Having been a pastor for over seven years now (a brief time in the larger scheme of things), I’ve had to buy quite a few commentaries. As some of you may know, it’s not overly easy to select commentaries when you’re beginning to study a book of the Bible. Commentaries are quite expensive and there are so many of them out there.
For example, a quick look at Amazon reveals that there are well over 35 decent commentaries on the Gospel of Luke. If one were to write up a full list that includes commentaries from the past, the number would probably exceed 50! Books that summarize useful commentaries are out of date almost as soon as they are on the bookshelves since new commentaries are published so frequently. How do we even begin to search for good commentaries to buy? Here are a couple of things I think about before purchasing commentaries – things which save me money and time.
1) I don’t get commentaries that are similar; I don’t get three or four commentaries from an evangelical and/or Reformed perspective. The first few times I purchased commentaries, I got a handful of Reformed and evangelical ones, and they all were pretty much the same. For example, if you have Ryken on Luke, you probably don’t need Hughes’ commentary on it. Or, if you have Derek Thomas’ commentary on Acts, you probably don’t need Sproul’s (etc.). Quite possibly, the longer a Reformed preacher studies and preaches, the less he even needs Reformed commentaries!
2) I buy commentaries that differ in structure and style. I always like at least one commentary that is somewhat technical in language/syntax discussions (i.e. Word Biblical Commentaries or perhaps NICOT/NICNT). I’ll also get a commentary that is more thematic and less exegetical, like the NIV Application Commentaries or the Preach the Word series. In other words, I get one or two technical commentaries and one or two that are not as technical but more practical. Note: It is difficult to find technical commentaries on some books, so you may have to look hard!
3) I buy commentaries with which I might disagree. Since many Reformed and/or evangelical commentaries sound the same, I also get commentaries from the Roman Catholic and the liberal perspectives. For example, I like the Sacra Pagina commentaries as well as the Interpretation commentaries; I’ve also used WKJ and Abingdon commentaries (Concordia also publishes some helpful ones). I have some Jewish commentaries on OT books and critical commentaries, which I’ve found quite helpful. I always appreciate seeing how others look at the text, since it often makes me think and study harder.
4) I like to round out my collection with older commentaries. In other words, I don’t only use commentaries that have been written in the past 3o-40 years. I like to use commentaries from the Reformers, the medieval doctors, and the church fathers. It’s good to hear how God’s people interpreted texts before our modern era! For example, I’ve come to appreciate commentaries by Lightfoot, Ellicott, Poole, Augustine, and Chrysostom (among others).
5) I try not to get too many commentaries. I sometimes see pictures of a person’s shelves with ten or eleven commentaries on a certain book of the Bible. My first thought is, “Do you have time to read all those and study the text and do pastoral visits/counseling?” My second thought is, “Where do you get the money?” (Thankfully, sometimes pastors receive commentaries as gifts or find used commentaries for great prices.) I’ve resisted the temptation to become a “commentary junkie,” getting every new commentary that publishing companies market so heavily. Also, personally, I don’t feel like I *must* read every section of every commentary I using. If my sermon studies are going well, I typically don’t read all my commentaries – else my sermons tend to get too full and detailed.
Doing the math, one might be able to benefit from five commentaries for one book of the Bible: one evangelical or Reformed commentary, one or two from another perspective, one exegetical/textual, and one or two from church history. Granted, there is some overlap in those categories, but it may serve as a starting point – or at least something to think about!
I realize everyone is different when it comes to purchasing and using commentaries – and I could be wrong! So feel free to disagree and/or add your own comments, suggestions, and lessons learned.
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)