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Commentary - Although somewhat limited in value to inductive Bible study (since it confines us to an other’s understanding of a given passage) a good commentary can be beneficial in opening our minds to thoughts of a passage that we may otherwise have neglected or not noticed. Most generally available modern commentaries are reprints of such classics as that of Matthew Henry, as well as compendiums of thought by (usually) trustworthy modern scholars. Such a commentary can shed additional historical or theological light on the passage being studied and we can gain great benefit from the knowledge of those who have made it their life's work to make available further information pertaining to the Bible. In many instances a great deal of background research into the times of the passage has been done by the commentator which can be of great value to our own study. Used with care and prayer a commentary can significantly increase the rewards of our Bible study. It is important to remember that in inductive Bible study you are seeking your interpretation of the Bible as guided by the Holy Spirit and so a commentary should not generally be referred to until you are fairly certain that you have gained an understanding of the passage in question and require the corroboration and/or further information that a commentary can provide. Many modern study Bibles also include short, in context commentary as a part of their system of helps, the NIV Study Bible and the Life Application Study Bible are notable examples of this technique which, while useful, presents the constant temptation to forgo one's own analysis of the Bible in favour of that which has been presented to us by others..
One important point to remember when employing a commentary is that, while commentaries are generally the trustworthy works of scholars who have made careful study of the Bible, we should not be afraid to suspect the work of even the most trusted source if it seems at variance with an honest interpretation after diligent study. The temptation writers of commentaries face is to comment on or give an explanation of everything in the text, even if in some instances no such commentary or explanation is warranted or necessary. Occasionally the commentator's desire to convey information outpaces his understanding of the passage. The temptation also exists to allegorize passages that seem to defy belief. A case in point is found in the book of the Bible called "Song of Songs." Quite frequently this book is allegorized to be symbolic of the union of Christ and His Church. While this may not be unfaithful to the Scripture this practice does tend to overlook the obvious celebration of human sexuality that is enjoyed by the main characters. But maintaining that the "Song of Songs" is no more than such a celebration may be as much an injustice to the text as it would be to maintain that it is no more than an allegory.
It is important to remember, therefore, that God does not restrict correct interpretation to the commentators but to those who honestly seek to discover what God is saying in the Scripture. Just be absolutely certain that you are making an honest attempt at interpretation rather than seeking support for your preconceived ideas. Many commentators have much of great value to share with the Bible student but we must stay clear of the trap of allowing their interpretation to overwhelm our own. Treat a commentator as you would a discussion of a Bible passage with an other, as a sounding board for your ideas and conclusions but with a willingness to have your mind changed or the courage to remain firm on an honest interpretation. Keep in mind that your interpretation of the Bible is also a commentary of sorts and is subject to the same benefits and limitations of any other commentary.
How to use this tool
1 - Because we have an innate tendency to trust what our teachers tell us try to gain some idea of the meaning of a passage on your own before consulting a commentary. This way you will be able to evaluate your conclusions against those of the commentary and minimize the risk of simply accepting what the commentary says without question.
2 - As commentators will often have differing perspectives on a given passage it is a good idea to compare commentaries against each other for more balanced research as well as to guard against potential false teaching.
3 - Commentaries also differ in style. A devotional commentary, such as that by Matthew Henry, will look at a passage from a different viewpoint than a theological commentary, such as that by John Gill. Being aware of the style of the commentary you use will help you to get the most out of it.