Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge

Solomon and the wise men of Israel regarded wisdom, understanding, and knowledge as worthy pursuits in life. In fact, given the choice between wisdom and material wealth, they opted for wisdom, hands down. For them, clear thinking held the key to success in all areas of life.

How much better it is to get wisdom than gold!
And to get understanding is to be chosen above silver.
(16:16)

Discretion will guard you,
Understanding will watch over you. (2:11)

The lips of the righteous feed many,
But fools die for lack of understanding. (10:21)

Understanding is a fountain of life to one who has it,
But the discipline of fools is folly. (16:22)

Let’s review the definitions of wisdom, understanding, and knowledge.

For the Hebrews, wisdom (hakam) and its derivatives are the most commonly used terms denoting intelligence. This kind of wisdom describes perception with discernment. The original Hebrew word emphasizes accuracy and the ability to sense what is beneath the surface. This virtue represents a manner of thinking and an attitude that result in prudent, sensible living. “The wisdom of the OT, however, is quite distinct from other ancient world views. . . . Reflected in OT wisdom is the teaching of a personal God who is holy and just and who expects those who know him to exhibit his character in the many practical affairs of life.”1

The Hebrew term for “understanding” is tebuna, which denotes intelligence or discernment. This word describes our ability to observe, gain insight, and then discern in order to devise a plan or make a decision. To gain this kind of mental capability, we do our homework, investigate, seek multiple perspectives, use logic, and formulate ideas. We might call this “experiential wisdom,” the kind of savvy that older people gain from the school of hard knocks.

The Hebrew term for knowledge is based on the verb yada, “to know.” This is understanding with insight. This kind of knowledge is based on personal experience with a matter. The Bible uses this of God’s all-knowing familiarity with each individual and his or her mannerisms (Genesis 18:19; Deuteronomy 34:10; Isaiah 48:8; Psalms 1:6; 37:18). In many contexts, it denotes the ability to discern, based on past experience, the difference between two things (Genesis 3:5, 22; Deuteronomy 1:39; Isaiah 7:15), an ability that “little ones” lack. Knowledge, therefore, is learning with perception. It includes things like a teachable spirit, a willingness to listen, a desire to discover what is really there. Knowledge forever pursues the truth.

Solomon and the wise men of Israel prized wisdom, understanding, and knowledge as crucial to living prosperously, safely, and effectively. Even so, they recognized the limits of human thinking:

Trust in the LORD with all your heart
And do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He will make your paths straight.
Do not be wise in your own eyes;
Fear the LORD and turn away from evil. (3:5–7)

  1. Louis Goldberg, “647 hakam,” in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr. and Bruce K. Waltke, electronic ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 283.

From Living the Proverbs by Charles R. Swindoll, copyright © 2012. Reprinted by permission of Worthy Inspired., an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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