Proverbs 9:10—“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.”
I taught a Sunday school lesson to our teens recently and focused on these three parts of Proverbs 9:10. We specifically tried identifying the distinct differences between the concepts of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. Before I went into describing the differences between the three concepts, I did give them a hint that the three were very interrelated that you couldn’t have one of them exist without the other two. So I asked for a volunteer to come to the whiteboard and put those three words in the order they believed they occurred. This young man admitted that he “guessed,” but he guessed correctly and put the three concepts in their proper order.
The correct order that this teen guessed is Knowledge first, Understanding second, and Wisdom comes in third. Just as our lives consist of body, soul, and spirit, one is not alive without all three in place. So too, do we navigate through this life safely using knowledge, understanding, and wisdom…in that order…else we can’t function in life properly. So we will define each term and then look at an easy to understand illustration, and then see how it fits several biblical principles using the doctrine of salvation to explain the relationship between the three.
In simple terms, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom can be defined this way. Knowledge is the body of facts we take in to our hearts and minds when we read, study, are lectured to, or sit under a sermon, or are taught in Sunday school. Understanding is our interpretation of that body of knowledge that we accumulated and evaluated, and processed. Once we come to an understanding of the knowledge we gained, the proper application of that understanding is Wisdom. Each concept builds upon the other, and again, as we will see momentarily, we can not have all three without the other two. But more on that later. Let’s get to a practical illustration to help you see how these three concepts work together.
Let’s supposed you go to the emergency room. You’re brought back to see the physician. As you walk in, the physician sees you limping. When he examines you more closely, he sees that your knee is swollen. He asks if you can move it much and you say that you can’t. Then he touches your knee and you scream out in pain. He asks you how it happened and you proceed to tell him you missed the last step and twisted your knee while you were falling. This fact finding expedition that the physician is embarking on is to gain a knowledge base from which to work from. This knowledge base at this point consists of limping, pain, mechanism of injury, immobility, and swelling. From the interpretation of this knowledge, he comes to the understanding that there is a problem with the knee. Once he understands that there is a problem with the knee, he can make the proper application of that understanding and exercise wisdom by treating the knee and thus healing the patient.
Now see how each builds off of the other and how each contributes to the ability of the other to exist. Now let’s look at the breakdowns that occur, so you can see more clearly how this works. The opposite of wise is foolish (just read Proverbs and you’ll see the contrast between the two). So let’s say this physician saw me limping, saw my swollen knee, saw that I couldn’t move it, and saw that I was in pain, and learned I had fallen. Let’s say he knew all that. Let’s suppose also that he evaluated all the facts and came to the correct understanding that there was a problem with my knee. How foolish would it be for him to send me to a surgeon for open heart surgery? That would NOT be wise. That would be foolishness, and foolishness is void of wisdom. His inability to make the proper application of what he understood to be true is unwise. It was unwise because it would not lead to the intended result that his knowledge and understanding were supposed to yield.
Do you see now how one can not consist without the other two? Not only that, but to make matters worse, even if we make a wise decision, it could very well be the wrong decision, if our knowledge or understanding is wrong. See, wisdom is the proper application of what we understand to be true, so if the breakdown occurs in either the facts we gather, or the way we interpret the facts and come to a conclusion, the choice we make may be wise in its definition, but could in fact be a very bad choice in the end. It’s the old saying, “Garbage in…garbage out.” So you say, “Show me a garbage in…garbage out example.” OK!
Let’s look at a calculator. Very simply explained is this. You type in 2+2 and you get 4. But if you don’t realize that you typed in 2+3 by mistake, you’ll see 5 and think that 2+2=5. Obviously we would know something was wrong and redo that, but supposed we are doing multiple complex math problems and we don’t even realize we have put the wrong digit that was part of a seven digit number that was part of a six step calculation. Suppose you have no idea you inputted garbage. You now have no idea what you understand the answer to be is actually garbage. So the application of what you understand may be the proper application, so it is wise in your mind, but completely wrong and foolish. Just as foolish as 2+2=5…we just don’t know it to be foolish and unwise.
