From chapter 4 of Take and Eat – the art of spiritual reading, by Eugene Peterson. Published by Hodder and Stoughton, 2006.
It is useful for readers of the Bible to keep company with some of our master exegetes [interpreters of the Bible]; the easiest way to do it is to use their commentaries. Biblical commentaries are, for the most part, employed by pastors or teachers in the preparation of sermons or lectures. They are treated as ‘tools.’ But there are treasures in these books for the ordinary reader of the Bible. Among those of use who read – eat – this text not in preparation for an assignment, but simply for direction and nourishment in following Jesus, which means most of us, biblical commentaries have for too long been overlooked as common reading for common Christians.
I recommend reading commentaries in the same way as we read novels, from beginning to end, skipping nothing. They are, admittedly, weak in plot and character development, but their devout attention to words and syntax is sufficient. Plot and character – the plot of salvation, the character of Messiah – are everywhere implicit in a commentary and persistently assert their presence even when unmentioned through scores, even hundreds, of pages. The power of these ancient nouns and verbs century after century to call forth intelligent discourse from learned men and women continues to be a staggering wonder.
Among those for whom Scripture is a passion, reading commentaries has always seemed to me analogous to the gathering of football fans in the local bar after the game, replaying in endless detail the game they have just watched, arguing (maybe even fighting) over observations and opinion, and lacing the discourse with gossip about the players.
The level of knowledge evident in these boozy colloquies is impressive. These fans have watched the game for years; the players are household names to them; they know the fine print in the rulebook and pick up every nuance on the field. And they care immensely about what happens in the game. Their seemingly endless commentary is evidence of how much they care. Like them, I relish in a commentary not bare information but conversation with knowledgeable and experienced friends, probing, observing, questioning the biblical text. Absorbed by this plot that stretches grandly from Genesis to Revelation, captured by the messianic presence that in death and resurrection saves us one and all – there is so much to notice, so much to talk over.
Not all commentaries fit the bill – some of them are written by scholars who seem to have no interest either in God or the story, but there are enough that qualify to convince me that they provide welcome and indispensable companionship to all of use readers of the text who, as we follow Jesus, don’t want to miss anythign along the way.