Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.
An article in a practical journal correlated “vision” in Proverbs 29:18 with setting longrange goals (“Clearing Your Vision,” Leadership 12 [Spring 1991]: 120–24). The interpretation of “vision” as long-range goals is one of the more popular ways of explaining this well-known verse. Another prevalent interpretation connects “vision” with evangelism and the verb “perish” with rejecting the gospel: we need an evangelistic vision, for people are perishing.
While both interpretations reflect Biblical truth taught in other Biblical texts, they are not in harmony with the last half of the verse. This proverb sets up a contrast between the positive results of obedience to the law and the negative results from having a lack of “vision.” This is to say that, on the one hand, by keeping God’s authoritative law one experiences blessing (v. 18b) but, on the other, by failing to have something equally authoritative (“vision”) one receives the obverse of blessing (v. 18a).
Another significant problem for the first interpretation above is the fact that the Hebrew term translated “vision” is never applied to an individual setting longrange goals. In connection with the second interpretation above, the Hebrew term translated “perish” is not translated as such anywhere else in the Old Testament. The interpretation of this verse hinges on these two terms. How are these terms to be explained? And how is the verse to be interpreted?
The word “vision” is a translation of a Hebrew noun (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 (Isa. 1:1; Ezek.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 Psalm 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 (“The vision of … ”), such as Isaiah (1:1), Obadiah (1:1), and Nahum (1:1). These books have been recorded as “the word of the LORD.”
A few have misinterpreted this Biblical data and correlated “vision” with one’s spiritual understanding. According to this interpretation, since God filtered His visionary material through a prophet’s intellectual and spiritual capacities, “vision” is equated with “spiritual discernment” (J. Vernon McGee, “Proverbs,” in Thru the Bible, vol. 3, p. 97). This presumably provides a sense of authority for anticipating the future and, by application, being able to set long-range goals or to accomplish great evangelistic campaigns.
If, however, the Hebrew use of “vision” emphasizes the prophet’s receiving the “word of the LORD,” then the term does not refer to spiritual illumination but to divine revelation. The vision is the means through which God gave His revelation to His prophets. Consequently, the content of the “vision” (hazon) is fundamentally distinct from some popular interpretations of its meaning in Proverbs 29:18. This term refers to special revelation and should be understood as a vision that contains a prophetic word from God, a “revelation.” This understanding makes “vision” appropriately parallel with “law” in the second half of this verse.
The Hebrew word translated “perish” in Proverbs 29:18 appears 16 times in the Old Testament and is derived from a verb (para‘) which generally means to “let go” or “let loose.” The meaning “perish” is highly unlikely; the Hebrew word is never translated this way anywhere else in the Old Testament. 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 21:10. In Exodus 32:25 the Israelites are described as unrestrained (or “naked” as rendered in the KJV) in the sense that their moral restraints were removed; they threw off all their moral constraint when Moses was on Mount Sinai. This passage may be the background for Proverbs 29:18. This would suggest that the nuance for this use of the verb is a letting loose, a removal of moral restraints.
This proverb should consequently be understood to mean that where there is no revelation, people cast off moral restraints; however, when people obey God’s word, they are blessed. “Where there is no revelation, the people are unrestrained: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” This verse has tremendous theological and practical significance for our day. It reflects a direct correlation in the Old Testament between the people’s moral condition and their relation to the open declaration and submission to God’s special revelation. Likewise, our moral state has a direct correlation with our continual commitment to properly understanding and applying the truths of God’s special revelation, the Bible.
Dr. Robert V. McCabe is professor of Old Testament and Registrar at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary in Allen Park, Michigan.
(Originally published in FrontLine• March/April 2001. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)