Where there is no Vision, the people perish. Implications for Christian Political Economy

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?

7 thoughts on “Where there is no Vision, the people perish. Implications for Christian Political Economy”

  1. Maybe there’s a third way between Schaeffer and the scholar you mentioned.

    Christians can, and should, agree on the substance of issues (abortion is bad, marriage between a man and a woman is in line with a godly sexual ethic, the poor deserve justice, etc). They, however, can disagree agreeably on how to actualize that change in society.

    For instance, Christians might agree abortion is wrong, but disagree about the preferred political solution (federal statute, legislation from the bench, state-based illegalization, full legalization). Or, Christians might agree the poor deserve justice but disagree about the preferred political solution (social safety net, aggressive regulation of pay-day-loan companies, deregulation of small business, work-welfare, etc).

    That seems to me to be a healthy middle ground. More importantly, it keeps Christians from claiming their political *strategy* as the biblical approach (when really the only *biblical* anything in politics is the substantive right/wrong issue, no the preferred political solution). The Bible is silent on matters of “how” even while it’s quite loud and declaratory on the what (the rights of unborn children, justice for the poor).

    Thoughts?

  2. It’s always humorous, but slightly sad, to see how politicians often claim the Bible to be their favorite book in order to win over voters and then misapply it in order to justify their policy proposals. This is a perfect example of why it’s important to verses in the context of the Biblical metanarrative and with a few biblical commentaries by your side before shouting that the Bible calls for this action or that action (especially in areas where it may be less obvious).

    I certainly find that the best way is a combination of Christians standing firm in the political sphere and in the personal sphere. If we claim just one of these areas is the method to solving our problems the other lacks responsibility. For example, Christians who suggest the government should never do anything forget the Biblical responsibility of leaders (especially Christian ones to follow God’s commands). Likewise folks who suggest government is the primary way to solve these issues forget that most people don’t work in government, yet they are equally responsible for playing their part in declaring biblical truth in all areas of life. God has called all of us to stand firm and speak his truth in our personal and work lives, and for some of us that means in Congress.

  3. I don’t think that winning someone over with love is a simple task. That takes time; you need to build a relationship and keep that person in prayer, trusting God’s timing in the situation. That does not provide instant gratification. It is a long process but it works well. Yet, if Christians are looking for a quick way to “win over” people in the government, that won’t be the solution. I wonder if there even is another solution though… God’s timing is so different from ours and maybe it is not his plan to completely turn over all of the decision makers in our country.

  4. I think that a third way for Christians to approach the political sphere is necessary. While Francis Schaeffer has many valid points in his book, Christians must be able to communicate their views on controversial political issues with both truth and grace/love. This is the way that Jesus communicated throughout the Gospels, as stated in John 1:14. Christians have to be able to build relationships with others to show them that they are loved, but we also have to communicate the truth of Scripture. God’s timing and plan for this world is often different from ours, and after all everything is in His control.

  5. I believe that the political arena is usually ill-fitted for solving the war over culture. Looking at history, it appears that cultural change almost always precedes political change, especially in a democracy. It seems that Christians have been using politics and legislation in an attempt to change culture for decades. The results would leave us to believe we are fighting a losing battle. With that in mind, I would caution Christians who are eager to use the political process to enforce our beliefs in that it has the tendency to produce unintended blowback. The more we appear to judge and criticize from our supposed “ivory towers”, the more the world seems to push back in depravity. This country needs a moral and ethical revolution before anything else. I believe that Christians are uniquely gifted and positioned to be the leaders of such a movement. More and more people today are searching for meaning in their lives. We must show others the value of following Christ, and the peace that comes with it.

  6. I fully agree that when looking at scripture and biblical principles, we must always look at the full context of the passage and the full context of scripture as a whole. As you alluded to, we live in time when people openly rebel against God, but try to justify it by contorting scripture. It is essential that we objectively look at the truth of scripture to guide how we live our life, instead of first deciding how we want to live our lives and then find scripture that will support it. Similarly, we should encourage others to follow this model as well. So often we are afraid to speak truth into peoples’ lives out of the fear of rejection. But if we are going to truly follow God’s commandment of loving our neighbors, we must speak truth to them, not out of pride, but out of love.

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