Understanding: The Foundation
“Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:17).
Sometimes when God speaks of “understanding,” He means much more than a comprehension of facts. The Hebrew word refers to the intelligence of a person; his ability to connect ideas to gain further insight. We can see this in Job 32:11-12, “Indeed I waited for your words, I listened to your reasonings, while you searched out what to say. I paid close attention to you; and surely not one of you convinced Job, or answered his words.” The word “reasonings” in this passage is the same that is translated “understanding” in other passages. Elihu stated that Job’s friends were unable to use proper logic to convince Job of their belief.
The Hebrew word biyn and its various forms are usually translated “understand.” It refers to insight gained by judgment as opposed to insight gained by experience. We often talk about the great wisdom of Solomon, but what Solomon asked God for was understanding. “Therefore give to Your servant an understanding heart to judge Your people, that I may discern between good and evil. For who is able to judge this great people of Yours?” (I Kings 3:9). This well illustrates what is meant by understanding. It is the ability to use reason to make a judgment and come to greater insight. This is the word behind “understand” in Proverbs.
The Greek word suniemi also contains the same deeper shade of meaning. It literally refers to the joining of two flows, such as two rivers coming together. It refers to the process of combining independent facts into a single comprehension of their relationships.
Facts are useful, but God expects His people to combine those facts in reasonable ways to gain greater insight, much as Eli did when Samuel repeatedly awoke him at night. Eventually, he understood that God was calling Samuel (I Samuel 3:8). The individual facts did not tell him this, it was his combining of the facts to reach a correct conclusion. Similarly, the disciples heard the words of Jesus, but they had no meaning to them until they combined the facts to understand that Jesus meant “doctrine” when he spoke about “leaven” (Matthew 16:6-12). Understanding is the lighting of the bulb in our mind as confusing statements suddenly become clear because we see relationships between the facts (Matthew 17:9-13).
The Usefulness of Understanding
Paul told the Romans, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:1-2). The Christian’s religious service to God is reasonable or logical. We are expected to prove what is God’s will for us. The same word for “reason” is used in I Peter 2:2, “as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby.” God’s word is reasonable and logical. When the Christian teaches others, he is expected to explain the reason behind his hope (I Peter 3:15).
This defense of the truth is done by the word of God. “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, and being ready to punish all disobedience when your obedience is fulfilled” (II Corinthians 10:3-6). The “arguments” in this passage is sometimes translated as “imaginations” or “speculations.” It refers to the worldly reasoning men employ against the knowledge of God. All logic is not good logic. There are plenty of people in this world willing to twist the truth to suit their own purpose (II Peter 3:16). The Bible teaches pure logic, unblemished by worldly desires. This is what Apollos had done, “for he vigorously refuted the Jews publicly, showing from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ” (Acts 18:28).
We must teach our children more than the facts of the Scriptures. They also need instruction in how to reason, how to construct logical arguments, and how to see the flaws in the reasonings of false teachers. Young children don’t have the capacity to reason deeply, but beginning in the teenage years, young men and women gain the ability to reason. This is from where the claim of “rebelliousness” in teenagers comes. As the logic centers of their minds blossom, they question the logic behind commands. It often catches parents off-guard. They had become used to their children doing as they were told, perhaps with grumbling, but certainly not with demands that their commands be reasonable to the child.
Rather than be upset, parents should accept the challenge because this is also the age when children begin to think for themselves, realizing they are accountable for their own actions. Soon they will be considering whether to devote their lives to the Lord and they deserve reasonable answers as to the reason for our hope. When the people of Israel returned to the land, Ezra gathers people together. “Then Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly of men, women and all who could listen with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it before the square which was in front of the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of men and women, those who could understand; and all the people were attentive to the book of the law” (Nehemiah 8:2-3). Not everyone was gathered, only those who listen with a reasoning mind. “Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, explained the law to the people while the people remained in their place. They read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading. Then Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, "This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep." For all the people were weeping when they heard the words of the law. ... All the people went away to eat, to drink, to send portions and to celebrate a great festival, because they understood the words which had been made known to them” (Nehemiah 8:7-9, 12). All the underlined words are the same Hebrew word, biyn. The act of teaching passes on the reason of the Bible to the student. Notice that they did not simply heard a reading or memorized a passage. The teachers went among the people to reason with them until they grasped the reasoning for themselves. This is why God’s law affected them so deeply.
