Misusing Scripture: Proverbs 29:18

Imagine with me that it’s the first Sunday of January. Your pastor has summoned the church together for the all-important annual “Vision Night,” in which he will lay out goals for coming year, excitedly talk about upcoming events, and plead for volunteers. He might even have a detailed five-year plan that involves a new gymnasium (“Family Life Center,” in Christian-speak), a Christians school, or some other ambitious project. He might even have a really cheesy theme for the year designed to help encapsulate his vision and goals for the upcoming year (what church didn’t have a “2020 Vision” theme this past year?). As the pastor lays out his vision, he reminds you of the importance of such plans by quoting Proverbs 29:18, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” 

In other words, without a clear vision and plan for the future, without goals, the ministry will flounder and be directionless, and the church will be ineffective at reaching its life-giving mission of disciple-making. There’s a lot at stake. 

While I think we can all agree that it’s important for any organization or individual to have a clear “vision” of what they believe God wants them to accomplish, this is decidedly not what Proverbs 29:18 is about. 

2020 Vision in 1000 B.C.

When we, in 2020, read the word “vision,” we automatically connect it with the word’s use in the business world. But it might surprise you to find out that “Vision Statements” and “Vision Casting” are very recent fads—even in the secular business world. In fact, some research shows that companies only started adopting vision statements in the 1970s and 1980s. (https://www.performancemagazine.org/vision-statements-as-strategic-management-tools-–-historical-overview/)

Quite simply, the idea of having a strategic plan for your church was not a thing in 1611 when King James Version was translated, nor was vision-casting on Solomon’s heart as he wrote this. Reading it this way is an anachronism, reading a modern concept back into the Bible. It’d be like declaring Goliath’s cause of death being COVID-19 or conjecturing that David used Twitter.  

Instead, an examination of the term “vision” points us in a different direction. The term “vision” translates the Hebrew word חָזוֹן. In its Old Testament usage, it consistently refers to the prophetic vision, that is divine revelation. For example, in I Samuel 3:1, says, “the word of the Lord was precious in those days; there was no open vision [חָזוֹן].” Here, “vision” clearly parallels the phrase, “word of the Lord.” In Isaiah 1:1, the term appears, once again referring to the prophetic message. Likewise, Jeremiah 23:16 calls out the false prophets for speaking a “vision of their own imagination, not from the mouth of the LORD.” I could multiply examples. 

The point is quite simple: when we read the word here, we should be thinking prophetic vision, that is, God’s Word being communicated to man, not a man-made strategic vision or business plan. In fact, this understanding is helpfully brought out by just about every modern translation of Proverbs 29:18. The NIV, CSB, and NKJV render it “revelation,” while the ESV “prophetic vision.” The KJV and NASB stand alone among major translations in rendering it simply as “vision.” While the translation of חָזוֹן as “vision” is not technically wrong—that is the “literal” meaning of the word—it is readily misunderstood as we bring our cultural pre-understandings to the text. 


In a book like Proverbs, we are dealing with wisdom literature that employs parallelism, a rhyming of thought between lines. Quite often, only the first half of the verse is read. But since this is poetic wisdom literature, we should expect parallelism, which means we should examine the whole verse, not just the first line. 

“Where there is no vision, the people perish:

But he that keepeth the law, happy is he.”

These two lines stand in antithetical parallelism to each other. The second line advances the thought of the first by giving us the opposite of the first. Thus, “happy” and “perish” are opposites, while “vision” and “law” correspond positively to each other. The verse basically self-interprets if we let it.

This is the key. Even if you did not look up the word “vision” and discover that it has to do with prophetic vision, the second half of the verse tells you that “vision” goes hand-in-hand with “law.” Together, the “law” and “prophets” are shorthand for “Scripture.” For example, In Matthew 7:12, Jesus says, “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” He uses the same phrase “law and the prophets” in Matthew 22:40 and 11:13. So, very simply, this verse is talking about the totality of God’s Word.  

Is having no vision statement really deadly? 

That brings us to another issue, namely, with the word “perish.” Solomon is not saying that a failure to follow pastor’s plans could get you killed like that conniving couple in Acts 5 (seriously, I know of a pastor who preached that!). Instead, the term rendered “perish” (פָּרַע) means to “let go, let alone” (BDB). In some contexts, it can even convey the idea of unbinding the hair. A great example of this term is Exodus 32:25, where the people of Israel were behaving in an utterly unrestrained manner in their debauched worship of the golden calf: “Moses saw that the people were unrestrained” (NKJV). They had ignored God’s clear revelation in the law, and the result was utter chaos. 

Incidentally, this is precisely what Proverbs 29:18 is saying. When God’s Word is not read, preached, revered, and obeyed, there is unrestraint and chaos in the lives of God’s people. 

This verse is quite simply saying, “You need God’s Word. Without it, you’ll live an unrestrained life and bring about destruction on yourself.” Positively stated, we need both the “law” and the “prophets.” We need Scripture, all of Scripture, Scripture in context, and Scripture in all things. Scripture is our foundation of truth. Scripture is our lens for looking at life. Scripture is our grid for evaluating every truth claim. 

Practically, this calls us to expositional preaching of God’s Word in our churches, the supremacy of God’s Word in counseling, and the teaching of God’s Word in the home. Scripture is God’s inspired and all-sufficient revelation to us, giving us the truth that is necessary to live a God-honoring life (II Timothy 3:15-17-; Psalm 19:7-11; 2 Peter 1:3, 20-21). It’s not an interesting add-on for one hour on Sunday mornings. 

God’s Word is to be the spectacles that correct our blurry vision and give us the lens through which we look at the world. While it does not tell us everything we would like to know, it does furnish us with necessary perspective to understand God’s world, and more crucially, glorify God. 

As far as a vision statement goes, Proverbs 29:18, properly understood, is actually a pretty good one: keep God’s Word at the center of everything you do. That, after all, is far more important than having a vision statement or a strategic plan.


Popular Posts