One of my greatest passions in life is for history. When I was young I was more likely to be seen reading non-fiction than fiction, and it was natural that when it came time for post-secondary education, I elected to take history as my major. One aspect of history I particularly enjoyed was examining historical figures whom we tend to vilify to see if the reality matches our perception. Often I would find myself attempting to vindicate a particular historical figure who has been given unfair treatment in history. These days I find myself doing the same with Bible passages. There are multitudes of passages in Scripture that we use in a sense that, when given proper examination, is completely foreign to the true meaning of the passage. Today I will turn to one of these.
Proverbs 29:18 is a verse that many Christians have latched onto, claiming that it provides biblical basis for the importance of vision in leadership. This passage is used, most notably, by leaders within the church growth movement. Consider this brief sampling of the usage of this verse:
MY IMAGINATION INFLUENCES MY ASPIRATION. In other words, your dreams determine your destiny. To accomplish anything you must first have a mission, a goal, a hope, a vision. “Without a vision the people perish.” Proverbs 29:18.
-Rick Warren (link).
All memorable achievements were brought about by leaders who had vision. God uses visions to excite leaders because excited leaders get the most out of followers. Active followers accomplish much, and Christ’s Body keeps getting bigger thanks to prevailing local churches. That is why Proverbs 29:18 clearly states, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Let a leader grasp a godly vision, and then watch God work.
-Ken Godevenos (link)
Proverbs 29:18 says, “Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained.” They can’t focus, can’t reach their goal, can’t follow their dream. An older translation says, “Without vision, the people perish.” I’ve seen it with my own eyes – without vision, people lose the vitality that makes them feel alive.
-Bill Hybels, Courageous Leadership, page 31
In the workbook section of Transitioning, a text book for leading a church from a “program-driven” to purpose-driven model, Dan Southerland examines vision in the light of Proverbs 29:18, suggesting that we should interpret this verse in the present tense to read “Where there is no visioning…(page 177)” the people perish.
Tony Morgan, pastor of Granger Community Church in South Bend, Indiana, quoting this passage, writes, “Without a planned destination, no one knows where to go. In churches, that leads to people doing ministry without a purpose. Programs drive these churches because no one has determined where the church is going. A vision statement paints a picture of the ideal future of your ministry and focuses prayer, energy, and resources.”
What is this vision these church leaders are referring to? Southerland defines vision as “a picture of what God wants to do. Vision is a picture of what God will do in His church if we get out of His way and turn Him loose to do so” (Transitioning page 22). Hybels says that “vision is a picture of the future that produces passion” (Courageous Leadership, page 32).
Vision, according to these authors, is an integral part of church leadership. A leader who does not cast and follow vision, leads his church towards destruction. The words “the people perish” is often interpreted by proponents of church growth to mean that churches without clear vision will lose members and be unable to numerically grow and flourish.
But is that conclusion supported by this verse?
It is interesting to note that all of the men have quoted the King James Version’s rendering of Proverbs 29:18, which reads “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” This is strange in that these men would never preach from the King James, nor would they recommend it for study or devotional reading. So why would they quote from this old translation? The answer becomes clear when we examine other translations:
NIV – Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint
NLT – When people do not accept divine guidance, they run wild
CEV – Without guidance from God law and order disappear
NKJV – Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint
HCSB – Without revelation people run wild
ESV – Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint
AMP – Where there is no vision [no redemptive revelation of God], the people perish
The New King James and some of the other translations footnote the alternate translation of “revelation,” saying that it can also mean “prophetic vision.” The Amplified works “redemptive revelation of God” into the text.
Clearly the meaning of these contemporary translations is vastly different than the meaning that has been assigned to the King James’ rendering. The Hebrew word that is causing all the trouble is chazon which refers specifically to a prophetic vision. This is not vision in the sense of “a picture of the future that produces passion” and only a small amount of research into the text shows this to be true. Strong suggests the following meanings:
a) vision (in ecstatic state)
b) vision (in night)
c) vision, oracle, prophecy (divine communication)
d) vision (as title of book of prophecy)
None of these can be used to support the type of vision these authors are suggesting. Furthermore, “perish” does not mean “die” but rather “cast off restraint.” The meaning of the verse is clear – Where there is no prophetic vision or revelation from God the people cast off restraint, no longer faithfully interpreting God’s Word and His Laws.
We should also note that none of these authors we listed above have completed the verse. The King James renders the rest of the verse as follows: “but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” The ESV says “but blessed is he who keeps the law.” The word “but” contrasts something from the first clause and the second. Obviously, what is being contrasted is those who cast off restraint when there is no revelation from God with those who keep the Law regardless. This verse warns against turning from the revelations of God and promises blessing to those who honor Him.
It is possible that a brief, careless reading of one translation of the Bible could lead to confusion as to this verse’s meaning. But for anyone who rightly handles the Word of God, paying attention to the sense of the text and to the meaning of the specific words used, the meaning of this verse is obvious. This verse says nothing of the importance of having a church that is led by vision or a visionary. Ironically, this verse should underscore the importance of honoring God’s revelation, and warn those who would water it down by sloppy or deliberate misuse.