Where there is no vision…?

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I recall visiting a rural church in the American South several years ago that had a banner stretched across the back wall of the sanctuary behind the pulpit. “Vision 1000!” it read, and I later asked the pastor what it meant. With a puffed chest and a wide smile he declared, “We’re believing for a thousand people to worship God out here in the country!” Based upon the traditional King James translation of Proverbs 29:18, this pastor felt that the Bible demanded that his flock have a tangible, measureable growth goal to work towards – a vision, if you will.

Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he. (Proverbs 29:18 KJV) [1]

As widely as this text has been used for purposes like this, one would assume that its right meaning has been clearly understood and disseminated by Christendom. Sadly, this is not the case. Further complicating the problem is the fact that the second half of the verse, ‘but he that keepeth the law, happy is he,” is rarely quoted with first half, if at all. A mere cursory examination of the Hebrew text for this passage demonstrates the problem with the popular interpretation:

באין חזון יפרע עם ושׁמר תורה אשׁרהו

happy him Torah but he guards people unbound, naked revelation lacking[2]

aš·rê·hū tō·w·rāh wə·šō·mêr ām yip·pā·ra ḥā·zō·wn bə·ên

The Hebrew text is obviously not making any statements about casting a ‘vision’ for your congregation to follow. Unfortunately, the rural pastor with the vision message on his banner was like countless others; well-intentioned for the most part, but teaching theology and promoting actions based upon a poor translation, and worse still, never investigating what the text actually says. Far from being confined to local, rural churches, the mistranslation and misuse of this verse (and many others) is widespread throughout Christendom, even from its most well-known figures. Bill Hybels, pastor of the 24,000 member Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago, wrote of ‘vision’ in his 2009 book Courageous Leadership: “Proverbs 29:18 says, ‘Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained.’ They can’t focus, can’t reach their goal, can’t follow their dream. An older translation says, ‘Without vision, the people perish.’ I’ve seen it with my own eyes — without vision, people lose the vitality that makes them feel alive.”[3]

Here a world-renowned evangelical leader completely misuses a text upon which he bases theology and praxis, and then, via his book and seminars, teaches this to the global church and its leaders, asserting that this is “where world change begins.” The Scriptures, however, present change as beginning in relationship with God. His power affects change within individual hearts and lives, with the cumulative effect on a community as the means of changing the world. Hybel’s misuse of Proverbs 29:18 is symptomatic of the eisegesis and textual ignorance plaguing Christendom.

It is unacceptable that any Christian leader would so grossly misunderstand and misuse the Scriptural text. It is far worse when a leader of Hybel’s influence does it. Christendom in both the pulpit and the pews needs a proper hermeneutic to rectify the erroneous translations and resulting bad theology surrounding this verse. To that end, this paper will exegete the verse from its original language and sociological, religious, and historical context, and in so doing, establish the intended understanding and application of the text.

Before beginning an exegesis of the text of Proverbs 29:18, we first establish our exegetical and hermeneutical approach to the actual words recorded in the text. Following that, we will consider the sociological, historical, and religious context for the text and its interpretation by its original audience and for us today.

First and foremost, knowledge of “Hebrew grammar is essential for interpreting the Book of Proverbs accurately, for its sages play with sound and sense in that language.”[4] Further, all of the Scriptures reflect Semitic language, thought, culture, and idiom. Understanding of these are required for any attempt at interpretation.

Proverbs can be divided into two categories of literature: extended instructions of chapters 1-9 and the short, pithy sayings that seem to stand individually in chapters 10-31. Both forms are ancient Near Eastern genres dating as far as 3000 B.C., and scholarship has suggested that the model for Proverbs originates amongst Israel’s earlier Mesopotamian neighbors.[5]

The primary poetic aspect of Proverbs is “parallelism, although a few sayings lack this feature entirely. Antithetic parallelism depends upon the juxtaposition of opposites”[6] and is present in the verse we are examining. “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.”[7] Due to the proverbial nature of this section of Scripture, the surrounding verses do not readily appear to be closely related in context to our verse. This at first seems to fly in the face of standard biblical hermeneutics, which always prompt us to consider the context surrounding a given verse. However, ancient proverbial literature functions as a collection of short sayings, each intended to convey a nugget of wisdom. Sometimes these sit as couplets, contrasting or reinforcing one another. Other times each proverb stands alone. Because of this, to “interpret the book of Proverbs accurately, the reader must take into account the proverbial nature of its content. Because each saying or instruction originally was composed as an individual unit, it must first be interpreted on its own.”[8]

