How to Use a Commentary: 4 ways to get the most out of your daily study.

FYI: Skip to the bottom for my list of recommendations

Reading a commentary while you study the scriptures is the best way to ensure that you are correctly interpreting the text. There is no shortage of people, even pastors, interpreting and teaching the Bible without any help from biblical scholars who have devoted their lives to helping you better understand the text and interpret it the way that it was meant to be interpreted.

First off, you might be asking “what is a commentary?”. Well, it is a book (usually pretty large) that is written about a single book of the Old or New Testament. They move chapter by chapter and verse by verse through the text and are often times the culmination of years of arduous and intense scholarly work. It’s like having an expert in biblical interpretation walking you through the text, pointing out things that you might never have seen.

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A good commentary will equip you with the tools that you need to read the text in a way that is well-informed and even life-changing. When the text is rightly interpreted, it can make you a more loving and content person and a blessing to those around you. When it is misunderstood and the meaning is simply guessed at or even twisted to fit our own agenda, the Bible can easily become a dangerous book that can bring out tribalism and even promote idolatry that hurts the world at large.

So as an avid commentary reader and one who has made a daily habit of expanding my Biblical literacy, I wanted to write some advice to put you the path to well-informed biblical interpretation. My hope is that you will eventually come to stand on your own and not rely on the interpretive skills of others, even more so, I want you to be able to spot bad interpretation in a sermon, a small group, or in the media. Too often we say to ourselves “that doesn’t sound right,” but we simply don’t know why. Well, read these tips, grab a cup of coffee, and start interpreting.

#1 Choose a commentary from the last 25 years.

While certain long-established segments of Christianity tend to read commentaries from the 19th century, and all the way back to the medieval time period, I would recommend reading something much newer. Biblical scholarship has made huge strides in the recent half-century. With the translation of recent archeological finds like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Naag Hamadi Codices, many things have changed:
– Our understanding of Judaism in the first century has been vastly altered, which affects how we read books like Romans and Ephesians.
– Our understanding of the Greek language has been greatly expanded. And with a deeper understanding of casual greek, many words have taken on more complex meanings.
– This is just the tip of the iceberg here, there are so many things that historians and archeologist have brought to the table, and this work is still being done, so try and keep up!

Despite what you have heard, biblical scholarship and how we understand the work of God and the church really does change with the academic work and scholarship of every generation. It interacts with the sciences like linguistics and archeology, and it comes to new conclusions about how different texts should be read and understood. Newer commentaries will be interacting with both the theology of the past and the newer discoveries of the day.

#2 Ignore the Words in Parenthesis (at least for now).

Some people start reading commentaries, but they get confused and discouraged by the constant parenthetical text. For instance, you might be reading Craig Keener’s commentary on Matthew 11 and suddenly, in the middle of a sentence, see something like this:

(Jos. Life 66; Theissen 1991:36).

This can get confusing because you might worry that you are missing something. Don’t worry, you aren’t. In fact, go ahead and assume that if you don’t know what it is, then it’s not for you.

But here’s a quick crash course anyways: The first part (Jos. Life 66) is letting you know that he learned what he just wrote from Josephus’ book The Life of Flavius Josephus, page 66. The other part (Theissen 1991:36) is simply referencing a scholar named Theissen’s writing on this passage from 1991, (called, The Gospel in Context: Social and Political History in the Synoptic Tradition) page 36.

Remember, you are not missing anything. Don’t feel like you are stepping into the middle of a conversation. If there was something important to know, it would be written in the text.

In time, you will learn to move right on by without even noticing them. And if you keep reading, one day you will see a reference to a scholar that you’ve already read in those parentheses, and you will suddenly say to yourself “I’ve read that scholar!”. It’s a great feeling!

#3 Don’t get bogged down in the details.

Most commentaries start with an introduction to the passage, then they move to a verse-by-verse analysis, then they end with a summary and some thoughts. The introduction and summary are often the most important parts. That is where the scholar is bringing it all together.

The middle verse-by-verse will often be difficult to read. It will contain ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic and will talk about how those words were used in their day. It will also often times take part in a debate with the commentaries that were written before them; some ideas from different scholars will be challenged, and others will be given more argumentative support. It is okay to skip these parts if they are arduous and boring for you and move to the meat of the applicable material.

#4 There is no Rush!

For some reason, many Christians are in a hurry to get somewhere, and their study habits tend to reflect that. They typically want to study large swaths of scripture in short periods of time. But the reason I love commentaries is that it forces you to slow down and take in the scenery of each paragraph. Walking slowly through the text and resisting the urge to rush through is a spiritual discipline that yields a ton of fruit.

So if you find yourself considering picking up a commentary (I highly recommend that you do!) Here are a few on my current commentary reading list on the book of Matthew which is what we are studying in the church where I minister (Watermark Tampa).

Craig Keener:
The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary
(Thorough and contextual, but a bit pricey)

Donald A. Hagner: Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 33a, Matthew 1-13
(Very affordable, more scholastic. Focus on the Intro’s and Summaries of each passage)

Leander Keck: The New Interpreter’s Bible: Matthew – Mark (Volume 8)
(Well rounded and accessible, I would recommend this for a wide range of people)

Rodney Reeves: Matthew (The Story of God Bible Commentary)
(A personal Favorite. Very easy to read!)

