The original-language words rendered “understanding” in the Scriptures have a broad application, even as does the English term. They can refer to comprehension of a rather simple kind, or can describe a full and profound realization of the inner nature, underlying reasons and significance of complex matters. Insight, discernment and perception are all aspects of understanding, and at times these senses are more prominent and call for the use of such English terms in translation.
The Hebrew bin (verb) and bi·nahʹ (noun) are most frequently related to understanding. At times bin and bi·nahʹ may more particularly emphasize the specific aspects of discerning (1 Sam. 3:8; 2 Sam. 12:19; Ps. 19:12; Dan. 9:2), giving thoughtful consideration (Deut. 32:7; Prov. 14:15; 23:1; Jer. 2:10; Dan. 11:37) or attention (Job 31:1; 32:12; 37:14; Ps. 37:10) to a matter, and may be so rendered. Professor R. C. Dentan, writing in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Vol. IV, pp. 732, 733), says: “The root ביו [bin] means primarily ‘to discern with the senses,’ ‘to perceive distinctions,’ then ‘to give close attention to,’ and finally—particularly in the derived stems—‘to gain comprehension’ or ‘give’ it to others.” Hebrew scholar Gesenius (Hebrew and English Lexicon, p. 140) gives the basic sense as “to separate, to distinguish . . . hence to discern, to mark, to understand, all [of] which depend on the power of separating, distinguishing, discriminating.” Other nouns, ta·vunʹ and tevu·nahʹ, evidently come from the same root as bi·nahʹ, and may be appropriately rendered “discernment” (Prov. 10:23; 11:12) or “understanding” (Ex. 31:3; Deut. 32:28) according to the context.
The basic meaning of these terms reveals the understanding person as one able to see into a matter, discern its composition by separating the individual factors or features that compose or act together to form the whole, then to perceive the relationship between them and thus comprehend or grasp the significance or meaning of the matter. This may be illustrated with a language. A person hearing the sounds spoken in a certain tongue must be able to distinguish the individual words composing the sentences, know their meaning and see how they relate to one another if he is to understand the speech. (Deut. 28:49) However, even though one may basically comprehend what is said to him, understanding can also go beyond such simple comprehension and mean getting at the real significance and sense of the message, being able to evaluate it, benefit by it and know what action it calls for. When Ezra the priest read the Law before the people in Jerusalem, “all intelligent [from Heb., bin] enough to listen” were gathered, but, though these had mature minds able to understand all the words, the Levites “were explaining [or giving understanding, form of bin] the law to the people, . . . reading aloud from the book, from the law of the true God, it being expounded, and there being a putting of meaning into it; and they continued giving understanding in the reading.”—Neh. 8:2, 3, 7, 8.
Two other Hebrew terms, sa·khalʹ (verb) and seʹkhel (noun), relate to understanding. Of sa·khal,’ Professor Dentan says that, in its Biblical usage, “it has come to mean specifically ‘to have insight’ or ‘to be prudent.’” (Compare 1 Samuel 18:5, 30; 1 Kings 2:3; 1 Chronicles 28:19; Daniel 1:17.) Discretion may also be emphasized at times by these terms.—Ps. 47:7; Prov. 10:19.
In the Greek Scriptures, “understanding,” as signifying perception, getting the sense of a matter, is represented especially by sy·niʹe·mi (verb) and syʹne·sis (noun), corresponding to the Hebrew bin and its related forms. Other related terms are e·piʹsta·mai, meaning, basically, to know well, and no·eʹo, to think or consider, and, thus, to arrive at understanding.
SOURCE OF UNDERSTANDING
Jehovah God is both the Source of understanding and the Supreme Example of its use. The splendid coordination and functioning of the universe, in which each creation serves a particular and harmonious purpose, with no clashes or problems resulting due to lack of discernment on their Creator’s part, manifest God’s understanding. (Job 38:36; Ps. 136:5-9; Prov. 3:19, 20; Jer. 10:12, 13) God has given the animals instinctive understanding, each according to its kind. Men may spend years gaining understanding of aerodynamics, but the falcon instinctively knows just how to “read” and utilize the different types of air currents. (Job 39:26) Animal creatures are, however, extremely limited in other aspects of understanding peculiar to man.—Compare Psalm 32:9.