Furthermore, to “understand Proverbs one must identify with Solomon and the sages. First, they were spiritually sensitive. They viewed their audience as the covenant people of God, and also their wisdom enabled them to see beyond what they saw with their eyes and heard with their ears. Their spiritual sensitivity enabled them to see and hear the human heart. Second, they spoke as kings by divine right, that is, they spoke their words as oracles from God with the authority of prophets. Their officials spoke similarly.”[9]

Proverbs 29:18 occurs within a section attributed to just such men, the ‘Men of Hezekiah.’ Proverbs 25:1-29:27 are attributed as being of Solomon but transcribed by the men of Hezekiah, king of Judah. Solomon and Hezekiah were the third and thirteenth kings of Judah, and both began their reigns by leading the people in great religious renewals centered on the commandments of Yahweh.

Of Solomon, the Scriptures record:

I have provided a place there for the ark, in which is the covenant which Yahweh made with our ancestors when He brought them out of the land of Egypt.” Then Solomon stood before the altar of Yahweh in the presence of all of the assembly of Israel, and he spread out his hands to the heavens, and he said, “O Yahweh, God of Israel, there is no god like you in the heavens above or on the earth beneath, keeping the covenant and the loyal love for your servants who are walking before you with all their heart. (1 Kings 8:21-23 LEB)[10]

And of Hezekiah,

He did right in the eyes of Yahweh according to all that David his ancestor had done. He removed the high places, and he smashed the stone pillars; he cut down the poles of Asherah worship and demolished the bronze serpent which Moses had made, for up to those days the Israelites were offering incense to it and called it Nehushtan. He trusted in Yahweh the God of Israel; there was no one like him, before or after, among all the kings of Judah. He held on to Yahweh; he did not depart from following him, and he kept his commands that Yahweh had commanded Moses. (2 Kings 18:3-6 LEB)[11]

It is clear then, that piety and reverence for the Torah of Yahweh marked the character and efforts of the authors and compilers of Proverbs, thus providing socio-religious context to illustrate why they were composed and in what milieu they are to be understood.

“The primary reason for this misuse of Proverbs 29:18 is because of the translation of this verse as it appears in the King James Version of the Bible. As we have seen, the KJV translates Proverbs 29:18 as follows:

Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.

(Proverbs 29:18 KJV)[12]

Even among modern translations, some render more accurately than others, but none are formally accurate:

Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint; but blessed is the one who heeds wisdom’s instruction. (New International Version)[13]

When people do not accept divine guidance, they run wild. But whoever obeys the law is joyful. (New Living Translation)[14]

Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law. (English Standard Version)[15]

Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained, But happy is he who keeps the law. (New American Standard Bible)[16]

Without revelation people run wild, but one who listens to instruction will be happy. 

(Holman Christian Standard Bible)[17]

Without a Vision is a people made naked, And whoso is keeping the law, O his happiness! (Young’s Literal Translation)[18]

Oddly enough, this is not a problem that is exclusive to modernity. Even in the Septuagint (LXX), there are differences that “can be attributed to the translator’s hermeneutic.”[19]

In comparing the LXX to the MT (Masoretic Text) we see a “recasting of theological language in a manner more suited to Second Temple Judaism, as in Proverbs 29:18—MT: ‘In the absence of’ [prophetic] vision, a people is left unrestrained, but blessed is he who keeps law’; LXX: ‘There should be no interpreter for a lawless people, but the one who keeps the law is blessed.’ The MT speaks of the charismatic role of the prophet where the LXX has the exegete or interpreter; this may be a deliberate reflection of the religious sensibilities of Hellenistic era Judaism. The LXX also contrasts a lawless (paranomos) people with the one who keeps the law (nomos)—a rendition that reflects the importance of Torah in this community.”

