A Bible commentary is a written systematic series of explanations and interpretations of Scripture. They are written by some of the most knowledgeable theologians and other experts. A Bible commentary follows the Bible verse order exactly and adds comments on the interpretation of the text and historical details, etc. as it proceeds. Commentaries are very helpful in finding out how other people have understood the Bible. There are many commentaries available on the Bible, from single books to large multi-volume sets. Bible commentaries can also be found in on-line Bible software and are easy to use in conjunction with other on-line study tools such as word and phrase searches, concordances and lexicons and Bible atlases, for example.
When a passage is unclear, a good practice is to first look up the associated cross-references. There is no better commentary on the Bible than the Bible itself and cross-references assist with this internal exploration within the Bible. Cross-references are verse references supplied by the publisher that help you to find connections and commonalities between different parts of the Bible, such as events, themes, words or people. You will need a Bible that contains either a centre margin with references, side margins with references, or footnote insertions with references, or a study aid such as the Treasury of Scriptural Knowledge.
Once you have explored Bible connections through cross-references it may be useful to consult a commentary to see how other Bible readers have interpreted the passage. It must be remembered that these are the interpretations of individuals, and although knowledgeable, they are not inspired and, therefore, open to doctrinal bias.
The following is an example from Matthew 11:28-30 (ESV).
Jesus said: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
From the Bible Background Commentary:
“When a man carried a yoke he would carry it on his shoulders (cf., e.g., Jer 27:2); Judaism applied this image of subjection to obedience. Jewish people spoke of carrying the yoke of God’s law and the yoke of his kingdom, which one accepted by acknowledging that God was one and by keeping his commandments. Matthew intends Jesus’ words about rest as a contrast with Pharisaic Sabbath rules.”
From the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries:
“The yoke in the Old Testament was sometimes a symbol of oppression (Isa. 9:4; 58:6; Jer. 27– 28), but was also used in a good sense of the service of God (Jer. 2:20; Lam. 3:27). Later it came to be used commonly in Jewish writings for obedience to the law—the ‘yoke of the law’ is one every Jew should be proud to carry. Such a yoke should not be oppressive, for after all the function of a yoke is to make a burden easier to carry. But… the law itself had become a burden, and a new yoke was needed to lighten the load. Jesus’ yoke is easy, not because it makes lighter demands, but because it represents entering a disciple-relationship with one who is gentle and lowly in heart… This attractive aspect of Jesus is a vital counterbalance to the sterner side seen in Matthew 7:13-27; 10:34-39; etc. To emphasize either to the exclusion of the other is to miss the real Jesus.”
It is a good practice, when using Bible commentaries, to consult a number of different commentaries, as well as some of the other study tools previously noted. This will help you gain information and a variety of perspectives to assist you in your understanding of a Bible passage.
- The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, by John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas.
- The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, by Craig S. Keener.
- Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary, by Kenneth Barker and John R. Kohlenberger.
- Daily Study Bible, New Testament (17 volumes), by William Barclay.
- Tyndale Commentaries (47 volumes).
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