Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he. (Pr. 29:18)
In this text, the stability, order, and prosperity of nations are specifically tied to obedience to divine revelation. It sets before us the alternatives of God's word and peace or man's word and anarchy — God's law or chaos.
Interpretation of Proverbs 29:18
Proverbs 29:18 is in the form of Hebrew poetry. Hebrew poetry is not based on rhyme or meter but on parallelism of thought. The parallelism of Proverbs 29:18 is antithetical, meaning that the idea or statement of the first line is paralleled by its opposite in the second line. Antithetical parallelism is the most common form used in Proverbs because it is especially adapted to the purpose of the book, which is to contrast the way of the wise with the way of fools. Proper interpretation of Proverbs 29:18 begins with a recognition of its antithetical structure.
The proverb begins by declaring, "Where there is no vision, the people perish. . . ." The Hebrew word translated "vision" refers to prophetic vision, i.e., the communication of divine revelation to the prophets by means of a vision, oracle, or prophecy (Is. 29:7; Mic. 3:6; Dan. 8:1; 1 Sam. 3:1; 1 Chr. 17:15; Is. 1:1; Ob. 1; Nah. 1:1). Thus, "vision" refers to the word of God as revealed to his prophets. "Vision" is paralleled in the second part of the proverb with "law" (torah). Both terms refer to God's revealed word and function as synonyms in this text. The contrast that is set up in the proverb is between the presence and absence of the instruction in righteousness that God gives to men in his law-word. Where there is no vision (no word from God) the people perish, but when the law is known and obeyed, the people are blessed. The word "perish" (parah) indicates the consequences that befall those who are devoid of the word of God. The Hebrew word means, literally, to let go or to let loose. It is used in Exodus 32:25 (where it is translated "naked" in the KJV1) to refer to the shameful conduct of the people of Israel in their worship of the golden calf. At that time, they cast off restraint and "let loose" in a religious festival patterned after pagan practices. The word is also used in 2 Chronicles 28:19 (again translated "naked") of how King Ahaz had caused the people to transgress against the Lord by establishing the worship of Baal. Baal worship is characterized by the most despicable and immoral practices imaginable. The worship of Baal caused the people to let loose, and give free reign to their sensual desires. Gesenius states that parah ". . . refers in Proverbs 29:18 to . . ." lawless, unbridled behavior.2 The context supports this meaning, and we fully concur. When there is no vision from God, the people become unbridled and lawless; they let loose, casting off all restraint. The word "people" in this text is singular, and refers to a unit of people, i.e., a city, or a nation.
Therefore, the first part of Proverbs 29:18 teaches that when a nation is without the law-word of God, the people become unbridled and give free expression to their sinful desires. They become lawless, and rush towards anarchy and destruction. God's law-word is designed to restrain man so that he does not give free reign to the lusts of his flesh. The law of God bridles man by teaching him his duty and by threat of punishment (both by God-ordained authority and by God himself). When there is no "vision" to guide and restrain the people, the culture in which they live is characterized by the expression of the unbridled sinful passions of men; it is a culture distinguished by violence, sexual promiscuity and perversion, abandonment of responsibility, drunkenness, inner strife, loss of liberty, lawlessness, etc. A society that is devoid of the counsel of God's word is a lawless society. This does not mean that it does not have laws; it may have many laws, but its laws promote unrighteousness, and to promote unrighteousness is to promote lawlessness. "If there is no revelation from God, people can expect spiritual and political anarchy."3
The contrast to an unbridled people without "vision" is the happy man who both has and keeps God's law. The antithesis of a vision-less people who cast off restraint is, "[H]e that keepeth the law, happy is he." The verb "keepeth" expresses not only obedience to God's law but a love and respect for it that causes one to learn it, and preserve it. The action of keeping the law obviously presumes the presence of God's law. The import of "keepeth" helps us to better understand the meaning of "where there is no vision." The lack of a "vision" from God is due primarily to a hostility towards God, and a deliberate rejection of his law-word. In Scripture, the absence of the word of God is often due to God's judgment for apostasy and a refusal to hear God's word (Is. 29:10-11; Am. 8:11-12). There is no revelation from God because the people would rather listen to false prophets (cf. Jer. 5:31). In other words, the people without a vision are not victims, but rebels. In contrast, the people4 who keep God's law do so by the mercy and grace of God.
