Many of us have heard the Proverb 29:18 in the form of “where there is no vision, the people perish.” It is often used to suggest that without visionaries we can’t move forward. Politicians, both left and right, suggest this means we need to have their policies put forward to guarantee our future–since obviously they have the best “vision.” As Republican Congressman Lamar Smith says,
Inscribed on the wall of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing room is the quote Where there is no vision, the people perish. This simple line from the Book of Proverbs is an appropriate message as we begin a new Congress. We must learn from the past, understand the present and have a vision for the future.
Former Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords offers similar logic:
I thus would like our witnesses to give us their views on the weight we should give to space industrial base concerns as we decide whether to support and fund a meaningful exploration program at NASA or not. You know, it’s become almost a cliché to quote the saying carved on the wall behind us: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” However, we quote it because it contains a profound truth.
I have to admit, I often felt this way about the meaning too (at least the idea that we need visionaries, if not the call for more government spending). But a more careful review of scripture leads to an entirely different perspective. For me, it began by hearing this familiar verse in ESV:
Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint,
but blessed is he who keeps the law.
Its helpful to get a look at many versions to get a better feel for this, or even better, go to sites like Blue Letter Bible and use the strong’s concordance feature to see how the words in the original Hebrew were used elsewhere. In this case, looking at multiple versions shows the ESV is a much better way of phrasing it. The Bible’s reference to vision is almost always a prophetic vision–a message from God (or its opposite, as in a false vision that is not from God). So we’re not talking about someone who is a better entrepreneur, economic or political, who understands where we need to go in the future. Rather the reference is God’s judgment about what is right and wrong.
The next change from the familiar saying is instead of the the people perishing, they cast off restraint, they lose control. This suggests that when people are not given a clear communication of God’s standard for right and wrong, they will become rebellious and disobedient to God’s will. After all, no one is communicating it to them. There is a clear cause and effect implied in the first half of the verse: it is the lack of that prophetic word that leads the people into their rebellion. That this is the correct interpretation is implied by its opposite, the second half of the verse. Contrasting those who do not hear God’s word and behave badly, those who hear (implicit) and obey (explicit) the law are blessed.
One might question whether “prophetic vision” is applied only to the people of God. Is this proverb only applicable to the O.T. people of Israel? I think not, given the genre of wisdom literature. Wisdom literature, while divinely inspired, nevertheless contains truths that wise people of any culture could apprehend. The idea that people who hear and obey the laws of the land are generally going to have life go better seems to be a universal reality. There is a reason why the secular science of economics nonetheless touts the rule of law as an essential institution for economic growth.
So why is this important to Christian Political Economy? Let’s face it: there is significant disagreement on how Christians should respond to the incredibly fast and depraved cultural slide. Do we stand up with a “thus saith the Lord,” or do we try to be nice and simply win them over with our love? I had the privilege of talking with one of the world’s top NT scholars last summer, who told me it was his opinion that what we are seeing in culture is a reaction to the Christian right’s activism in politics. His counsel was thus the latter, not the former. But I just finished reading Francis Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto, and he would almost certainly say the opposite: he said to those that criticize the moral majority–fine. Show us a better way to portray a biblical worldview to the culture. That said, I don’t know anyone who really thinks we need to stand up and say “thus saith the Lord,” at least not outside of the church.
Yet my reading of Proverbs 29:18 suggests that there is a clear implication of that approach. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so too does the culture–if we are not there, something will fill it. If we don’t speak up for the truth of God’s word as applicable to all facets of reality, who will? Or is Jesus only the Lord of Christians and only on Sundays? If we do not speak the truth, as surely as night follows day, the people will cast off restraint. Is this not what we see in the ongoing sexual revolution?