“There’s no way to know it without discovery.” — Sara Groves, songwriter
Groves isn’t talking about commentaries when she sings that line, but she’s describing a fundamental truth about deep knowledge: it only comes by discovery. And discovery cannot be rushed.
Ideally, anyone digging into a biblical text wants to understand what God is revealing about Himself. The truths will be big, so they must be studied slowly and from every angle.
Here’s how to use commentaries as tools for discovery, rather than shortcuts to answers.
1. Bring opinions to the commentary
In seminary, we were generally not allowed to consult commentaries until we had translated the text, diagrammed its structure, parsed its key words and verbs, and summarized its message. These are not official prerequisites; our professors just wanted us to gain interpretive instincts.
They wanted us to converse with commentaries, not merely listen to them.
When you come to a commentary without any of your own thoughts on the text, the commentary will do your thinking for you. You may even risk parroting whatever the scholar is saying. But when you come having analyzed the text, you can weigh their comments critically.
You can even—if you have multiple commentaries on hand—enter into interpretive debates on the text, because you’ll be familiar with the particulars (the words, structural issues, rhetorical movements, etc.). You’ll be thinking for yourself with help from others, which you must do if you are to discover truth, be transformed, and possibly teach others.
2. Bring questions to the commentary
Undoubtedly, you will have questions of a text after you’ve spent time observing it. In fact, a good way to know you’ve rushed that process is if you come to the end of it without any questions. (I once heard of a Bible professor who asked his students to make 20 observations about a single verse. The next time they met, he asked them to make 30 more. And finally, he asked them to bring the number to 100. They were all able to do it.)
With questions in mind, you know what to search your commentary for. On one level, this is just practical. It will save you time. Rather than reading observations you’ve already made, you can skip to what you hadn’t noticed or don’t know.
Most commentaries are organized precisely for this, moving with the general progression of study (text, context, observation, interpretation, theological reflection, application). If you can categorize your question, you can turn to where where you’re likely to find the answer, skimming paragraphs rather than pages. (This is a good way to judge a commentary, too: Is it usefully organized?)
Another reason to come to a commentary with questions is that it forces you to hone in on the major interpretive issues of a text. You’ll know what you need to unlock before you can truly open it up.
If you are planning to teach the text, you’ll be more alert to what your listeners may be wondering, too. Your questions will likely be their questions. Or, your questions—stated publicly—will teach them to ask new interpretive questions. You might even describe how you came to an answer. In this way you are bringing your listeners into the process of discovery, for everyone’s edification.
3. Bring out a variety of commentaries
Finally, reach for the right tool. Sometimes your question may be about a particular word, other times about an intricate textual detail, and other times about theology or application.
Not every commentary can address these questions. In fact, no one commentary should be able to answer them all well.
Generally speaking, a commentary will either be broad (going just one level deep on all disciplines), specific (geared particularly toward one discipline, like textual analysis), or massive, attempting to be both comprehensive and thorough.
When you know the kind of question you have, you know the kind of commentary to reach for. If it’s a textual question, a critical commentary is best suited to help you. If it’s interpretive, reach for a critical or expository commentary. And if it’s about theology or application, scan a theological or application commentary. Conveniently, the type is usually in the name.
If you find that your commentaries are consistently not giving you good material in any of these categories, it may be you have a hole in your library.
Every commentary has its merits, and no matter what kind you turn to, it helps to come with opinions and questions and to seek answers where you are likely to find them. Skip any of these steps, especially the first, and you miss exciting discoveries.