I Read Reference Books For Fun

[Updated from the archives.]


I like to read. A show of hands for those who are like-minded.

I like to read reference books. Another show of hands please … waiting for those hands to go up … still waiting … ok, how about with every head bowed and every eye closed … now let’s see those hands go up … hmm, still waiting … .

Reverence for Reference Books

The reference books I’ve read have mostly been on language and writing. My first was Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. It has its shortcomings, but in college it had a permanent place on my bedside table as I read and re-read it in hope of improving my writing.

Others I’ve made my way through include The Oxford Companion to the English Language (cover-to-cover 1184 pages), The Quotable Lewis – an encyclopedic selection of quotes from the complete published works of C.S. Lewis (encyclopedic is right), and Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage (which I won at a seminar he gave in the late 80s).

This predilection for reading reference books applies to my Scripture reading as well. Some people would even say the Bible itself is a type of reference book, like the fundamentalist preacher who, hearing I wanted to study history in college, bellowed The Bible is the best history book there is!” (Yes, and no. It’s a book with passages of history. And poetry. And genealogy. And travelogue. And much more.  As a whole, it is God’s revelation of who he is, not a history book.)

I’m not talking about the Bible as reference book, though. I’m talking about study Bibles. They combine Scripture with a running commentary of the text, and have been my usual mode of personal Bible study for years now.

Studying Study Bibles

The first Bible I read through from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22 was a regular NIV I’d bought back in 1984 in a little Christian book shop in Brighton, near the University of Sussex where I was going to school.*  It had no study notes or commentary to guide me.

It was captivating.

The Bible I bought in Brighton. I wore the first cover to bits, so had this second cover put on.

The Bible I bought in Brighton. I wore the first cover to bits, so had this second cover put on.

After a few years I decided to give a study Bible a try so I read through the NIV Study Bible. I bought one of the earliest editions and read it through, along with all the study notes along the way. I thought it was the greatest thing since Guttenberg used movable type. Imagine reading a passage and having the commentary right there on the same page. This was wild stuff for me 25 years ago.

Then I read the NLT Life Application Study Bible. That was an interesting tool. All the study notes, as you might have guessed, went to how the passage applied in one’s life. I can’t say I followed a lot of their specific application advice, but I can say that the notes opened up new understanding for me on a lot of passages.

I then went back and re-read the NIV Study Bible, mostly because I hadn’t found another one to pick up yet.

I took a short break from study Bibles and read the one-year HCSB. I’d never before done one of those one-year plans where you read a bit from several books of the Bible each day. There’s something about reading passages in a different order for being able to see things you’ve missed before.

I’ve used the Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, too. If you want solid Reformation doctrine from a solid theologian, then this will fit the bill. Did I already lean toward Reformed doctrine before reading this? Yes. But even those who are not can learn much from the solid teaching in this study Bible.

Reading the Bible I Stole

I recently read through the Archaeological Study Bible. My daughter had been to Israel a couple of times and wanted this for herself so we picked up a copy for her. She hadn’t taken it to school with her yet and I got to where I needed to start a new study Bible and there it was. I’ve been enjoying the notes and articles and maps and charts. Again, new ways of understanding Scripture opened up all the time with this one. And I didn’t even blink when I got to the passage about “Thou shalt not steal”.

The version I just finished is a chronological and narrative Bible. It’s chronological in that it sets the passages out in order of the events recorded, or in order of when it was written. It’s narrative in that the editor has insightful mini essays periodically inserted between Scripture passages to introduce, link, or summarize what you’re reading. It’s designed to read through in a single year, and reading the passages in this order opened up new understanding of God’s word.

Back to the Beginning

Now I’m reading the Bible through the way I did the first time, not with a study Bible but just the Scripture text itself, reading from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22. And I’m using that same Bible I bought in the little book shop in Brighton.

God’s word is amazing. Does the Holy Spirit need commentaries to guide us in understanding that word? Of course not. But he is able to use them to open up our understanding of God’s wonderful story, and that’s something worth studying.


