The first part of the KJV’s (King James Version) rendition of Proverbs 29:18 is often cited as a proof-text for the vision statements of individuals, corporations, and even some churches and other religious organizations. In case you are not familiar with it by the passage notation, let me cite it for you: “Where there is no vision, the people perish. . . .” But experience has proven over and over again that in many cases, even where there is a “vision” present; the people still perish! Why? They perish because of an erroneous interpretation and thus wrong application to this well-known passage.
But before we even get into the Hebrew text to find out what the statement is really saying, if one would just take an even honest look at the KJV rendition of the whole verse, it is apparent that something is awry with the way this passage is usually interpreted and applied. First of all, the well-known part that most people are familiar with is only the first part of the verse. The way the verse is composed and structured, the first part was not written to be separate or thought of as being unrelated to the second part of the verse. The first part is the first half of a couplet! It’s just one side of the coin! It’s just the “in” of the “in-and-outs!” So let’s look at the verse in its entirety: “Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” Now, although this is part of what is called “wisdom literature,” it is structured in the Hebrew poetic form called parallelism. In Hebrew parallelism, the author makes a statement on one line, and then he; restates, adds to, or makes a contrast on the next line. Usually the words in the first line have corresponding or parallel words or ideas in the second line. In the verse in question, “vision” in the first line is parallel to “law” in the second line. Remember now, we just said that the parallel words or ideas usually restates, adds to, or contrast one another. In this case, “law” is restating the idea of “vision.” So, even without looking at the Hebrew, we already know that the terms; “vision” and “law” are related to one another. They are either opposites or they are relating the same idea.
Now, as we look at the two phrases in parallel, we need to ask: How does the idea of people not having a vision fit with the idea of someone being happy or blessed by keeping the law? Well, if we accept the way the first line has been traditionally interpreted and applied, we would have to admit that one has nothing to do with the other! Because, according to the traditional interpretation and application, the first line has to do with goals and goal-setting and the second line has to do with being obedient to the law! One idea has nothing to do with the other! That is, if we accept the traditional interpretation and application! So, we have to decide if the writer had a brain-lapse or just maybe our traditional interpretation and application is wrong. I think the latter is the case.
So let’s go to the Hebrew text for the answer! Now, before we start, I am in no way professing to be a Hebrew scholar! I received a decent grade in Hebrew when I studied it in seminary, but for the most part “He-brewed” me: I barely got out alive! At any rate, let’s take a look! The Hebrew word that is translated as “vision” by the KJV is a word that more properly refers to prophetic vision, prophecy, or divine guidance. Therefore, it is not a reference to goals or plans, but rather to divine communication from the Lord. So, the problem in the text is not a lack of plans or goals, but rather the lack of a word from the Lord! So, if that is the correct idea, then it parallels perfectly with the second part of the verse! The idea of “divine guidance” is a parallel to the concept of “law.” When we look up the word for “law” in the Hebrew, we discover that the word in Hebrew is actually “torah” and it means; law, direction, or instruction! Therefore, the first part of the couplet should be rendered similar to this; “Where there is no prophetic word, or prophecy, or divine instruction, the people. . .”
Now, I didn’t complete the first couplet because we still have to deal with the idea of “perish.” So, when we look up the Hebrew word behind the English word “perish,” we discover the word means, to let loose, or to be let loose, or to be let loose of restraint.” So the idea is not that of perishing as in being destroyed or ruined, but rather is that of being unrestrained or wild! So let’s see what the verse says in light of our discoveries: “Where or when there is no prophetic word, or divine instruction (from the Lord), the people are unrestrained or the people run wild!” Wow! That’s a far cry from a “vision” statement! The whole verse can thus be rendered: “Where or when there is no prophetic word or divine instruction (from the Lord), the people run wild! But blessed is he (or) the one that keeps or obeys the law (more specifically the written law) or the (written) word of the Lord!”
So, we can conclude that people perish, even with a vision, because a vision (in the sense that we use the word today) cannot save, nor is it really designed to save people from destruction! People, corporations, and even some churches and religious organizations have great visions and great visionaries, but yet they are still perishing! Only obedience to the word of God can save people from destruction! And all one has to do is but look at the news and take a look around to see people running wild! People are running wild, not because of a lack of vision, but rather because of a rejection of the authority of the word of God (in and over their lives) as it is revealed in the written Scriptures!