29 June 2006

Visionary truths

by Dan Phillips

It would be awfully hard to pick the most frequently-abused and misused text of Scripture. That in itself may make a fun (?) post someday.

But surely well up on the list would have to be: "Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he" (Proverbs 29:18 KJV). That poor, hapless soldier has been pressed into the service of ideologically foreign masters beyond anything that the laws of kindness should permit. How many church building funds, bus contests, motivational seminars and the like have been launched under the mistaken aegis of this verse?

It's a classic example of anachronism. We have this word today, "vision," that means "An ideal or a goal toward which one aspires." This verse has that word in it. Conclusion: this verse must be talking about how important it is to have goals.

Well, the conclusion is true, but the text in this case is a pretext. No one will find the underlying Hebrew term chazon used in this way. It just isn't. But you will find a consistent use of the term to indicate prophetic revelation, such as we have today in Scripture alone (cf. Isaiah 1:1; Daniel 8:1, 15; Hosea 12:11; Obadiah 1; Nahum 1:1, etc.).

And so I render the verse, "Without revelation a people runs wild; But the [people] keeping the Law, happy is it." Similarly the ESV, "Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law." It isn't at all about an individual, nor a group, gathering together and forming goals. It isn't about praying and "feeling led." It isn't about dreams (in the non-revelatory sense), targets, programs -- in fact, it isn't about any human endeavor at all.

The verse is about our need communally as well as individually for the Word of God. Any half-decent newspaper -- and I admit "half-decent" is setting the bar too high, these days -- illustrates the precise and almost technical truth of the verse. The more we cast off the absolutes of God's word, the more our culture plummets towards lawless chaos.

I say that to say this: I was struck in my reading today by a genuine statement of "vision" in the above sense, of ambition. It is in the apostle's words: "...I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else's foundation..." (Romans 15:20). To this, I append a few observations.

First, I'm struck by the responsibly task-oriented nature of this ambition. Paul aims at what he can normally control, not what he cannot control. Paul does not say, "I make it my ambition to win ___ souls," nor "to plant ___ churches," nor "to have ___ regular attenders within ___ weeks," nor "to build ___ buildings." All these goals vary in terms of worthiness, but they all have this in common: Paul controls none of them. His only way to "control" would be to engage in tactics, methods, manipulation, and we already know that the apostle will have none of that (2 Corinthians 2:17).

All these are effects, and they are in God's hands (Proverbs 16:1, 9). Paul may plant, he may water, but only God can cause actual life to spring up (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:5-9).

So Paul focuses on his part, the part of faithfulness (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:2). Even what he is, and what he does, depends on the Lord, and the Lord always retains veto-power and the right to redirect providentially. But it is Paul's part to plan (Proverbs 16:1 again), and plan he does.

Then I'm struck by the specificity of the plan. It isn't the sort of specificity that some motivational speakers urge, and in some contexts greater specificity is a good and necessary aim. But Paul's plan is specific enough that it excludes some goals, while targeting others. He can know, at any point, whether or not he is accomplishing what he aims at doing.

If you aim at nothing, you'll hit it every time. This is an axiom I've hammered out on the anvil of far too much experience. My beloved wife is very goal-oriented, and she's superb at setting terrific goals. I remember a day she engineered at Disneyland with our (then) two children, and it was like the most precise ballet, starting at 8am and ending at 2am. What we packed into those hours makes for a breath-taking memory. Well over a decade later, I still marvel.

I am, to be charitable to myself by vast understatement, less so than she.

Paul does not aim at nothing. He aims at something. It's a big goal, it's a lofty goal, it's a Christ-centered and Christ-honoring goal. It's a loving goal. It's a measurable goal. It is specific, and yet it is wide-open. It is set in time, but it has an eye on eternity. It allows for readjusting specifics (Africa? Spain? Australia?), yet also rules out other alternatives (not Jerusalem, not Judea, not Samaria).

Now let me conclude with a little end-run around myself. Does Proverbs 29:18 have nothing to say about forming goals? No; just not what it is commonly taken to say.

The verse is not talking about how important it is to formulate goals. However, it does apply to the absolute necessity of subordinating our goals, plans, methods, tactics, and values to the revealed Word of God.

Paul knew what sort of thing he should be doing from Jesus' words recorded in Matthew 28:18-20, and from His own words to him by special revelation (Acts 22:21). The specific methods and means were not spelled out; they were to be filled in by the apostle.

