20 September 2011

Visionary truths (Proverbs 29:18)

by Dan Phillips
From June, 2006; still timely, unfortunately.
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


lee n. field said...

It's one of my favorite teeth grinding verses, for its abuse. I have heard Prov. 29.18 (the first half), quoted in just that way, during congregational debate over a "vision statement". (By the time it gets to that point, it's a fiat accompli.)

Interesting, that this is probably the only verse you hear quoted in the KJV (because every other translation renders it a way that precludes this abuse.)

Steve Berven said...


Sorry, that's all I've got.

Anonymous said...

I was not a regular Pyro reader when you first posted this, so I am grateful you posted it again...absolutely wonderful, on point, and needed!

Tom said...


This post reminds me... It's September. When is your new book on Proverbs going to ship?


P. Trey Rhodes said...

It has especially been abused by the leadership cult that is in our midst. Pastors have even been ousted by the misunderstanding of this Scripture. They say well, we got rid of him because had no vision. The vision, as I see it, is the preaching of the Gospel and His Word. That is the "vision" delivered to us and we are called to preach that "vision" to these people our God has called us to. While there are lots of other reasons, I think this dead horse should have been beat for the last time...PLEASE!

JackW said...

@Tom, the rumor is that it has started shipping. I have not gotten mine yet.

James Scott Bell said...

It would be untoward and/or rude of me not to comment with complete agreement when such is the case. Well said, DJP.

none said...

Jeremiah 29:11

JackW said...

From Kress: #296 has been shipped.

Adam Rodriguez said...

Well said! I don't know if I've ever heard this verse taught before, to be honest. It's only recently that I really tried remembering. But thank God that I came across this first!