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Out of context: “Where there’s no vision…”

Out of Context

Today’s out-of-context scripture is Proverbs 29.18: “Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” (KJV)

It’s frequently quoted because it’s such an awesome motivational verse. When pastors speak to people whose lives have no clear direction, usually they 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 is no vision, the people perish.’ You gotta grab that vision.” …And you’ve likely heard a version of this sermon before, and know the rest.

The word for “vision” comes from the Hebrew noun khazón, meaning a supernatural vision, a non-supernatural dream, some kind of divine communication with a visual component, or a prophetic book. The word for “perish” is from the Hebrew verb pará, to loosen like a turban; to unbind [one’s head] or leave alone, like unwashed hair.

In the early 1600s, “vision” and “perish” were perfectly fine translations. But over time “vision” stopped automatically meaning a vision of God, and grew to mean my own vision for myself. “Perish,” which used to mean “let go,” grew to mean “die, usually in a sudden, violent way.” Words have changed meaning in the 500 years since the King James Version was translated.

Today’s translations tend to get it right. The NKJV has it, “Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint; / But happy is he who keeps the law.” That translates it just fine. So does the NLT’s “When people do not accept divine guidance, they run wild. / But whoever obeys the law is joyful.”

And it fits the context better. Proverbs was written in Hebrew poetry, which means parallelism—repeated ideas instead of repeated sounds. You’re either comparing synonyms (the same idea) or antonyms (a contrary idea). This verse is obviously comparing antonyms: “No divine guidance” is compared with “the Law,” and “run wild” is compared with “joyful.” That’s a more obvious contrast than trying to explain how “I don’t have a vision” is somehow the opposite of “keeping the Law.”

That’s the context. Here’s the problem.

The verse doesn’t do what you want it to.

Most Christians have heard the “where there’s no vision” bit all their lives. And sometimes we want to quote it. It makes such a great motivational statement: You can base a pep talk on it, or stick a framed office poster of it on your wall, or buck up your kids with it. It’s got all sorts of uses. But when you go looking for it in anything other than the KJV, you wind up with

Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint;

but blessed is the one who heeds wisdom’s instruction.

—Solomon, Proverbs 29.18 NIV

Stupid translators and their insistence on accuracy. Great, now what do I lecture the kids with?

What tends to happen, and I’ve seen it more times than I can count, is that people will quote the present-day translation. Then they’ll say, “But in the King James Version, it says, ‘Where there’s no vision, the people perish.’ And that’s why you gotta make plans for your life. You gotta have dreams for your future.” And so on.

In other words, “To hell with what Solomon actually meant to say, or what God meant to reveal through him. I’m going with my favorite interpretation.” Which happens to be wrong; but since it’s so popular and common, no one’s really gonna call them on how they twisted the scriptures.

The vision is not our vision. It is revelation. It is God’s vision. It compares with the Law, which is likewise God’s vision. When we lack God’s revelation, we’re so screwed. Ironically, that’s exactly what happens whenever people ignore the proper meaning of this verse in order to give a motivational speech: They dismiss God’s revelation. And they’re so screwed.

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

Making plans.

The bible isn't against goal-setting. Far from it. But the bible does warn 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. “Unless the LORD builds a house, the work of the builders is wasted.” (Ps 127.1 NLT) By all means set goals. But always allow for God.

In Proverbs 29.18 revelation is compared with the Law because the Law is revelation: It’s God telling Moses to write down commands on how to structure Hebrew society. God wants to structure our lives so that they fit with the universe as he originally created it. When people don’t follow his structure, we run amok. You might recall Judges, and how people ran seriously amok because there was no king to enforce God’s commands.

How far have we incorporated God’s commands into our lives? And since I got to talking about life goals, 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?

Have you noticed how people who set large life goals for themselves usually include God’s goals as an afterthought? Notice how often those life goals deal with worldly success, with material prosperity, with monetary wealth instead of spiritual wealth. Notice how their spiritual lives, left in the back seat, are usually tweaked to accommodate their goals: Scriptures are re-interpreted so that they justify the ambitious lifestyle. Just like “Where there’s no vision…” frequently becomes. Consequently, they might achieve everything on their lists, but at the cost of their eternal lives. (Mk 8.34-38)

Now, ambition and a godly lifestyle are not mutually exclusive. You can create big plans for yourself and live up to God’s expectations. After all, God’s expectations more than likely include some really big plans. But God’s plans need to be first, front, and center. Not ours. Without his vision, we fall apart.