Counselors in Print

Should a Christian consult commentaries in Bible study? I am convinced that the answer is “yes,” but with judicious caution. To begin with, Proverbs 11:4 gives some helpful perspective.

Where no counsel is, the people fall, but in the multitude of counselors there is safety.

When I study the Bible, my collection of commentaries serve as my “multitude of counselors.” They provide a measure of safety and protection from developing an aberrant view in my own personal study. Yet I recognize that the increased perspective my commentaries provide do not serve as a kind of spiritual Cliff Notes or patented answer key. In the multitude of counselors there is safety, but not necessarily answers. Just because a commentary says something doesn’t make it true – no matter how old the commentary may be or who it was that wrote it. And piles of commentaries may sometimes be more distracting than helpful (Eccl. 12:12).

Just because a commentary says something doesn’t make it true – no matter how old the commentary may be or who it was that wrote it.

The ultimate commentary on the Bible is the Bible itself. That is why you should ardently follow the Berean method of Bible study, no matter how many commentaries you have sitting on your shelf or stored on your hard-drive (Acts 17:11).

They received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.

When you study a verse or passage of Scripture, delay turning to your commentaries until you have carefully examined the Bible itself. Give focused attention to the verses before and after the verses you are studying. And give diligent attention to the book of the Bible where the verses are recorded. Philippians 4:13 may be a familiar verse, for example, but before you assume that you understand it, be sure to consider the verses before it and after it, and be sure to understand the background, purpose and theme of the letter of Philippians as a whole. Just that research alone will provide you with significant help in avoiding common misinterpretations of this verse and in getting you focused on accurate insights. (Perhaps you will find this sermon helpful as an example.)

And while you’re studying the Bible, here is another important step to take before consulting your commentaries. Do a little digging to discover whether or not the passage you are studying contains quotations, paraphrases or allusions from a previous book of the Bible, perhaps even from the Old Testament. To do this, consider adding a book to your library like a Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old TestamentIf a New Testament verse you are studying has background in the Old Testament, you will probably discover some very important insights that you would have otherwise missed.

As you study a passage of Scripture and consult other related passages of Scripture to gain a more accurate perspective, remember to be prayerful and to rely on the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I have frequently prayed the words of Psalm 119:18 in my own Bible study.

Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.

This heart cry should characterize every phase of your Bible study, whether you are consulting commentaries or not. And be sure that you are cultivating your own personal convictions out of a heart of personal devotion to the Lord, not a personal devotion to a particular commentator or paradigm of interpretation (Rom. 14:5).

Yes, there is value and wisdom to consulting commentaries in Bible study. But be sure that the Bible remains your authority, not the commentaries. And be sure that you rely on God to provide you with personal guidance more than you rely on the authors of the commentaries in your collection.

For more notes about using commentaries, click here. For a helpful analysis of which commentaries would be helpful to use, click here.

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