Despite intensive research over centuries, many features and cycles operating according to divine laws still elude man’s full comprehension. (Job 36:29; 38:19, 20) What men can grasp from their study of the material creation only approaches ‘the fringes of God’s ways,’ and is but a “whisper” as compared to “mighty thunder.” This is even more true of God’s works of judgment and salvation, his thoughts being too deep for ungodly persons to grasp. (Job 26:7-14; Ps. 92:5, 6) Consideration of the divine wisdom and understanding manifest in the material creation, however, enabled Job to discern his proper relationship to the Creator and humbly recognize his own lack of understanding.—Job 42:1-6.
As regards man, Jehovah can exercise insight into the thoughts and doings of all mankind (1 Chron. 28:9; Ps. 139:1-6), and, as he chooses, he ‘gives thoughtful consideration’ (Heb., bin) or attention to individuals and classes. (Prov. 21:12; Ps. 5:1, 2) He knows his own invincible purpose, what he will do in the future, and his righteous standards are fixed ‘unchangeable; hence, “there is no wisdom, nor any discernment, nor any counsel in opposition to Jehovah.” (Prov. 21:30; compare Isaiah 29:13, 14; Jeremiah 23:20; 30:24.) He needs to consult no one to understand a matter, such as how to help his servants effectively or to relieve them from distress and oppression.—Isa. 40:10-15, 27-31.
Knowledge of Jehovah God and discernment of his will combined with faith and trust therefore form the foundation of all true understanding on the part of his intelligent creatures. “Knowledge of the Most Holy One is what understanding is,” and this includes understanding “righteousness and judgment and uprightness, the entire course of what is good.” (Prov. 9:10; 2:6-9; 16:20) No matter of real importance can be fully understood unless all the factors are viewed from Jehovah’s standpoint and seen in relation to his standards, qualities and eternal purpose.
Those turning from the Source
The person who turns to transgression begins to discount God as a factor to be considered when making decisions and plans. (Job 34:27) Such one allows his heart to blind him to the wrongness of his ways and he loses insight. (Ps. 36:1-4) Even if claiming to worship God, he puts men’s precepts above God’s; he prefers them. (Isa. 29:13, 14) He rationalizes and excuses his loose conduct as mere “sport” (Prov. 10:23), becomes perverted, brutish, stupid in his reasoning, to the extreme of assuming that the invisible God does not see or discern his wrongdoing, as though God’s powers of perception had failed. (Ps. 94:4-10; Isa. 29:15, 16; Jer. 10:21) By his course and actions he says, in effect, “There is no Jehovah” (Ps. 14:1-3), and leaves him ‘out of the picture.’ Not being guided by divine principles, he cannot judge matters correctly, cannot see the issues clearly, evaluate the factors involved and arrive at right decisions.—Prov. 28:5.
FIELDS OF HUMAN UNDERSTANDING
Understanding may relate to knowledge and skill in mechanical activities, such as construction and designing of buildings, or making articles of wood, metal, stone or cloth. The Tyrian worker Hiram was a “skillful man, experienced in understanding” as a craftsman working with a wide range of materials. (2 Chron. 2:13, 14; 1 Ki. 7:13, 14) Such understanding contributes to effective work, products of enduring quality.
Others may be “expert [form of bin]” in matters of transportation or music due to their understanding. (1 Chron. 15:22; 25:7, 8; 2 Chron. 34:12) Some may show understanding in linguistics, writing or other scholarly subjects. (Dan. 1:4, 17, 20) Such understanding can be gained through natural abilities and effort. God’s spirit, of course, can augment or enhance such understanding in persons and qualify them to teach others their craft or profession.—Ex. 31:2-5; 35:30-35; 36:1; 1 Chron. 28:19.
Some may have keen discernment of human nature, being observant and able to ‘put two and two together.’ David, noting the way his servants were whispering, ‘discerned’ that his child by Bath-sheba had died. (2 Sam. 12:19) Rehoboam was guided by his understanding of fallen human nature and its tendency toward envy and jealousy when assigning his sons’ inheritances.—2 Chron. 11:21-23.
Similarly, men or communities of men may show considerable discernment in business operations, a factor in their successfully enriching themselves, as did the “leader” of Tyre. (Ezek. 28:2, 4) Rulers may have understanding of military warfare and strategy (Isa. 10:12, 13) or be expert in political diplomacy. (Dan. 8:23) Yet their understanding may be narrow and of short-range benefit, as in the foregoing cases.
