The Second Reformation made a unique contribution to bible study. It produced many simple and practical commentaries on the Bible for everyone. They were brief, plain, practical and above all affordable. They get to the heart of what the Bible means but also to the heart of the reader in a richly devotional way.
David Dickson encouraged other ministers to produce this unique series. These expositions are of great value. They were highly commended by C H Spurgeon in his classic survey, Commenting and Commentaries. Some of them explain difficult books like Job, Ecclesiastes and Revelation. Men such as Alexander Nisbet, James Fergusson and George Hutcheson worked hard in this area over many years. They contributed commentaries that together covered large areas of Scripture. In total 44 of the 66 books of the Bible. Four of these commentaries were never published.
Dickson followed the example of Robert Rollock who expounded the Scriptures from the pulpit and to university students. As a result, he was able to publish nine commentaries during his lifetime. Dickson’s commentaries were likewise drawn from his expositions in the pulpit or for university students. He published commentaries on 23 books of the Bible. This was partly due to the inability of others due to pressures of work, age or infirmity. He hoped to stir up others whom he regarded as “more able” to engage in the same work.
1. They are Practical
The series and each commentary had a highly practical intent. The purpose was “to lay open briefly…the chief doctrines treasured up in the storehouse of holy Scripture”. By this means “the Lord’s people may be solidly informed in the knowledge, and established in the faith of true religion”. It was vital that they could see how truth came directly from “the fountain of the Lord’s own Word”. This would help to combat error which abounds through ignorance of God’s word. It arose naturally from their covenanted reformation.
More than this Dickson desired that “the precious jewel of the Scripture” would be better esteemed. After Christ Himself, it is “the greatest gift…that ever the world saw”. He hoped to be used in stirring up others to “the love of searching the Scriptures”. They also helped to model good Bible study.
The commentaries are full of practical and devotional application. Every verse is applied to the reader. Their plain and brief comments have the benefit of being suggestive. The writer stimulates the reader to further thought and meditation. As Dickson put it: “the smallest grains of sound truth sown by this means among readers, may by God’s blessing get root, watering, and increase in a good and honest heart”.
2. They are Pastoral
The commentaries are practical because they are pastoral. They have come to the printed page direct from pulpit exposition and application. These ministers understood the needs of the ordinary members of their congregations and sought to supply them. James Durham’s commentaries arose from expounding books of the Bible systematically. Such lectures were a staple part of pulpit ministries during this period. Durham gave weekly lectures on the Book of Revelation and these formed the Commentary published.
David Dickson gives pastoral advice to the reader that they should make use of a commentary prayerfully. Short prayers ought to be made in response to the matters addressed. If there is something exactly appropriate for the condition of the reader they should stop reading. They need to “feed upon” what they have found “till it be digested”.
3. They are Simple
There is no academic obscurity or intellectual pretension in these volumes. These commentaries go straight to the meaning of the text and seek to open this as simply as possible. They do not get involved in matters of history and background but explained the words themselves. Making complex matters simple is a difficult task that requires much skill. The commentaries summarise the meaning of a passage in short and pithy sentences. They provide the reader with a brief synopsis or overview of the passage and then give practical application.
4. They are Concise
Many of Dickson’s commentaries were called “A Short Explanation”. The benefit of this was that it could appeal to those who were less educated. Besides these Dickson also had in view those who lived busy lives. He wanted to remove any excuse for neglecting the study of God’s Word. His concern was that readers would be put off by long and wordy commentaries. This might mean that “they read little or nothing, and with very small benefit”. He hoped that such commentaries would help such to “read the Scriptures more eagerly” using these “short helps” to understand their meaning.
5. They are Clear
Clarity was also necessary. Sometimes commentators can tell you so much about a verse that you are in danger of losing sight of the meaning. Many commentaries like to refer to what others have suggested or thought. This can be just as confusing in print as it would be in the pulpit, this can be confusing. Dickson and his colleagues avoided this. They did not even provide alternative interpretations but simply gave one single meaning. Scripture can have different applications and there are difficult texts to wrestle with. Yet these writers believed that there was a danger of confusing and entangling the reader.
6. They are Contextual
One of the great strengths of these commentaries is that they show how a whole chapter or psalm fits together. They put a verse in its context rather than crumbling the words and the meaning. Dickson follows the general meaning of the passage and lists the observations, reasons and arguments that make the whole section fit together. In handling long and complex chapters in Job, James Durham is likewise able to follow the scope of the argument without being distracted by detailed points.
7. They are Popular
These commentaries were designed to be read by all who had a desire to search the Scriptures. They achieved their purpose. Iain H. Murray says that this series “for many years served to make the study of the Bible a common household employment.” Today many bible study tools find it hard to avoid achieve accuracy without sacrificing application or vice versa. The Covenanters achieved something that shows how Scripture should be studied, expounded and applied.
Biblical illiteracy is high today, even among those who value Scripture most. Such expositions will edify and profit anyone with a desire to discern the Bible’s meaning. We need them more than ever.
If you would like more information or to buy some of these commentaries, you may find it helpful to read How to Get Hold of Covenanter Bible Commentaries.