The differences between LXX and MT appear to best understood by viewing them as an effort on the part of Torah observant Jews rendering this verse in a manner that condemns the Hellenistic Jews of the intertestamental period, especially and specifically in the translation of the Tanakh into Greek.

Where then do we find the clearest text? This is where social context joins textual criticism to determine what the text said and intended. Obviously Proverbs is a Semitic text, reflecting Semitic, Near Eastern paradigms, infused with the Yahwistic perspective of the Israelites. This is a historical fact. We know that the Hebrews of the period of Proverbial authorship spoke and wrote in Hebrew and/or Aramaic, both Semitic languages of similar derivation. We know that LXX is a Greek translation of a Hebrew original, most likely reflected in the MT, and that LXX was written later than the time of Proverbs writing/compiling. Further, the portions of Proverbs preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls/Qumran manuscripts “are more closely related to the Masorete recension than to that of the Septuagint. This relationship corroborates the antiquity of MT’s recensional base.”[20] We should then look to the extant Semitic manuscripts as our base text, and read them from the perspective of Hebrew wisdom literature, the focus of which was to guide the hearer or reader to right choices in line with the order established by Yahweh.

Having determined our base text and approach, we reconsider the Hebrew text of Proverbs 29:18:

באין חזון יפרע עם ושׁמר תורה אשׁרהו

happy him Torah but he guards people unbound, naked revelation lacking[21]

aš·rê·hū tō·w·rāh wə·šō·mêr ām yip·pā·ra ḥā·zō·wn bə·ên

The first and most glaring issue with the popular Christian use and interpretation of Proverbs 29:18 is that the second half of the verse is very rarely quoted:

… but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.

(Proverbs 29:18b KJV)[22]

Why is it that such a clear and intended contrast with the first half of the verse is so frequently omitted? An argument could be made that it is due to anti-nomianism and replacement theology that have rendered ‘the Law’ as irrelevant to Christians who are ‘under grace,’ despite the numerous New Testament passages that reiterate the validity and ongoing relevance of the God’s Law for all humanity.

Interestingly, it is that second half of the verse that confirms the meaning of the first half. The word that KJV translates as vision is חזון , transliterated chazon, and literally translates as “revelation,” and throughout Scripture refers to the revealing of Yahweh and His words, and “is used to describe the visions of Isaiah (Isaiah 1:1) and of Nahum (Nahum 1:1).”[23] “A few scholars have understood the lack of prophetic vision to mean that at the time this proverb was coined that there were no prophets in Israel and that the preaching of the prophets was silent. However, this may not be necessarily the case.”[24]

The second clue in the verse is in the words יפרע עם, or ypara am, which literally means ‘unbound, unrestrained, naked people.’ It does not mean ‘people perish’ as rendered by KJV and others. Again, with this verse, the second half assists us in deciphering the first half, with its exhortation to guard the Torah and associating it with the revelation mentioned in the first half, contrasted with the unrestraint and resulting nakedness of the people.

When read most literally from the Hebrew text, Proverbs, 29:18 immediately brings to mind Israel’s encounter with Yahweh at Sinai in Exodus 32, which Jews have for centuries referred to as “the revelation.”[25] More specifically, the events of Exodus 32:25 and the Golden Calf:

And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him. And Aaron said unto them, Break off the golden earrings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me. And all the people brake off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron. And he received them at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. And when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation, and said, To morrow is a feast to the LORD. And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.

(Exodus 32:1-6 KJV)

And when Moses saw that the people were naked; (for Aaron had made them naked unto their shame among their enemies:)

(Exodus 32:25 KJV)

The Hebrew of Ex. 32:25 uses יפרע for ‘naked,’ the same word we have identified as ‘naked’ or ‘unrestrained’ in Proverbs 29:18. This may reflect both the behavioral and spiritual state of the people, as well as the sexual activities of cultic fertility worship of the Egyptian Apis bull figure that had been crafted as the golden calf.

