Understanding: Can we understand the world without knowing God?

Written by Paul J. Bucknell on July, 16, 2022

Psalm 53:2 Understanding: Can we understand the world without knowing God?

“God has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men to see if there is anyone who understands,

who seeks after God” (Psalm 53:2 NASB).

NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), ten times more powerful than the old Hubble, was recently sent into deep space, illustrating how our knowledge continues to grow exponentially. Behind this mass of information loom questions about man’s identity and place in the larger world. Researchers worldwide spend billions of dollars to find answers to their questions, including attempts to make contact with aliens.

Our knowledge of the world is increasing rapidly, but a statement in the Psalms about God humbles us, making us think twice. Is there another realm or power beyond the world we know? Is it possible that our understanding is much more limited than we think? It appears so.

Insight into Understanding

The Psalmist wrote two intriguing parallel thoughts in Psalm 53🔢 “to see if there is:

(1) anyone who understands,

(2) who seeks after God.”

His two statements surprise us by presenting an uncommon perspective. Is it possible that despite the vast increase in knowledge, many people still miss out on gaining crucial information about our cosmos? Does seeking after God, as the psalmist suggests, have anything to do with gaining understanding? Indeed, we need to see how knowledge, understanding, and God might fit together.

God’s Viewpoint

God evidently finds great interest in following the development of human beings. “God has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men.”

The statement speaks volumes about God’s observations of human affairs. He perceives their (i.e., our) doings as He studies them—not that it is hard for God to observe anything. The word “anyone” indicates God examines each individual on their quest for knowledge.

How amazing that He looks at all; God is sincerely interested in examining mankind’s activities (Gen 6:12; Ps 14:2).

Most versions translate this phrase as current and ongoing: “looks down,” rather than in the past: “looked down” (NASB). The “looks down” probably gives us a more accurate perspective of this scene. We are not to get distracted by the process but instead marvel that He is acquainted with our individual hearts and minds.

ESV: “God looks down from heaven on the children of man to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God.”

NIV: “God looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God.”

Indeed, God only needs “to look once” to know everything; He knows all things from the beginning of time (Isaiah 46:10; Rev 22:13). But for us trapped in time, it’s easier to grasp how He examines each generation of human beings to gauge every individual’s heart and mind. God’s interest in our lives becomes secondary to the actual discovery of what He finds.

A Bigger View

Let’s explore this set of parallel statements about what God was looking for.

“Anyone who understands, 

who seeks after God.”

Each phrase sheds more light on its buddy phrase when placed in parallel. Hebrew poetry typically adds this descriptive emphasis, expounding and amplifying the meaning. Understanding, therefore, somehow corresponds to the way we seek after God.

“God has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men to see if there is anyone who understands, 
who seeks after God” (Psalm 53:2).

The Age of Enlightenment during the 17 and 18th centuries has influenced modern thought and stressed the opposite of what God has spoken, causing many to foolishly conclude that understanding can be found without God. Consider how many intellectuals don’t question their belief on how evolution “created” the intricately complex DNA molecule. Still, others more arrogantly assert that deluded people have made up the notion of God, the One who created them! This is like denying that we had a mother.

It’s comical that God observes people who insist there is no God. It’s like a bunch of ants trying to build their puny kingdom, though clueless to a towering human observing them from afar. People boasting about their supremacy are not supreme but insignificant. As much as they try, humans cannot escape God’s scrutiny. The created cannot run from God’s all-seeing eye.

In contrast to God, people struggle to acquire and retain knowledge. Our brains are far too small to access current information, requiring a search program to discover the needed information. God observes that they have no understanding.

There is no understanding without knowing God. What difference does it make that we know God? Is it possible that this generation’s access to great information has no significant advantage? Without a heart for God, our knowledge is considered inconsequential, at least to gain a proper understanding.

Knowledge and Understanding

Knowledge is the facts and information, while understanding is our comprehension of that knowledge. Understanding is more than knowledge; it’s the context for the knowledge. The actual Hebrew word used means wise or having insight (Hebrew: ‘sakal’). People often ponder on man’s purpose, asking, “Why am I here?” This question goes beyond the mere fact of a man’s existence, which is knowledge, to the reason he exists. Knowledge without understanding is severely crippled.

The Lord links understanding with an inquiry into God: “who seeks after God.” In other words, only when contemplating God’s existence can one genuinely begin to understand his true identity and purpose. Only by recognizing the existence and work of God will people’s knowledge graduate into understanding.

This is all so apparent when we look at the theory of evolution. The evolutionary mindset has so influenced the supposed study of science that science (lit. knowledge) becomes questionable. Review committees strike down alternative views that do not play the evolutionary game. And so, the framework of God’s existence and purpose—that which is so essential—is ripped from man’s knowledge.

 

Knowledge cannot be rightly assimilated without the framework of God and His purpose for the world and our lives. Knowledge is like many loose peas running all over the place without a bowl to contain them. The pieces of knowledge can’t easily fit together without understanding.

Two Life Truths

The Psalmist provides two crucial truths.

“God has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men to see if there is anyone who understands,

who seeks after God” (Psalm 53:2 NASB).

First, the pursuit of God gives meaning and understanding to life so that knowledge of minute matters makes sense and becomes useful. Understanding is linked to seeking after God. People are meant to live their lives in light of God’s glorious purposes.

Second, life is more than living, even as understanding is much more valuable than scattered pieces of knowledge. Consider a board game with all its pieces. They are senseless unless we know the purpose and rules of the game. People were made to know God. He made us in His image for us to know Him. Knowing Him allows us to live in light of our Creator, who cares for us. Once we pursue Him, He allows us to find Him. It’s there that our life adventure begins to take off—never in a predictable way but always with an amazing final plan.

Conclusion

Our understanding is severely limited without pursuing a relationship with God. The many pieces of information that we are privileged to acquire are nicely placed when pursuing God.

Understanding and seeking God mutually further our development.

Study Questions on Psalm 53:2

“God has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men to see if there is anyone who understands,

who seeks after God” (Psalm 53:2 NASB).

  1. What is God looking for in Psalm 53:2?
  2. Did God find what He was looking for?
  3. What is the significance of this search?
  4. Would you say you are seeking God? Give evidence.
  5. Why do you think the Psalmist connected understanding with pursuing knowledge of God?
  6. What is the difference between knowledge and understanding?
  7. How does the author link evolutionists with this verse?
  8. Do you think it’s fair to say that knowledge without knowing and seeking God is not understanding? Explain.
  9. What is one way you can better seek after God? What difference to God and your life will it make?

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