The use of commentaries

By J. C. Philpot

Commentaries upon the Scripture are by many people much objected to. That there is some ground for these objections must, we think, be admitted. Let us, then, examine some of these objections.

1. They are considered unnecessary. The Scriptures, it is urged, are written so plainly and simply that he who runs may read. To overlay them, then, with human explanations is not only superfluous, but is to darken the counsel by words without knowledge. If God speak to men, he must speak plainly and intelligibly. "All the words of my mouth are in righteousness; there is nothing froward or perverse in them. They are all plain to him that understands, and right to them that find knowledge" (Prov. 8:8, 9). To need, then, human explanations and learned commentaries, it is urged, would argue imperfection in the revelation itself.

2. Besides which, the same blessed Spirit who revealed the Scripture alone can give a spiritual understanding of it. To study commentaries, therefore, it is argued, is to slight the teaching and work of the Holy Spirit, and to trust to the wisdom of the flesh.

3. Most commentaries, too, it is objected, are written by carnal, unregenerate men, who are necessarily blind to the spiritual meaning, and therefore can only adulterate the pure truth of God.

4. Ministers, too, it, is especially urged, should get everything immediate from God: and therefore all they get from commentaries is but dead, dry, useless lumber, unprofitable to themselves, and starvation to the living family.

That there is great truth and force in these objections, especially the last, cannot be denied. The tried and tempted, exercised and distressed children of God do not want a sermon nicely picked and culled out of books, but something warm and dewy out of the preacher's soul. Nor do they want sermons dished up out of a commentary, nor a cold hash of dead men's brains, but something hot from the spit. Take away all the scraps that they have picked up from old authors, all the explanations which they have culled from Dr. Gill, all the anecdotes that they have borrowed north, south, east, and west, all the hum-drum common phrases which form their general stock of trade, and leave them nothing but what has been made their own by divine teaching and experience, and it is to be feared many ministers would cut as poor a figure as David's messengers when Hanun had shaved off half their beards, and cut off their garments in the middle.

There is no ministry worth a straw which does not come out of the heart and conscience of the minister. All that is pillaged out of books falls dead and dry upon the hearts of the exercised children of God. If there be light in the understanding of a minister, it must be from "the entrance of God's word, that gives light." "God," says the apostle, "who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, has shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." (2 Cor.4:6). If there be life in his soul, it must come directly and immediately from him who is "the Life," and who has said, "Because I live you shall live also." If he have utterance, it is the gift of God: "You are enriched by him in all utterance" (1 Cor. 1:5). The Apostle Paul, though so deeply instructed into the mysteries of the gospel, yet so sensibly felt that God himself must teach him how and what to speak, that he begs the prayers of his fellow-believers, "that utterance might be given unto him, that he might open his mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel" (Eph. 6:19). "Withal praying also for us, that God would open unto us a door of utterance to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in bonds, that I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak" (Col. 4:3, 4). If there be liberty in the minister's soul, it is from "the Spirit of the Lord," for "there (and there only) is liberty" (2 Cor. 3:17). If there be power resting upon his spirit and testimony, it is the power of God. Stephen was "full of faith and power." And why? Because "full of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 6:5). "Truly," says the prophet, "I am full of power by the Spirit of the Lord" (Micah 3:8). The possession of this power is the only true foundation of the gospel ministry. "Whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me by the effectual working of his power." (Eph. 3:7).

And the apostle expressly testifies that his "speech and his preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power" (1 Cor. 2:4). If there be wisdom in his heart and mouth, it is not the wisdom of the creature and the flesh, but "the wisdom which comes from above." If there be savor in his ministry, (and without it what is all preaching but an empty sound?) it is only so as his speech is seasoned with salt; and this is only by grace (Col. 4:6). And if there be a blessing attending the word preached, if the dead are quickened, the distressed delivered, and the saints built up on their most holy faith, though a Paul plant or an Apollos water, it is still all of God that gives the increase. God is expressly "against the prophets that steal his words, every one from his neighbor" (Jer. 23:30). And the Lord has promised to give his servants in the needful hour "a mouth and wisdom which all their adversaries shall not be able to gainsay or resist."

