Monthly Archives: March 2014

“There’s a Psalm for That”

In our highly technological age, we often assume that any problem can be tackled with a computer program, mobile app, or invention.  And we certainly have seen a number of needs addressed.  I use my phone on a daily basis for easy access to an alarm clock, camera, calendar, and, oh, yes, a telephone (but there are also apps that will let me use it as a level with a virtual bubble, print wirelessly, play games, watch videos, listen to my music collection, check my bank account, etc.).  For so many things that a person would like to do…. “There’s an App for That” ™ (literally ™ – Trademarked by Apple in 2010, but my phone happens to be Android, for what it’s worth).

In our highly technological age, we often forget to interact with a resource that deals with virtually any spiritual problem with struggle with.  And we certainly have a number of them.  Confusion, depression, anxiety, and fear, as well as thankfulness, joy, and celebration are all dealt with in this resource.  For so many things that we as sinners struggle with…  Yes, it’s in the Bible.  But even more specifically, there is one book that is especially suited to the whole range of human emotions.  Whatever your situation, however you feel…. “There’s a Psalm for That” (and yes, I realize others have thought of this adaptation of the catchphrase).

In many ways, the book of Psalms is the “app store” of the Bible, a place you can go and search for God-inspired material about what you are going through.  You can tell by the New Testament “ratings” (69 quotations versus 51 for the next most quoted Old Testament book, Isaiah, out of 263 total citations), which include use by Jesus and the apostles, that the Psalms ought to be used by Christians (not that we shouldn’t use the rest of the Old Testament and the Bible!).

Feeling far from God but looking for hope?  Check out Psalms 42 & 43.  Struggling with fear?  Psalm 27.  Expressing thanks?  Psalm 106 and 107.  Got contentment?  Psalm 23.  Oppressed by enemies?  Psalm 55.  Want to praise the Lord with music?  Psalm 150.  Facing a crisis where it feels like your world is falling apart?  Psalm 46 (God is our refuge and strength – a very present help in trouble, even though the earth be removed and the mountains quake!).  This is not an exhaustive list.  There are 150 Psalms that cover the whole range of human emotions – yours to download, peruse, pray, sing, read, apply – no credit card information required.

With this being said, it would not be fair to characterize the Psalms as band-aids or quick fixes for our problems.  But sometimes the Psalm is the medicine for the situation (and we may have to take it multiple doses!).  Other times, the psalm helps us to trust the Great Physician for His wisdom and timing in placing us in that situation or helps us to wait on Him to remove the problem in His appointed way and time.

In the preface to his commentary on the Psalms, John Calvin wrote (and this quote is worth citing and reading in full):

I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;” for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated. The other parts of Scripture contain the commandments which God enjoined his servants to announce to us. But here the prophets themselves, seeing they are exhibited to us as speaking to God, and laying open all their inmost thoughts and affections, call, or rather draw, each of us to the examination of himself in particulars in order that none of the many infirmities to which we are subject, and of the many vices with which we abound, may remain concealed. It is certainly a rare and singular advantage, when all lurking places are discovered, and the heart is brought into the light, purged from that most baneful infection, hypocrisy. In short, as calling upon God is one of the principal means of securing our safety, and as a better and more unerring rule for guiding us in this exercise cannot be found elsewhere than in The Psalms, it follows, that in proportion to the proficiency which a man shall have attained in understanding them, will be his knowledge of the most important part of celestial doctrine. Genuine and earnest prayer proceeds first from a sense of our need, and next, from faith in the promises of God. It is by perusing these inspired compositions, that men will be most effectually awakened to a sense of their maladies, and, at the same time, instructed in seeking remedies for their cure. In a word, whatever may serve to encourage us when we are about to pray to God, is taught us in this book. And not only are the promises of God presented to us in it, but oftentimes there is exhibited to us one standing, as it were, amidst the invitations of God on the one hand, and the impediments of the flesh on the other, girding and preparing himself for prayer: thus teaching us, if at any time we are agitated with a variety of doubts, to resist and fight against them, until the soul, freed and disentangled from all these impediments, rise up to God; and not only so, but even when in the midst of doubts, fears, and apprehensions, let us put forth our efforts in prayer, until we experience some consolation which may calm and bring contentment to our minds.