So you're a wife, and want to set goals for your family. Are your goals ruled and overruled by Ephesians 5:22-24? You, husband, are your goals formulated under Ephesians 5:25ff.? Likewise pastors, employees, bosses; politicians, writers, friends, children. Have you lined up all your goals consciously and deliberately under all the revealed Word?

Set goals, set specific goals, set adjustable goals; and do it within the framework and values laid down in the inerrant, abiding, sufficient Word of God.

Dan Phillips's signature


graydave said...

What troubles me is this, is there anything I have read or been taught it the past that is right? Can I even study the Bible on my own if verses can mean something completely different than what it seems like they mean?

I've heard this verse taught as having "goals" for years.

I like knowing the real meaning, but it just adds to my loss of confidence in what I read on my own, or have learned in the past.

Mike Y said...


Great post and great challenge to us all.

For years I have fought the misuse of this verse, too-- especially with the annual building projects. Thanks for dealing with it as well.


DJP said...

Oh, look, Dave -- we've all heard the verse used that way! Do a Google search, and I'd bet 9 of 10 uses are in that vein.

I hope it's sort of a forehead-slapping "D'oh"-experience, though, at least for some. We do need constantly to re-examine our assumptions, and it's those texts that are SO familiar that we have NEVER really studied them, that can turn around and bite us.

Bottom-line takeaway for me is always to remain teachable, even on familiar texts. I couldn't begin to tell you the number of times a good study has made me re-examine, then re-think, then re-interpret a text.

Learning is a good thing.

It's the person who hasn't had to adjust his thinking in the last 87 years that worries me.

graydave said...

Thanks Dan. I appreciate the encouragement that it isn't just me.

DJP said...

I've often said that the only people I've ever been completely unable to teach anything are of three kinds:

1. Dead people
2. Unwilling people
3. People who think they know everything already

FX Turk said...


Take cconsolation in the fact that it is not you, but it is Dan.

Seriously though, one of the major problems in Evangelidom today is ridiculously-poor exposition of Scripture. I just got off the blog with a fellow responding to my last TeamPyro postand he wanted to challenge the idea of the particular work of Christ by citing Rev 3 -- "I stand at the door and knock."

Now, seriously -- that verse is preached as an open invitation to salvation in Christ Jesus about every other week, right? You can probably find a church that has a pastor who is going to use that verse that way this weekend if you look hard enough.

The problem is that there is no way this verse is an open invitation to anything. The passage is to the church in Laodicea, the context is that God is right now offering them correction, and that they would do pretty good to listen and stand corrected.

And rather than re-blog the rest of my complaint about that, let me suggest this: the heart of the Christian life is a constant state of reformation in which we are constantly going back to Scripture and making sure we, as John MacArthur recently said at T4G, "got the passage right" -- that we have applied what God;s word actually says to the life we actually have and have yielded the sanctification God actually has in store for us.

Kudos to Dan, btw, for this post. In spite of me always taking a shot at him, he's always a good read.

LeeC said...

Good stuff Dan, thanks.

You would get a kick out of hearing Jack Hughes preach on Psalm 118:24 "This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it." its hillarious, although when I first heard him do so I felt a lot like how graydave describes. :-)

Context is the king of interpretation!

I love this bro:

"Set goals, set specific goals, set adjustable goals; and do it within the framework and values laid down in the inerrant, abiding, sufficient Word of God."

It reminds me of my favorite John MacArthur book, a little pamphlet titled "Found Gods Will" that probably had the biggest efect on me of any book outside of the Bible.


DJP said...

Turk -- ...it is not you, but it is Dan.

I needed that laugh today; thanks.

DJP said...

Uh... you were kidding... right?


Andrew said...

Thanks for the very informative post.

David A. Carlson said...

How bare does a place look without Bibles and ministers! and what an easy prey is it to the enemy of souls! That gospel is an open vision, which holds forth Christ, which humbles the sinner and exalts the Saviour, which promotes holiness in the life and conversation: and these are precious truths to keep the soul alive, and prevent it from perishing.

Mathew Henry

David A. Carlson said...

should of said, That is MH's commentary on that verse

E-sword is fun

Graydave - if you use even simple tools like esword (for us dummies not smart enough to use big boy toys), you will find alot of help in getting others views on scripture

Not that MH is the end all of commentaries, but it does let you see alot of stuff all together without having to drag out multiple books.

DJP said...

