. But if your interest is piqued a little, let me tell you more - because not all of them are hard to read or full of Greek squiggles that mean nothing to you.
These are some of the commentaries that I use when I’m studying for a group I’m teaching, an article, or a study guide. They are chalk-full of information I never would have otherwise even thought to look up. Reading these types of commentaries has also grown my interpretation ability and confidence. You know, as you watch an expert interpret, you pick up a few things here and there. So it’s about more than what you read about this one passage; it has a long-term effect.
A quick note on the price though because when you open the link to a complete series, you may have a heart attack. Remember you are getting quite a few books for that price and they are full of expert information so it’s not as unreasonable as it looks at first glance.
However, here are some options if you don’t have a $500 per month book budget:
- Choose one book in the series and try it out. See if it is a good fit for you. Whatever book of the Bible you are studying next, get a commentary for it and see what you think. Individually, they are not such a big investment.
- Buy used! Amazon has a lot of used books as do other sites like half.com and hpb.com. Again, I would start with one book at a time. This way they are simply even more affordable.
- If this is totally your category of commentaries and you have a feeling you’re gonna want them all, you should consider digital platforms such a Logos or Olive Tree. They are basically digital libraries for Bible related books of all kinds. They can get pricey also, depending on what package you choose. Once you have an account with them, you can purchase full commentary series for a portion of the print price. Plus, as an added bonus, they are usually interactive. For example, if you hover your cursor over a Bible reference mentioned in the commentary text, a little box will appear with that verse. My husband and I use Logos for our studies and have built our digital library over time. This is really my husband’s baby and has been for a while, so he has asked relatives for book series for birthdays and graduation presents even back in his college days.
Ok back to my examples…
As the title suggests, this series only covers the New Testament. To my knowledge, there isn’t an Old Testament counter-part.
What you get here is a thorough verse-by-verse commentary full of cross-references, theology, and interpretation options. No unrecognizable Greek squiggles here though, and overall, the commentary is still a doable read because, yes, we are stepping up the reading level a little. I think the assumption is that if you are looking for in-depth information like these guys are providing, you don’t mind the college-level reading.
If you are used to one of the commentary types we already covered but are ready for this type of commentary, this set is a great start. You will get the meat but not be overwhelmed. It’ll give you a deep look into the books of the Bible you are studying, increase your theological savvy and have you interpreting like a pro.
I’ll point out the same layout difference again. This - like Jamieson’s and the Faithlife Study Bible - pulls out words and phrases and comments on them. Of course, because this is a book-by-book series, it’s able to cover a lot more phrases and do so in greater depth (and length).
The reading level and type of information is comparable to the last example. But here are some differences: You won’t get quite the same amount of interpretation options. Instead the information you get for each of these phrases should help you interpret better on your own. And you do, of course, get the whole Bible rather than the New Testament only.
Up for the challenge? Or are you saying “Oh pleeease! That’s nothing. Show me the real meat.” Okay…
I wouldn't call this a lay person’s guide, but I’ll bring it up anyway for those of you who want to be challenged. Get ready to re-read paragraphs a few times because this text is tough. If you don’t know Greek and Hebrew, you’ll be skipping over those squiggles to understand the flow of the sentence. But then again, you will learn a thing or two about interpreting passages based on the original languages. If you love when you pastor says in the middle of his sermon, “In the Greek, this word actually means…”, then give this commentary a go.
A few more tips
I haven’t mentioned the most important thing, of course. When you purchase a commentary, check out what the author believes. Are they an evangelical commentator? What is their theology? If you belong to a certain denomination and want a commentator who will be consistent with your church’s theology, find a commentary by an author who belongs to your denomination. You could also google the author, check reviews, or read the introduction pages of commentaries to get this information.
Try out a few different types of commentaries and figure out what fits you best. Stay connected to God’s Word and bring some of these tools along to help you. Which of these has you more excited to go back to the Bible and study?
Did you find your best-fit commentary? Which category is your preference? Do you like the verse/ passage structure or would you prefer the commentaries that pull out words and phrases and explain them? Do you have a favorite commentary you want to recommend to everyone? What other types of resources can I help you find? Comment below to let me know.
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