Essentially, knowledge means familiarity with facts acquired by personal experience, observation, or study. The Bible strongly urges the seeking for and treasuring of right knowledge, recommending it rather than gold. (Pr 8:10; 20:15) Jesus stressed the importance of truly knowing him and his Father, and knowledge is repeatedly emphasized in the books of the Christian Greek Scriptures.—Joh 17:3; Php 1:9; 2Pe 3:18.
Source of Knowledge. Jehovah is actually the basic Source of knowledge. Life, of course, is from him and life is essential for one’s having any knowledge. (Ps 36:9; Ac 17:25, 28) Furthermore, God created all things, so human knowledge is based on a study of God’s handiwork. (Re 4:11; Ps 19:1, 2) God also inspired his written Word, from which man can learn the divine will and purposes. (2Ti 3:16, 17) Thus the focal point of all true knowledge is Jehovah, and a person seeking it ought to have a fear of God that makes him careful not to incur Jehovah’s displeasure. Such fear is the beginning of knowledge. (Pr 1:7) Such godly fear puts one in position to gain accurate knowledge, whereas those who do not consider God readily draw wrong conclusions from the things that they observe.
The role that Jehovah has assigned to his Son in the outworking of His purposes is of such importance that it can be said of Jesus: “Carefully concealed in him are all the treasures of wisdom and of knowledge.” (Col 2:3) Unless a person exercises faith in Jesus Christ as God’s Son, he cannot grasp the real meaning of the Scriptures and see how God’s purposes are working out in harmony with what He has foretold.
One is helped to appreciate more fully the meaning and importance of knowledge by examining the Hebrew and Greek words often translated “knowledge” as well as by noting the relationship between knowledge and wisdom, understanding, thinking ability, and discernment.
Meaning of Term. In the Hebrew Scriptures a number of words (nouns) that can be translated “knowledge” are related to the basic verb ya·dhaʽʹ, signifying “know (by being told),” “know (by observing),” “know (by personal acquaintance or experience),” or “be experienced, skillful.” The exact shade of meaning, and often the way each word should be translated, must be determined by the context. For instance, God said that he ‘knew’ Abraham and so was sure that that man of faith would command his offspring correctly. Jehovah was not saying simply that he was aware that Abraham existed but, rather, that He had become well acquainted with Abraham, for he had observed Abraham’s obedience and interest in true worship over many years.—Ge 18:19, NW, La; Ge 22:12; compare JEHOVAH (Early Use of the Name and Its Meaning).
As with the verb ya·dhaʽʹ (know), the principal Hebrew word rendered “knowledge” (daʹʽath) carries the basic idea of knowing facts or having information, but at times it includes more than that. For example, Hosea 4:1, 6 says that at a certain time there was no “knowledge of God” in Israel. That does not mean that the people were not aware that Jehovah was God and that he had delivered and led the Israelites in the past. (Ho 8:2) But by their course of murdering, stealing, and committing adultery, they showed that they rejected real knowledge because they were not acting in harmony with it.—Ho 4:2.
Ya·dhaʽʹ sometimes denotes sexual intercourse, as at Genesis 4:17, where some translations render it literally “knew” (KJ; RS; Ro), whereas others suitably say that Cain “had intercourse” with his wife. (AT; Mo; NW) The Greek verb gi·noʹsko is used similarly at Matthew 1:25 and Luke 1:34.
After Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit (Ge 2:17; 3:5, 6), Jehovah said to his associate in creative work (Joh 1:1-3): “Here the man has become like one of us in knowing good and bad.” (Ge 3:22) This apparently did not mean merely having knowledge of what was good and what was bad for them, for the first man and woman had such knowledge by reason of God’s commands to them. Furthermore, God’s words at Genesis 3:22 could not pertain to their now knowing what was bad by experience, for Jehovah said that they had become like him and he has not learned what is bad by doing it. (Ps 92:14, 15) Evidently, Adam and Eve got to know what was good and what was bad in the special sense of now judging for themselves what was good and what was bad. They were idolatrously placing their judgment above God’s, disobediently becoming a law to themselves, as it were, instead of obeying Jehovah, who has both the right and the wisdom necessary to determine good and bad. So their independent knowledge, or standard, of good and bad was not like that of Jehovah. Rather, it was one that led them to misery.—Jer 10:23.
In the Christian Greek Scriptures there are two words commonly translated “knowledge,” gnoʹsis and e·piʹgno·sis. Both are related to the verb gi·noʹsko, which means “know; understand; perceive.” The way this verb is used in the Bible, though, shows that it can indicate a favorable relationship between the person and one he “knows.” (1Co 8:3; 2Ti 2:19) Knowledge (gnoʹsis) is put in a very favorable light in the Christian Greek Scriptures. However, not all that men may call “knowledge” is to be sought, because philosophies and views exist that are “falsely called ‘knowledge.’” (1Ti 6:20) The recommended knowledge is about God and his purposes. (2Pe 1:5) This involves more than merely having facts, which many atheists have; a personal devotion to God and Christ is implied. (Joh 17:3; 6:68, 69) Whereas having knowledge (information alone) might result in a feeling of superiority, our knowing “the love of the Christ which surpasses knowledge,” that is, knowing this love by experience because we are personally imitating his loving ways, will balance and give wholesome direction to our use of any information we may have gained.—Eph 3:19.
