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What does “where there is no vision, people perish” mean?
But what does this mean? Does this mean that we are all supposed to have visions and prophetic revelation? Does this tie into the practices of the New Age that promote setting your intention and creating vision boards? Proverbs 29:18 is similar in a way to the first verse that we covered in this series on Proverbs 23:7, “As a man thinks in his heart, so he is,” in that without the context of the full passage, it can be easy to misinterpret or misapply the meaning of the verse.
Where there is no vision, the people perish meaning
Proverbs 29 (ESV)
The one who stiffens his neck after numerous rebukes
will suddenly be destroyed without remedy.
Proverbs chapter 29 is a lot of compare and contrast. The chapter begins with a warning not to ignore rebukes or risk being “destroyed without remedy.” This is similar to a number of other verses in the bible that warn about “hardening your heart” such as the writer of Hebrews warns in Hebrews 3:12-13 (WEB):
12 Beware, brothers, lest perhaps there might be in any one of you an evil heart of unbelief, in falling away from the living God; 13 but exhort one another day by day, so long as it is called “today”, lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
Back to Proverbs 29
2 When the righteous become numerous, the people rejoice;
when the wicked rule, the people groan.
3 The man who loves wisdom brings joy to his father,
but whoever associates with prostitutes wastes his wealth.
4 A king brings stability to a land by justice,
but one who exacts tribute tears it down.
5 The one who flatters his neighbor
spreads a net for his steps.
In these four verses, there is a compare and contrast of the impact of the righteous and the wicked have on those around them. In the next verse, there is a comparison of the impact their actions have on themselves.
6 In the transgression of an evil person there is a snare,
but a righteous person can sing and rejoice.
The next section how to interact with a person without integrity, as well as the blessing the righteous are everywhere they go.
7 The righteous person cares for the legal rights of the poor;
the wicked person does not understand such knowledge.
8 Scornful people inflame a city,
but those who are wise turn away wrath.
9 When a wise person goes to court with a foolish person,
there is no peace whether he is angry or laughs.
10 Bloodthirsty people hate someone with integrity;
as for the upright, they seek his life.
11 A fool lets fly with all his temper,
but a wise person keeps it back.
12 If a ruler listens to lies,
all his ministers will be wicked.
13 The poor person and the oppressor have this in common:
the Lord gives light to the eyes of them both.
14 If a king judges the poor in truth,
his throne will be established forever.
The previous section covered the devastation the wicked bring on themselves and others as well as the positive influence the righteous have on their community. In the next section, Solomon gives advice how to cultivate right living and integrity.
15 A rod and reproof impart wisdom,
but a child who is unrestrained brings shame to his mother.
16 When the wicked increase, transgression increases,
but the righteous will see their downfall.
17 Discipline your child, and he will give you rest;
he will bring you happiness.
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Solomon advises to start your child down the right path because, in the end, the way of transgression will end in destruction. Now, we come to the verse in question.
18 When there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint,
but the one who keeps the law, blessed is he!
In the first part of the passage, Solomon describes what the early church taught as “The Way of Life” and “The Way of Death.” Then, he gives instructions for developing a “bent” towards integrity. At approximately midway through the chapter, we have the verse that many people seem to misunderstand.
There is quite a bit of variation in the translation of this verse. The translation most often quoted by those who misunderstand it is, like Proverbs 23:7 (“as a man thinks in his heart, so is he”), from the King James Version which translates the verse as “Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” If a person plucks the verse out of the context of the rest of the passage as so many people seem to do, you can make that verse say something that the writer of the verse did not seem to intend.
The ESV translates it as “when there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint.” This is less easily misunderstood than other translations, but understanding what that “prophetic vision” is can be easy to understand. The NLT translates the verse as “When people do not accept divine guidance, they run wild. But whoever obeys the law is joyful.” The “lack of vision” is referring to not knowing God, to not having that guidance of the Holy Spirit. The destruction and misery caused by the wicked in the first half of the chapter.
In the last half of the chapter, Solomon gives explicit examples of what he warns against in the first verse against “stiffening your neck.” This is what a stiff neck looks like:
19 A servant cannot be corrected by words,
for although he understands, there is no answer.
20 You have seen someone who is hasty in his words—
there is more hope for a fool than for him.
21 If someone pampers his servant from youth,
he will be a weakling in the end.
22 An angry person stirs up dissension,
and a wrathful person is abounding in transgression.