If these positions are founded in Scripture and experience, as we believe none will deny who have any experimental knowledge of the truth, it is very evident that a ministry grounded upon natural abilities, hard study, acquired learning, and upon such materials as are usually found in Commentaries, is not the ministry of the Spirit. Were it so, the spruce academies of Hoxton and Cheshunt would be stars of bright luster in the skies of the church.

"Temptation, prayer, and meditation," says Luther, "make a minister." These, too, we may add, make the only true Commentary upon the word of God. By temptation and conflict the experience of the Bible saints is entered into and realized; by prayer, and in answer to it, its spiritual meaning is opened up; and by meditation it is turned into sweet and solid nutriment. The heavenly wisdom, the unspeakable majesty and beauty, the divine savor and power, the richness and fullness, the certainty and faithfulness, the suitability and blessedness that are stamped upon the Scripture—these prints of the hand of God can only be felt and recognized as the Holy Spirit shines upon the sacred page. He is the only true Commentator, for he alone can reach and melt the heart; and he is the only true Preacher, because he alone can seal the truth upon the soul.

But giving these scriptural positions the fullest weight, and we do so from our very heart and conscience, may not something still be said on the other side of the question? Because the Spirit of God is the only Teacher, are we to set our face decidedly against all human learning, all commentaries of every kind, and everything written by the pen of man? Does the Lord never sanctify to his own use, to his own honor and glory, and to his people's good, natural or acquired abilities? We did not learn the English language by grace, and yet we preach in English. So it is impossible to say how far God may not use natural abilities in the ministry of the gospel. Gold, silver, and brass, blue, and purple, and scarlet, fine linen, and goats' hair, rams' skins dyed red, badgers' skins, and acacia wood (Exod. 35:57), were all freely given to the tabernacle in the wilderness, were all accepted and sanctified by the blood sprinkled upon them (Heb. 9:21), by the anointing oil (Exod. 30:25-29), and the divine Shechinah that filled the sanctuary. No, the very laver of brass was made of the brazen mirrors of the women (Exod. 38:8). All these were severed thereby from common uses, and dedicated to the worship and service of the sanctuary.

May we not apply this to the ministry of the gospel? The servants of God undoubtedly differ in natural as well as in spiritual gifts. But may not both be employed in the service of the sanctuary? Thus, if a man's natural or acquired abilities be gold or brass, rough and close as the skin of the badger, refined as the fine linen, or strong and wiry as the hair of the goat, if sanctified by the Lord for the service of the tabernacle, they may all be used for his glory and his people's good.

Apply this view of the case to the Commentary before us, written by a man possessed not only of great learning and abilities, but of grace and divine teaching, and well instructed into the truth of God. May there not be something edifying and instructive, something establishing and profitable in the remarks made by him upon the Scriptures? Because ministers without a conscience may pillage from this fund, and pass off the Doctor's explanations as their own, it does not make the remarks themselves less valuable. A stolen sovereign is good gold still, though the pickpocket has filched it, and spent it as if earned by honest labor. In this, as in most other circumstances, it is not fair to argue against the use of a thing from its abuse.

Because worldly wisdom is out of place in the preaching of the gospel, we need not canonize ignorance. If it be "the foolishness of preaching," God does not send fools to preach. Bunyan, Huntington, and Gadsby were not men of learning and education, but they were no fools. On the contrary, they were men of original minds and natural powers which would have made them conspicuous in any sphere. Augustine, on the other hand, Luther, and Calvin were men of deep and varied learning; and in modern times, Romaine, Berridge, and Toplady were hard students. No, to come to Scripture instances, Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians: Daniel was skilled in all wisdom, knowledge, and science (Dan. 1:4; 5:11); and Paul sat at the feet of Gamaliel. Learning, therefore, abilities, and study are, only so far hindrances, and great hindrances too, as they are made substitutes for the teaching and wisdom of the Spirit. This is their great danger, and most of all in the self-instructed and half-learned, who have not got so far on the road as to know their own ignorance. With such tall masts and spreading sails, a deal of heavy ballast is needful. But with that there may be less risk of toppling over. There is one test that they are kept in their place—when they never appear. Hart earned his daily bread by teaching languages. Where is there a trace of his knowledge of languages in his hymns beyond the admirable propriety and clearness of well near every line? Romaine was a thorough master of Hebrew. But where do we find him, beyond a passing hint in his writings, digging up Hebrew roots and slicing them up hot or cold? Berridge was a tutor of his college, and a hard student. But where in his beautiful hymns are his Clare Hall researches visible? Luther was one of the most learned men of his age; but his German writings are so addressed to the popular understanding, so homely, pointed, racy, and expressive, that they are models of simplicity and strength, without the slightest tincture of pedantry or display, but gushing out of his heart clear, sparkling, and forcible as a mountain stream.

