by Bob McCabe

In the early years of my Christian experience, I heard some messages on Proverbs 29:18: “Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he” (KJV; NASB also uses “vision”). The gist of these sermons was that effective Christian leaders have visions, the ability to set goals for the future, that result in church growth or some other facet of ministry. If the goals are not followed, “people perish” in the sense that a ministry will become stagnant and irrelevant. In other contexts, people perish in the sense that they lose their sense of vitality. Hybels maintains that without the vision of Proverbs 29:18 people “can’t focus, can’t reach their goal, can’t follow their dream…. I’ve seen it with my own eyes—without vision, people lose the vitality that makes them feel alive” (Courageous Leadership [2002], 31). This vision is a “clear call that sustains focused effort year after year, decade after decade, as people offer consistent and sacrificial service to God” (ibid.). This concept of vision may also be referred to as “vision casting” (“The Art of Vision Casting for Church Multiplication”). Casting refers to empowering one’s followers to embrace and to bring a vision to fruition (“How to Develop and Cast your Vision”). Vision casting is often connected to Proverbs 29:18 (see “Vision Casting & Vision Catching”). A Christian leader’s goals are given a biblical basis by using this verse. I am convinced that this is an illegitimate understanding of this verse for three reasons.

First, we should note the most obvious difficulty with this understanding is that it does not take into account the entire verse. A contrast is set up between the first and second half: the positive results of obedience to the law (18b) and the negative results from having a lack of “vision” (18a). This is to say, on the one hand, by keeping God’s authoritative law, one experiences blessing (v. 18b); but, on the other, by not having something equally authoritative (“vision”), one receives the obverse of blessing (v. 18a).

Second, a major problem with this type of interpretation relates to the fact that the Hebrew term translated “vision” is never connected to setting long-range goals, whether church growth or otherwise. The term “vision” is a translation of a Hebrew word (hazon). This noun is used 35 times in the Old Testament. It is related to a verb (hazah), which means to “see” or to “receive by revelation.” The latter rendering of the verb is used of a prophet having a “vision,” hazon (Isaiah 1:1; Ezekiel 12:27). To understand how this term is used, we need to consider the content of what was received. When God initially spoke to Samuel in 1 Samuel 3:1, the text indicates that “the word of the LORD” was rare because visions (hazon) were uncommon. In Psalms 89:19 God spoke to his people in a “vision” (hazon). This term is also used as a title for some Old Testament prophetic books, such as Isaiah, Obadiah, and Nahum. These books have been recorded as “the word of the LORD.” If the point of the Hebrew term for “vision” is the prophet receiving the “word of the LORD,” this neither refers to a leader’s insight nor his  so-called private hazon about the future, but divine revelation. Consequently, the content of the “vision” (hazon) is fundamentally distinct from some popular interpretations. The vision is the means through which God gave His revelation to His prophets. This term refers to special revelation and should be understood as a vision that contained a prophetic word from God, a “revelation.” Thus “vision” forms an appropriate parallel with “the law,” in v. 18b.

Finally, the word translated “perish” is derived from a verb (para‘), which generally means to “let go” or “let loose.” The translation of this verb as perishing is highly unlikely when it is considered that of its 16 uses in the Old Testament none of these are translated in this fashion. It is used of uncovering (letting loose) one’s head when a turban is removed as a sign of mourning in Leviticus 10:6 and Leviticus 21:10. In Exodus 32:25 the Israelites are unrestrained in the sense that their moral restraints were removed; that is, they showed no moral constraint while Moses was on Mount Sinai. This passage may be the background for Proverbs 29:18, and would, therefore, suggest that this verb has the sense of letting loose, a removal of moral restraints.

Therefore, this proverb should be understood to mean that when there is no special revelation, people cast off moral restraints; however, when people obey God’s word, they are blessed: “Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint; but blessed is the one who heeds wisdom’s instruction” (NIV; similar renderings are found in HCSB, ESV, NKJV). This verse has tremendous theological and practical significance for us. Just as there was a direct correlation in the Old Testament between Israel’s moral condition and their knowing and submitting to God’s special revelation, so there is a direct correlation between our moral state and our knowing and submitting to God’s special revelation, the Bible.