Count me in favor of study Bibles and commentaries. Often when reading a chapter I get stuck on a passage, and can’t get past it. What does it mean? When I check a comment on the passage, 90% of the time my reaction is “of course, didn’t think of that.” With my Olive Tree app, I’ve purchased a bunch of notes: Reformation Study Bible, ESV Study Bible, Reformation Heritage Study Bible, Matthew Henry Complete, New Testament Commentary (Hendriksen, Kistemaker). All of these are solid, conservative commentaries. I’ve also purchased the Ancient Christian Commentary series. More on that at the end.
For devotional value, Matthew Henry is unsurpassed. It’s beautifully written and wisdom drips from every page. Henry has a way of getting at the heart of a passage in the most helpful of ways. My only complaint is the formatting of the content. It would be good if someone would take the complete commentaries and make it easier to find the verses, maybe by bolding chapter headings/verses and making them sync properly with the Bible verse. It was never easy to find a verse comment in any of the print versions either. Still, the content is so wonderful that it’s worth the time.
One tip with Matthew Henry: do not bother with “concise” versions. There’s no chaff to remove and the effect is to chop up and destroy the beauty and flow. They are borderline criminal. Go Complete!
To learn the meaning of a passage, the Hendriksen / Kistemaker “New Testament Commentary” is the best. This commentary really gets into extended discussions of passages with solid, sensible, and mature Reformed insight. On controversial passages it explains different views and it’s often passionate in its own Dutch Reformed way. For some reason its voice reminds me of those G.I. Williamson books (quite good) on the Shorter Catechism and the Westminster Confessions. The NTC’s only problem is that it’s “Matthew Henry, Jr.” in the area of formatting. Well, it’s not quite as bad. There is bolded text in there and better formatting, but sometimes when you’re in chapter 2, verse 8 you end up at the top of chapter 2 and have to wade around a lot to find the verse. Excellent content, though. At $75 on sale for the entire collection, it’s great stuff. If I had to choose just one commentary on the NT, I’d take this one.
The Reformation Study Bible (2015 revision) and ESV Study Bible notes cover the OT and NT, and are similar in style and amount of content. The Reformation Study Bible has far more notes than the previous RSB version released in the 2000s. It’s a worthy upgrade although I’d like even more notes in it. I haven’t spent time jumping to controversial passages to compare the RSB and the ESV SB, but I’ve heard that the RSB is a bit more “reformed.” They give you a few sentences or a paragraph on a passage, where Kistemaker/Hendriksen sometimes gives you a few pararaphs or a page. As a tag team I’ve found that these two study Bibles do a good job of providing concise but helpful commentary. If I had to choose one I’d take the RSB, but I like them both.
The Reformation Heritage Study Bible (not to be confused with the RSB above) has solid notes, but they are abbreviated and skimpy compared the the RSB and ESV SB. I prefer those two. I haven’t formed an opinion on MacArthur’s Study Bible yet, but the notes have been sound and are roughly at the level of the RSB and ESV SB.
When you read a number of these conservative commentaries you really do notice a similarity in analysis that says something about the perspicuity of Scripture. If I took you to a verse and read from each version, you probably wouldn’t know which was which.
Finally, I tried the “Ancient Christian Commentary” on Scripture. I love the idea of this big set– what did the early church think about Scriptural passages? This set has many volumes and there are lots of notes. Sometimes a passage gets comments from multiple fathers. Unfortunately it includes heretical and heterodox ones, too — Pelagius, anyone? I’d rather see “ancient” commentary focused more on the patristics and ending in the 5th century, but the set is more back-loaded because the church was on the run in the first few centuries when letters and apologetics were common. There is much representation from fathers like Bede and Gregory the Great, who I consider medieval rather than ancient. There’s something about this series that feels disjointed. As someone who has read a lot of history, albeit not heavily in this space, something just doesn’t ‘feel’ quite right about this set. You wonder why certain passages were chosen. Some of the passages are a little odd, making me wonder if there is context missing. It’s a curiosity for sure, but it seems a bit like a church fathers K-Tel collection. It’s questionable if it’s worth the $150 (at 50% off) cost.
ADDENDUM 2/2/16: I added the 22-volume Calvin commentaries on Scripture for $20 on sale at Olive Tree. What a steal. Calvin does not mince words, a trait most refreshing in a day where evil is considered sacred. Non-Calvinists can profit by his words also.