It can be seen, then, that the Scriptures refer to understanding obtainable by natural means, which may or may not take God into consideration (though using the intelligence that God implanted in man). Any such “comprehension” (syʹne·sis) of worldly ‘intellectual men’ (sy·ne·tosʹ) becomes foolishness, in vain, when God’s purposes are not considered. (1 Cor. 1:19, 20, Kingdom Interlinear Translation) The Scriptures, therefore, primarily urge a superior understanding, one that is spiritual, having God as its foundation. No matter how much men may exploit the earth’s resources, exploring its depths and the depths of the seas or studying the skies, they can never by their own efforts find “the place of understanding” and wisdom that leads to successful life in righteousness and happiness. (Job 28:1-21, 28) Such understanding is ‘better than silver’ and can bring the desired future that fleeting worldly riches and honor fail to bring.—Prov. 16:16, 22; 23:4, 5; Ps. 49:6-8, 14, 20.
SPIRITUAL UNDERSTANDING INVOLVES MIND AND HEART
The things perceived by man’s senses, such as sight and hearing, are interpreted by the brain, and understanding is therefore connected with the mental faculties. (Compare Job 6:30; 9:11; 13:1; 23:8, 9.) But the Scriptures show that understanding in its more vital sense involves the heart as well. As Jesus said to his disciples: “Do you not yet perceive and get the meaning? Do you have your hearts dull of understanding? ‘Though having eyes, do you not see; and though having ears, do you not hear?’ And do you not remember?” (Mark 8:17-21; compare 12:29, 33.) So there is interaction of mind and heart in considering, analyzing, reasoning, pondering, meditating. But the heart is the key factor, for, even though the evidence be very powerful and abundant, there will be no true understanding of its significance if persons do not “get the thought [or “the sense of it”] with their hearts.” (John 12:37-40; Matt. 13:14-19, 23; Isa. 6:9, 10) By God’s help, one can come to “understand heart,” that is, to learn right motive and also be able to discern bad motives, one’s own or those of others (Prov. 8:5), and by adhering to right motivation can avoid being distracted, misled or sidetracked into a devious and foolish course, and instead can be upright and head straight for one’s goal.—Prov. 15:21.
RELATIONSHIP TO KNOWLEDGE AND WISDOM
Understanding must be based on knowledge, and works with knowledge, though it is itself more than mere knowledge. The extent and worth of one’s understanding is measurably affected by the quantity and quality of one’s knowledge. Knowledge is acquaintance with facts, and the greatest and most fundamental fact is God, his existence, his invincible purpose, his ways. Understanding enables the person to relate the knowledge he acquires to God’s purpose and standards and thereby assess or evaluate such knowledge. The “understanding heart is one that searches for knowledge”; it is not satisfied with a mere superficial view but seeks to get the full picture. (Prov. 15:14) Knowledge must become ‘pleasant to one’s very soul’ if discernment is to safeguard one from perversion and deception.—Prov. 2:10, 11; 18:15.
Proverbs 1:1-6 shows that the “man of understanding is the one who acquires skillful direction, to understand a proverb and a puzzling saying, the words of wise persons and their riddles.” These must not be things said merely to pass the time away in idle conversation, for wise persons would not customarily waste time in such manner, but must refer to instruction, questions and problems that discipline and train the mind and heart in right principles, thereby equipping the learner for wise action in the future. (Compare Psalm 49:3, 4.) Knowledge and understanding together bring wisdom, which is the “prime thing,” the ability to bring a fund of knowledge and keen understanding to bear on problems with successful results. (Prov. 4:7) The person who is rightly motivated seeks understanding, not out of mere curiosity or to exalt himself, but for the very purpose of acting in wisdom; ‘wisdom is before his face.’ (Prov. 17:24) He is not like those in the apostle Paul’s day who assumed to be teachers of others but were “puffed up with pride, not understanding anything,” unwisely letting themselves become “mentally diseased over questionings and debates about words,” things that produce disunity and a host of bad results.—1 Tim. 6:3-5; see KNOWLEDGE; WISDOM.
GAINING TRUE UNDERSTANDING
The person seeking true understanding prays to God: “Make me understand, that I may observe your law and that I may keep it with the whole heart. . . . that I may keep living.” (Ps. 119:34, 144, also 27, 73, 125, 169) This is the right motive. The apostle prayed for the Colossian Christians that they might be “filled with the accurate knowledge of [God’s] will in all wisdom and spiritual discernment [syʹne·sis], in order to walk worthily of Jehovah.”—Col. 1:9, 10.
