Where there is no vision, the people perish?

At the dawn of a new year, it is natural to reflect and consider where we’ve been in the last year and where we should like to go in the coming months. In various aspects of life—intellectual, physical, spiritual, social–what is our trajectory? Is our weekly routine, our lifestyle, helping us move toward achieving our goals and fulfilling our dreams? Do we need to get out of our own way? Do we have any kind of clear vision for our lives? Should we even bother?

Some people, when they hear a verse like Proverbs 29:18, which says, “where there is no vision, the people perish,” feel like they’re receiving a death sentence. They may have a dream simmering in their imaginations but not know how to go about pursuing it or even where to start. Or they may be drifting at sea without a destination, floating about wherever the winds blow. It could be that they’re stuck in a rut, caught up in a routine that’s lost its meaning. Even in the midst of a meaningful life they may lose sight of their purpose and their passion. In any case, they feel like they’re doomed to die a slow and meaningless death all because they lack vision.

But wait, that’s not the whole verse! The entire proverb says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish; but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” This verse is from a section of the book of Proverbs featuring a collection of individual proverbs, stand-alone sayings. There is no immediate context. So we are left to determine the meaning primarily from the verse itself. The thing about a proverb is that there is a certain poetic device where the second half modifies and expands the meaning of the first. In this case, “law” helps to clarify what “vision” refers to and “perish” is mentioned in contrast to “keepeth.” With this in mind, we may be able to paraphrase: “Those who are not taught God’s law will not live according to it; they will not be happy but perishing.”

When we dive a little deeper into the meaning of “vision” in the original language, chazon means something more like a revelation from God spoken by a prophet or a written account of such a prophetic utterance. The word for “law” is torah, which refers to God’s instruction to us through scripture, in general, or, specifically, to the Pentateuch. On the surface, these two words together allude to the Law and the Prophets (all scripture written up until that time). They also may highlight the need for Spirit-inspired prophets (and pastors and teachers) to proclaim, exhort, and instruct God’s people from His Word.

So far we have been looking at Proverbs 29:18 in the King James Version. The language in that translation may be beautiful but it is outdated and some words may not be used by us in the same way anymore. Also, the manuscripts from which the KJV was translated are not as accurate as those used by modern Bible translators. So, while it is a fine idea to read the KJV (especially aloud), it’s never a good idea to base your theology on the KJV alone. So let’s check our finding with two more translations.

“Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law.” (ESV)

“Without revelation people run wild, but one who follows divine instruction will be happy.” (CSB)

From these verses, we see clearly that a blessed and happy life does not come by casting off restraint and running wild (translated as “perish” in the KJV) but by keeping the law and following divine instruction, and this requires prophetic revelation (“vision”).

Much could be said to the pastors, teachers, and prophets of the church about the need to cast a biblical vision for life, both within the church and without, and the consequences for not doing so.

For now, I say to everyone, if you want to be happy this year, don’t worry about whether or not you’re achieving your dreams. And don’t beat yourself up if your vision for life is not exactly clear. It’s okay. You will not die! Instead, resolve today to be a reader of God’s Word and to be a part of a fellowship where a God-centered vision for life is faithfully proclaimed. Hear, do, and be blessed!

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