Bible Examples of Discernment

From Bible examples we will see that discernment is not just something that flashes into our minds as an answer to prayer, but comes from submitting ourselves to God’s working in our lives. 


Many times discernment is gained only by difficult experiences. This seems to be the case with many saints, especially Jacob. In his earlier years he went through many difficulties because he was so strong and trusted in his own abilities. However, in his later years when his natural sight was almost gone, he exercised amazing discernment. By this time he no longer trusted his natural sense, or the preference of others, but he perceived God’s mind for the future of his sons. He clearly sensed God’s mind concerning his grandsons and crossed his arms to lay his right hand on the younger child (Gen. 48: 17-19).

As with Joseph, our natural strength must be broken. As our trust shifts from our own ability and personal insight and becomes totally dependent on the Lord we will begin to pick up that still small voice that makes known His mind.


At times revelation seems to come well in advance of wisdom. Joseph was not only a dreamer, but a very perceptive and prophetic young boy. He had, however, not yet learned discernment. He blew his brothers away and almost got himself wiped out (Gen. 37:5).

Only after much testing, only after his pride and presumption were dealt with, was he able to discern the Lord’s way and time for action. Much later, when Joseph’s unsuspecting brothers appeared, he was finally able to discern their hearts. He could also exercise the wisdom to wait for the appropriate time to deal with them according to God’s mind (Gen. 43-45).


Discernment is not a gift that operates regardless of our daily conversations with the Lord. The fact that you have discerned a situation is not a guarantee of automatic discernment of other situations.

In Joshua 5:14, Joshua recognized that the man who approached him was the angel of the Lord and fell on his face. If Joshua had been blinded by pride or position he would have rebuked the man. But as a result of his proper discernment he received a clear word from the Lord and instructions for the coming event.

However, in the situation with the Gibeonites in Joshua 9, discernment was sadly lacking, and the men of Israel were deceived. The Gibeonites wore old shoes, dusty clothes, carried cracked wineskins and moldy bread to convince the Israelite leaders that they had come from a far off country. Joshua 9:14 tells us that, “the Israelite men sampled their provisions but did not inquire of the Lord.” In other words, they ate up their story, but did not discern the Lord’s mind. Consequently they were deceived and the results produced much frustration in the years to come.

We must leam that outward appearances can be deceptive and only discernment guided by the Holy Spirit can preserve us from being deceived. Let us learn to “inquire of the Lord,” even if the outward facts appear obvious.


Little Samuel kept waking up thinking that Eli had called him. It took Eli three times before he perceived that it was the Lord who was calling Samuel (1 Sam. 3:8). Sometimes the Lord graciously gives us a number of chances to get the message.


There are many cases where David exercised discernment and some where he did not. One example worth noting for our study is found in 2 Sam. 14:1-19. Here a wise woman was set up by Joab with a touching story to persuade David to have sympathy for his rebellious son Absalom. However, David discerned that she was speaking for Joab and she acknowledged that no one could get away with anything in front of him!

It does seem that David’s natural sympathy for his son Absalom began to cloud his discernment and eventually allowed an environment for Absalom9 s fatal rebellion. It is very difficult to exercise clear discernment when family or deep natural sympathy is involved.

In 2 Samuel 16, while David is fleeing from Absalom, Ziba brings him provisions and honors him. At this moment David is carried away by Ziba’s graciousness and does not perceive that he is being deceived, because the provisions were actually sent by Mephiposheth (2 Sam 19: 24). It is not easy to have clear discernment when we are hurting and someone is nice to us.

In the next incident David is being cursed by Shimei. Although he is encouraged to react he perceives that Shimei is acting according to the Lord’s instructions. Here we see remarkable discernment in the midst of opposition. If we are sober and discerning, we will recognize when even our opposers can teach us something!

“Let a righteous man strike me -it is a kindness; let him rebuke me -it is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it (Ps. 141:5, shows us one of David’s secret for learning discernment.

The Shunammite woman 

This woman discerned that Elisha, who ate a meal at her house, was a holy man of God and so she prepared a special room for him. For this she received a son, and this son was brought back to life. No doubt this is a type of the coming Messiah (2 Kings 4: 9-37).


When the Lord begins to move in an exciting way some people will be attracted because they like excitement without sharing the same vision. Some will want to participate with motives of ill intent. This was the situation when Nehemiah began to rebuild the wall. He needed discernment to recognize what peoples’ real motives were and who was for and against him (Neh. 6: 12).

Jesus: We see the ultimate example of discernment in Jesus. He could always perceive peoples’ intentions, whether good or evil. He was never deceived and spoke only what the Father was speaking (Matt. 22:18; Mk 2:8; Luke 5:22; 20:23). Disciples: Frequently the disciples were caught short of discernment, especially in relation to Jesus’ comments about His coming crucifixion. Often our natural sympathies or fore-drawn conclusions cloud our ability to discern (Luke 9:45).


Although Peter had earlier problems in discernment he matured in this area. In Acts 8: 20-23 he correctly discerned the motives of Simon the Sorcerer. He was also able to recognize God at work with Cornelius in spite of it being contrary to his past traditions (Acts 10:34).


These men learned much through their mistakes and by being with Jesus. It was only because they were able to rise above pride, competition and seniority that they could perceive Paul’s calling and anointing (Gal. 2:9). Can we discern when a person has a calling to lead or do we simply measure by natural and traditional qualifications for acceptance of the Lord’s servants? Can we discern when another person has an anointing to lead in a certain situation where we usually take the lead?


He was filled with the knowledge of the Old Testament and led by the Holy Spirit. He learned to put to death the deeds of the flesh and was released to discern the will of Christ. He accurately discerned the evil spirit in Elymas (Acts 13:8). Even though he was surrounded by his peers he did not succumb to the pressure to be “politically correct” when challenged by Peter’s duplicity (Gal. 2:11-14).

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