The word "happy" expresses the converse of "perish." We should keep this in mind as we interpret its usage. The Hebrew term that is translated "happy" is the same word that is rendered in other places as "blessed" (Ps. 1:1; 2:12; 32:1). The people who keep God's law are blessed. But what does it mean to be blessed? The noun "blessed" is based on a Hebrew verb that means to be straight, to go straight, or to go on, to advance. To be blessed in the Biblical sense means to prosper and be successful because one is walking a straight path of obedience to God's law (cf. Ps. 1). God prospers those who walk in the way of his commandments. Those who obey God's word are successful in life according to God's purpose, and enjoy the life of liberty, peace, and prosperity that comes from living in accord with the Creator's design. The antithesis between "perish" and "happy" is striking. To "perish" is to "let loose," and live a life of lawlessness that gives free reign to sinful passions. To be "happy" is to walk a straight path of obedience to God's law.
The contrast presented in Proverbs 28:19 is emphatic. The first line presents a rebellious people without care or concern for God's word who have cast off all restraint, and who move toward chaos and destruction. The second line presents an obedient people who love and keep God's law, who govern themselves by the teaching of Scripture, and who prosper in all things.
Application of Proverbs 29:18
Proverbs is a book of international wisdom literature that calls on the nations to walk in the fear of God. It applies the righteous standard of the law of Moses to all the nations of the earth.5 Accordingly, Proverbs 29:18 speaks with power to all nations today. We are taught by it that there are two kinds of people, two kinds of cultures, two kinds of societies. There is the people where there is no vision; and there is the people where the law of God is known and obeyed. There is the culture of death where the people have cast off restraint and are governed by their passions; and there is the culture of life where people are governed by the word of God. There is the society that is characterized by lawlessness and chaos; and there is the society that is characterized by law and godly order.
The fearful thing is that today the nations of the earth are best represented by the people "where there is no vision," including the nations of the once-Christian West. As the word of God is increasingly excluded from all spheres of life, we find ourselves as a people who increasingly cast off all restraint, and thus descending into chaos and destruction. The United States was once known as a people who governed themselves in accord with the word of God. There was unprecedented liberty, prosperity, and justice in America; but this is no longer the case. We are a people who have rejected the word of the Lord, and there is little or no "vision" in family, church, and state. We are governed by our passions; we are marked by violence, sexual perversion, and social chaos. We promote lawlessness by our laws. We have cast off the restraint of God's law, so we legalize the killing of our unborn children, and call it choice; we condone homosexual perversion, and call it an alternative lifestyle; we glorify violence, and call it entertainment. We are rapidly losing our liberty, and stand on the verge of anarchy or tyranny.6 The truth of Proverbs 29:18 is inescapable: where there is no vision, the people "let loose" and give reign to unbridled passions. It is God's law, or moral and social chaos.
It is also important that we pause to consider the failure of the church in the light of Proverbs 29:18. It is true that a people who have no "vision" are in that state by their own desire. However, it is by the power of the preached word that a foolish and rebellious people are brought to repentance to and a love for God and his word. The church in the West has failed to preach that word. In fact, in many cases, the church itself has become a place "where there is no vision." Many churches have become apostate, and deny the foundational doctrines of the Faith. Many churches have retained a confession that is in line with orthodoxy, but the preaching is pietistic and antinomian — they deny the authority of Biblical law, and accordingly, promote autonomy and not theonomy in ethics.
Proverbs 29:18 not only explains the reason for our fall into lawlessness; it also points to the solution to our crisis: repentance towards God, faith in Jesus Christ, and a full return to the law of God as revealed in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. A people are blessed when they love the Lord, and walk in obedience to his law-word. "A nation's well-being depends on obedience to divine revelation."7
The choice is ours: God's law or chaos.
1. The KJV translators give "is made naked" as an alternative translation to "perish" in Proverbs 29:18. The reason why they chose "naked" as a translation of parah is uncertain. Parah means to loose, and can include the meaning of "naked" from the idea of loosening and casting off one's garments. Perhaps the KJV translators used the word "naked" to signify shameful behavior.
2. Gesenius'Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures, trans. Samuel P. Tregelles (Grand Rapids, 1949), 690.
3. Allen P. Ross, "Proverbs," in The Expositor's Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, 1991), 5:1116.
4. The Hebrew pronoun "he" follows the collective noun "people" in the first part of the verse, and should be understood in the same collective sense. The contrast is between the people who reject God's law, and the people who keep God's law.
5. See William O. Einwechter, "Proverbs and Politics," Chalcedon Report 376 (November 1996), 16-18.
6. Tyranny and anarchy are often seen as opposites, but in reality they are similar. Both are the result of the rejection of God's law; both are based on violence and force. When there is anarchy, we are governed by a thousand tyrants; when there is a dictatorship, we are governed by a single (or a few) tyrants.
7. Ross, "Proverbs," 5:1116.