Where there’s no vision. (It’s not your vision.)

by K.W. Leslie, 07 August

Years ago I taught at a Christian junior high. We had a chapel service, and one of my fellow teachers was gonna preach a nice motivational mini-sermon, and came to me for help: He was trying to find this verse in his bible, and couldn’t:

Proverbs 29.18 KJV
Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.

It’s because the school’s official translation was the New International Version, but he had the verse memorized in the King James Version, and the NIV had updated the vocabulary so much, he couldn’t recognize it anymore. The 1984 edition of the NIV put it thisaway:

Proverbs 29.18 NIV (1984)
Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint;
but blessed is he who keeps the law.

The current edition updated it even further. Plus made it gender-inclusive.

Proverbs 29.18 NIV (2011)
Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint;
but blessed is the one who heeds wisdom’s instruction.

“Wisdom’s instruction” isn’t that precise a translation of torah/“Law,” but whatever.

My coworker was confused by the update. Because he already had a specific reason for wanting to use this verse as his proof text: He wanted to talk to the kids about why it’s important for each of us to have a vision for our future in mind.

It’s not about that, I explained to him. It’s about revelation. It’s about God’s vision for our future. Which is why he gave us his Law. It’s not about making our own plans.

He nodded, and I thought he had heard me. But when it came time to speak to the kids, first he quoted the NIV, then said, “But in the King James Version it says, ‘Where there’s no vision, the people perish.’ And that’s what I wanna talk to you about today. You gotta make plans for your future. You gotta have a vision. Otherwise you’ll perish.”

And so on. Context be damned; he had kids to motivate. Stupid translators and their insistence on accuracy were only getting in his way.

So that was disappointing, and I lost a lot of respect for him as a Christian and an educator. But it’s hardly the first time I’ve tried to correct a fellow Christian, only to have it fall on deaf ears. Still happens all the time. Hopefully you haven’t come to this blog, or this article, with this know-it-all mindset.

It’s not about planning your future. It’s about following God.

The “Where there’s no vision” verse is quoted all the time by motivational speakers, because it’s such an awesome motivational verse. Pastors wanna speak to people whose lives lack a clear direction, go into Tony Robbins mode, and preach, “You gotta make plans for your life. You gotta have dreams. You gotta create visions for your future. Visualize what you want to achieve. Then go out and achieve it. After all, ‘Where there’s no vision, the people perish.’ Don’t perish! Grab that vision.” You’ve likely heard a version of this sermon before, and know the rest.

The word the KJV’s translators rendered “vision” comes from the Hebrew noun khazón. It’s not describing just any vision. It means a supernatural vision. Or dream, or divine communication with a visual component, or a prophetic book. It’s not about my vision for my future, nor yours. It’s about God’s.

The word for “perish” comes from the Hebrew verb pará/“loosen.” Tended to be used to describe unwrapping a turban—or leave it alone, like you would unwashed hair.

In the early 1600s, “vision” and “perish” were perfectly fine translations. Over time “vision” stopped automatically meaning a vision from God, and grew to mean any vision. Even my own, for myself. And “perish,” which used to mean “let go,” grew to mean “die—usually in a sudden and violent way.” Words evolve, y’know; and it’s been 500-plus years since the King James Version was translated. Interpreters regularly forget this. And if they have a certain spin they wanna put on the bible, they really don’t care that words evolve. They want it to mean what they want it to mean.

Today’s translations tend to get it right. The NKJV renders it,

Proverbs 29.18 NKJV
Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint;
But happy is he who keeps the law.

That conveys the writer’s original meaning just fine. As does the New Living Translation:

Proverbs 29.18 NLT
When people do not accept divine guidance, they run wild.
But whoever obeys the law is joyful.

Plus it fits the context better. Proverbs was written in Hebrew poetry, which means they repeated ideas instead of sounds. The lines of a proverb either repeat an idea, or contrast opposing ideas. This verse contrasts “lack of divine vision” with “obeying the Law,” and “no restraint” with joy. If you know God’s revelation, and follow it, your life’s gonna be good. If you don’t, you’ll run amok and fall into ruin.

So that’s the context. Here’s the problem, as I explained with my little introductory story: People don’t give a sloppy wet dump what it means. They just want their motivational verse. They want people to create a vision for their lives.

Now, when I seek a vision for my own life, am I taking God into consideration? I should be, right? But in practice, is this what people actually do? Nah. Their visions for their lives are entirely their visions. Not so much God’s.

Ironically, when people quote this verse out of context, they wind up fulfilling it. Instead of paying attention to God’s revelation (i.e. the actual meaning of this verse), they preach what they wanna preach. They throw off his restraint. And they’re gonna perish.

Yeah, there’s a lot of irony in these #Context posts. As well as most scriptures that Christians get wrong.

Making plans.

The bible isn't against making plans, making goals, vision casting, and so forth. Far from it. But its authors do warn us against making plans without taking God into consideration. Note Jesus’s parable of the rich man who built huge barns, then died before he could enjoy them. Lk 12.13-21 Note James’s warning about presumptuous planning. Jm 4.13-16 Note Ecclesiastes and its teachings about the futility of wealth. “The builders’ work is wasted unless the LORD builds the house.” Ps 127.1 By all means set goals—and always allow for God.

Obviously people don’t do this. In Judges especially, people did as they pleased with no consideration for the Law, for God’s instructions. There was no king to enforce God’s commands (presuming the king bothered to follow God either) and lead the people back to their LORD. Jg 17.6, 21.25 When we follow their bad example, we likewise run amok—and run into disaster.

So how far have we incorporated God’s commands into our lives? How far has God’s will been incorporated into our life goals? Are God’s visions for our lives a central part of our lives? Are they any part whatsoever?

Y’might notice how people who set huge goals for their lives, usually include God’s will as an afterthought. Most of their plan involves worldly success, material wealth, social prosperity… and not so much spiritual growth, and strong relationships with godly people. Their religious lives take a back seat to their goals, and are often tweaked to accommodate them. Bible verses bent to justify their ambitious lifestyles. Just like when “Where there’s no vision” is repurposed into our vision, not God’s. Such people might achieve everything on their lists, but at the cost of their eternal lives. Mk 8.34-38

Ambition and a godly lifestyle aren’t mutually exclusive. We can create big plans for ourselves and live up to God’s expectations. After all, God’s expectations include some really big plans too! But God’s plans need to be first, front, and center. Without his vision, we fall apart.