23 A person’s pride will bring him low,
but one who has a lowly spirit will gain honor.
In the last section, Solomon warns about trusting in man more than God.
24 Whoever shares with a thief is his own enemy;
he hears the oath to testify, but does not talk.
25 The fear of people becomes a snare,
but whoever trusts in the Lord will be set on high.
26 Many people seek the face of a ruler,
but it is from the Lord that one receives justice.
27 An unjust person is an abomination to the righteous,
and the one who lives an upright life is an abomination to the wicked.
What does the Bible say about not having vision?
This is commentary on Proverbs 29:18 from the NET study Bible
Heb “no vision.” The Hebrew word “vision” (from the verb חָזָה [khazah, “to see”]) refers to divine communication to prophets (as in 1 Sam 3:1) and not to individual goals or plans. C. H. Toy sees a problem here: The most calamitous period of Israel’s history was when prophetic vision was at its height, whereas people were often more obedient when God was silent. He also notes that in the book of Proverbs there is no mention of prophetic teaching with wisdom as a guide. So he emends the word to “guidance” following the LXX (Proverbs [ICC], 512). The TEV has “guidance”; the NIV retains “revelation.” It must be stated that the prophetic ministry was usually in response to the calamitous periods, calling the people back to God. Without them the downward rush to anarchy and destruction would have been faster than with these prophetic calls from God.
Man and the Image of God
We are designed, as human beings, to be the imagers of God. This is the essence of humanness. Humanists believe that man is unique among all of the other creatures found on the earth; however, they do not have any sort of reason to explain why that is so. The real fly in the ointment of humanistic belief is that humanists believe in the inherent goodness in man and that the problems humanity faces can be found in humanity itself.
If the last few years has shown us anything, it should show the falsity of that belief. If I actually believed that the only hope was in human beings, I would have a hard time getting out of bed each morning and would be self-medicating with one thing or another because I would be constantly depressed.
The only reason I have hope is because I know that there is a God, that he is good, that he has a plan, and the story is not over yet. When I see the self-serving corruption and greed around me (Texas is the land of the lawless, y’all), the only thing that keeps me from losing it is knowing that God is absolutely just and he will repay. When I see so many people lost in propaganda and delusion and experts say that there is no hope for “deprogramming” them, I remember that God is Redeemer and he is the one that can break those spiritual chains.
We have a better and more hopeful answer in Christ. Yes, we agree with the secular humanists that man is unique among earth’s creatures. The uniqueness is given by our Father God and Creator and cannot be abdicated, lost, or legislated away. Every human being has equal value because that is ordained by God as a function of being human. As Paul told the Athenians in Acts 17:
24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
But a necessary part of being an imager is knowing what we are to reflect. When God gave the law, he was instructing the Israelites how to be his representatives. Where justice and righteousness and peace are, God’s presence can dwell. When we do not have that “prophetic vision,” that guidance from our heavenly Father, we perish in that we move further in our separation from God. Human beings are made to represent God and to communicate with, a vision and relationship with him is necessary for humanity to truly be what we are designed to be.
Irenaeus of Lyons wrote about prophetic vision and man as God’s imager in Against Heresies. We are not going to cover the extended passage here, but it is included in the book, The 10 Most Misunderstood Verses in the Bible. But he summarizes the divine interaction between God and man writing “For the glory of God is a living man; and the life of man consists in beholding God.
The common factor that we see in the first two verses that we have covered is that when self-focus rather than a God focus. That is what Proverbs 29:18 means by “a lack of prophetic vision.
Available Bible Studies
 Other verses that refer to this “hardening” are Deuteronomy 15:7; 1 Samuel 6:5; Psalm 17:10, 96:8-9, 119:70; Proverbs 28:14; Isaiah 6:10; Zechariah 7:12; Matthew 19:8; Mark 10:5; John 12:40; Romans 2:5; Ephesians 4:18; Hebrews 4:5-7; and James 2:15-16, among others, as well as almost the entire book of Jeremiah. Many of these passages reference the Israelites rebellion at Meribah as a warning.
 The Didache is a document of the early church dated to the first century that included instruction in Christian behavior, guidance on church governance, instructions on baptism, as well as a number of prayers. A large part of the document describes “The Way of Life” and “The Way of Death” that is reminiscent of this passage in Proverbs.
 NET Bible, Full-notes Edition. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2019) Proverbs 29, note tn.
 Acts 17:14-28
 Irenaeus. Against Heresies 4.20.7.