One of the questions that appears with some frequency in my inbox is this: how do build a commentary library? For those of us who want to study the Bible in-depth and want the help of scholars who have done the hard work with the original languages, picking up a few commentaries can be a very helpful and fruitful addition to daily Bible study. So here are a few principles that I try to abide by as I’ve built out my commentary library:
First, a word about when to use a commentary.
Commentaries are a super helpful tool as you study your Bible, but they shouldn’t be your first tool. As always, I encourage Bible students to study the Bible verse-by-verse. This approach is called exegetical Bible study, and it serves us extraordinarily well as we work our way through God’s Word. Always read the Text multiple times as you wade into the waters of study. Observe on your own the repeated words or phrases, identify the author and audience and where the book falls in the meta narrative of Scripture. Then, once you’ve done your work, let a commentary be a helpful addition.
Remember, you don’t need a commentary to understand God’s Word. He has given you everything you need to know and worship Him right there in His holy Word!
Buy for what you’re studying right now
It can be tempting to buy commentaries for books of the Bible that you want to study, but the reality is that the most useful commentaries are the ones that speak to the books of the Bible that we are studying right now. So, as a rule, whenever I start to study a new book of the Bible in-depth (meaning, I’m not just reading a new book of the Bible in my quiet time, but committing a decent length of time to a certain book of the Bible — most often for a writing project or because I’m less familiar with that particular book of the Bible), I like to pick up two or three commentaries that speak to that book. For example, right now I’m having a great time studying Obadiah. This book meets both of the previous categories: I haven’t studied it in depth, and so the help of a commentary is needed; and I think it could lead to a writing project. And so I picked up three commentaries to help me along in the study (you can see which three I picked up on Instagram).
Here’s the good news, because Obadiah falls within the minor prophets, all three of the commentaries cover not only Obadiah, but also other minor prophetic books. Which means I now have commentaries on Jonah, Micah, Nahum, and Habakkuk that I didn’t previously have in my library!
Buy by the author, not the series
One of the biggest temptations I have had to overcome in commentary buying is this: when I find a series that I like, it’s tempting to add every single commentary in the series to my wish list. It’s tempting to think: I like the NICOT series so I’ll just buy the entire series that spans the entire Old and New Testament! (Also, wouldn’t that look pretty on my library shelf?) But I’ve found this approach to be less than idea because each series has strengths and weaknesses, and those are found in their authors.
Each series has hired different scholars to author commentaries within their area of expertise. Which means, any commentary on any given book of the Bible is only as strong as the author hired to write it. So I’ve found that by researching who is a leading scholar on any given book of the Bible to be a useful first step in finding the best commentaries. By buying this way, I’m getting the best commentaries that each series offers, even if it doesn’t look as pretty on my shelves.
Know what each series is for
This little tip is coming from Austin, my better half. As I was reviewing this post to publish on the blog, he added this little tidbit that I don’t think should be left out! Each series serves a different purpose: some are more academic (looking at the languages in-depth) and others are more pastoral/approachable. By reading the overview for each series, you’ll better know if that series is a good fit for what you’re studying. You can find these overviews on the publisher’s website.
Buy what you can feasibly use
When I get excited about a book, I really want to buy ten or twelve commentaries on that book. It’s a good impulse and a bad one at the same time. But the reality is that I can really only use one to three commentaries as I study. I just find that I can’t really digest more information than that (plus, many of then are addressing similar observations in the Text, so I don’t really need 10 different authors to tell me the same overall observations). So keep your purchase list small. That way, you will actually use them and will only be curating the best for your commentary library.