Imagine God asking Moses to meet Him on Mt. Sinai.
Now imagine Moses rushing to download an Exodus commentary to Kindle so he can read about Exodus 34 prior to listening to and talking with God. That is, reading human comments before hearing the living and breathing version of Exodus 34 as God speaks directly to him.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Frankly, a similar practice has become all too common among those who proclaim God’s Word—consulting commentaries way too early in the study process—before listening to God directly.
The previous post discussed the first thing to do when rightly dividing a Biblical text—establish context. This post, as you know by now, will discuss the last things to do in the rightly dividing process.
The Last Things—Commentaries
After the context of the text is established, many interesting things occur—word studies, outlines, etc. And then, after the many interesting things are complete, you consult commentaries. Whaaaat? After? Yes. Only after completely studying the passage without the help of commentaries do you read the commentaries.
Commentaries, scholarly observations and remarks, are excellent resources. However, consulting them as the first (or only) task of study (like many people do) or consulting them too early in the research process can have negative effects, as far as hearing from the Holy Spirit is concerned.
The preparation required for teaching or preaching a Bible passage is not immune to the cultural obsession with speed and convenience. In this regard, commentaries have become exegetical microwaves. You can nuke a burrito, zap a pizza, or heat up just about anything in a short amount of time. But often things come out rubbery or dried. And the flavor development that occurs in baking, grilling, etc., well that does not happen quickly. So you get some warm food, i.e. accomplish your goal. But the taste, composition, and overall enjoyment of the food are sacrificed upon the altar to the need for speed.
Now all analogies break down at some point. So I readily admit that when we discuss popcorn, the microwave/commentary one does too. Popcorn from a microwave is the best. But a burrito?When we forgo rushing to commentaries first, we allow the “flavor development” of a passage to occur naturally. The Word speaks to us in our particular situation and experiences. These will be much different than those of a particular commentary author.
Internalizing the Text—A Work of the Spirit
Consulting the work of others too early in the study process, therefore, can plant preconceived notions in your mind about the text. These notions take root easily in soil that has not been worked by one’s own meditation and investigation. The flavor development of study is “internalizing the text,” i.e. living and breathing the Word, allowing it to pierce to the division of soul and spirit (Hebrews 4:12) in your context, your situation, your experiences. Zapping your head full of another’s thoughts may hinder, even prevent, this inestimable work of the Holy Spirit.
God Meets You Where You Are
God spoke to Moses on a mountain, in the desert, at the Tent of Meeting, etc. Every time we read these Biblical passages, God speaks to us from the same places. Similarly, He speaks to us on the road to Emmaus, in a valley facing giants, in our comfort zone of Ur, in the pigsty, from the cross—the Trinitarian God speaks to us from His Word. Approach the Holy Bible with this certain fact in mind—God will speak to you where you are.
You may be thinking “Oh no, I need to read commentaries first to get the interpretation of the text. Then I can understand it when I study.” Reflect back on the “Moses and the 10 commentaries” cartoon above. It reveals, on so many levels, the distortion in this way of thinking. Trust me. To study the bible effectively, commentaries must be the last things—at the very bottom of your study to-do list.
Moses, a son of Hebrew slaves, grew up in an Egyptian palace. He also tended his father-in-law’s sheep for 40 years. All the while acquiring excellent desert navigational skills. No one else had Moses’ unique set of experiences. God needed Moses at a particular time and place. In fact, God providentially prepared Moses for this time and place.
So, think about it. Do you think God would have brought Moses this far and then hand him a commentary? Or had God planned all along to provide Moses the faith, wisdom, understanding, and knowledge to do the task?
Likewise, God has brought you this far in your Christian journey. Obviously you have a desire to study the Bible more effectively—this is a gift of God. This desire witnesses to the Holy Spirit living in you. This same Holy Spirit inspired the Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
God has ordained this time and place for you to study His Word and share, teach, preach, proclaim, etc. it with others. Do you believe He has providentially prepared you for this time? And that all along, His plans have been to give you whatever you need to do the task? And that you are equipped with the Holy Spirit, God the Holy Spirit who is 3in1 with God the Father and God the Son?
Never again in the history of mankind will anyone like you bring your passion and your unique set of experiences to the text.
Use It Or Lose ItWhen Moses pleaded with God about being slow of speech and tongue (Exod. 4:10) insisting that he lacked the ability to speak eloquently to Pharaoh or to the people, imagine what God must have thought? We know what God said (paraphrased): “Moses, are you cray-cray? Of course you can do this! I gave you your mouth!”
Grabbing a commentary too early in the study process may signal a lack of trust in your ability to comprehend and apply God’s Word. God may be saying, “Who made your brain and heart? I gave you your brain and heart!”
Remember to approach the Bible with this in mind—God will speak to you where you are. You do not need to rely on your own Aarons, Dr. Joe Blow of Surrey, UK nor Dr. J. Smith Saage of Eastwestern Seminary, to establish the meaning of a passage in your mind. (It is perfectly fine, and very wise, to consult with Drs. Blow and Saage—later).
Not to be confused with the movie Eat Pray Love, Pray Trust Commentary is a general guide to rightly dividing the Word of Truth.
- Pray, ask the Holy Spirit for insight, understanding, wisdom, and guidance. You know this prayer is according to God’s will, so you have this, the Holy Spirit will lead the way.
- Get alone with the text: study the passage until you have gone as far as you can go right now. You will know when you get there, I promise. And the entire time, whether it is 6 minutes or 6 months, trust that the Holy Spirit will help you understand the text and to faithfully apply its meaning (John 16:13-16; 2 Tim. 2:7, 3:16-17; 1 Cor. 2:9-16).
- Then, and only then, check out one, two, ten, or fifty commentaries based on time, resources, and/or your study practice.
- At this point, repeat any step as necessary.
BTW, Eat (as in Eat-Pray-Love), which includes coffee, and Love can be inserted anywhere, multiple times, in the general study process of Pray—Trust—Commentary.
No written rule on commentary usage exists anywhere. Guidelines do exist (more to come), but otherwise, it is totally optional. Personally, I like to consult approximately six commentaries. (This number was given by one of my OT professors when he assigned exegetical papers and I stuck with it.)
Sometimes there may not be enough time to read 6, or not that many available, or one is enough. At other times, i.e. difficult text, thorny subject, etc., a trip to the library or Amazon.com may be required. Use your best judgment.
Commentaries are insightful and helpful books. The benefits they offer to a student of the Word are immeasurable. I have learned more than I ever thought I would know from the faithful men and women who dedicate their lives to theological research and writing.
And Commentaries are plentiful. Abundantly more than we can ask or imagine. It is difficult choosing one or six. But if you, like many people, are interested in the art of choosing commentaries, stay tuned to RDRD Bible Study for posts on this subject.
Keep in mind that commentaries are tools to be used when researching a passage. They are written by human beings—highly educated human beings, but human beings nonetheless.
Did Moses Even Own a Kindle?
Moses didn’t read a commentary on Exodus 34 before climbing Mt. Sinai to speak with God—commentaries weren’t even invented then and definitely not in digital format.
But more importantly, it never occurred to Moses to listen to anybody before listening to God first.
Until next time –
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Corinthians 13:14)