I really like eating fudge, no-bakes, and other sweet things. The sweetness can be over powering unless I alternate with something salty – pretzels or chips. Going back and forth between the two types of food, I can go on eating for a long time.
In my Bible reading, I do something similar. I read a chapter in the NASB, then the same chapter in The Message, and then I read commentary on that chapter. I had been reading Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary, but sometime during the last year switched over to the Jamieson-Fausett-Brown. This work is about a hundred and forty years old, and is available in dead tree editions, for the Palm through Laridian (where I use it), and electronically for free.
As I have been reading through the gospel of John, I found two places where I interacted with the commentary in ways that surprised me.
The first was the woman at the well. John 4:1-45 records the entire incident. A woman with loose morals came to get water at the well where Jesus was resting. Jesus shares the good news with her, talking of living water. Then He pushes her at her weak point when she asks for some of this water.
He said to her, “Go, call your husband and come here.” The woman answered and said, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You have correctly said, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly.“
Her answer has always seemed like a classic of understatement:
Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet.
Jesus, never having seen her before, knows the kind of life she has led, and calls her on it. She’s cool as a cucumber, not being shaken by this devastating truth-telling. Then the commentary adds something I had not noticed before: she changed the subject. From JFB commentary on John 4:19
She ingeniously shifts the subject from a personal to a public question. It is not, “Alas, what a wicked life am I leading!” but “Lo, what a wonderful prophet I got into conversation with!”
She tries to deflect Jesus. It was so deft that I had not seen it. Jesus, knowing all, doesn’t fall for it – He knows where He wants the conversation to go, and He gets there. But I had not seen her verbal move before reading the commentary.
The other interesting thing I picked up is more a commentary on how the world has changed in the last century-and-a-half. In the incident of Jesus healing the man at the pool of Bethesda, Jesus is engaged in talking to the man at poolside. The man is crippled, and cannot get himself into the pool after the angels stir it up, when the first one in is healed. Verse 6:
When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he had already been a long time in that condition, He said to him, “Do you wish to get well?“
The guy had been ill for thirty-eight years. He had gone to the pool where he could get healing. Was this a dumb question that Jesus asked?
The commentary asks
Could anyone doubt that a sick man would like to be made whole
and goes on to explain
But our Lord asked the question. (1) To fasten attention upon Himself; (2) By making him detail his case to deepen in him the feeling of entire helplessness; (3) By so singular a question to beget in his desponding heart the hope of a cure.
In my modern reading of Jesus’ question, I saw it as a call to honesty in the man. Do you want to be healed, or are you a professional victim? Would you rather be well and face new challenges, or are you comfortable on this merry-go-round, licking the same wounds, using the same complaints? I’m sure there were some like that when the commentary was being written, but it wasn’t entrenched in society the way it is now.
The commentary isn’t perfect for me. It occasionally delves into flowery language (the description of John 12:8 even includes a poem). Overall, though, very good.
And it points all the more to the greatness of God, and the depth of the Bible. Those are unchanging, regardless of the whims of society and the astuteness of the observer.