In the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, what is the the distinction between the gifts of wisdom, understanding, and knowledge?

cf. Isaiah 11:2 (RSVCE) 2 And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.[a]

Footnotes: a. 11.2 The enumeration of the “gifts of the Holy Spirit” is taken from this passage.

and Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1831.


6 Answers 6


OK, I admit these are not explicitly Christian examples, but I would submit that they clearly demonstrate the difference between knowledge, understanding and wisdom.

Example 1:

Knowledge: you know when you press the "on" button, that the computer activates.

Understanding: you know that after pressing the "on" button, the electricity from the power grid enters your machine, is processed by the power supply, and is distributed with the proper characteristics for your computer to work.

Wisdom: You know that because lightning can generate power surges in the electrical grid that can damage electronic equipment, that it's better not to turn on activate the power button during a thunderstorm.

Example 2:

Knowledge: you know when your significant other is stressed upon arrival home after work, and requires some chill out time to regain a cheerful demeanor.

Understanding: you know that the stress is a result of the commute, and perhaps events that happened during the day, and has little or nothing to do with you personally.

Wisdom: you keep the first interval immediately upon arriving home for relaxing and stress reducing behaviors and activities, and save stress inducing ones for later.

  • Love the human examples. Answer would have been great giving these after explaining the spiritual ones.
    – user13992
    Jul 28, 2014 at 6:18
  • Mojo had already given spiritual examples, and I didn't think I could do it any better.
    – brasshat
    Jul 28, 2014 at 6:28

The gifts of the Holy Spirit are briefly explained in the Catholic Encyclopedia's article on The Holy Ghost

  • The gift of wisdom, by detaching us from the world, makes us relish and love only the things of heaven.
  • The gift of understanding helps us to grasp the truths of religion as far as is necessary.
  • The gift of counsel springs from supernatural prudence, and enables us to see and choose correctly what will help most to the glory of God and our own salvation.
  • By the gift of fortitude we receive courage to overcome the obstacles and difficulties that arise in the practice of our religious duties.
  • The gift of knowledge points out to us the path to follow and the dangers to avoid in order to reach heaven.
  • The gift of piety, by inspiring us with a tender and filial confidence in God, makes us joyfully embrace all that pertains to His service.
  • Lastly, the gift of fear fills us with a sovereign respect for God, and makes us dread, above all things, to offend Him.

By my understanding then:

  • Wisdom is a disposition towards or love of the good.
  • Knowledge is a breadth of intellectual awareness of religious and spiritual practices and truths.
  • Understanding is a deep understanding of the truths of which you're aware.

Put another way, all three deal with "the things a person knows"; but as it pertains to "what a person knows", wisdom describes a holy direction and disposition, knowledge describes a wide breadth, and understanding describes great depth.


Is there a difference?

The words in question in Is 2 are chokmah (2451; wisdom, skill, shrewdness) and biynah (998; understanding, discernment). tabuwn (8394; understanding, intelligence) is a close synonym, also used in conjuction with "wisdom" (e.g. Ex 31:3, Job 12:13).

If there is a meaningful difference between the two, it is subtle and there might not be a brief way to express the idea in English, for in English these two words are frequently used synonymously. From what little I've been taught about ancient Hebrew, wisdom has a connotive "skill" about it and might perhaps have more earthly, practical applications, whereas understanding suggests more about knowing when and how and being able to understand people and relationships.

People frequently draw a sharp contrast between wisdom and knowledge as they are used in the Bible, but the distinction between wisdom and understanding is not so clear.

These links are more verbose discussions of this topic.

Caution: Speculation

I suspect that they are enumerated in the catechism that way because it is a direct quotation from the text, not because there is an important difference. Hebrew poetry likes parallelism, and this usage sounds like typical poetic repetition to me. I can't say that I think "counsel" and "might" are easily interchangeable, but "knowledge" and "the fear of the LORD" are equated in at least one other place (Prov 1:7).

Proverbs 4:7 (NASB)
The beginning of wisdom is: Acquire wisdom; And with all your acquiring, get understanding.

These words seem so closely related, it seems to me that it requires wisdom and/or understanding to know the difference.

  • These words seem so closely related, it seems to me that it requires wisdom and/or understanding to know the difference. Love this! Is there a difference? Apparently there is and one distinction is the object of each gift. Thank you for the go at the answer.
    – user13992
    Jul 28, 2014 at 4:42

Starting with the common understanding [no pun intended]/characteristics of wisdom:

  • Generally it is associated with a noble ripe old age.

  • Grasp what works and doesn't.

  • Enables the possessor to make good judgments and arrive at sound decisions i.e. judge wisely, and make wise decisions.

  • Etc.

The fear of the Lord, one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. cf. Ps 9:10 (RSVCE)].

The insight of the one being led to wisdom is that God does not delights in wickedness; evil may not sojourn with with him. [cf. Ps 5:4].

Thus the gift of wisdom enables the possessor to depart from evil, and do good; so [they] shall abide for ever [cf. Ps 37:27 (RSVCE), 1 Pt 3:11, etc.]; and the possessor further weighs and chooses people and created things in the light of their being good or evil in the sight of God.

Good works, evil doesn't. Choose wisely!

The object of the gift of understanding is the mysteries of faith [cf. the creed, the Incarnation, the Redemption, etc.]. The gift enables the possessor to delve deeper into these mysteries so as to live a fully Christian life.

The object of the gift of knowledge is created things as signs which lead to God, and their meaning to their elevation to the supernatural order. The gift enables the possessor to see that everything comes from God, and that everything is directed to him.


wisdom > good and evil [ultimate good = God].

understanding > mysteries of faith.

knowledge > God's creation [with God in the picture].