There is so much false information that leads to faulty understanding that can lead to wise conclusions, but it is all garbage. Think about centuries ago when very intelligent people stood on the shoreline and looked out on to the horizon and saw that the ocean just stopped where they could see and that the earth must be flat. They made a wise statement in their mind based on their understanding of what they were seeing, but of course we know they were wrong. But their statements were wise statements at that time, until they were proven wrong. So we can make unwise decisions even when we have correct knowledge and understanding, and we can also make what we think are wise choices, but wrong choices if we have faulty knowledge or faulty understanding of that knowledge.
Let’s go back to the physician. What if he never saw me walk, never asked me to move my knee, never touched my knee, and never looked at my knee. Let’s say he looked at my face and saw some pimples. He would come to understand that I had acne. He then would make the wise decision, based on the fact that I had acne, that he should treat the acne, and so he gives me a prescription for acne cream. Wise decision, but it was based on garbage in and garbage out. Now spiritually speaking, we have a whole lot of garbage out there in the world, that if let that garbage get in, we will have garbage out, and it can lead people to do things that are wise in their minds, but foolish in the end.
Here’s one. Even if one believes in the Big Bang Theory, that this entire universe was created when a baseball-sized very dense mass blew up with enough energy to put everything in the universe where it is today, even if one believes that, you have to ask yourself how that baseball-sized mass got there in the first place. Something HAD to predate that dense ball of matter. It’s illogical to think otherwise! Why is it illogical, because we know that God created the world according to the account in Genesis. So we come to the very wise conclusion based on our understanding of the facts of the creation account in Genesis that God created the universe. But the evolutionist comes to what he believes to be a wise conclusion, but his wisdom, though correct in his eyes, is garbage…because of what the prior evolutionists have taught him.
But the person that doesn’t believe in God, the Bible calls a fool (Psalm 14:1). But why does God not cut anyone any slack for coming to the wrong conclusion because they mistakenly have garbage in issues? The reason is in Romans 1:20, which basically says that all of creation cries out that there is a creator, and that anyone living on planet earth can see enough of God’s creation that they are “without excuse.” There is no excuse to foolishly say there is no God when God Himself has given us plenty of opportunities to push the garbage aside, and take in true facts from which to properly come to the correct understanding and wisely conclude that there is indeed a God.
Imagine this level of foolishness. You are talking to an unsaved person. You tell them we are all sinners (Romans 3:23) as a result of Adam’s sin (Romans 5:12), and that we need a Savior (Romans 5:21), and that without eternal life we will die and go to Hell (Romans 6:23). They come to the understanding, based on the facts you presented them, that they must be born again (John 3:7). They have the correct knowledge and they have correctly interpreted that knowledge and now understand that they need to be saved, and yet they make the decision that it’s not actually necessary to be born again and salvation doesn’t need to be done that way, so choose not to be saved. That is foolish and unwise.
There are many factors that go into the making of a wise decision, but the greatest factor is found in the beginning of Proverbs 9:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” What does that mean? Well, remember that wisdom is the application of what we understand to be true based on the knowledge we have gained. If we have a healthy fear of God, we will not want to hurt Him, cross Him, and open ourselves up to chastisement. Thus, that should make us EXTRA careful to learn the right things, understand what God is trying to teach us, and properly apply those truths and make the best choices…the wise choices. That’s what I believe it means when we say, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” It’s like saying it this way…the precursor to making the best choices in life is to not want to let God down in any way. That should motivate us to learn what He wants us to know, then He will allow the Holy Spirit to help us interpret the Scriptures, either alone or in concert with other learned men and women. Ultimately He even promises to help us make wise choices if we but only ask Him (James 1:5). God wants so badly to bless us, that He’s willing to give you the answer when you are lacking wisdom.
So, learn God’s Word. Study God’s Word. Know God’s Word. Get help understanding and properly interpreting God’s Word. Then, if you are unsure how to respond correctly and apply properly what you know to be true, ask God and He’ll show you His wisdom. Avoid garbage in, garbage out, because even the most well-intentioned foolish decision is still a foolish one, and we should want to make the bestest (yes I said bestest) and wisest choice because we fear hurting, displeasing, or angering God thereby risking blessing for cursing.