Understanding helps a person remember the knowledge he has gained. “Give me understanding, that I may learn Your commandments” (Psalm 119:73). It has long been known that men usually can only retain about seven facts in their short-term memory. However, if they can discover a relationship between the facts, they can suddenly retain far greater amounts. You can see this when attempting to memorize a passage. If you simply strive to memorize a series of words, the task is very difficult. You drop out odd words at the oddest places when you recite the passage. However, if you focus on understanding what the passage is trying to teach, the memorization goes smoothly. “Make me understand the way of Your precepts; so shall I meditate on Your wondrous works.” (Psalm 119:27).
Understanding also aids our ability to learn new facts. “Knowledge is easy to him who understands” (Proverbs 14:6). Without understanding, you can hear things, but they never register and are quickly lost (Matthew 13:13-19). “But he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” (Matthew 13:23). As our understanding increases, it stimulates us to increase our knowledge. “The heart of him who has understanding seeks knowledge” (Proverbs 15:14; see also Proverbs 18:15).
We all make mistakes and must be corrected, but “A rebuke goes deeper into one who has understanding than a hundred blows into a fool” (Proverbs 17:10). A man of understanding is able to derive facts even from his mistakes (Proverbs 19:25).
How does one gain understanding? Elihu told Job, “there is a spirit in man, and the breath of the Almighty gives him understanding” (Job 32:8). Herein is a major difference between man and the animals. Man is able to learn why things are the way they are. God is willing to teach this to us if we are willing to listen. “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will guide you with My eye. Do not be like the horse or like the mule, which have no understanding, which must be harnessed with bit and bridle, else they will not come near you. Many sorrows shall be to the wicked; But he who trusts in the LORD, mercy shall surround him” (Psalm 32:8-10). Try to explain to a donkey why he must take up the harness and plow so there will be wheat to eat in the fall – it just will not work and neither will the donkey. A man who will not understand is no better than an animal (Psalm 49:20).
A person cannot have understanding until he first has some knowledge. “You asked, 'Who is this who hides counsel without knowledge?' Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42:3) The knowledge of God’s word gives us understanding. “Through Your precepts I get understanding; Therefore I hate every false way” (Psalm 119:104; see also Psalm 119:130, 169). This means there must be growth. Just as you cannot reason with a very small child, you cannot expect to reason about the Scriptures with someone who knows very little about them. “Whom will he teach knowledge? And whom will he make to understand the message? Those just weaned from milk? Those just drawn from the breasts? For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept, Line upon line, line upon line, Here a little, there a little” (Isaiah 28:9-10). This is one of the reasons why the disciples appeared to be slow on grasping what was happening. They did not know enough facts to gain understanding as to why things were happening as they did (Luke 18:31-34). Then, in turn, the understanding that we gain makes it easier for us to retain additional knowledge. “All the words of my mouth are with righteousness; Nothing crooked or perverse is in them. They are all plain to him who understands, And right to those who find knowledge” (Proverbs 8:8-9).
Stubbornness prevents the gaining of understanding (Mark 6:52; 8:17-18). A person cannot be made to learn what he doesn’t want to learn.
Understanding also comes through observation. “The righteous see it and rejoice, and all iniquity stops its mouth. Whoever is wise will observe these things, and they will understand the lovingkindness of the LORD” (Psalms 107:42-43).
But to really gain understanding, a person must apply what he learns from God to his life. “I understand more than the ancients, because I keep Your precepts” (Psalm 119:100).
The Limits to Understanding
“Who can understand his errors? Cleanse me from secret faults.” (Psalm 19:12). It is very difficult to see your own incorrect reasoning. You reached your erroneous conclusions by a fault in your own reasoning, so until that fault is corrected, you will continue to make the same mistake. We need to have our path adjusted from a source outside of ourselves. “A man's steps are of the LORD; How then can a man understand his own way?” (Proverbs 20:24). When a person thinks he understands everything, therein lies danger (Isaiah 5:21). No man understands it all (Romans 3:11).
Understanding is not a guarantee of success. It makes a person better prepared, but there are still random events that bring harm to even the best of people (Ecclesiastes 9:11).
The Gift of Understanding
Just as there was a gift of knowledge during the early days of the church, the Spirit gave some the gift of discerning spirits (I Corinthians 12:10).
1) What are the different definitions of the word “understanding” as used in the Scriptures?
2) What makes for good or bad logic?
3) How does a person learn to reason well?
4) Why is it that men can never have a perfect understanding?