*I became a Christian while studying in England: My Salvation Story.


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22 Responses to I Read Reference Books For Fun

  1. Tara says:

    The Bible is not a History Book, Science Book, or Government Book. It’s sad to see it so often used to argue plausible and reliable modern theories and evolved ethical practices. Ancient Isreal WAS a progressive society in ancient days of the Bible, despite their propensity for genocide, patriarchy and war. Understanding the midrash of the writers, in the stories, miracles and genealogies helps the modern reader understand God’s message of hope in the Bible. References are good and I would personally like to see preachers, men and women, use their theological training more in churches (in addition to theirb focus on teaching morals), giving Christians more reliable references to the Bible.

  2. Certainly nothing wrong with liking reference books. I’ve been known to read/study the dictionary, read commentaries on Biblical books for fun as well as use study Bibles. I used to do the study Bible while I read a text, but I switched out of doing that and try to read any passage I want to study first and just think about it before delving too much into the reference notes from other sources.

    It’s also pretty cool how your post wraps around as neatly as it did. Going back to reading the Bible that you first bought.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Jeremy. There are so many resources out there, but the best is the One we have within us: the Holy Spirit. The way you talk about thinking through a passage as you read it is fertile ground for the work of the Spirit.

  3. Native Californian says:

    Tim, Thanks for this. It encourages me to delve more deeply into Scripture. I haven’t used a Study Bible since parting ways theologically with my Schofield but I think the NIV Study Bible you mentioned would provide assistance overcoming some of my current struggles with unpacking Isaiah.

    I read a quote recently from Amanda Marcotte characterizing Christians as holding to “a flimsy belief in a supernatural being made up by pre-literate people trying to figure out where the rain came from.” You’ve read the ancient texts several times. Do they seem “pre-literate” (sic) to you?

    • Tim says:

      It’s funny you bring up that quote today, NC, because I just finished reading through Genesis again and was struck by its sophisticated writing and story telling style. There is nothing pre-literate about it.

  4. Pastor Bob says:

    I must disagree with a statement made earlier. In going to the point, the Bible is:
    – The most accurate piece of ancient literature, hands down.
    – A record of a culture that does not exist as it did
    – An anthology of writings that have an incredible unity
    – An anthology of first hand accounts that is unrivaled
    – Above all, the inspired word of God, containing all of these elements and more.

    This is a basic guidebook on all life’s issues we will face in our human intrigue. The living words speak to us today with the wisdom of old, guiding all who honestly seek what it has to say. The words contained within have changed the lives of countless thousands, even millions to billions. The “deeper truths” sought by so many are often little more than the basics explained. Simplicity and complexity are interwoven for all to understand.

    ALL of this because it is the inspired Word of God. So, “The Bible is not a History Book, Science Book, or Government Book.” is wrong because it is not complete. Part of its completeness is the source.

    • Tim says:

      PB, the Bible does contain history and it is instructive for God’s people. But it is not a history book as that term is understood by historians. That’s where the preacher got it wrong, because he was responding to me telling him what my formal studies were going to be.

  5. Nancy Le says:

    I’ve been wanting to do the chronological thing.

  6. Tara says:

    The Bible is also not a Medical Book, Fashion Book, or Math Book either! Yes it covers these topics though wasn’t intended to be an authority on these topics…to modern readers anyway. So why again did the church kill Galileo?

  7. Opa Bear says:

    Count me in for reading reference books too, Tim. Also you mentioned Strunk & White. The twelve volumes of the Duden (standard reference for German) would take a pretty big nightstand.

  8. Just Now says:

    Speaking of reverence for great authors/big books, I recall being captivated by ‘Watership Down’ as a child, as were many other children. Perhaps here is a fitting place to honour Richard Adams? : https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/dec/27/watership-down-author-richard-adams-dies-aged-96

  9. Just Now says:

    I probably should have said “as probably were other children”. I haven’t done a survey or anything. I just empathized with the rabbits, that’s all.

  10. Lewis Seaton says:


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