Search This Blog

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Knowledge, Understanding and Wisdom : The Biblical Trifecta

They say that knowledge is power and so it is. But power but can be used for both good and evil – for benevolence or manipulation.  The Bible has a lot to say about knowledge and, in fact, often combines it with the terms “understanding” and “wisdom”.   As I delved into this study a bit I was fascinated with the Biblical insights and practical usage of this trio. Even if you’re not a believer in the Bible you may enjoy some of these principles – let’s take a look.

At first glance it may seem like there isn’t much of a distinction between these three elements and, they do indeed overlap, but the Bible seems to define each one as unique. The word “trifecta” that I’ve used is a horse racing term and it refers to when a bettor has correctly guessed the top three winning horses - and in the correct order nonetheless! So it seems fitting to use the term in this post.

Proverbs 2: 1-6 mentions the three words many times:
“My son, if you receive my words,
And treasure my commands within you,
So that you incline your ear to wisdom,
And apply your heart to understanding;
Yes, if you cry out for discernment,
And lift up your voice for understanding,
If you seek her as silver,
And search for her as for hidden treasures;
Then you will understand the fear of the LORD,
And find the knowledge of God.
For the LORD gives wisdom;
From His mouth come knowledge and understanding…”

As you read through the Bible, the book of Proverbs and into the New Testament it seems that there is an order in which these three are laid out – like the rungs in a ladder.

First is knowledge – a gathering of the basic facts.  God said at one point “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge…” Hosea 4:6 In this case, referring to the knowledge of God’s Word, teaching and will.

The Bible also says of knowledge:  “Every prudent man acts with knowledge, but a fool lays open his folly.”  Proverbs 13:16 What this reminds me to do is to get educated before I drop my opinions on any given situation.

Genesis also uses the Hebrew word for knowledge in a very unique way:  “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived…” Genesis 4:1 We see here that this type of knowledge is not just cold facts about Eve – this was profound intimacy. We often forget that knowledge is more than stats for our brain – it is also how we become friends with someone and develop relationships – for our heart.

Then understanding – putting those facts together in context and cohesion. If we compare factual knowledge to pieces of a puzzle then understanding is being able to put those pieces together in the correct format so as to see the “Big Picture”.

You know  - that “aha” moment when the light bulb goes on and all of a sudden the muck makes sense.

Nehemiah records that the priests and preachers  “… read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them ( the people) to understand the reading.” Nehemiah 8:8

Jesus did this for His disciples as well. Often when He told a parable to the crowds, He would later explain it in depth to these men – giving them the plain understanding of what could sometimes be mystic words (see Mark 4).  

Last comes wisdom – the real life application of knowledge and understanding.
Now the proverb tells us that wisdom is the principal, or foremost, thing ( Proverbs 4:7). It is the application of “understood knowledge”. Some use the analogy that knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, but wisdom is knowing not to serve it on a platter with apples and bananas (because that would just be eck).

In 1 Chronicles 28:21, the Bible actually uses the Hebrew word for wisdom “ Chokmah” to refer to “skillful men”  (NKJV translation) who built the Temple of the LORD – which we could assume to include such skilled workers architects, engineers, managers, carpenters, engravers, artists and the like.  In other words, they took their “book knowledge” and applied it in the real world.

It should be that Biblically speaking, wisdom is a gift from God . Therefore a person who has little knowledge and little understanding may still have great wisdom. 

"If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him." James 1:5

There is also a practical pattern we seen played out in other areas.  In Hermeneutics ( the science of interpreting a text or book correctly) , for example,  we see that there are three basics when reading a text:

1 1)   Observation – Just like our definition of knowledge it is simply observing the facts , what is there and what is not there, and making note of it.
2 2)   Interpretation – Using the context of the book, culture, history and linguistics etc to form an accurate understanding of what is meant by the original author to the original audience.
3 3)     Application – How to take this “understood knowledge” and apply it to our everyday lives in the current time and space we are in.

Perhaps a more common analogy (as I've already alluded to) may be that of the classroom.

When I was in college I had to read textbooks and learn facts and figures and stats ( knowledge) but there were times when these myriad facts just did not make sense to me.  

That is when I benefitted from the knowledge, experience and communication ability of my Teacher / Professor . He or she would help me gather up the facts (whether it was Accounting, Economics or English) and explain it to me in such a way that my mind could really grasp, or “understand”,  it.

By the way, I’ve often heard people say “Those who can’t do, teach.” as if to imply that teaching is somehow a lesser person’s vocation.  Nonsense!  Teaching is both a science and an art that is hard to master and the Bible tells us that it is integral to mankind and filled with responsibility.

So what about wisdom in this classroom analogy? ?   Ahh that’s where the rubber hits the road. As many students will attest one can have all the book knowledge and even understanding in the world but when you go out of the classroom and into the real world you need to know how to apply it effectively and efficiently.

 I had learned all kinds of things about running a hotel and managing the people that work there in my college classroom but when I arrived at the Hyatt Regency in  Denver, Colorado as a fresh faced Canadian kid I had a lot of “on-the-job” learning to do. For example, learning to relate to both clients, management above me and the staff I was in charge of. 

One sweet but forthright housekeeper named Hermalinda was teaching me how they clean a room at the Hyatt (because I was in charge of inspecting her work). While making a bed, she looks up at me and says “So I train ju and then ju be my supervisor?”  Umm yeah… sorry about that. I learned to treat those men and women with a lot of respect and kindness and in turn they grew to respect me( well most of them anyways).

Before wrapping up , just a few words of warning from the Bible on this topic. Although the Bible most often relates knowledge as a very good and necessary  thing it also gives quite a few warnings about it as well:

      > It can make us proud , arrogant and cocky ( 1 Corinthians 8:1) . No one likes a “know-it-all” right? The answer to this danger? – love ( or kindness). Knowledge “puffs” up but love builds up. Knowledge without humility is dangerous and knowledge without love can be cruel.

>Knowledge can be falsely called truth ( 1 Timothy 6:20)   The Greek term is actually “ gnosis psuedonymos” , kind of like pseudo-science. Yes, that’s right, the Bible cares very much about science.  

> It also reminds us that “The fear ( or due respect)  of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Proverbs 1:7)  

>“For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools.” Romans 1:20-22

So let us seek knowledge,  seek understanding even more and wisdom above all else.  And here is a good place to start:  “…Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”  Colossians 2:3

“Does not wisdom cry out,
And understanding lift up her voice?
She takes her stand on the top of the high hill,
Beside the way, where the paths meet.
She cries out by the gates, at the entry of the city,
At the entrance of the doors
“To you, O men, I call,
And my voice is to the sons of men.….
Receive my instruction, and not silver,
And knowledge rather than choice gold;
For wisdom is better than rubies,
And all the things one may desire cannot be compared with her.”
Proverbs 8:1-4, 10-11