The Purpose of Bible Commentaries: Explained

Bible readers have an important goal, which is to understand what they are reading. Whether it’s the first book of the Bible, Genesis, or the last book, Revelation, readers who spend time studying Scripture’s passages and verses desire to comprehend what God’s Word is communicating to them.

The purpose of Bible commentaries is to explain the meaning of the books, passages, and verses of Scripture so that readers can understand them. Some commentaries only explain Scripture, while others explain the biblical text as well as other subjects like the historical background and application.

Can anyone understand Bible commentaries? What series is best? Which commentaries do pastors use? Which ones should new Bible readers use? Keep reading to learn more.

Commentaries have different focuses. See Types of Bible Commentaries: A Guide for Bible Readers to learn more.

Like the Holy Spirit uses pastors to help people understand the Bible, He also uses biblical studies resources to teach people as well

Commentaries explain Scripture

Although there are different types of Bible commentaries, the one aspect that all of them have in common is that they explain Scripture. People who use commentaries, and have a collection of them on their home bookshelf, love to study God’s Word and understand it’s stories and instructions.

Has reading the Bible ever frustrated you? It can be challenging to read a book of the Bible and not comprehend it’s meaning. If a person is going to routinely spend time studying Scripture, they want to be able to understand what they are reading. The purpose of Bible commentaries is to help readers comprehend Scripture.

“How does anyone understand this?” A frustrated reader may wonder, for example, “How does anyone understand Revelation? How can anyone comprehend Esther?” The truth is, all Bible readers need help understanding Scripture. Not even pastors know what every passage and verse means immediately upon reading them, even though many of them have been to Bible college or seminary.

What about the Holy Spirit? Shouldn’t He guide our study of Scripture? Yes. Scripture can’t be understood exhaustively without the Spirit. The Spirit, however, often works through human beings to teach others. Like a pastor helps his congregation understand God’s Word, a commentary helps readers understand it as well. A commentary doesn’t replace the Spirit; rather, sometimes the Spirit uses resources to help people understand the Bible.

A biblical example of the Spirit using a person: Once, an Ethiopian man was reading the book of Isaiah, when a follow of Jesus Christ named Philip approached him and asked him if he understood what he was reading (Acts 8:30). The man who was reading Isaiah, seemingly frustrated, exclaimed that he needed someone to explain it to him:

“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

Acts 8:31 (NIV)

Philip “commented” on the biblical text: After Philip explained the passage in Isaiah to the man, and that it was about Christ, the Ethiopian understood God’s Word, believed it, and was baptized.

Bible readers today don’t have the chance to learn from Philip directly, but God has given the Church wonderful resources, like Bible commentaries, so that all people can understand His Word better.

There are many different commentary series, See Best Bible Commentary Series: The Top 50 to learn more.

Commentaries have one purpose but different focuses

Commentaries all have the purpose of explaining the Bible, but their focus can make them unique and separate them from others.

Sometimes the focus of a particular volume is at the discretion of the author; other times the volume is part of a commentary series in which every volume has the same focus (see examples below). Examples of different focuses of commentary volumes include:

  • Background information: In addition to providing a basic explanation of the text, some commentaries focus on explaining the history behind it. Historical information often includes details about the culture and society in which the passage takes place. It may also include insight into certain customs or worldviews that are evident in the passage.
  • Theological information: Besides having the purpose of explaining Scripture to the reader, theologically focused commentaries shed light on the beliefs and doctrines that are related to a passage or verse. For example, a commentary on Genesis that has theological focus, will not only explain the meaning of the verses in Genesis 1, but also discuss how the doctrine of creation glorifies God and why that matters to the reader.
  • Application: Application-focused commentaries have the same foundational purpose of others, but their focus is to help the reader understand why and how the passage or verse is relevant to their life.

Application can be difficult: Some verses in the Bible have application that is straight forward, so they require less explanation. For example,

“You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.”

Exodus 20:7 (NIV)

Other verses require more explanation. For example, a commentary can help the reader understand what Jesus is saying in the verse below and how to apply it to their lives:

“If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”

Matthew 5:29 (NIV)

Do some commentaries include all these focuses? Yes, some commentaries attempt to be “one-stop shopping” for the reader.

The challenge is that if they discuss every aspect mentioned above at a foundational level, then they provide less depth because they have a lot of information to cover. Occasionally, when an author tries to do everything well, they end up doing nothing well.

The reason why is because in order to explain the relevance of a passage or verse to the reader, the author must discuss, or at least mention, historical details and theological truths. Whereas, authors of other commentary types could discuss the history and theology of Scripture without ever explaining the application of it.

Nevertheless, the type of commentary that would come closest to successfully incorporating multiple focuses would be application-driven commentaries.

Interested in Bible commentaries? See What Is the Oldest Bible Commentary? to learn more.

The purpose of commentary series’

Commentaries series, which are collections of volumes covering biblical books under one common name, can have a unique focus as well. Examples of series include:

  • The NIV Application commentary series: Every volume in this series explains Scripture, but focuses on applying the biblical text to people’s lives
  • The Christ-Centered Exposition commentary series: Every volume in this series explains Scripture, but focuses on showing the reader how every passage of the Bible helps readers understand Christ.
  • Preaching the Word commentary series: Every volume in this series explains Scripture, yet every chapter takes the shape of a sermon because all the authors are preachers.
  • New American Commentary: Every volume in this series explains Scripture and provides theological insight from a Baptist perspective. Volumes aren’t technical, so most readers will be able to understand the commentaries, though their target audience is pastors.
  • Reformed Expository Commentaries: Every volume in this series explains Scripture and provides theological insight form a Reformed or Calvinist’s perspective. Volumes in this series read like printed sermons, so anyone, includes those that are new to Bible reading, can understand them.

Revelation is perhaps the most popular of the book for which people want a commentary. See Best Revelation Commentaries to learn more.

Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel's seminary degree is in Exegetical Theology. He was a pastor for 10 years. As a professor, he has taught Bible and theology courses at two Christian universities. Please see his About page for details.

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