Many people disparage the use of any outside commentaries – claiming that the preacher should develop his messages on his knees with nothing but an open Bible and fervent prayer for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. While I believe that such a posture is the necessary starting point and that you do not want to break out the commentaries before you have done some of your own inductive study, I would argue for a much more balanced approach.
Since I have modeled much of my approach in writing my commentaries after the pattern of C. H. Spurgeon’s classic Treasury of David, I am extremely interested in what he had to say about the appropriate use of commentaries.
Here is a lengthy quotation from his work Commenting and Commentaries (with annotations from Precept Ministries):
“we should heartily subscribe to the declaration, that more expository preaching (Type of preaching in which an extended passage of the Scripture, especially a book, is explained and interpreted over a number of weeks) is greatly needed, and that all preachers would be the better if they were more able expounders (implies a careful often elaborate explanation to make something clear and understandable) of the inspired Word.
To render such a result more probable, every inducement to search the Holy Scriptures should be placed in the way of our ministers, and to the younger brethren some guidance should be offered as to the works most likely to aid them in their studies. Many are persuaded that they should expound the Word, but being unversed (unfamiliar, unstudied) in the original tongues (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek) they can only fall back upon the help of their English Concordances, and are left floundering about, when a sound comment would direct their thoughts. True, the Holy Spirit will instruct the seeker, but He works by means. The Ethiopian eunuch might have received divine illumination, and doubtless did receive it, but still, when asked whether he understood the Scripture which he read, he replied, “How can I unless some man shall guide me?” The guiding man is needed still. Divines who have studied the Scriptures have left us great stores of holy thought which we do well to use. Their expositions can never be a substitute for our own meditations, but as water poured down a dry pump often sets it to work to bring up water of its own, so suggestive reading sets the mind in motion on its own account. Here, however, is the difficulty. Students do not find it easy to choose which works to buy (nor which of an endlessly and rapidly proliferating list of offerings on the internet to make good use of), and their slender stores are often wasted on books of a comparatively worthless kind. If I can save a poor man from spending his money for that which is not bread, or, by directing a brother to a good book, may enable him to dig deeper into the mines of truth, I shall be well repaid. For this purpose I have toiled, and read much, and passed under review some three or four thousand volumes. From these I have compiled my catalogue, rejecting man, yet making a very varied selection. Though I have carefully used such judgment as I possess, I have doubtless made many errors; I shall certainly find very few who will agree with all my criticisms, and some persons may be angry at my remarks. I have, however, done my best, and, with as much impartiality as I can command, I have nothing extenuated nor set down aught in malice. He who finds fault will do well to execute the work in better style; only let him remember that he will have my heifer to plough with and therefore ought in all reason to excel me.
I have used a degree of pleasantry in my remarks on the Commentaries, for a catalogue is a dry affair, and, as much for my own sake as for that of my readers, I have indulged the mirthful vein here and there. For this I hope I shall escape censure, even if I do not win commendation.
To God I commend this labour, which has been undertaken and carried out with no motive but that of honoring his name, and edifying his Church by stimulating the study of his Word. May He, for His Son’s sake, grant my heart’s desire.”[
[and this writer humbly agrees] …
It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others. My chat this afternoon is not for these great originals, but for you who are content to learn of holy men, taught of God, and mighty in the Scriptures. It has been the fashion of late years to speak against the use of commentaries…A respectable acquaintance with the opinions of the giants of the past, might have saved many an erratic thinker from wild interpretations and outrageous inferences. Usually, we have found the despisers of commentaries to be men who have no sort of acquaintance with them; in their case, it is the opposite of familiarity which has bred contempt. It is true there are a number of expositions of the whole Bible which are hardly worth shelf room; they aim at too much and fail altogether; the authors have spread a little learning over a vast surface, and have badly attempted for the entire Scriptures what they might have accomplished for one book with tolerable success…who can pretend to biblical learning who has not made himself familiar with the great writers who spent a life in explaining some one sacred book?
Spurgeon goes on to comment on specific writers beginning with Matthew Henry…
First among the mighty for general usefulness we are bound to mention the man whose name is a household word, Matthew Henry. He is most pious and pithy, sound and sensible, suggestive and sober, terse and trustworthy. You will find him to be glittering with metaphors, rich in analogies, overflowing with illustrations, superabundant in reflections. He delights in apposition and alliteration; he is usually plain, quaint, and full of pith; he sees right through a text directly; apparently he is not critical, but he quietly gives the result of an accurate critical knowledge of the original fully up to the best critics of his time. He is not versed in the manners and customs of the East, for the Holy Land was not so accessible as in our day; but he is deeply spiritual, heavenly, and profitable; finding good matter in every text, and from all deducing most practical and judicious lessons.
Spurgeon goes on to add that…
It would not be possible for me too earnestly to press upon you the importance of reading the expositions of that prince among men, John Calvin!…A very distinguished place is due to Dr. Gill. Beyond all controversy, Gill was one of the most able Hebraists of his day, and in other matters no mean proficient…Probably no man since Gill’s days has at all equalled him in the matter of Rabbinical learning. Say what you will about that lore, it has its value: of course, a man has to rake among perfect dunghills and dust heaps, but there are a few jewels which the world could not afford to miss. Gill was a master cinder sifter among the Targums, the Talmuds, the Mishna, and the Gemara. Richly did he deserve the degree of which he said, “I never bought it, nor thought it, nor sought it. He was always at work; it is difficult to say when he slept, for he wrote 10,000 folio pages of theology…Adam Clarke is the great annotator of our Wesleyan friends; and they have no reason to be ashamed of him, for he takes rank among the chief of expositors. His mind was evidently fascinated by the singularities of learning, and hence his commentary is rather too much of an old curiosity shop, but it is filled with valuable rarities, such as none but a great man could have collected. Like Gill, he is one sided (Arminian – believed you could lose your salvation), only in the opposite direction to our friend the Baptist….If you have a copy of Adam Clarke, and exercise discretion in reading it, you will derive immense advantage from it, for frequently by a sort of side light he brings out the meaning of the text in an astonishingly novel manner. I do not wonder that Adam Clarke still stands, notwithstanding his peculiarities, a prince among commentators.
(from “Commenting and Commentaries“)