The Old Testament. The basic Hebrew word so translated is the verb biyn [yiB] or one of its derivatives, together used some 247 times in the Old Testament. In the Revised Standard Version this root accounts for 89 out of 113 appearances of the word "understanding." Occasionally leb [bel] (heart/mind) will be rendered "understanding" in contexts where the rational rather than the emotional is stressed ( Job 8:10 ; 12:24 ).
Biyn [yiB] is associated with the Hebrew substantive beyn [yeB], which means "interval" and, when used as a preposition, "between." Thus, the basic meaning of biyn [yiB] is to separate, to distinguish. It is perceptive insight with the ability to judge.
Understanding is seen as a gift of God ( Dan 2:21 ) and it is to be prayed for ( Psalm 119:34 ). In answer to the question, "Where shall wisdom or understanding be found?" the response is, "God alone knows" ( Job 28:12 Job 28:20 Job 28:23 ). It also results from the study of the divine precepts ( Psalm 119:104 ) and careful reflection in the sanctuary ( Psalm 73:17 ). Hearing is no assurance of understanding ( Dan 12:8 ).
Understanding has a moral character ( Job 28:28 ). This does not, however, preclude the cognitive ( Psalm 49:3-4 ) for understanding is to be gotten ( Proverbs 4:5 Proverbs 4:7 ), sought ( 23:23 ), and learned ( 4:1 ). This can be seen in references to the understanding of a foreign language ( Isa 33:19 ) and Daniel's understanding of all the subjects in which he was interrogated by Nebuchadnezzar ( Dan 1:20 ). The emphasis of this word goes beyond collection of data, however. Acquired knowledge must be used and used correctly. The injunction is to trust in the Lord rather than to rely on one's understanding ( Prov 3:5 ).
A person can perceive data with the senses: with the eyes ( Job 13:1 ; 23:8 ), with the ears ( Job 23:5 ; Prov 29:19 ), with the touch (pots can feel the heat Psalm 58:9 ), and with the taste ( Job 6:30 ).
Understanding can pertain to arts and crafts ( 2 Chron 2:13 ) or to the administrative functions of the king ( 2 Chron 2:12 )even extended to the messianic king ( Isa 11:2 ). David's understanding as shepherd of his people is extolled ( Psalm 78:72 ). While artisans have made idols according to their understanding ( Hosea 13:2 ), Isaiah challenges the effectiveness of such effort, noting that artisans can create no gods at all ( 44:17 ). Daniel possesses apocalyptic understanding ( Daniel 9:2 Daniel 9:23 ; 10:1 ).
The New Testament. Of the seventeen occurrences of understanding in the Revised Standard Version New Testament, ten are translations of suniemi [sunivhmi] or one of its derivatives. This is the word that the Septuagint uses as a translation of biyn [yiB]. Its meaning is to understand, to gain insight into something.
It can designate a positive quality as when the scribe concurred with Jesus about loving the Lord with "all your understanding" ( Mark 12:33 ) and in Paul's prayer for the Colossians where he couples it with "spiritual wisdom" ( Col 1:9 ). It can be the means of understanding an important truth ( 2 Tim 2:7 ) or the Lord's will ( Eph 5:17 ).
There is also a negative quality to this word. Jesus used parables because of his audience's slowness to understand ( Matt 13:13 ). Even his own disciples did not understand the miracle of loaves and fishes ( Mark 6:52 ). Jesus notes that infants understand God's program better than the intellectuals ( Matt 11:25 ).
The other significant Greek word rendered "understand" is noeo [noievw] and its derivatives, which refer to rational reflection or inner contemplation. Paul notes the limits of human understanding by noting that the peace of God surpasses it ( Php 4:7 ). The apocalyptic number 666 is a challenge to the person who has understanding ( Rev 13:18 ). The pagans act as they do because they are "darkened in their understanding" ( Eph 4:18 ). On the other hand, John affirms that understanding has been made possible by the revelation of Jesus ( 1 John 5:20 ).
Understanding, then, involves the cognitive, the spiritual, and the moral. While human efforts are called for, the ability to understand comes from God. The final test of understanding is obedience to God.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Understanding'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".