A good basic resource to help you understand God’s Word is a study bible. The one I’m currently using is the Lutheran Study Bible from Concordia Publishing House. There are other worthy study bibles out there to consider, especially if you want a translation other than the English Standard Version.
A study bible has a few pages at the beginning of each book explaining who wrote that book, when, and what the historical context is. It will sum up some of the main themes of the book, and give you a heads up for what to look for as you are reading. It often provides a basic outline of the book, too.
When you open to a book of the bible and begin reading, a study bible will contain notes for each verse, usually at the bottom of each page. These notes will give information about names, places, words and cultural references in each verse. You’ll be directed to other verses that address similar events or ideas. You may also find a summary of a passage, an application, devotional thought or a prayer.
If you didn’t know, for example, that the prophet Haggai was around in the post-exilic temple reconstruction period of Israel’s history, much of the book will be puzzling. But once you have that info, the book makes a lot more sense. Or, if you don’t know who a Pharisee is, or where Capernaum is, or what crucifixion is, just glance down at the bottom of the page, and you’ll find that information.
Now while the biblical text is inspired, or “God-breathed,” remember that the study Bible notes are not. They are written by human authors, so you will want to pay attention to the publisher or editors of a study bible. For example, you may not find much about infant baptism in some study bibles from reformed publishers, but you definitely will in the Lutheran Study Bible.
From time to time I have to remind people “he who lives by the study bible, dies by the study bible.” IOW, don’t quote study notes as gospel. While they may be scholarly, they may also contain some opinion.
You’ll also find a plethora of maps, charts, reading plans, articles and indexes in a study bible. It can be overwhelming sometimes. But don’t be intimidated. Just use what you need, and see what a blessing this resource can be.