Struggling with something in your life?  Feel far from God?  Need to rejoice?  There’s a Psalm for that.

Updates Links and Deals

I guess this week is “movie edition.”

A number of much-hyped movies related to Biblical themes and issues have been released lately or are on the verge of being released.  Answer in Genesis has some good, thought-provoking articles on whether these are worthwhile to see and how to respond them.  If you’re thinking about seeing or taking people to see these, you owe it to yourself to be informed about them to see if you still want to do so or if you want to prepare your group for what they will see.

Also:

Preaching and Statistics

95% of people who read the first paragraph of this article will not finish it.  According to a study done by the …. okay, just kidding.

Seriously, though – have you ever considered why we use statistics and what they actually are?  (And the number did grab your attention at least for a second, right?)

Why Do We Use Statistics?

Many times we hear (or preach) sermons in which certain numbers are thrown out to demonstrate or verify or teach some supposed reality about the thing we are addressing.  Sometimes we have a good reason to use a statistic.  Other times… we really don’t (and many times our reasons for using them are some mixture of motives).

Relevance & Clarity

Sometimes we simply want a number that shows people things really are relevant.  There are actually people in the real world.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1 out of 4 women in the US die of heart disease.  When we start thinking of the likelihood that 25% of the women we know could die from this disease, it makes us think a little differently.

According to a 2012 Lifeway study, 80% of churchgoers don’t read their Bible daily.  That may explain a lot of ignorance of the Bible and disobedience to the Bible in our churches.

Artificial Authority

Have you ever noticed how some listeners’ ears perk up when you give a number?  Once you mention 35% or 60% or 1 out of 10 or whatever percentage or ration you use, it is almost as if an extra air of authority and scientific precision has overtaken the room, even if only for a moment.  Those numbers sure make things sound measurable, careful, and “official.”

Shock Value

“The divorce rate of Christians is the same as that of the world!” This is an inaccurate, but popularly repeated mantra.  Sometimes we hope a statistic will wake people up.  Or get their attention… or get us some attention.

What Statistics Are

Before you quote that next statistic in your message, think about what statistics actually are.

1. Statistics are numbers.
2. Statistics are numbers based on studies done of people.
3. Statistics are numbers based on studies done of people who sometimes lie.
4. Statistics are numbers based on studies done of people who sometimes lie by people who sometimes lie.
5. Statistics are numbers based on studies done of people who sometimes lie by people who sometimes lie and are sometimes based on too small or limited a segment of people to give an accurate representation of reality.
6. Statistics are numbers based on studies done of people who sometimes lie by people who sometimes lie and are sometimes based on too small or limited a segment of people to give an accurate representation of reality and are often prone to manipulation.

I think you get the idea.  Done by people with studies of people, not all statistics are equally valuable, helpful, or valid.  Sometimes surveys limit the choices of respondents who would not choose any of the options, yet choose one just to complete the survey.  Some respondents may lie to someone in person but tell the truth in an online anonymous situation.  Some have too small a sample to accurately speak to the larger populace about an issue.

Some statistics are well-researched, reasonable, and helpful.  But even they cannot boast of perfect certainty as to their results, just a (hopefully) clear pointer to what appears to be the case, based on the questions they asked and the answers they found.

The Nature of Gospel Ministry

The nature of the ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ should inform us as we consider how to use or not use statistics.  It is the certain Word of God we are to preach with authority (2 Timothy 4:2), not human statistics, which may be filled with error or skewed.  We are to renounce “the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2).

Don’t give in to the temptation to use statistics as a cheap shortcut or filler.  If you decide to use a statistic, doublecheck it to make sure it’s from a reliable source and a good study of the question it addresses.  Statistics should be used to illustrate truths, needs, and relevance, but must not be used to supersede the authority of the Bible or give a higher “proof” to the truths revealed in the living and active Word.  God says in Isaiah 55:11: “So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.”  That’s true not just 95% of the time, but 100%.

For more tips on “3 Ways to Recognize Bad Statistics” see this article by Ed Stetzer, president of Lifeway Research.

Updates, Links, and Deals for 3/24/2014

Updates Links and Deals

Christ Defines a ‘Christian View’ of Scripture” – Thanks to Common Ground Herald for publishing this in their current paper!

