This post is a quick response to a question in a comment on my post on Jane Austen and Jeremiah 20:7. The question was what commentaries have helped me most as I’ve worked through Jeremiah.
My answer is along the lines of what I recently said about what seminaries are for, because what has helped me most as I’ve preached through Jeremiah has been reading the text in Hebrew.
I’m not boasting about being able to read Hebrew, here. It took me a long time to learn it. In fact, I had 8 Hebrew related classes as a Th.M. student at DTS, and when I got to SBTS I was served up a nice big slice of humble pie when Peter Gentry and Russell Fuller proved to me that I needed to re-take elementary Hebrew. I was humbled, ashamed, offended, but I knew they were right. They served me well, and I went back through elementary Hebrew as a PhD student. My pride made it difficult to accept, but I wanted to be able to read Hebrew more than I wanted to preserve the appearance of being a big smart PhD student.
God mercifully gave me the opportunity to study. He mercifully gave me patient teachers willing to tell me what I needed to do. He mercifully allowed me to have the time as a PhD student to re-take those courses.
And being able to read the Hebrew text of Jeremiah as I prepare to preach that book is the most useful part of my sermon prep.
I’m not dogging people who can’t read Hebrew. We all have different gifts and different opportunities and different privileges.
I am saying to people starting seminary or Bible college, or people in process at such schools thinking about where best to invest their time: an education is more important than a diploma. Get yourself an education, whether that amounts to a degree or not. Ideally the degree will come along with the education, but if you’re picking between the two, the education is the more important.
That is to say, I think it’s more important for you to learn the biblical languages than for you to get your credential. So I recommend that you take the biblical languages early and often. You can get other advice from other people with other concerns. That’s fine.
God has spoken in his word. His word is better than the commentaries upon it. His word is better than biblical and systematic theologies written about it. His word is the tool that he will use to change lives. If you have the chance, why wouldn’t you give yourself to his word in its original languages?
I think a valid reason for pursuing a PhD is developing what Peter Gentry refers to as “sovereign command of the biblical languages.” Obviously that’s a high goal, but we’re talking about the very word of God and the eternal souls of men, right?
So I’m not saying that I make no recourse to commentaries. When I need help, I make use of what I have available, and in God’s kindness I have access to a few books. Often, though, if I’ve done my work in the Hebrew text, I’m pretty clear on what’s going on and just glance through a few relevant books to make sure I’m not missing some juicy inter-textual connection or bit of background or historical information. Many commentaries are just rearranging one another’s footnotes.
The best thing is to hunker down over the Hebrew text, ask the Lord to give illumination by his Spirit, and then let the prophet speak.