Misusing What the Bible Says…

Let’s start today with a fill in the blank question:  “Without Vision, the People _________.”  

My guess is that most Christians would fill in that blank with the word “perish” – because they have heard it so often used in sermons, leadership teachings and even in stewardship campaigns.  You have to have a vision – a goal – a direction – if you are to accomplish anything.  And while I generally would agree with that concept, the use of Proverbs 29:18 to support these teaching about vision setting is a bit misleading.

I was reminded of this while reading an article in the Presbyterian Outlook that reported:   A few months into his term, J. Herbert Nelson – the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s new stated clerk, elected last summer by the 2016 General Assembly – is beginning to offer glimpses into his expanding vision for the denomination.  Nelson will preach at a Reformation Worship Service Nov. 2 at the PC(USA)’s national offices in Louisville – in an address that will be live-streamed and is being given the title “Write the Vision – Reclaim the Call.”  Scripture tells us that “the people who have no vision – they perish. They perish,” Nelson said Oct. 31.

Scripture tells us that “the people who have no vision – they perish. They perish,”

This happened to be a quote from an important leader in the PCUSA but it just as easily could have come from a leader in almost any denomination or organization.  As reported, Mr. Nelson was “beginning to offer glimpses into his… vision with an address entitled Write… supported by a quote from Scripture (Proverbs 29:18) that says that  “the people who have no vision – they perish. They perish.” 

The question we need to ask ourselves to begin with is simply, is this what Proverbs 29:18 really means?  Do we need to be writing a vision?  Whose vision is most important for a denomination (or a church or for my life)?  What does it mean that without vision the people perish?

There is in fact one translation of Proverbs 29:18 that reads, “Where there is no vision, the people perish…” the King James Version.  The full verse in the KJV is, “Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.”  The modern English translations put it a bit differently.

For example, the English Standard Version says, “Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law.”

The New Revised Standard Version puts it this way, “Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint, but happy are those who keep the law.”

The popular New International Version says, “Where there is no revelation,  people cast off restraint; but blessed is the one who heeds wisdom’s instruction.”

The Holman Christian Standard Version translates the verse, “Without revelation people run wild, but one who listens to instruction will be happy.”

 Even the New King James Version, an updating of the KJV into modern English, puts the verse as:  “Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint; But happy is he who keeps the law.”

It doesn’t take long to see that most everyone realizes that the original KJV translation of Proverbs 29:18 is inadequate for modern English usage.  Rather than the verse suggesting that we need to develop a vision and cast it before the people so that they do not perish – what the verse is telling us is that we need to open our eyes to God’s revelation to us so that we do not run wild as if we are people who have no restraints upon us, and in fact it is those who heed the instruction of God’s law who will find themselves blessed and filled with happiness in their living.

The New Bible Commentary puts it this way:  The stability of society itself depends on openness to revelation and responsiveness to torah (18). Revelation is a term for a prophet’s teaching on God’s will and purpose (cf. Is. 1:1). Presumably Where there is no revelation means ‘where God’s revelation is ignored’ (the mere existence of revelation, of course, does not prevent the people casting off restraint, as the prophets’ ministry shows).

The problem, it seems, is that many of the modern Christian Church denominations and organizations (this holds true for independent churches as well) are more focused on the vision that they have developed than they are on discovering God’s vision for His people as revealed to us in the Scripture (the revelation passed on to us through Prophet and Apostle) and there is very little, if any, concern for the second half of the verse – the part about being blessed through the keeping of God’s law.  Indeed, many individual Christians, Christian denominations and Christian organizations are today rejecting the clear teaching of God’s law with their own vision of the way they think things ought to be.

The issue is not that God’s people have no vision revealed to them – we do, in the Scripture – instead the problem is that either we have not spent enough time reading the Word written so as to see God’s vision for us and for His people, or we have intentionally chosen to ignore that divine vision revealed to us and have replaced it with some vision of our own.  We want to be blessed (happy) yet we have chosen to not to keep the law.

We often speak of the way our culture seems to be throwing off more and more restraints each day, of the way it is a meaner and courser world.  Is it little wonder when there are so many competing visions — most of which conflict with God’s revelation.

I haven’t yet read J. Herbert Nelson’s Reformation day address, but I pray that the expanding vision he was to share was the one that our God has already made known to us in His Word written.

(Enjoy your extra hour of sleep tonight — don’t forget to turn your clocks back!!)