If a man possess natural or acquired ability, it should make him all the more plain and simple, and only enable him, like a skillful mechanic, to turn out his work more sharply and finely. It is only bunglers that can't handle their tools, who make a parade with the chisel. A man's knowledge should be wrought into his mind, as the mechanic's skill is wrought into his eye and hand. Let the work show the workman, not the tools flourished before the eyes.

If thus kept in its place, if sanctified to the service of God, if used only with a single eye to his glory and his people's good, human learning is not to be despised. It is the application that decides the value. Gold was given to make the golden calf, and gold was given to make the golden candlestick; the one was an idol, the other gave light to the sanctuary.

We may ask this simple question, "Where would have been our English Bible but for human learning?" The Scriptures are written in what are called the learned languages. To translate theses into English required an accurate and extensive knowledge of those languages, only to be acquired by long and patient study and labor. So far, then, learning has been used as an instrument in the hand of God for the benefit as thousands. The poorest man, with the Bible in his hand, may say, "Were it not for human learning I should never have read a line in this blessed book." To despise, therefore, human learning in itself, and apart from all abuse of it, is to despise what had been made a signal blessing to the church of God. And we suspect that its greatest despisers are those who do not possess it. Pride is of so subtle, accommodating a nature, that while one man is proud of his knowledge, another is proud of his ignorance. A Commentary, therefore, which explains the meaning of the original, where the translation is obscure, may be no more worthy of contempt or disregard than the translation itself.

Again, there are many ancient customs and rites which may, to ordinary readers, present matter of difficulty. Or there may be types, figures, and ceremonies, the spiritual meaning of which is, perhaps, not very apparent, but which, when explained, may throw a sweet light upon gospel truth. Thus Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews is a Commentary upon the Book of Leviticus.

Again, there may be real or apparent difficulties, even contradictions in the word of God, which may much perplex the mind, and which Satan may make much use of to harass and distress the soul.

Or there may be profitable and edifying remarks drawn from different texts of Scripture, such as Hawker's "Morning and Evening Portions," or Mason's "Spiritual Treasury," and similar works, which, in fact, are but a Commentary on different parts of God's word.

But we may take a wider view still. A minister takes a text, shows its connection, explains its literal meaning, traces out from it the experience of the soul—in other words, makes a Commentary upon it. If his words were taken down, and printed, and read, what are they but an extended Commentary upon a text of Scripture? There was a period in the history of the church when sermons were preached without texts at all; and when the practice was introduced of taking a text and preaching from it, it created much stir in the churches, and great opposition. But the practice eventually prevailed. When, then, a minister takes a text to preach from it, all that he says, so far as it is connected with his text, is but a Commentary upon it. Dr. Gill, we believe, preached a series of sermons on the Song of Solomon, which he afterwards published in a separate form as a Commentary upon that book, and a most excellent Commentary it is.

Now, if souls were blessed in hearing those sermons preached, why might not souls be blessed in reading those sermons when printed? The late Thomas Hardy had a remarkable gift in exposition, and his hearers often preferred what he said on the chapter to the sermon. What was this exposition but a Commentary?

There is, then, if these arguments be worth anything, nothing objectionable in Commentaries themselves, that is assuming, as we here do, that they are written by gracious and enlightened men. It is the abuse which renders them justly objectionable.

