47. Wisdom, Understanding and Knowledge

Karl D Coke

Proverbs 3:19-20 says, “By wisdom the LORD laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the deeps were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew.’, This passage reveals a truth most impressive. That is, by observing God’s wisdom in action, we gain understanding. Then, by applying that understanding, we demonstrate knowledge. From God’s wisdom flows understanding. From understanding comes knowledge.

This flow should not be reversed. However, this is the error of modern philosophy. Most philosophers have reversed this heavenly process. The so-called “wisdom” of this world inevitably begins with a body of “known facts.” From these facts, philosophers gain understanding. From this body of truth they attempt to display their wisdom. The problem with this reversed process is that as more “facts” become known, understanding always has to change. It is not so when you follow God’s process.

Wisdom begat understanding. Understanding begat knowledge. Any change in this order guarantees reaching wrong conclusions. To constantly remain in truth, study must never violate beginning with the wisdom of God, observing His wisdom in action to gain understanding, then applying that understanding to the same or similar circumstances which demonstrates knowledge.


In the Old Testament, the word “wisdom,” comes from the Hebrew root verb CHaKaM. It means to be wise in mind, word and act. It is translated skill in Exodus 36:1-2. “The primary power of this word is that of judging” according to the Gesenius Hebrew Lexicon.

“Wisdom” presents itself as a person in the noun form CHaKaMaH. This satisfies 1 Corinthians 1:30 which says, “It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.” It also fits with Proverbs 9:1 when it says, “Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn out its seven pillars.”

“The LXX normally uses the Greek sophia for the Hebrew root ChaKaM. Sophia is derived from an adjective and always denotes a quality, never an activity. … In general sophia denotes a materially complete, and, hence, unusual knowledge and ability,” according to Kittel’s “Theological Dictionary of New Testament Words”, Volume VI. In the same article on sophia, it further says, “CHaKaM is the wisdom which acts … as a solution of a practical kind on the basis of concrete demands. The reference is to prudent, considered, experienced and competent action to subjugate the world and to master the various problems of life and life itself. When detailed aspects are taken into account CHaKaM means ‘cleverness and skill for the purpose of practical action.’CHaKaMaH is closely related to prudence, knowledge and reflection (Proverbs 8:12) and in this sense it is best understood as the practical wisdom which is on top of life in all relations and situations.”


When Moses gave his song to the Israelites, he said of them in Exodus 32:28, “They are a nation without sense, there is no discernment in them.” This is a negative use of the Hebrew word translated “understanding.” It comes from the Hebrew root BiN which primarily means “to discern, to perceive (a) with the eyes, (b) with the ears, and (c) with the touch. Elsewhere it signifies some counsel and purpose, to turn the mind to anything…,” according to Gesenius. In the Old Testament it is used in the feminine form TaBuNaH. It means, “intelligence, understanding, insight, used of both God and men” further says Gesenius.

Understanding comes from observing the wisdom of God. No better example of this principle exists than that of Solomon when he asked God for wisdom. It says in I Kings 3:9, “So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.” This shows clearly that understanding flows out of observing God’s wisdom. When Solomon saw the wisdom of God he could then govern and distinguish right from wrong.


The Hebrew word for knowledge used in Proverbs 3:20 is DaTHu. This word is the feminine infinitive of the Hebrew root word YaDA which means to know or be aware, hence, to perceive. According to Koehler and Baumgartner’s Hebrew Lexicon, this word indicates a knowledge which is learned by experience.

According to Gesenius, YaDA “corresponds to the Greek eidon and oida which both mean to see.” He continues, “knowledge means to perceive, to acquire a knowledge, to know, to be acquainted. It includes the action of. knowing both as commencing, and as completed.”

When a person passes knowledge on to someone, he is said to be a teacher. What most current teachers fail to convey is the source of their knowledge; i.e. how they arrived at their base of knowledge. This is true in both the secular and sacred learning settings.

Purpose of Word Study

Believers must always begin with the wisdom of God. From observing His wisdom, they can gain understanding. Once that understanding is proven in one or more life’s situations, facts can be catalogued into a body of knowledge which can be taught. Believers should never approach truth in an opposite manner. They should not begin with facts to develop their understanding to then solidify their wisdom.

It seems backwards to begin with God’s wisdom. It is, however, correct. Kierkegaard said; “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” He was referring to the proper obtaining of knowledge. It must begin with God’s wisdom. This only seems backwards. God has designed man to believe all from the heart. Even Santayana agrees that God’s wisdom is to be believed from the heart when he said, “It is wisdom to believe the heart.” Solomon said in Proverbs 9:10, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”

Nietzsche observed, “When we begin to understand we grow polite, happy, ingenuous.” I am convinced that man does not truly understand anything until he first observes the wisdom of God. I am further convinced that any man who fears the LORD will gain understanding. He will see how the principles of the invisible Kingdom of Heaven operate in this earthly kingdom. The principles of the Kingdom of Heaven work here on earth because it was by those principles that God created this earth.

J. G. Holland quipped, “It is not a question of how much a man knows, but what use he can make of what he knows.” God’s wisdom observed brings understanding. Understanding brings a catalogue of information we know as knowledge. With that knowledge, “we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.”

(Reprinted from Tishrei Vol 3, No 1, Spring 1995, Education)



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