How do I find a good commentary and how do I read it? What other resources are available to help me understand the Bible in my studies?
There are many good commentaries out there but there are a number of things everyone needs to remember and have in the back of their mind about them. But there are also many other great resources that help us to study the Bible in depth.
All of these resources are reference works. What I mean by this is that the proper way to use them is in conjunction with Bible study. Just like you don’t pick up a dictionary and read it cover to cover, these resources are not meant to be read like a dictionary.
They have so much information that most of us were not remember most of it anyway. They are highly subject-oriented and tethered to the words, verses, and books of the Bible. I believe part of your question doesn’t only refer to commentaries but to Bible study tools and helps in general.
I will cover study Bibles, Bible handbooks, dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases, concordances, wordbooks, lexicons, Bible software, and commentaries. This will be a longer answer but I believe it will help you to find the right resources for your Bible study.
Study Bibles are one of the most common forms of initial study. I use study Bibles when I am reading the Bible devotionally. I come across a passage and want to know more without beginning deep study. They give you the basic ideas of the passage and sometimes dive a bit deeper.
But they’re not as deep as a commentary. They only give you an idea of the issues and provide slight details that pique your interest. My problem is that sometimes they make me wonder more and I want to dive deeper instead of finishing my reading for the day.
Like everything else, study Bibles are selective. They often come as companions to the version of the Bible you are reading. There are study Bibles that have the KJV, NIV, ESV, NLT and every other version under the sun. Most of them take the text of the Bible and that version and add the notes for the study Bible at the bottom of it. They reference the verse you are reading and give you more information.
Study Bibles can be based on certain scholars that are guiding you through the Bible. But they can also be based on individuals such as preachers and teachers. These are almost like having that preacher or teacher guide you through the Bible with their eyes. These are helpful for introductory study.
A Bible handbook is a one volume work that contains a short overview of every book in the Bible. Within that overview an overview of each chapter of each book may also be included. These are meant for the very beginning of study of a Bible book.
They help us get the lay of the land, see the forest before we look at the trees. Overviews and introductions are the name of the game for this resource. They are almost always connected to Bible books. Some contain more information than this, like intertestamental information.
Bible Dictionaries, Encyclopedias, and Atlases
A Bible dictionary is much like any other dictionary, except that most of its subject matter and entries relate directly to biblical topics. These articles can be extensive and only refer to biblical events, people, and objects.
Whereas a normal dictionary may have a few lines of text to explain an entry, Bible dictionaries have more detail on biblical entries. Bible dictionaries can be single volume or multivolume.
Bible encyclopedias are much like the encyclopedias you might find in sets. Once again the major difference between the two is that a Bible encyclopedia usually comes in sets and has much more information about biblical topics.
Bible encyclopedias are exclusively directed toward the subject matter of the Bible. Some of them are illustrated while others are not. The best Bible encyclopedias are multivolume sets.
Bible atlases are like the atlases of the rest of the world, except that they focus purely on biblical areas of study. You are probably most familiar with these because almost every printed Bible has atlases in the back.
They contain maps of the land of Israel, the New Testament churches of Asia minor and other areas in Europe. Bible Atlas maps are based on time periods throughout the Bible. There will be different maps between Old and New Testament areas. Some of the more advanced ones point out sequences of events.
Bible Concordances, Wordbooks, and Lexicons
These resources are more helpful for the study of Bible words. As your studies progress into the original words of the Bible, written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, you will need these resources to help you drill down into the meaning of individual words.
A Bible concordance is keyed to a Bible version. The reason for this is that is based off of the words that specific version uses. It gives a list of every word used in the Bible version and what verses each word can be found in.
If you look up a word it will give you a list of each verse, the context, and may even use word classification systems such as Strong’s numbers. In this way, you can study the individual meanings of this word in different contexts.