E·piʹgno·sis, a strengthened form of gnoʹsis (e·piʹ, meaning “additional”), can often be seen from the context to mean “exact, accurate, or full knowledge.” Thus Paul wrote about some who were learning (taking in knowledge) “yet never able to come to an accurate knowledge [“a real knowledge,” TC; “a personal knowledge,” Ro; “clear, full knowledge,” Da ftn] of truth.” (2Ti 3:6, 7) He also prayed that ones in the Colossian congregation, who obviously had some knowledge of God’s will, for they had become Christians, “be filled with the accurate knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual comprehension.” (Col 1:9) Such accurate knowledge should be sought by all Christians (Eph 1:15-17; Php 1:9; 1Ti 2:3, 4), it being important in putting on “the new personality” and in gaining peace.—Col 3:10; 2Pe 1:2.
Related Attributes. Frequently in the Bible, knowledge is linked with other attributes such as wisdom, understanding, discernment, and thinking ability. (Pr 2:1-6, 10, 11) Grasping the basic differences between these greatly illuminates many texts. It is to be acknowledged, though, that the original words involved cannot be said to match invariably certain English words. The setting and the use of a word affect the sense. Nonetheless, certain interesting differences emerge when one notes the Bible’s references to knowledge, wisdom, understanding, discernment, and thinking ability.
Wisdom. Wisdom is the ability to put knowledge to work, or to use it, the intelligent application of learning. A person might have considerable knowledge but not know how to use it because of lacking wisdom. Jesus linked wisdom with accomplishment in saying: “Wisdom is proved righteous by its works.” (Mt 11:19) Solomon asked for and received from God not just knowledge but also wisdom. (2Ch 1:10; 1Ki 4:29-34) In the case of two women who claimed the same child, Solomon had knowledge of a mother’s devotion to her child; he displayed wisdom by using his knowledge to settle the dispute. (1Ki 3:16-28) “Wisdom is the prime thing,” for without it knowledge is of little value. (Pr 4:7; 15:2) Jehovah abounds in and provides both knowledge and wisdom.—Ro 11:33; Jas 1:5.
Understanding. Understanding is the ability to see how the parts or aspects of something relate to one another, to see the entire matter and not just isolated facts. The Hebrew root verb bin has the basic meaning “separate” or “distinguish,” and it is often rendered “understand” or “discern.” It is similar with the Greek sy·niʹe·mi. Thus at Acts 28:26 (quoting Isa 6:9, 10) it could be said that the Jews heard but did not understand, or did not put together. They did not grasp how the points or thoughts fitted together to mean something to them. Proverbs 9:10, in saying that “knowledge of the Most Holy One is what understanding is,” shows that true understanding of anything involves appreciation of its relation to God and his purposes. Because a person with understanding is able to connect new information to things he already knows, it can be said that “to the understanding one knowledge is an easy thing.” (Pr 14:6) Knowledge and understanding are allied, and both are to be sought.—Pr 2:5; 18:15.
Discernment. A Hebrew word frequently rendered “discernment” (tevu·nahʹ) is related to the word bi·nahʹ, translated “understanding.” Both appear at Proverbs 2:3, which the translation by The Jewish Publication Society renders: “If thou call for understanding, and lift up thy voice for discernment . . . ” As with understanding, discernment involves seeing or recognizing things, but it emphasizes distinguishing the parts, weighing or evaluating one in the light of the others. A person who unites knowledge and discernment controls what he says and is cool of spirit. (Pr 17:27) The one opposing Jehovah displays lack of discernment. (Pr 21:30) Through his Son, God gives discernment (full understanding or insight).—2Ti 2:1, 7, NW, NE.
Thinking ability. Knowledge is also related to what is sometimes translated “thinking ability” (Heb., mezim·mahʹ). The Hebrew word can be used in a bad sense (evil ideas, schemes, devices) or a favorable one (shrewdness, sagacity). (Ps 10:2; Pr 1:4) Thus the mind and thoughts can be directed to an admirable, upright end, or just the opposite. By paying close attention to the way Jehovah does things and by inclining one’s ears to all the various aspects of His will and purposes, a person safeguards his own thinking ability, directing it into right channels. (Pr 5:1, 2) Properly exercised thinking ability, harmonious with godly wisdom and knowledge, will guard a person against being ensnared by immoral enticements.—Pr 2:10-12.
Caution in Gaining Knowledge. Solomon apparently put knowledge in a negative light when saying: “For in the abundance of wisdom there is an abundance of vexation, so that he that increases knowledge increases pain.” (Ec 1:18) This would appear contrary to the general view of knowledge one finds in the Bible. However, Solomon here stresses again the vanity of human endeavors in all matters other than the carrying out of God’s commands. (Ec 1:13, 14) Thus, a man may gain knowledge and wisdom in many fields, or he may explore deeply some specialized field, and such knowledge and wisdom may be proper in themselves, though not directly related to God’s declared purpose. Yet, with such increased knowledge and wisdom the man may well become more keenly aware of how limited his opportunities are to use his knowledge and wisdom because of his short life span and because of the problems and bad conditions that confront and oppose him in imperfect human society. This is vexing, producing a painful sense of frustration. (Compare Ro 8:20-22; Ec 12:13, 14; see ECCLESIASTES.) Thus, too, the knowledge obtained by ‘devotion to many books,’ unless tied in with and put to use in the carrying out of God’s commands, is “wearisome to the flesh.”—Ec 12:12.