Knowledge, Understanding, and Wisdom
(Reprint from summer of 2020)
I am not a fisherman. I’ve gone fishing many times before - in fact, I went fishing this week. And, I can say that I enjoy fishing, at least when they are biting. I know the basic concepts of fishing. But I am not a fisherman.
Being a fisherman involves more than being able to bait a hook and cast a rod. A fisherman knows his equipment and which bait to use and when. A fisherman understands the effect the weather will have on his efforts. A fisherman is wise to the most likely places to catch fish in the lake or stream. Being a fisherman involves more than having a little knowledge of and a basic understanding of fishing. Perhaps this illustrates well the relationship between knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.
Solomon wrote, “For the LORD giveth wisdom: out of his mouth cometh knowledge and understanding” (Proverbs 2:6). The New Testament parallel is found in James 1:5 - “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” In both passages, we are told that God is the source of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, but how does it happen? Let’s consider these three concepts.
A good working definition of knowledge is that it is acquaintance with and perception of facts, truths, or principles gained by study, investigation, or experience. Of course, we are interested in knowledge of spiritual matters. The book of Proverbs speaks extensively on this topic. It tells us that gaining knowledge involves reverence for God. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7). This passage also emphasizes the importance of the right attitude necessary to gain knowledge - I am a fool if I am not humble and willing to be taught.
Gaining knowledge also involves a desire to know. If I do not value what I might learn, the odds are against my increasing in knowledge. In Proverbs 2, Solomon emphasizes the importance of this desire - “My son, if thou wilt receive my words, and hide my commandments with thee; So that thou incline thine ear unto wisdom, and apply thine heart to understanding; Yea, if thou criest after knowledge, and liftest up thy voice for understanding; If thou seekest her as silver, and searchest for her as for hid treasures; Then shalt thou understand the fear of the LORD, and find the knowledge of God” (Proverbs 2:1-5). “Incline thine ear ... apply thine heart ... criest after ... liftest up thy voice ... seekest her as silver ... searchest for her as for hid treasure” all of these phrases emphasize the desire needed to find the knowledge of God. Nothing compares to the knowledge of God and his will. Again, Solomon wrote, “Receive my instruction, and not silver; and knowledge rather than choice gold. For wisdom is better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared to it” (Proverbs 8:10, 11).
Becoming knowledgeable involves effort. Years are spent in pursuit of academic degrees. Truly, a lifetime can be spent learning any discipline. But none are more important than learning of God and his ways. Concerning this Solomon wrote, “Bow down thine ear, and hear the words of the wise, and apply thine heart unto my knowledge” (Proverbs 22:17). The story is told of a Christian lady who told her preacher, “I’d give half my life to know the Bible as well as you do.” To that he responded, “Well, that’s what it cost me.” Follow the wise king’s charge and “incline thine ear unto wisdom, and apply thine heart to understanding” (Proverbs 2:2).
One who has this desire and is willing to put forth the effort to learn must also consider the source of knowledge. It seems that “fake news” was invented in our time, but since the garden, when the father of lies (John 8:44) tempted Eve, it has been necessary to distinguish between truth and falsehood. John recognized that there is “the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error” (1 John 4:6). And so, Solomon warned, “Cease, my son, to hear the instruction that causeth to err from the words of knowledge” (Proverbs 19:27). He further warned, “Go from the presence of a foolish man, when thou perceivest not in him the lips of knowledge” (Proverbs 14:7). To this, we can add Jesus’ warning against “false prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves” (Matthew 7:15); Paul’s prohibition against “profane and old wives’ fables” (1 Timothy 4:7); and John’s caution that “false prophets are gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
Wisdom and Understanding
The relationship between wisdom and understanding is not always definitive. In a poetic book like Proverbs, these two terms often are used interchangeably. (For examples, look at Proverbs 2:2,6; 3:13, 19; 5:1; 8:1; et al). Understanding involves a mental grasp of the facts that we encounter. It is the ability to comprehend, not just what the facts are, but what those facts mean. Understanding involves the proper use of our thought processes - we will never come to have understanding without exercising our minds. In a similar way, wisdom has to do with the power of discerning and judging properly what is true or right. We might say that wisdom is the proper application of our knowledge and understanding.
Now, go back to the point concerning wisdom’s origin. Solomon and James both tell us that God gives wisdom (Proverbs 2:6; James 1:5). But while wisdom is from God, it is not a miraculous gift - and it is not given arbitrarily. Wisdom is given as we strive to gain knowledge and exercise understanding. Even though man must fulfill this responsibility, wisdom is still God-given. Without God’s revelation, we cannot know his will. Without the mental faculties that he created in us, we cannot develop understanding.
Of course, this is an ongoing process. We never stop learning - the acquisition of knowledge is a lifelong experience. A wise man realizes that he does not know everything, and so “the heart of him that hath understanding seeketh knowledge” (Proverbs 15:14). A wise man is willing to listen to others, and so, “A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels (Proverbs 1:5). And it is true that if you “give instruction to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser: teach a just man, and he will increase in learning” (Proverbs 9:9).
A wise man does this because he sees the value of knowledge. “Wise men lay up knowledge: but the mouth of the foolish is near destruction” (Proverbs 10:14). The term, “lay up,” means “to treasure.” It is the idea of saving money or making a financial investment. In fact, gaining knowledge is an investment – and it pays dividends as it accrues. The “payoff” is seen in a life guided by wisdom and understanding. James described that life - “Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom. ... But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace” (James 3:13,17-18).
The closing words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount illustrate this well. “Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock” (Matthew 7:24, 25). A person who eagerly hears Jesus’ teaching is willing to gain the necessary knowledge to live by God’s will. But hearing alone is not enough. The phrase, “and doeth them,” indicates one who exercises understanding. The result is a life guided by wisdom founded upon the will of God.
Consider one final thought concerning the relationship between the three terms. It is possible to have knowledge without possessing understanding or wisdom. The foolish man heard Jesus’ sayings (v. 26), but did nothing about it. Plenty of people have knowledge without the understanding necessary to use it properly. But it is impossible to develop understanding or wisdom unless we first learn what we need to know. We might say that knowledge provides the materials, understanding enables us to fit them together, and wisdom makes the house worth living in. This fits well with Solomon’s statement - “Through wisdom is an house builded; and by understanding it is established: And by knowledge shall the chambers be filled with all precious and pleasant riches” (Proverbs 24:3, 4).
I may never be much of a fisherman, but I’m thankful to God that with his help, anyone - including me - can gain knowledge, exercise understanding, and develop wisdom in spiritual things.