Three Ways to Recognize Bad Stats – If people would heed this advice, we would be more careful and probably use fewer of these in our messages.

God Might Call You to Be Ignored – a sobering but helpful thought from Isaiah 6.

KINDLE DEALS

Robert Stein, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible: Playing by the Rules – VERY helpful introduction to hermeneutics & Bible study methods.  Regularly $19.99, on sale for Kindle for $3.99 through 3/28

James White, The God Who Justifies (comprehensive study of the doctrine of justification) Regularly $27 — on sale for $3.99 – expires 3/27.

Harry Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England — $2.51 (list price $16.99; not sure how long the sale runs)  – may be a good resource for American church history

Where to Find Commentaries

In this post, I will share with you several ideas on where to obtain Bible commentaries.  Perhaps some of you will find a volume you have been searching for using a method detailed below.

BORROWING COMMENTARIES

WorldCat – this online search tool will help you locate virtually any book in virtually any library linked to its database (and there are many). There may be a college or public library nearby with the commentary you are seeking. (Tip: some colleges have “community memberships” so that you can check out books even if you are not a student.)

Local libraries – make a trip to your local college or public library and see what they have (for example, my local private college, which has Bible classes, has far more commentaries than my public library).

Personal libraries – Pastors or other friends may have a commentary you can use in their library.  If you go this route, be courteous and return the book in a timely manner and in good condition, so you will be a welcome patron in the future.  (Perhaps you can even return the favor!)

KEEPING COMMENTARIES

Local Bookstores – check out local retailers, independent and chains, to see their selection and pricing.  They also may be able to order what you’re looking for.  (And if it’s fair, consider supporting your local business!  Sometimes the person in the store can help you with finding future resources as well.)

Online Retailers Scripturetruth.com, cvbbs.com, Christianbook.com, monergism.com, wtsbooks.com; also Amazon.com, abebooks.com, alibris.comtextbooks.com, half.com, www.addall.com (metasearches multiple sites!)

Digital Books

Paid and Free options

Kindle books (Amazon’s e-reader – requires Amazon.com account, but you don’t need a Kindle to read Kindle books; you can read your books for free in the web browser or free pc, android, or iOS app)  – I also highly recommend subscribing to the email or social media feed of Gospel eBooks (they post deals and free books each day; some of the discounts are quite substantial and for a limited time)

Google Books – read on web or mobile devices (requires Google account; syncs across devices)

Logos – read on web, PC, mobile devices (requires Logos account; syncs across devices)

Monergism.com – (ebooks for sale and free books on web)

e-Sword.net – full-fledged free Bible study software with some good commentaries available for free

Free on the web (some as webpages, some as PDF or other formats for download)

Archive.org

CCEL (Christian Classics Ethereal Library)

Precept Austin (links to many commentaries)

John Calvin’s commentaries on the Bible (readable, clear, helpful)

John Gill’s commentary (18th century Baptist scholar/pastor)

Matthew Henry’s commentary

Grace Gems (a couple of highlights here: J. C. Ryle on the Gospels & Spurgeon on the Psalms, The Treasury of David)

_______

I hope this series on commentaries has been useful.  May we wisely use these gifts as helps in our preparation, but never as a substitute for directly engaging with God through the text of His Word and prayer as we seek to know Him better and preach Christ to others.

How to CHOOSE Commentaries

rosscupHaving established that we can use commentaries without abusing them, as we survey the multitude of books available for help with Bible study, the question arises:  Which commentaries should I use?

The answer to this question will depend on your background and on your intended use of commentaries.  As you consider the commentaries you may choose, pay attention to these factors.

Know What Type of Commentary You Are Looking at

As a general rule, one could view commentaries as a genre on a spectrum from “devotional” to “technical.”  The more “devotional,” the more application in the commentary and the less it may explain the text.  The more “technical” works may eschew personal application of the text in favor of intense examinations of word endings in the original language and other minute details (sometimes these make it hard to see the forest for the trees).  Somewhere in the middle, we might find “expository” commentaries which try to strike a balance between explaining the text and giving some application (sometimes “expository commentaries” are edited manuscripts of sermons from that book of the Bible).

