One of the most frequently quoted verses in the Old Testament, is, sadly, often MIS-quoted. Proverbs 29:18 reads: “Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained (or “perish.)”
Typically someone quotes this verse and follows up with an admonition on how “you need to get a vision” or “people need a vision”. Thus they call for you to “dream your dream” of what you want to accomplish, or encourage churches to find a leader who has “a vision” for where they should be going. But the important thing for us to consider is: is this what this text really means?
The word “vision” comes from a Hebrew word which means a revelation from God — like His prophets Isaiah, Nahum, and others experienced in the Old Testament. The second part of the verse further helps us understand the meaning of the word. Hebrew poetry (like this Proverb) is called “parallelism”, because it usually consists of two statements which parallel each other: either compared or contrasted. In Proverbs 29:18 the two phrases are contrasted with each other. To what is “no vision, the people are unrestrained” compared with? “Happy is he who keeps the Law.” So having “no vision” (or better, “revelation”) is contrasted with “keeping the Law” — God’s revealed word.
This makes it clear that what is being referred to here is not some “vison” you have dreamed up, or one “dynamic leader’s specific growth plan for the church.” It is talking about the proclamation and teaching of God’s word. Where there is no revelation of God’s word; where His scripture is not taught and applied as the prophets and others of God’s people did, the people will go their own way — they will be “unrestrained” as the verse declares. But where God’s revelation in scripture is taught, the people are able to follow His word, and they are the recipients of all the blessings that attend scriptural obedience.
Do we need to listen to this verse and apply it? Absolutely. We just need to know what it is really commending:
— It is NOT saying that we each need to come up with our own personal “vision” for what we should accomplish. Rather, what you need is to line your life up with the revelation God has already given you in His word.
— This text is NOT saying that churches and countries need some dynamic leader who has a “vision” for where he is going. Hitler had that; so will the Antichrist — and so do many “mini” versions of these despotic leaders. They will surely bring “their vision” to your church or organization. But this verse says you should not be praying for a leader who will set forth his own “vision”, but one who will faithfully and consistently set forth the God-given “revelation” of scripture. Many people throughout history have followed some leader’s “vision” to death, ruin, and destruction. But a people who constantly dine at the table of the word of God, even if set forth by a less-than-dynamic but faithful proclaimer of the full counsel of scripture, are those who are truly blessed.
It’s not wrong to have a clear vison for your life, and it’s not wrong to have a well-written mission statement for a church or an organization — especially if it is thoroughly based on scripture. We just need to remember that the “vison” we need most is the one which God has already given us in His word.