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 Amazon.com or Christianbook.com.
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.