Sometimes Less is More
Someone posted an interesting question on our forums the other day:
I can understand having print study bibles because we can have a range of helps quickly to hand in a single volume. But with bible software on portable devices, we can have whole dictionaries, commentaries, etc—who is the intended user of study bibles in electronic form?
This user then went on to explain that he no longer uses study Bibles in Accordance that much, preferring instead to turn to more in depth commentaries and study aids. "So really," he concluded, "why have study bibles in e-form when we have access to so much more?"
I think there are a lot of possible answers to that question, but here's mine: sometimes less is more. In other words, sometimes you want to dig deep into commentaries or resources that will examine an issue in depth, but at other times you just want a little quick exegetical help. At those times, the more concise the treatment of a passage, the better.
When studying a passage, it's always good practice to put off turning to commentaries until you have explored the passage for yourself: examining the wider context; comparing translations; identifying key people, places, and events; etc. Then, when you turn to a commentary, you'll be equipped to interact with its interpretation rather than just accepting it uncritically.
However, there are times when you come across a passage that just has you stumped. It may contain some figure of speech you don't quite understand, or it may seem to contradict some important theological doctrine, or it may mention some ancient practice that seems almost nonsensical. At that point, you need a little help just to be able to keep reading through the passage intelligently.
Difficult passages like this tend to be those that commentaries spend a great deal of time on. Because the meaning of these passages may be the subject of debate, commentaries tend to explain each interpretation, weigh all the arguments for or against, then eventually render a verdict on what the commentator believes is the correct interpretation. When you're still in the early stages of studying a passage, getting embroiled in long, intricate discussions like that can derail your study altogether. Faced with several possible interpretations, you can find yourself stuck in a kind of "analysis paralysis" when it comes to your passage.
Far better at times like these to turn to a concise resource that will give you just enough information to keep reading your passage without feeling lost. Study Bibles and less technical commentaries are worth their weight in gold at that point. (Okay, so they don't weigh anything in Accordance, but you know what I mean!) These more concise resources give you the quick help you need without bogging you down with too many details.
Personally, I follow a kind of informal hierarchy when it comes to looking for interpretive help. When I'm still in the early stages of observation and I just want a little quick help, I'll turn to a trusted study Bible. If I have a little more time or the study Bible didn't give me the help I needed, I'll turn to less technical commentaries like Expositor's Bible Commentary, The Bible Speaks Today, Holman, or Tyndale. EBC is usually the first place I turn because it tends to give a thorough overview while still managing to be concise. I've also been really impressed with Tyndale lately. It is highly readable and seems to cut to the chase without too much meandering.
When I really want to study a passage in depth or I have a question about some subtle point of grammar, that's when I'll turn to more detailed commentaries like Pillar and NAC, or even technical commentaries like NIGTC and Word. These commentaries tend to demand a little more time and careful attention, so I turn to them when I'm willing to devote that time.
Oh, there is one last rung of my commentary hierarchy worth mentioning, and it's probably not what you'd expect. If I find myself in "analysis paralysis" after reading some technical discussion about competing interpretations, I'll usually turn to Calvin's commentaries. Calvin is obviously dated and he will sometimes deal with controversies or questions that wouldn't even cross our minds today. Yet Calvin was such a gifted interpreter that I often find he clarifies things for me when modern controversies have me befuddled.
Whatever study Bibles or commentaries you find most helpful, I would strongly recommend that you follow a similar hierarchy when looking for interpretive help. When you need quick help to keep reading a passage intelligently, turn to a trusted study Bible or less-technical commentary. Reserve the in depth commentaries for that stage of your exegesis where you're ready to compare your own observations with those of scholarly commentators. Until you're at that stage, less is definitely more.