The first thing an entry level student of the Bible needs to own is a “Handbook.” Henrietta Mears and Henry Halley did a great job by creating “Bible Handbooks” which are kind of condensed commentaries. They just give you a “road map” of what is in the Scripture. Henrietta Mears’ work is to be recommended for it’s devotional and practical qualities. People are rediscovering the value of these two books and they have both been republished in recent years in multiple editions by Zondervan. Owning one of them is an outstanding way for regular people to start to study the Bible.
Most commentaries do not really help you much. They either give esoteric comments about the text itself which are only useful to someone who has done extensive study, or they give kind of cheesy comments about non-central topics. The modern publishers have not figured out why Matthew Henry keeps outselling anything they produce — but this guy became legendary because he specifically does what all of the modern commentators don’t — he gives meaty heart applications to every text.
For a nice summary of modern evangelical scholarship at an entry level the “New Bible Commentary” is definitely without peer. It’s really worth owning for those with serious questions and serious investigation of the Word going on. There are others out there, but this one is the best, and the others generally just repeat similar ideas. Again, you are not going to find “application” here like you do with Henry, but you will find a lot of insightful thoughts about the structure and purpose of the text.
As far as full length, multi-volume commentaries, the only one I can recommend for use by pastors and lay people is the Pulpit Commentary. This massive work is remarkable for it’s devotional quality. It actually makes an effort to apply and draw meaning out of the Scripture. It includes both comments and sermon ideas sections, and you will find lots of fascinating ideas in its pages.Most of the big modern multi volumes, however I really would not recommend for any kind of every day use. Only if you are researching out an important issue. If you want to get access to some of the best classic multi-volume commentaries, I strongly recommend downloading e-sword and all of the commentaries. It has most of the best ones.