1. If you follow Henry into Song of Solomon, be sure to strap on your seatbelt and keep your arms and legs inside the car!

2. I love E-Sword. E-Sword rocks. It's A MAZ ING what you can get for free with that program, and I like the interface. Sending him some financial support is on my list of things to do.

FreedfromBondage said...

Super Uber! I would like to suggest that there actually is a single verse more widely abused. "Touch not the Lord's annointed..." in reference against church discipline of pastors. I've had to "encourage" men to do the right thing, on more that one occasion. Yes, graydave, be not down. God often allows us to trod a path in order to learn what NOT to do. If the Lord brings us to a place of realization that what we have learned, practiced, and taught is only man's philosophy, then He can give us the "vision" we need to truly be a light amongst a people who perish [theologically and spiritually] in darkness. Peace!

runninbill said...

For the antithesis of Dan's excellent post, how about the folks at
and the related site
(complete with "Saved Souls Meter"?

Kay said...

And so I render the verse, "Without revelation a people runs wild; But the [people] keeping the Law, happy is it."

So Dan, are you working on the revision of the NWT? That's almost as clunky as 'fathers do not be irritating your children, but go on bringing them up in the discipline and mental-regulating of Jehovah'...


Jim said...

Right on!

I really messed up a Bible study one day when the leader started by asking what we thought of this verse (of course hoping to end up with a discussion of "vision"). ;-)

Great verse. Thanks for talking about it.

Israel Shaw said...


I appreciated your translation, especially because I have preached from this text twice this year to help the Christians under my care to understand what God was trying to teach us. Here is my translation:

“Where there is no prophecy the people become unhinged, but happy is he who keeps God’s Word.”

It is a little loose, and had I not been able to offer commentary with it I might have translated it differently. The synonymous parallel is between “prophecy” and “God’s Word.” This syntactical instrument alone should prevent us from becoming sidetracked by unsuitable interpretations. It is an issue of going through the disciplined steps (hermeneutics)concerning the text we are studying, regardless of how familiar we think we are with it.

On another note, I would like to cast my vote for John 3.16 being the “most frequently-abused and misused text of Scripture.”


Trinian said...

As always, context is our good and dear friend. Just look at the verses around it, what is this section talking about? Rules, equitable judgement, proper correction, law... Even just looking at this single verse itself - how much sense does it make to say: "Where there is no ambitious plan for the future the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he." The "vision" is obviously in full, direct comparison to "law".

The King James Version has been making me upset lately, but nowhere near as upset as people who don't bother to contextualize its language to the era in which it was written. I saw a poster on some guy's car a few weeks back saying that the Anti-Christ would come to power on 06/23/06. Took me a few minutes to figure out how in the world he had come up with that... (three score == 3 + 20? grrrrr)


Trinian said...

So yeah, on that note, I may as well cast my vote for "most frequently-abused and misused text of Scripture" as Revelation 13:18.

Antonio said...

I am wondering how this:
Paul controls none of them. His only way to "control" would be to engage in tactics, methods, manipulation, and we already know that the apostle will have none of that
Squares with this:

1 Cor 9:19-22
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; 20 and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; 21 to those who are without law, as without law(not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; 22 to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.

In the least, the Apostle is engaging in tactics and methods...

(May I assume that it will be "squared" by presenting secondary explanations and proposing additional assumptions not resident in the text?)


DJP said...

Good verses, Antonio, had you meant, instead, to post verses indicating that the apostle would use methods and tactics to manipulate people?

Anonymous said...

That reminds me of my brother's sunday school teacher in an Alliance church who read "the LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want." And said "now, this passage is telling us the evils of wanting things." Ah, how I love my current church...

donsands said...

Very good thoughts. Good stuff to ponder.
Do we need a vision to be excited to live out our lives for God?
Or is the truth of God cause enough for us to be excited about living out our lives for Him?

Robert said...

No, the most abused text in history has to be Matthew 7:1- you know-"Judge not, that ye be not judged". It's always interpreted as - "You can't criticize me, so SHUT UP!"

AuthenticTruth said...

Hard to say more than a good hearty AMEN! I have heard this verse abused so many times in IFB circles by men trying to peddle their own “vision” rather than proclaiming God’s vision through the solid exposition of the Word of God.

DJP said...

Robert -- Absolutely, Matthew 7:1 would have to be on the list.

Especially if the list were filtered to "Verses most abused by people who could not locate them in the Bible if their lives depended upon it."