The Bible is a hard book. Which means all Christians need help studying it. And this means we need resources. Many Christians turn to a Bible “commentary” when studying a book of the Bible—referring to an entire book written on a particular biblical book.
However, choosing such a commentary is a problem, largely because they vary in quality. Bible commentaries can also be expensive. I will recommend individual commentaries, but I first want to recommend more accessible resources that still ‘comment’ on the text of Scripture.
1. Study Bibles
The first place a Christian should go for studying the Bible is a good study Bible. Study Bibles provide general info on the entire Bible, including notes on the text, book introductions, and cross-references. I like the ESV Study Bible, as well as the Reformation Study Bible (edited by R. C. Sproul). Both have helpful notes, but the Reformation Study Bible has more theological sections and is from a Reformed perspective. I do not like to use a study Bible as my primary reading Bible because I find the notes distracting. Instead, I pull a study Bible off the shelf when coming across a difficult passage or preparing a lesson. Of course, study Bibles don’t address every question you have, which is why full commentaries have their place.
2. NET Bible Notes
The New English Translation (NET) of the Bible with notes is essentially a study Bible, but it provides more technical notes than a typical study Bible. While you can buy a print NET Bible with notes, you can also find the notes free online. (I access them in my Accordance Bible software.) I do not recommend using the NET Bible as your primary translation because of occasional divergences from the majority of English translations. However, I always consult the NET translation and notes when preparing to teach. The notes do not cover every detail, but they often (1) give summaries of different views of a passage, (2) reference and discuss New Testament quotations of the Old Testament, (3) give literal translations of Greek and Hebrew words and phrases, and (4) discuss textual variants and the reasoning behind their conclusions. The NET notes are essentially advanced study Bible notes, but they are excellent overall.
3. Calvin’s Commentaries
After consulting a study Bible and the NET notes, I recommend looking at older commentaries of the Bible. These are more substantial than notes. I recommend John Calvin’s commentaries, which are entirely free online. Calvin wrote commentaries on all the New Testament books except Revelation, and much of the Old Testament, including the Pentateuch, Psalms, and prophets. His harmonies of the Pentateuch and Gospels can be harder to navigate, but they are still useful. Calvin not only tackles Bible difficulties but has great points of application.
There are other good commentators of old out there, including Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, also available online (note that Henry died mid-project and others wrote the commentaries on Romans through Revelation). While not a Bible commentary, it is also good to consult historic theological documents to help us systematize the Bible’s teaching and make sure we do not fall into theological error. The Westminster Confession of Faith, along with its Larger and Shorter Catechisms, provides extensive Scripture proofs. There is even a Scripture index if you want to look up how the Westminster divines applied individual passages.
4. Old Testament Commentary Sets
The above Bible resources are free or inexpensive, and they are sufficient to equip the Christian for serious study of God’s Word. However, if you want further study or if you are teaching or leading a Bible study, you may want to consider purchasing an individual commentary. I usually pick a main commentary for each book I am preaching or teaching on, but I also like to have additional commentaries on the shelf in case I need to research a passage more. It’s a good practice to build a commentary library, as they are useful resources to have available and you can pass them on to your children. Some people like to buy whole commentary sets on a computer program like Logos or Accordance. But I really like to have physical commentaries on my bookshelf.
Each commentary set really varies in quality depending on the author, so it is difficult to recommend entire sets. However, some sets are definitely better than others. Many commentary series have liberal scholars writing for them, and some use poor formatting (the Word Biblical Commentary set is the most notorious offender here). There is also the problem that many commentary sets (even some of my favorites) use “scholarly transliteration” of Greek and Hebrew words, which are annoying for those who know the original language and mostly useless for those who do not. Some commentary sets are technical (e.g., NICOT, NICNT, NIGTC), and some are easier to use (e.g., NAC, Tyndale OT, Tyndale NT).
Sadly, there just aren’t that many good commentary sets out there on the Old Testament, especially when compared to the New Testament. This is due to a number of factors, including that the Old Testament has very large books that make it hard to write an entire commentary. Christians also tend to focus on the New Testament, which leaves Old Testament scholarship dominated by liberals. However, I do have a favorite series, which is the Apollos Old Testament Commentary, edited by David Baker and Gordon Wenham. It is accessible to non-experts and has decent formatting. While Apollos does not have too many volumes finished yet, this is due to it being a fairly recent set. I also like the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament, which uses Hebrew but has a very clean format. It is also in the early stage of production. Focus on the Bible has some good practical commentaries, especially those by Dale Ralph Davis on the former prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings).
5. New Testament Commentary Sets
There are way more commentary sets available on the New Testament, particularly sets that are (mostly) completed and of a higher quality than the Old Testament sets. However, many New Testament sets still contain the problems of liberal and feminist scholarship. My favorite New Testament series is the Pillar New Testament Commentary series, edited by D. A. Carson. It has to be the highest-quality commentary set overall based on its scholarship, formatting, and accessibility. It is also a fairly conservative series. I also like the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, which uses Greek and has more books available than its Old Testament counterpart. I also like the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (much more than its OT counterpart).
This is not to say I like every commentary from these series. But overall, they are some of my favorite series for formatting and overall quality. Regardless, I recommend consulting Keith Mathison’s (of Ligonier) top five list on every book of the Bible to help guide you in researching commentaries.
So there you have it. Buy a good study Bible, such as the ESV or Reformation Study Bible. Use the NET notes and Calvin’s commentaries that are free online. Then buy individual commentaries when looking to go deeper, always considering the Apollos or Pillar sets. I hope these resources help you grow in your knowledge of God and His Word.