5. But one objection remains which we have not touched, perhaps the most formidable of all, and one which especially regards the Commentary before us—the impossibility of one man having such a spiritual knowledge of the whole Scripture as to enable him to write a Commentary upon the word of God from Genesis to Revelation. God the Spirit never opened up, it is urged, the whole of the Scripture to one man; and if he attempt to unfold what he has not been spiritually taught, what is it but dead, dry, human wisdom at best? This is to say, in other words, what is certainly most true, that the best Commentary must be very imperfect, that there are depths in the word of God which no one pen can unfold, and that the spiritual, experimental meaning of a large part of the Scriptures must be left wholly untouched.

But may there not be a little confusion of ideas here? And may not people confound two things certainly distinct? What is applied with power to the soul is one thing, and a general light upon God's truth is another. A servant of God may not have had fifty portions of Scripture applied with power to his soul, but in his whole life time he may preach from several thousand texts. May a minister preach only on those texts which have been applied with power to his soul? May he not have light upon others, and life, and liberty, and power, and sweetness too?

Mr. Huntington published a little work, in two volumes, called, "Light Shining in Darkness," which we may call a Commentary upon certain dark passages of Scripture. But though, of course, he had light, and, it may be, life and feeling upon these passages, he does not profess that they all came with power to his soul for his personal deliverance or consolation. And is not this in accordance with Scripture precept and practice? What says the apostle? "Having, then, gifts according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion (or analogy) of faith;" that is, the preaching must be in strict accordance with the general drift and tenor of God's word. Paul does not confine a minister here to those texts only which have been applied with power to his soul, but requires that his preaching should be in strict agreement with the general tenor of inspiration. "If any man speak," says Peter, "let him speak as the oracles of God;" that is, in strict accordance with them. He does not limit him to a few portions of Scripture, but binds him to speak as they do.

Now apply this to a Commentary such as Dr. Gill's. If the Doctor had written no more upon the Scriptures than from the texts which had been opened up and applied to his soul, his Commentary would never have seen the day. But he might have much light upon the Scriptures generally, might have a clear judgment upon the truth of God revealed therein, distinct from certain portions particularly applied. Indeed, his experience of the truth of God in these particular passages would open up the meaning of others, as a master-key opens different locks. "The rain comes down and the snow from heaven to make the earth bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater. So shall my word be" (Isa. 55:10, 11). A distinction is here made between personal enjoyment and a ministerial gift. There is in God's word, bread to supply the seedsman's soul, and corn to supply his seed-basket. He may sow a sack of corn before he has eaten all his loaf. The Corinthians were enriched by God in all utterance and in all knowledge, so that they came behind in no gift; and yet they were, as regards grace, still babes in Christ, who needed milk rather than meat. A man, then, like Dr. Gill might possess a great gift in expounding the word of God who in grace might be inferior to many private Christians.

Besides which it should be borne in mind that the cases of ministers and expositors of Gold's word and of private Christians are widely different. A private Christian needs no more light upon the Scripture than serves for his own comfort and edification. A minister may have to feed thousands, and therefore needs supplies of wisdom and light for others as well as himself.

A commentator, therefore, might have much light upon God's truth, for the benefit of others as well as himself.

Again, all the objections which we have adduced go upon the ground that the only use and object of a Commentary is spiritual edification. This, of course, should be the main object, but there are other things looked for as well, and certainly very desirable; such as the literal meaning of a passage, the solution of apparent inconsistencies and contradictions, the explanation of ancient customs, and many things which, if not understood, render a passage obscure.

Our own experience, we confess, is not much in favor of Commentaries. Like many others of inquiring minds, we have in times past consulted them. But we must acknowledge, for the most part, with but little profit. The truth, in vital, heartfelt experience, we never attempted nor desired to draw from them; and as far as regards the ministry, we never dared and indeed were never tempted to derive from them the slightest aid whatever.

