The Most Helpful Commentaries are the ones that Are Helpful

“Well, I feel better now.”

–When the verse you don’t understand is skipped by your favorite commentary.



I have a love/hate relationship with commentaries. Many are a complete waste of time. I have my favorite commentaries I regularly use. But after regular use, I pick up on their weak spots, their slightly off doctrine, and their weird theories.

In preparing my sermons, I will read about seven commentaries on the passages I’m dealing with. I get seven takes. It’s amazing how often these takes are completely different. In my sermons I frequently say, “You can look this up in seven commentaries and get seven different interpretations. Here’s an eighth.”

After spending years coming up with three messages a week, I pretty much know what the commentaries are going to say. I have also developed my own take on most parts of the Bible now. I really am not dependent on commentaries. I just browse them for interesting ideas, or insights into Greek and Hebrew and stuff like that.

And, if all seven commentaries agree and I don’t, I will rethink my take on where I’m coming from. I can still be wrong. But here’s the thing: so can they!

Over reliance on commentaries is worrisome. Especially after a good ten years of preaching. You should really know your Bible enough to develop a sermon without quoting commentaries through the whole thing.

There are passages I don’t know what to do with. Take head coverings for instance. No really. Please, take them.

I have no idea what to do with Paul’s thing on head coverings for women. Seven commentaries will give seven theories.

In fact, what you’ll notice about these tough passages is that the commenting will get very brief. Sometimes non-existent.

I don’t know how many times I’ve gone to a commentary about a verse or a phrase I’m having trouble deciphering only to have the commentaries skip it! Or some fluff sentence that repeats the words but does nothing to aid understanding.


It’s tough putting things in print. I can preach about head coverings all the time and it makes no difference. No one listens to me anyway. But to get a commentary published! That’s in print and is now out there. And you know if you take the wrong approach, sales will be hurt!

“How about we just skip that one?” you can hear the editors and publishers tell the author. “No need to shrink the paying audience.”

On the flip side are the commentaries that say tons about a verse they might as well have skipped. Matthew Henry wrote a book on every verse. Man, that guy can use some words to say some stuff. I have no idea what Matthew Henry believes because I’m out after the first three paragraphs.

You can hear his publisher, “Just use more words, no one will read it. It will look studious and it won’t offend anyone because no one in their right mind would take this much time to read what you’re saying.”

Henry misses the “comment” part of “commentary.”

The most helpful commentaries are the ones that are helpful. I stand by this. You can put that in print. I just wish there were more of them.



For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.
1 Corinthians 11:10

4 thoughts on “The Most Helpful Commentaries are the ones that Are Helpful

  1. I think we in the Western world tend to rely on our tools too much, on our commentaries and theological shortcuts. We read need to just let the Author and Finisher of our faith, read His word to us. Or better yet, let the Bible read us.

    One reason why head coverings have become such a challenge, is because of commentaries, poor teachings, the opinions of people. It’s actually very sweet, very simple, but we’ve convoluted the whole issue. Anyway, much like Jewish guys wear a hat to remember “God above” them, women wear a veil to remember they are under the Lord’s cover, under His protection. You still see hints of this concept in wedding veils and in older women in churches, often Catholic ones.

    Something really cool about Paul, in the context of his culture he is trying to built unity, bring diverse groups of people together, so there is “neither Greek nor Jew, male of female…,” but also neither rich nor poor, neither former prostitutes nor widows. Women often shaved their heads in mourning or cut it short when they were poor. The wealthy women had fancy braids, and servants, hairdressers. Head covering actually equalize the women, it brings them all together under cover of the cross, without distinguishing social markers. They become sisters in Christ rather than competitors fighting for social status.


  2. The phrase I use a lot nowadays is: “Let the Bible serve as its own commentary.” Often the answer is in the context or in some other passage. Relying on men is relying on men (Galatians 1:6–10).


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