A Bible wordbook goes a step further. It describes the different contexts and meanings based on the books, chapters, and verses each word appears in. For instance, I can use the color white in different contexts to refer to different things. I can say that a person is a “white boy.” But then I could say to look up my phone number in the “white pages.”
The first example talks about the color of skin while the second talks about a book containing phone numbers. Wordbooks are created by scholars who study the original languages in depth so that we can understand them without learning the languages.
Some wordbooks are designed for those who do not have a background in the biblical languages. You can look up a word in English and it will describe its Hebrew and Greek backgrounds. Other wordbooks are based on the alphabet of the original biblical languages and are much harder to follow for those who do not have a background in biblical languages.
Lexicons are the least user-friendly for someone who does not know the original languages of the Bible. They are like English dictionaries, except they contain Greek and Hebrew instead. They tell you important facts like how to translate a Greek or Hebrew word in its context.
But some of them also define what a word means in all of these different contexts. They may contain advanced information, including where else in history these words have been used. For instance, the gold standard Greek lexicon can be used not only for the New Testament but also for the early church fathers’ Greek writings.
In our day and age it might be best to consider Bible software instead of buying a ton of books with which to do your studies. Most Bible software may be a little more expensive at first but you will find that the software is much cheaper than buying books one at a time or even in sets.
Bible software can include things like concordances, Bible dictionaries, and even lexicons right within the program. One of the greatest benefits is computational speed without the need to go and find your book before you can start your study.
Many Bible softwares integrate all of the resources you have in your electronic libraries so that they work seamlessly together. These are some of the greatest reasons to have a Bible software available for your studies as well as books.
Of course, Bible software may not be inexpensive. You must be able to weigh your needs and the level of resources you will need with the Bible software. Some Bible softwares come in different packages for different purposes. One package may give you more original language resources while another may concentrate on a denominational study.
There are so many different kinds of commentaries. There are single volumes and whole sets. There are beginner to advanced levels of commentaries. They range in price and they all have their limitations.
Commentaries are unique among Bible studies tools because they are keyed to versus in the Bible. Most commentaries are not designed to be read straight through like a book. As a reference resource, they tell us what a scholar thinks about a particular verse or passage. Commentaries are meant to be companions to the text of the Bible.
If you are studying a certain book of the Bible, you may not want to get an entire set of commentaries. You can focus on getting just that volume for that book. Sets are incredibly expensive and you may not use every book in the set.
A set is the whole series of commentaries, usually covering the entire Bible book by book. You could have a set of commentaries devoted to only the New Testament or only the Old Testament. Most sets eventually cover the whole canon of the Scriptures.
Next, consider the purpose of the commentary. They range from devotional commentaries devoted to light study to expository commentaries that show the connection between verses and passages to scholarly commentaries with notes about the original language.
These different levels of study can also help you. A devotional commentary focuses on getting the big picture. Expository commentaries are the next level. They allow you to see the details of the text. They get more specific.
The highest level of commentaries may not help most people study the Bible. Scholarly commentaries tend to fixate on details that scholars argue about. They argue about the original language of the text, whether the verse belongs, if the author used the wrong tense of the verb, etc. these commentaries don’t always focus on the message of the text. They are helpful if you know the original language or want to get into it.
As you can guess, the price goes up as you move across the levels from a devotional commentary to a scholarly commentary. Devotional commentaries range from $8-$10. Expository commentaries jumped to about $15-$30. Scholarly commentaries could start anywhere from $30-$50 per volume. You can see how this adds up if you buy a whole set.
Aside from these three categories, there are also different kinds of commentaries. There commentaries that focus on geography, theology of the text, background in biblical history, historical understanding of the text, original language of the passage, and others.
Make sure the commentary you choose aligns with your purpose. If you are going to teach or preach a passage, there commentaries that do that. If you are going to argue the finer points of this Greek word for that Hebrew phrase, scholarly commentaries are the way to go.
Finally, a commentary will not solve all of the problems or questions you have about your passage. They have limitations.
