I recently read a pastor who said part of his reading is twenty commentaries as he prepares for preaching. That’s a lot.
It raises the question, how much is enough? My answer: It depends. It depends on your congregation, on your study habits, and on your choice of commentaries. I will address only the last in this post.
I think if you choose commentaries wisely, you will not need nearly twenty for normal weekly preaching. (And I mean no reflection the pastor who made the above comment.) In my experience, commentaries tend to become fairly repetitive. Usually by the third or fourth technical commentary (see below), there is little if any new ground being broken. The arguments may be worded slightly differently, but the content is basically the same, with the author advocating for his particular position.
I think if you choose from among recent commentaries, you will likely gain the best of all the older commentaries, sifted down and condensed.
I generally divide my commentary use into three sections.
The first category is what I call “simple basic commentaries.” This includes commentaries like the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, the Bible Knowledge Commentary, and the New Bible Commentary. These are brief, but give enough information to get started.* Using these first, you are not spending hours in your first commentary. You can breeze through it fairly quickly and get a grasp on a few things. They typically will not bring a lot of credibility to academic papers, but they are not intended to.
The second category is what I call “technical commentaries.” These are commentaries like the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the NT, the New International Commentary on the New Testament, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, the New American Commentary, the Pillar Commentary, or the Word Biblical Commentary. These typically deal with more technical matters (such as original language issues, complex arguments about exegetical choices, historical theology, etc.). In these volumes, you will see frequent references to each other, and frequent references to older works. If you are confused about what someone is saying in their commentary, you can often be helped by how the others talk about that commentary.
(A series like the Tyndale Series (TNTC/TOTC) seems to fit right in between simple and technical. They are more exegetically oriented than Expositor’s or the Bible Knowledge Commentary, but not nearly as complete as commentaries such as the Baker Exegetical or the New International Commentaries.)
The third category is what I call “homiletical/applicational commentaries.” These include commentaries such as the New International Version Application Commentary, the Preach the Word Commentary, Wiersbe’s “Be” Series, and the Holman Commentary Series. In these volumes you will not glean as much technical data about exegesis, but you will find some helpful insights for making the text understood and applied to life.
In any given week in 1 Peter, I consult seven or eight commentaries, and some articles if there are more difficult exegetical issues. I usually start with the Bible Knowledge Commentary and Blum in the Expositor’s. I then use Jobes (BEGNT), Davids (NICNT), Schreiner (NAC), and Michaels (WBC, to look for clarity on technical matters), and Grudem (TNTC). I then finish off with McKnight (NIVAC).
Of course there are other good ones. As Solomon said, “the writing of many books is endless” (Ecc 12:12). But these are the ones that I find helpful.
*By “started,” I don’t mean started in the study process. You should have a lot of work done long before you pick up a commentary.