Every minister, we believe, whom God sends, owns, and blesses has given to him not only an experience of the truth, but a door of utterance to set it forth. Gifts may widely vary in extent and degree, but if man have no divine gift for the ministry, he has no business with the ministry. Many gracious men have brought trouble upon themselves, trouble upon the churches with which they are connected, and trouble upon the churches among which they have gone, for want of a divine gift for the ministry. They can preach one good, often one excellent sermon—their own experience. There they begin and end. They cannot open up the Scripture, nor trace out the work of God upon the soul, nor describe the in and out path of a Christian, nor take up the stumbling blocks, nor bring out of their text the treasures of experimental truth stored up in it, nor speak to the conscience, nor separate between the wheat and the chaff, nor handle the promise, nor enforce the precept, nor, like a good householder, bring forth things new and old to feed and edify the household of faith. The Lord's people, humanly speaking, are much dependent on a gospel ministry. They need to be instructed, fed, encouraged, comforted, reproved, warned, admonished, led on, humbled, raised up, and the whole work deepened and strengthened in their soul. To do all this is the end and object of the ministry of the gospel.

Jesus, we read, "is ascended up on high to give gifts unto men," and all "for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ." (Eph. 4:7-16.) One little thinks how many of the Lord's people are looking anxiously forward to the ensuing Lord's day, hoping to hear something to comfort and encourage their hearts; and how disappointed they are when nothing comes with power to their souls. A man may be truly gracious, have a good experience, and love and live the truth, have a desire for the glory of Goad and the good of his people, and by this feeling be led into a pulpit, and kept in it, and yet be rather a plague and a burden than a benefit to the exercised family of God. He may be esteemed and loved as a gracious man, but not heard with any profit; and the consequence too often is coldness, and deadness, or perhaps divisions, in the body of the church, and disappointment or jealousy in the bosom of the minister. There is an electric wire between the pulpit and the pew; but what is the wire without the influence? What is the ministry without the power of God passing through it to the soul? If the Lord then send and furnish a minister, according to his experience and gifts will the Scriptures be opened up to him, will texts be applied with light and life to his soul, will matter spring up in his heart, will thoughts be communicated, feelings be inspired, words supplied, liberty of speech imparted, and an ability, sometimes surprising to himself, given to handle the truth as "a workman that needs not to be ashamed."

Such a ministry as this will be commended to the conscience of God's people, will fall with weight and savor on their spirit, and, as God is pleased to bless it, will carry life and feeling into their heart. A ministry of this kind, gushing out of the preacher's heart and mouth as a spring of living water, is as different from a hard, dead, cut and dry ministry, based on study and premeditation and commentaries, as a living, breathing man from a cold withered skeleton. Cold, dry learning is not wanted in the pulpit. What is wanted there is experience in the heart, life, and feeling in the soul, and such a measure of divine power resting on the spirit as shall clothe the ideas that spring up with clear, simple, suitable language, level with the comprehension of the most uneducated hearer. A ministry of this kind will be fresh, original, stamped with a peculiar impress, and will carry with it a weight and power which manifest its divine author.

Of what USE, then, it may be asked, are commentaries to a minister of truth?

As regards the ministry, none. Nor will any minister, with a tender conscience and the fear of God in his soul, dare to use them for that purpose. But may he never, then, look into them or consult them at all? Never with a view to the ministry, or to supply himself with matter for the pulpit. But suppose he cannot preach without them? Then he has no business in the pulpit at all, and had better at once leave it for the pew. But may he never read them for private information or edification? If something in a passage perplex his mind, and Gill is at hand, may he not take the volume down and consult it? Or may he not for the instruction and edification of his own soul read what Gill says upon a psalm or a chapter of Isaiah? May he not, if he possess them, read Owen's Commentary on Psalm 130, and that upon the Hebrews, or Leighton on the Epistles of Peter? "Give attendance to reading," says Paul to Timothy. May nothing be read but the simple Scriptures? To, say "No," would, we think, be tying him up too tightly. This leads us, then, to two cases in which it would seem hard to deny a minister the use of a commentary. For by parity of reasoning it might be argued that as Romaine, Hawker, Bunyan, or Huntington might furnish ideas for the pulpit, they should never look into "Pilgrim's Progress," or "Grace Abounding," the "Contemplations on the God of Israel," or "The Kingdom of God taken by Prayer," lest there be ideas and expressions suggested by them. And some good men, feeling how almost involuntarily the ideas and words of authors mingle with their own, and that it is a species of hypocrisy to let them escape their lips, have for that reason renounced reading all books but the Scriptures.