- Doesn’t answer your question. You are at the whims of the scholar. The author of the commentary answers questions and concerns he or she has about each passage. You may have a question the author doesn’t even consider in the commentary.
- Different purpose or focus. Some commentaries focus on theological issues or whatever their purpose may be. Sometimes you find gems that open your mind to the Bible. Other times you search in the commentary and wonder why it is in your library.
- Theological viewpoint. Commentaries can focus on theology and doctrine that do not agree with you. Some commentaries offer certain theological stances that you will disagree with. They read their theological framework into the passage. You may enjoy a different perspective but the Bible may not be saying what they say it says.
- Level of study. Some commentaries do not fit the levels were purposes I talked about earlier. There may be a commentary between two levels. This often happens between expository and scholarly levels. You may read along and gain much insight and then all the sudden the author rabbit trails into the meaning of a Greek word. If this happens, skip over the scholarly details and continue to read the expository material.
I know this has been a very long answer to the question. Perhaps some of this material will help you choose the Bible study tools that work for you. I’m giving you an overview of most of the study tools available to you.
I hope this has helped you choose those tools. I end with a list of Bible study resources. The ones in bold I recommend and use myself. If you ever need help finding resources to fit your needs or have a question you want me to help you with, don’t hesitate to contact me.
Bible Study Resources
- Study Bibles
- ESV Study Bible
- MacArthur Study Bible
- NKJV Spirit Filled Life Bible
- NIV Women’s Study Bible
- NIV Life Application Study Bible
- NKJV Study Bible
- NIV Quest Study Bible
- Bible Handbooks
- Halley’s Bible Handbook
- Zondervan Bible Handbook
- Wilmington’s Bible Handbook
- Bible Dictionaries, Encyclopedias, and Atlases
- Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary
- International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
- Zondervan Illustrated Bible Encyclopedia
- Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible
- Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land
- Eerdman’s Bible Dictionary
- Yale Anchor Bible Dictionary (6 Volumes)
- Holman Bible Atlas
- Zondervan Atlas of the Bible
- Crossway ESV Bible Atlas
- Bible Concordances, Wordbooks, and Lexicons
- Strong’s Concordance (Based on Bible Version)
- Theological Workbook of the Old Testament
- Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Kittel (One Volume, Set)
- Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature BDAG (Gold Standard for Greek New Testament)
- Thayer’s Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament
- Hebrew and Aromatic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Gold Standard for Hebrew)
- Brown Driver Briggs (Hebrew Lexicon)
- Bible Software
- Logos Bible Software
- Bible Commentaries (Beginner)
- Tyndale New Testament Commentary (Old Testament Also Available
- IVP Bible Background Commentary (Two Volumes, Old and New)
- Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Bible (One Volume)
- Preacher’s Commentary Series (Old and New)
- NIV Application Commentary (Old and New)
- Life Application Bible Commentary
- Holman New Testament Commentary
- Pulpit Commentary Series (Old and New)
- Daily Study Bible Series (Old and New)
- Bible Commentaries (Intermediate)
- New International Commentary (Old and New)
- Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Old and New)
- IVP New Testament Commentary
- Pillar New Testament Commentary
- New American Commentary Series (Old and New)
- Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament
- Bible Exposition Commentary
- Old Testament Survey Series
- Bible Commentaries (Advanced)
- Word Biblical Commentary Series (Old and New)
- Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament
- Yale Anchor Bible Commentaries (Old and New)
- Interpretation (Old and New)
- Hermeneia (Old and New)
- International Critical Commentary (Old and New)
- New International Greek Text Commentary (New Testament)
- Commentary on the Old Testament (Keil and Delitzsch)
- One and Two Volume Commentaries (Cover Whole Bible)
- New Bible Commentary
- IVP Bible background Commentaries (Old and New)
- Matthew Henry’s Commentary
- Bible Knowledge Commentary