Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained, But happy is he who keeps the law. – Proverbs 29:18 (NAS)
Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he. – Proverbs 29:18 (KJV)
Such a simple verse but one that perhaps can guide us even beyond its apparent meaning(s). I include two versions here because it seems most of us are more familiar with the interpretation of it from the King James Bible.
There are many who have seen the first part of this verse to mean, essentially, that where there is not a plan or a goal, the people will die. But the word vision here is more than simply projecting our thoughts into the future toward a desirable end or accomplishment. The Hebrew term for vision is chazon (Strong’s 2377). It is derived from the primitive root, chazah, which simply means to gaze at, behold, to perceive mentally, contemplate . . . to have a vision of.
The sense that arises is that this is more than simply seeing something. It implies, rather, mental insight and, specifically for God followers in this context, prophetic vision, to see or hear God, to understand His ways and leadings. To know “the mind of Christ.” To recognize the voice of one’s shepherd means having spent a significant amount of time with the shepherd. To recognize the voice and to truly hear the words, the leadings of a leader, we must weigh their words in the context of more awareness of who they are, how they have acted historically, what agendas are at the forefront of their movements, from where their motivations arise.
The wisdom of this Proverb is telling a truth about our relationship with God and how it affects our reality, our potential, our purposes and aims, our outcomes. To understand God’s leading we must know God, at least in the best sense of how we can in our limited capacities to comprehend an infinite and glorious God. As we become familiar with who God is and what God is like, we can begin to hear (understand) His Word and His leading with increasingly clarity.
To expand the opening of the verse, we might say: “Where the people do not know God, and do not have a realistic knowledge of God’s plan and purpose, they are separated from God and they will not follow Him. Death, spiritual separation from God, is their plight.”
The rest of the verse is rather easy then to anticipate as the contrast to the opening phrase. “Happy is he who keeps the law.” Here, keep is the Hebrew shamar (Strong’s 8104), the same term used in Genesis 2:15 where God put Adam in the Garden of Eden to keep it. Shamar is to steward, to watch over, to tend to diligently. Esher (happy, Strong’s 835) is derived from asher (Strong’s 833), to be straight. Strong’s tells us that asher is used in the sense of being level, right or happy, even, figuratively, moving forward, being honest, prospering . . . to be blessed. That’s a lot packed into a single word.
It appears then that Proverbs 29:18 says: Where we do not know and follow God, we die. Where we do know and follow God, we live. Prophetic knowledge, comprehending God’s heart, leads us into life. The more prophetic knowledge (which manifests adherence to His ways), the more life force within us. This life force gave Jesus the ability to produce enough bread to feed the five thousand, to heal blind eyes, to restore strength to lame legs . . . to overcome death for all humankind.
The challenge to the church, that is, to every follower who claims Christ as Lord and Saviour, is to know God and live in obedience. The problem occurs as we see it all around us and in many ways, the church is failing. It is failing to meet the needs of the poor and marginalized, it is failing to lead the world toward righteousness. And the question must be faced: why? Why is the church failing? Why is that life force of the Resuurected Christ so weak?
Sometimes it almost seems that God is lackadaisical in His expectations of the church. That is simply not true. We do not often take seriously that we will answer for our handling of the truth. We do so at our peril and at the peril of ministering to the world in ways that demonstrate the true glory of the only living God.
I have had the privilege and opportunity to study God’s Word more than most. Yet I have not been nearly as diligent in that as I could have been. What I see is that, like myself, the failings of the church at-large, both to minister within and to be a light to the world, are due in large part to a our lackadaisical approach to God’s Word.
We do not succeed in advancing God’s Kingdom, by the power of our testimony as living witnesses to God’s grace and mercy, because we tend toward laziness. We gain a bit of understanding, tend to take it as the whole truth, and make that bit of knowledge an idol, creating legal structures for following God. But what vision can we have of an infinite God? Our understanding is always limited but loaded with potential to know Him more deeply. And invited to do so.
The ministry of the Word is of utmost importance to the vitality of the church. Those who follow God’s lead to search out the word and to bring it to life for others (generally, pastors and teachers, including most missionaries) are often neglected spiritually, economically, and emotionally by the rest of the church. The pastorate is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. It is not often physically threatening but takes its toll in burn out, failing due to stress and temptation, and hopelessness wrought by a sense of futility as sheep wander off or neglect the calling of God’s voice.
For the rest of us, we should listening carefully and heed God’s call to support those ministering the Word (Romans 4:4), that they are worthy of their wage. Thank God that most in pastoral roles, seeing the desperation of the world around them and having their hearts broken for the lost as they seek to know God deeply, will pursue that ministry despite the costs to themselves.
If we do not pursue a knowledge of God, if we do not support then pay heed to those searching the Scriptures diligently to help us grow in that knowledge, if we do not each seek to find the prophetic vision . . . we will continue walking in the dark, wandering souls, risking death in a desert of our own making . . . and even ignorant that ours is the power to draw near to life.
I interject here the entire fourth chapter of the Epistle of James, just seventeen verses. How does it speak to our ignorance of God and our neglect of His ways? (emphasis mine).
1 What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members?
2 You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. And you are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask.
3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.
4 You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.
5 Or do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose: “He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us”?
6 But He gives a greater grace. Therefore it says, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
7 Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.
8 Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.
9 Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning, and your joy to gloom.
10 Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.
11 Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother, or judges his brother, speaks against the law, and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law, but a judge of it.
12 There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?
13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow, we shall go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.”
14 Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.
15 Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and also do this or that.”
16 But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.
17 Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do, and does not do it, to him it is sin.
Dear Lord Jesus – Shine Your Light into our darkness. Peel back the scales from our eyes that we might see as You see, that we might, having seen Your Light, be compelled to seek you all the more diligently, that Your Word would set aside every agenda and desire we have, replaced only with our desire to know and serve You in every aspect of our lives. Be merciful, Lord, to our ignorance but awaken in us a burning heart to love as you love, to sacrifice our lives as you so willingly sacrificed yours. Come, Lord Jesus, reign in us and through us that Your vision will lead the world back to Life. Amen.