Grab Your Reading Glasses. It’s Time to Break Out the Commentaries.


Reading commentaries is a vital step in sermon preparation. Once you have read the text, analyzed its structure, conducted word studies, and gathered background material, it is time to hear from others who have investigated the passage.

Keep in mind that each step of sermon preparation brings you closer to uncovering the author’s intended meaning. By the time you are ready to read commentaries, you probably have a good idea of the text’s meaning. Commentaries serve to check your ideas and to deepen your understanding of the paragraph.

Before discussing types of commentaries, let me offer some advice for purchasing them. You would do well to acquire two resources: D.A. Carson’s New Testament Commentary Survey (7th Edition) and Tremper Longman’s Old Testament Commentary Survey (5th Edition). These surveys discuss the major commentaries available for each book of the Bible. The publications are updated every few years (I have the last three editions of each), so you will want to occasionally check for updates. Also, before purchasing a commentary, consult the reader reviews found on sites like or

When choosing commentaries, keep in mind the three basic types: technical, expository/exegetical, and homiletical.

I know this is shocking, but technical commentaries tend to be quite technical. The authors use the original languages extensively and present findings based on the intricacies of grammar. Unless you have studied Greek and Hebrew, and retained much of what you learned, do not spend much time or money on technical commentaries. I have found that it is very difficult to be a faithful pastor and a biblical language expert. However, if you are a language guy, then by all means, go for it.

Expository or exegetical commentaries should comprise the bulk of your collection. Use the helps mentioned above to choose your commentaries. I have found many of the New International Commentaries (NICOT, NICNT), New American Commentaries (NAC), the Baker Exegetical Commentaries (BECNT), and the Pillar New Testament Commentaries (PNTC) to be helpful.

Expository commentaries are written by the scholars who can understand the technical commentaries. These commentaries divide the text into units and discuss the background, language, and meaning of each verse or group of verses. Reading these studies is the equivalent of being in a seminary class that focuses on a particular Bible book. Be open to learning from these writers. At the same time, do not be afraid to disagree with their findings. Just be sure you can back up your conclusions biblically.

Homiletical commentaries should be used sparingly, especially if you have a seminary education. Well known preachers publish commentaries based on their own pulpit ministries. If God has called you to preach, then you must use your gifts to produce your own sermons. Mainly, homiletical commentaries should be used for finding a few illustrations or application ideas.

I suggest purchasing three to five commentaries per Bible book. My habit has been to collect five commentaries for a Sunday morning book series and three for Sunday and Wednesday night sermons and Bible studies.

Read the most technical commentary first, followed by expository works, and finally homiletical. Make notes and type out quotes as you read. Use a reference system, so that you can retrieve the information if necessary. I use parenthetical citations.

If you are a book person like I am, then this phase of preparation will be one of the most enjoyable.

So, grab your books and get to work.

Dude, where’s my map?


A large part of our work to understand the Bible stems from the distance between time and place. Assuming John wrote Revelation in the 90s AD, we are separated from the most recent Bible book by about 1,900 years. Old Testament chronology tacks on a few more millennia.

This separation means that we are not always familiar with the people and places mentioned in our preaching text. Fortunately, biblical scholars have investigated the background of God’s Word for centuries. With a little work and the right tools, we can come to a good understanding of the Bible’s world.

Whenever our preaching text mentions a person or place, it is time to break out the concordance program, Bible Atlas, and Bible dictionary.

If you are still building your reference library, then you can’t go wrong by purchasing the Holman Bible Atlas or the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. The ESV Bible Atlas is also an excellent resource. The four volume International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised Edition would also be beneficial. Many other dictionaries and encyclopedias exist, but these will give you a good start.

Using these tools is simple, but important.

First, use a concordance or concordance program to look up all the references to a person or place. For instance, in 2 Samuel 11:3, the writer states that Bathsheba is the daughter of Eliam. A quick search reveals that Eliam is only mentioned again in 2 Samuel 23:34. He, like his son-in-law Uriah, was one of David’s mighty men. Also, Eliam’s father, Ahithophel the Gilonite, is listed in 23:34. A concordance search of Ahithophel shows him to be a conspirator with Absalom during the time of David’s exile.

These close connections make David’s sin with Bathsheba and the subsequent murder of Uriah more heinous. Despite knowing Bathsheba’s heritage, David sent for her. Her grandfather was one of David’s close counselors and her husband and father were two of his mighty men. David admits that his sin is ultimately against God, but he also betrayed close companions.

These facts can be found without going beyond the Bible. This type of discovery is why the first step is to see what God has told us about a certain person or place.

After concordance work, the second step is to consult Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias. These resources contain articles about the persons and places mentioned in the Bible. This step must not be skipped, since many people and places share names. For instance, sermons have been preached about Herod without the preacher knowing the difference between Herod the Great and his descendants. Reading the entries will ensure that you do not make that type of mistake.

To study a location, begin with the same type of concordance search. The second step, however, is to consult a Bible atlas. With the atlas you can discover location, distance, and topography. These details can shed light on the meaning of a text. A person’s travel route may well be an important detail because of distance or changing in setting. The original audience understood the geography. We do not.

After using the atlas, consult Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias about the location.

Since our goal in expository preaching is to discover and communicate the author’s intended meaning, then we must exhaust every avenue of investigation. Understanding background and geographical details is a key step to unlocking the meaning of a text.