A Revision of “Vision”
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”. 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.
I am convinced that this is an illegitimate understanding of this verse for three reasons.
First, we should note 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 and the negative results from having a lack of “vision”. This is to say, on the one hand, by keeping God’s authoritative law, one experiences blessing; but, on the other, by not having something equally authoritative (“vision”), one receives the obverse of blessing.
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.” 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 (Lev. 10:6, Lev. 21:10). The Israelites (Ex. 32:25) are unrestrained in the sense that their moral restraints were removed (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”. This verse has tremendous theological and practical significance for us. There is a direct correlation between our moral state and our knowing and submitting to God’s special revelation, the Bible.
Editor's note: Content for this devotional was taken from the original article A Re-”vision” of Proverbs 29:18