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Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology


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The Old Testament . The basic Hebrew word so translated is the verb biyn [ Job 8:10; 12:24 ).

Biyn [ בִּין ] is associated with the Hebrew substantive beyn [ בַּיִת , בַּיִן ], which means "interval" and, when used as a preposition, "between." Thus, the basic meaning of biyn [ בִּין ] is to separate, to distinguish. It is perceptive insight with the ability to judge.

Understanding is seen as a gift of God (Daniel 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 28:12,20,23 ). 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 (Daniel 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 4:5,7 ), sought (23:23), and learned (4:1). This can be seen in references to the understanding of a foreign language (Isaiah 33:19 ) and Daniel's understanding of all the subjects in which he was interrogated by Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 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 (Proverbs 3:5 ).

A person can perceive data with the senses: with the eyes (Job 13:1; 23:8 ), with the ears (Job 23:5; Proverbs 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 Chronicles 2:13 ) or to the administrative functions of the king (2 Chronicles 2:12 )even extended to the messianic king (Isaiah 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 9:2,23; 10:1 ).

Understanding is associated with wisdom and personified (Proverbs 2:3; 7:4; 8:14-31 ). While some see this as an hypostasis, it is more likely a poetic personification of an abstract principle.

On the one hand, God is the most important object of understanding (Isaiah 43:10; Jeremiah 9:24 ), but in an intellectual sense he is beyond a person's understanding (Isaiah 40:28 ).

The New Testament . Of the seventeen occurrences of understanding in the Revised Standard Version New Testament, ten are translations of suniemi [ συνίημι , συνίω ] or one of its derivatives. This is the word that the Septuagint uses as a translation of biyn [ בִּין ]. 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" (Colossians 1:9 ). It can be the means of understanding an important truth (2 Timothy 2:7 ) or the Lord's will (Ephesians 5:17 ).

There is also a negative quality to this word. Jesus used parables because of his audience's slowness to understand (Matthew 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 (Matthew 11:25 ).

The other significant Greek word rendered "understand" is noeo [ Philippians 4:7 ). The apocalyptic number 666 is a challenge to the person who has understanding (Revelation 13:18 ). The pagans act as they do because they are "darkened in their understanding" (Ephesians 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.

Carl Schultz

See also Mind/Reason; Wisdom

Copyright Statement
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.

Bibliography Information
Elwell, Walter A. Entry for 'Understanding'. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. 1996.

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