We do not wish any one to attach the least value beyond what it is worth to our own feelings on this subject; but as persons can speak best from experience, we will just mention how we have felt in this matter. Were we in possession of a copy of Gill's Bible, which we are not, though we well know the book, we should feel it allowable to look into it under two circumstances:

1. Suppose some verbal difficulty in a passage perplexed our mind, we should feel no more scruple in examining what the Doctor said upon it than we should in taking down our Hebrew or Greek Lexicon to investigate the meaning of a difficult word. In nine cases out of ten the difficulty might not be solved by either the commentary or the lexicon so as to satisfy the judgment, but we might, we think, as legitimately see what the Doctor had to say upon it as the dictionary. So far, then, we think we could, without scruple, examine a commentary like the one before us.

Here let us diverge for a moment to give our view of what a really good and useful commentary should be. It should be, for the most part, but one extended translation. What we mainly want is the literal meaning of a passage—a strictly accurate translation from the original. Now in this very point, which is the main want, commentaries are almost always sadly defective. What we require is not the opinion of the commentator, but what God has really said, what is the strict literal meaning of the passage. When the commentator gives his interpretation, he almost always darkens counsel by words without knowledge.

But we read sometimes for our own edification; and therefore,

2. We see no objection, with that object solely in view, to reading Owen on the Hebrews, Or Caryll on Job, Or Lampe on John, or Gill on the Canticles. A minister's soul is to be edified, instructed, fed like that of private Christians; and as he cannot be always reading the Scriptures, we see no objection to his reading, for that purpose only, the writings of gracious men. We read sometimes, for instance, Owen on the Spirit, and other of his writings, and have often found our soul sensibly edified, instructed, and fed thereby.

An observation which we heard Mr. Warburton make some years ago completely fell in with our own feelings and experience. He said that he could and did read the works of gracious men, as Mr. Huntington's, for his own edification, but never found them, or wished to find them, of the least benefit as regarded the ministry. In the pulpit, he had only what God gave him at the time. This is exactly as we have felt ourselves.

But if for the above reasons we have tied up ministers somewhat tightly, there is no cause why we should rein up hearers in the same gear. And as we presume none would restrict them from reading the writings of gracious men, we might justly plead for this liberty to be extended to their reading what gracious men have written upon the Scriptures. No, of all writings a spiritual Commentary on the Scriptures ought to be the most profitable. In all human writings there ever will be an admixture of infirmity; but there should be less of this in a commentary than in any other, for it is nearest the word of God. It should, therefore, be more simple, more scriptural, more weighty and powerful than any other writing, because it confines itself to pure truth. Supposing, then, in which supposition indeed lies the whole pith and marrow of the question, that a really spiritual and gracious commentary could be found, to debar a private Christian from reading it merely because it is called a commentary would be to do homage to a word or a prejudice at the sacrifice of his profit. The difficulty is to find such a commentary. We may look far and wide to find it. Scott and Henry are often unsound, and generally very superficial. Whitby is a thorough Arminian and as dry as a chip. Adam Clarke is tainted to the very core with Wesleyanism. Barnes, though his Isaiah and Job are useful books in their way, might be distilled to the very bones without getting a drop of oil out of him. Of all commentaries Gill's is confessedly the best, but it is scarce and dear, and beyond the reach of most purses.

Under these circumstances, we believe it is best to read the Scriptures without any commentary whatever. Dark and difficult passages may indeed occur which we should be glad to understand; but for the most part the Scriptures are so simple and so beautiful, when read with life and feeling in the soul, that a commentary does but mar them. Our own practice is to read them without any explanation or illustration whatever, in their own beautiful simplicity, and scarcely once a year do we look into a commentary at all.