A brief on the other gifts:

The fear of the LORD > servile fear (absent in Our Lady and our LORD) and holy fear of the LORD. The former, fear sinning because of punishment, hell, etc., the latter, great horror of sin arising from love of God and some grasp of the transcendence of God and of the infinite distance and the abyss which sin opens between man and God. The latter engenders the proper respect between the possessor and their Father, God.

Recall, this is the gift that leads to the beginning of wisdom.

The gift of counsel (and the virtue of prudence) > the possessor is advised on which path to take, which way they should go.

The gift of fortitude > possessor obtains the necessary strength to overcome obstacles and practice virtue.

The gift of piety (how does one pray, attend mass (e.g. dress, etc.), make the sign of the cross, genuflect, show reverence to God and the things of God?, etc.) > possessor gets to appreciate their divine filiation, giving their relationship with God the tenderness and affection of a son for his Father.

Source: Daily Meditations Volume Two: Lent and Eastertide | In Conversation with God, 83., 87.-93. | Francis Fernandez


Isaiah Chapter 11 (and hence, the verse you quoted) are qualities of the Messiah - who we know to be Jesus Christ. These gifts are much different from those we see later in the NT (i.e. Paul's writings, the Pentecost). I realize this to be taught as things all people can possess, but I understand it as noted above - a prophecy detailing the very qualities of our Lord.

And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

I had always been taught, and understood, that these are not seven - but 3. So I will try to explain the difference between the "two":

Wisdom and understanding: We know that, throughout the New Testament, that Jesus Christ displayed a level of wisdom and understanding beyond that of the men and women of his time - and far, far beyond that of the Pharisees. Jesus possessed the very wisdom and understanding of God.

Knowledge and the fear of the Lord: Knowledge is knowing, we can't disagree there. Jesus Christ knew who God was and knew how we were supposed to live. Jesus was the fulfillment of the Law He had set in place. Spiritually speaking, I think it's more than enough for us to say Jesus could and would answer any spiritual question we had regarding God and the Laws. Now for Fear. Jesus had complete fear of God, but it wasn't that He was afraid of Him. We are taught across many denominations (Roman Catholic as well, if I'm not mistaken) that Fear of the Lord is living in respect, awe, and submission to Him. We know Jesus did this. He had the utmost respect for God, lived in awe of His works (we know this, because He was perfect in fulfillment of this prophecy), and we certainly know Jesus submitted Himself fully to the Will of the Lord.

I'd sit here and quote Bible verses, but pretty much the entirety of the Gospels display all of these. But that is the difference as I understood, was taught, and teach to others.

Jesus had the wisdom and understanding of the Lord, as well as the knowledge and fear (respect) for God that people before then, at the time, and even today do not possess.

(note I did not say "everyone" at the time, etc. because I don't know everyone)

  • I had always been taught, and understood, that these are not seven - but 3. Please refer to the end of the question: Footnotes: a. 11.2 The enumeration of the “gifts of the Holy Spirit” is taken from this passage. and Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1831.
    – user13992
    Aug 4, 2014 at 19:00

In certain Pentecostal and Charismatic circles, Isaiah 11 describes the seven spirits (or seven-fold spirit) of God from revelation.

The first one is "the Spirit of the LORD", then the Spirit of wisfom, etc. It is interesting to note that this Catholic source cited leaves off the first, and inserts "piety".

As for the question, referring to Proverbs, first let's differentiate knowledge and understanding.

Proverbs 15:14 and Proverbs 18:15 both say that the heart/mind with understanding seeks knowledge. Proverbs 14:6 says that knowledge is easy for him who has understanding.

Elsewhere, in Ps 119:34, David aays, give me understanding that I might keep your law.

Thus, knowledge of the law, specifically, what it says, is simply knowledge. David had the law, the knowledge, but he was seeking the understanding of why such as such was so. The principle is then, if you know what the law says, you can obey by rote. But, as you gain understanding of the Law, that all the Law really hangs on love, say, the knowledge of the law becomes easy.

But, this is not limited to the law, but everything. As abivr, if someone has understanding, they will generally seek out knowledge. If you have general understanding of automobiles, when you encounter a new car, say a hybrid electric, the normal tendency would be to seek out knowledge. Or, if it is computers, if you have general understanding, how the parts interoperate, you become more interested in the individual parts thrmselves.

In this way, knowledge is simply the facts, data, where understanding is how they "work". But, this understanding of how they work is not limited to the knowledge itself, and the presence of knowledge without understanding leads one to investigation.

Then, we have wisdom, which is different than both. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the fear of the Lord is to hate evil, so wisdom incorporates the hating of evil.

It doesn't take much 'wisdom', or sense, to begin to realize that many people have both knowledge and understanding, yet they lack the sense of what's a good idea. This is wisdom, and involves action and restraint. By knowledge and understanding, you could make the largest ski ramp in the world, capable of launching a skier (victim) a half a mile into the air... But, by wisdom, a life is preserved (Ecclesiasties 7:12).

You can also have wisfom without either of the other two, but they work well together.

Not in your question is counsel and might. The first might be refered to as the ability to convey the information to another, or to have it conveyed to you. A man might have knowledge (all the pieces), understanding (how they work together), and wisdom (when and how to use them), but he may not be able to pass that onto anyone else. He has thrm, but cannot counsel, or share it (teach). May who are very good at what they do make lousy teachers, no counsel. And, might is the ability to perform. You can know how it all works, and be Able to teach, but might is the actual power to implement it.

Various examples of combinations could be given. Many have some in greater manifestation than others. They work the best in combination, but each is something unique.

The other two, the spirit of the LORD and the fear of the LORD, will wait for somewhere else.

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