N.T. Wright: Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15
(Great for Beginners)

William Barclay: The Gospel of Matthew Volume I (The New Daily Study Bible)
(Inexpensive, super easy to read, can be used as a daily reader.)

Brian K Blount: True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary
(Covers entire New Testament in small bites from an African American Perspective)

 

Bruce Malina: Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels
(Covers entire New Testament, fascinating social study of 1st century Culture, not theologically focused)

 

Where Does Happiness Come From. Part 2

Mextures

This week I’m going to build off of what I wrote in my last post about finding true happiness in this world, and today I want to start with a passage from the Psalms.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures…

I have always loved this Psalm and it is has always been a favorite amongst Gods people since the day it was written. I have even written songs about this passage and we sing them regularly at the congregation that I pastor here in Tampa.  It is a passage that we read when we need provision, when we need God to intervene, and when we need a little bit of peace in a chaotic world.

But, like much of the scriptures, this passage has been divorced of it’s original context. And when we remove a piece of writing form it’s original time, place, and audience we tend to miss some incredibly important things that we desperately need to hear.

Usually when we think of this passage we picture big fat fluffy sheep grazing in a field lush with green grass up to their mouths. In fact, if you do a quick google search of Psalm 23, this is exactly what kinds of images are conjured up. As if the sheep barely need to even lower their heads because the grass is so thick and healthy that they can almost wander with their eyes closed and open their mouths and be fed.

But the reality of that passage in it’s original context was actually much different, and it should have a profound impact on the actual meaning of the text. The “green fields” that the sheep were supposedly wandering in did not actually exist like we have just described them here. In reality, they looked more like this:

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Not quite the same, I would say. The food that was available for the sheep was not really all that abundant. In the morning, as the sun was rising, the dew would settle on these tiny sprigs of grass, and they would soak up the dew like a sponge. They would indeed turn green, but only for a short time. By noon there would be a scorching wind coming in from the east that would cause the grass and it’s flowers and greenery to wither and fade.

Without a shepherd the sheep would never eat, because only the shepherd knew where to lead them to find the food that they need. The shepherd knew that at different times of the day there would be grasses good for eating in certain parts of the valley, and he would take great care to lead the sheep to exactly what they needed to eat at the exact time that they needed it.

Think about that for a second.

The shepherd didn’t lead them into a land of plenty where they never needed to think about food anymore. He didn’t lead them to a place where they had such abundance that they could relax and no longer worry about being fed for the rest of their days… that kind of place did not exist!

Instead, the shepherd would lead them to exactly what they needed, exactly when they needed it. It was their “daily bread”. It was not year by year, but moment by moment.

If the sheep wanted to live, they had to keep their eyes on the shepherd. In fact, to take their eyes off of the shepherd was the most dangerous thing they could do. And all first century nomadic peoples knew the context in which this passage was written. Peter, Paul and James all wrote about it. Here is what James said in chapter 1:

 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

That word for “scorching heat” is the Greek word “καύσων (kausōn)”, also called the simoon”. And it’s heat could killed a healthy man who did not take shelter under a tent, tree, or at least a turban.

So lets reevaluate how we are to read this text.

I know that we want God to lead us into a place where we are at perfect peace. Where there is plenty to feast upon and no lack of abundance. But that is never promised to us in this life. Instead, we are told that we have a shepherd that we can trust, who knows the way through the fires of life, who has gone ahead of us and calls us to follow Him. He knows the way. He is paving and has paved a way for us to be fed and nourished. A way for us to find peace. Not a storehouse of peace, but a fountain of it. Constantly flowing.

Peace is not abundant food or money or shelter… it is abundant trust and faith that, if we follow our shepherd, we will always be given exactly what we need when we need it.

In fact, it is when we receive too much abundance that we tend to fall into misery. When we have too much of a good thing, we find ourselves alone and heading towards destruction.

Pay attention to exactly what God said to the Israelites when he was about to lead them into abundance. He is not telling them that it will be what they need, instead He warns them that it of the dangers of it all. Read Deuteronomy 6:10

“And when the LORD your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers…with great and good cities that you did not build, 11and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant—and when you eat and are full, 12then take care lest you forget the LORD who brought you out of bondage…

It did not take long for them to forget about the God who fed them in the wilderness day after day. It did not take long for them to fall into idolatry. It wasn’t long before they found themselves back in bondage once again.

Usually it is when we have too much that we forget our shepherd. He becomes unnecessary. We find ourselves self sufficient, and so we isolate ourselves.

Sometimes the things that we are praying for, that things that we want, that things that we look at and say “If I only had THAT, then I would be HAPPY!”… THOSE are the thing that will be our undoing.

Sometimes the most loving thing that God could possibly do for us is to say “no, you don’t need that, and I will not be giving it to you”.

Sometimes the most loving thing that god can do is to give you just a little, right here, right now.

Sometimes when we are receiving all of the things that we always wanted, we should be terrified because perhaps we are actually being chastened and disciplined.

Happiness comes in the providence. It comes from posture of thankfulness.

Perhaps the best way to put it is in the lyrics of a beloved song from The Muppet Christmas Carol:

Yes, and every night will end
And every day will start
With a grateful prayer
And a thankful heart

So may you wake up tomorrow in want and need. Because only in the seeking and finding, day by day, do we really understand that love is real and that we have a shepherd and a guide who sees, who understands, and who is capable of granting salvation in every moment. Not just later, but NOW.