Age and experience are natural factors aiding toward greater understanding. (Job 12:12) Age and experience alone are not decisive, however. Job’s comforters prided themselves on the understanding they and their aged associates had but were reproved by the younger man Elihu. (Job 15:7-10; 32:6-12) Jehovah, the “Ancient of Days” (Dan. 7:13), has understanding infinitely superior to all mankind, whose days still cover only a few thousand years and who do not even understand just how the planet they live on came to be formed. (Job 38:4-13, 21) Hence, God’s written Word is a principal means for gaining understanding.—Ps. 119:30.
Children and young persons should thoughtfully consider the instruction of their older and more experienced parents, particularly so when these are devoted servants of God. (Prov. 2:1-5; 3:1-3; 4:1; 5:1) Serious ‘consideration’ (Heb., bin) of the history of earlier generations can bring understanding, and older persons are often familiar with this. (Deut. 32:7) Association should be sought, not with “inexperienced ones,” but with the wise, feeding on their counsel and instruction so as to “keep living, and walk straight in the way of understanding.” (Prov. 9:5, 6) Listening and also observing, the person can cease to be naive and credulous, can “understand shrewdness” and avoid many bitter experiences.—Prov. 8:4, 5.
Diligence in studying and applying God’s Word and commands can result in one’s having greater insight than those set as his teachers, more understanding than those who are older men. (Ps. 119:99, 100, 130; compare Luke 2:46, 47.) This is because wisdom and understanding are, in effect, ‘built into’ God’s pure regulations and judicial decrees; hence Israel’s faithful observance of these would cause surrounding nations to view them as a “wise and understanding people.” (Deut. 4:5-8; Ps. 111:7, 8, 10; compare 1 Kings 2:3.) The understanding person recognizes the inviolability of God’s Word, wants to see his own course in relation thereto, and petitions God’s aid in this. (Ps. 119:169) He lets God’s message sink down deep (Matt. 13:19-23), writes it on the tablet of his heart (Prov. 3:3-6; 7:1-4) and comes to develop a hatred for “every false path.” (Ps. 119:104) God’s Son, when on earth, showed understanding in this way, even refusing to seek escape from death on the stake because the fulfillment of the Scriptures called for his dying in that manner.—Matt. 26:51-54.
Time and meditation essential
The “overhasty” person usually fails to “consider [or give thoughtful attention to; bin] knowledge.” (Isa. 32:4; compare Proverbs 29:20.) The understanding person characteristically knows when to keep quiet (Prov. 11:12), does not speak rashly and keeps cool even though the discussion may become heated. (Prov. 14:29; 17:27, 28; 19:11; Job 32:11, 18; compare James 3:13-18.) He meditates on counsel so as to determine the significance of the words and message. (Job 23:5; Ps. 49:3) He asks questions aimed at discerning the whys and wherefores, determining the cause of success or failure, divine blessing or cursing; he ponders the logical future consequences to which courses will lead. (Ps. 73:2, 3, 16-18; Jer. 2:10-19; compare Isaiah 44:14-20.) Israel failed to do this and did not give consideration in their hearts as to what would be “their end afterward.”—Deut. 32:28-30.
Pride, stubbornness, self-will and independence are enemies of understanding. (Jer. 4:22; Hos. 4:14, 16) The person with true understanding does not think he knows everything; hence Proverbs 19:25 says, “There should be a reproving of the understanding one, that he may discern knowledge.” (Compare Job 6:24, 25; Psalm 19:12, 13.) Because he is an understanding person he is ready to listen, discerns the basis for the reproof and benefits by it, more than a stupid one would from a hundred strokes.—Prov. 17:10; compare 29:19.
Inspired prophetic messages are understood only by those cleansed ones who humbly pray for understanding. (Dan. 9:22, 23; 10:12; 12:10) Though the general time period of their fulfillment may be comprehended, full discernment of the prophecy’s application may have to await God’s due time for its being carried out. (Dan. 8:17; 10:14; 12:8-10; compare Mark 9:31, 32; Luke 24:44-48.) Those placing their confidence in men and disdaining God’s power and discounting his purpose as a factor worth considering cannot understand the prophecies, and remain blind to their significance until the disastrous effects of their fulfillment begin to hit them.—Ps. 50:21, 22; Isa. 28:19; 46:10-12.