Generally speaking, works that focus more on the technical or expository approach may provide more help on the front end (understanding the text), while expository and devotional commentaries major more on the application (which you may be working on more toward the end of your sermon or lesson preparation, since it should be based on your understanding of the text).

Know What Commentaries Others Recommend

Ask a trusted pastor, or consult a list.  Whole books have been written for the purpose of cataloging commentaries.  I recommend Master’s Seminary professor James Rosscup’s Commentaries for Biblical Expositors (for more recent works, and careful to tell you their theological perspective) and Charles Spurgeon’s Commenting and Commentaries (a dated but delightful book to peruse for his comments about the commentaries; some of the works mentioned are still available while some are rare).

At Theosource.com, Jason Button has compiled some helpful lists here (for books that catalog commentaries) and here (for books “meta-cataloged” by what Bible book they focus on).  (See also #3 here.)

Know the Perspective and Quality of the Commentary You Are Looking at

Commentary authors are on a spectrum of their own.  The range includes those who love the Bible but misunderstand and misapply it frequently, to those who are serious students who give helpful explanations, to unbelievers who may have helpful insights into the technical or background parts of the text, to unbelievers who seek to deconstruct the text.

Knowing the perspective and quality of a commentary can help you discern whether it would be a good use of your time and money, and, if so, can help you know how to approach it.  I do not generally recommend the use of commentaries of a theologically liberal or unbelieving persuasion (except for research to know what others believe/how they have explained a text incorrectly).  This, however, does not mean that conservatives are always right and liberals are always wrong; sometimes a liberal commentator may explain the text more accurately than a conservative who has misread it.  Better yet, it’s great to find someone who believes the Bible AND has a clear understanding of the passage at hand, to avoid influence from false teachers (but sometimes you do need to know what false teachers are teaching so you can avoid it).

While we should be Bereans regardless of the author (Acts 17:11 – the Bereans were called noble for doublechecking the apostle Paul!), knowing that you may be using a work written by someone with doubts about the text of the Bible should especially lead you to “chew carefully” as you ingest the book.  You can spit out the bones and chew the meat in some circumstances, but it helps to know there are bones before you dig in!  (If not, hopefully you are discerning enough to know when you have found one.  Ouch – my tooth!)

Researching and knowing the reputation of the publisher can be helpful in this regard, but it is not a foolproof way of knowing the theological perspective.  Once-stalwart publishers have taken to publishing a wider ranger of perspectives than they once did, to such a degree that you cannot implicitly trust many historically conservative publishers to publish only conservative commentaries.  (Some still exist that have not bowed the knee to Baal.)

Even beyond the liberal/conservative distinction, one may want to know if a commentary is dispensational or covenantal (prophetic books), authored by Presbyterian or Baptist, cessationist or continuist (book of Acts), etc.  One should also research enough to know whether the author had sufficient background and skill to write a work on a Bible book.  Some commentaries may be composed of rants or assertions of the author’s viewpoint without clear reasoning to support his or her viewpoint.

One more distinction you may notice when looking at commentaries:  men are not the only authors.  There are commentators such as Nancy Guthrie (whose work has been recommended by Bible-believing pastors).  There is a spectrum of conservative to liberal with women authors just as there is with men.

Cost and Availability of Commentary

Suppose you have found a great commentary… only to find it it’s $59.95 and you’re only preaching one sermon from that book.  Or you have found the perfect one… and it’s out of stock online and the bookstore can’t get it in before your deadline.  It doesn’t make sense pay to an exorbitant cost (unless it is the best deal going for that book or it is rare, and you will use the book again in the future, and you can afford it, etc.) and sometimes you really cannot find the one you’re looking for.

In our next installment, we’ll talk about WHERE to find commentaries (and you may end up finding that elusive volume!), but until then, my best advice is to find 1-2 good, solid, commentaries on your book written by conservative Bible scholars.  You only have so much time, and most of it needs to be with the text of the Bible, so limit yourself to a couple of commentaries if you can.  Research some recommendations, and make sure you can afford, find, and are comfortable (or challenged within reason, not by something too high over your head) with your choices.  Then borrow first if you can, and buy (if you need/want to).

__________

Next:  Tips for Finding Commentaries (access to the specific ones you are seeking)