“No episode in Scripture has been more troubling than the incident of the Golden Calf. It is termed in Exodus 32 no less than three times as chataah gedolah, a sin of the highest magnitude. Its ramifications have been far-reaching. So deadly was its impact on Israelite-Jewish history that, according to the Talmud, every calamity which ever befell Israel contained a small ingredient of retribution for the sin of the Golden Calf.” “To recount briefly: Moses tarried on the mountain. The people grew increasingly anxious. Fearing he might not return, they audaciously demanded that Aaron make them a god [aseh lanu elohim] who would walk before them (to lead them). Aaron did not resist their demand, but mandated that all their gold earrings be brought to him. Hurriedly, they complied. Thereupon, Aaron proceeded to fashion a Golden Calf. The people then ran amok. They arose early, offered sacrifices, engaged in feasting, carousing, and sexual orgies. They danced around the Calf and proclaimed: ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.’”[26]

For the Egyptians, from among whom the Israelites had just come out, the Apis bull of Memphis came to be associated with the solar deity Ra, the oldest as well as the father of all the Egyptian gods. The worship of Ra was both ancient and universal. Ra was often thought to have been a golden calf, born in the morning from a heavenly cow, and growing into a bull by day.”[27]

“A calf as a young bull at the height of its vigor was associated with fertility. Amongst pagans, fertility rites were marked by untamed and unbridled revelry.” “Who was the god depicted as the Golden Calf? Was it not a god they had known and perhaps worshipped in Egypt? For Ra was portrayed as a golden calf in the morning. Indeed, the text states, they arose early, offered sacrifices, and then carried on in the manner befitting fertility rites – feasting, carousing, performing licentious acts. It was not the Golden Calf as such, but as the embodiment of Ra, who was being hailed as the one who brought them out of Egypt. For Ra was also a universal god. The God of Israel was being replaced by the pagan deity Ra.”[28]

From this textual, sociological, historical, and religious analysis, indeed the passage at Proverbs 29:18 seems to point back to the giving of Torah as what shows people how to live an ordered life, implying that the knowledge of Yahweh and His word clothes and covers the people, ensuring their well-being. Perhaps then the text could be amplified thusly:

“Where there is no revelation (Yahweh revealed at Sinai), the people cast off restraint (Moses was gone for 40 days and they built the calf and engaged in naked pagan fertility worship); but one who keeps (guards, embraces) the Torah (the revealing of Yahweh and His covenant at Sinai) is happy.”

References

[1] The King James Study Bible: King James Version. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995).

[2] A. Philip Brown II et al., A Reader’s Hebrew and Greek Bible, Lea Mul edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2010), 1379; David Noel Freedman, Astrid B Beck, and James A Sanders, The Leningrad Codex: a facsimile edition (Grand Rapids, Mich.; Leiden; New York: Wm. B. Eerdmans ; Brill Academic Publishers, 1998).

[3] Bill Hybels, Courageous Leadership (Zondervan, 2009), 31.

[4] Bruce K. Waltke, “Fundamentals for Preaching the Book of Proverbs. Part 4,” Bibliotheca Sacra 165, no. 660 (October 1, 2008): 388.

[5] Daniel J. Estes, Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms (Baker Academic, 2010), 208.

[6] James L. Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 41–42.

[7] William Einwechter, “God’s Law or Chaos,” Faith for All of Life – Chalcedon, July 1998, http://chalcedon.edu/faith-for-all-of-life/the-united-states-one-nation-under-god-in-need-of-reformation/gods-law-or-chaos/.

[8] Richard Clifford, “‘Observations on the Texts and Versions of Proverbs,’ in Wisdom You Are My Sister (Roland Murphy Volume; Catholic Biblical Quarterly Monograph Series; Washington: Catholic Biblical Association, 1997) 47-61.,” accessed January 21, 2015, http://www.academia.edu/9062949/_Observations_on_the_Texts_and_Versions_of_Proverbs_in_Wisdom_You_are_My_Sister_Roland_Murphy_volume_Catholic_Biblical_Quarterly_Monograph_Series_Washington_Catholic_Biblical_Association_1997_47-61.

[9] Bruce K. Waltke, “Fundamentals for Preaching the Book of Proverbs. Part 2,” Bibliotheca Sacra 165, no. 658 (April 1, 2008): 143–144.

[10] The Lexham English Bible, Fourth Edition (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2012).

[11] Ibid.

[12] The King James Study Bible.

[13] Zondervan, NIV Holy Bible (Zondervan, 2015).

[14] Tyndale, Holy Bible: New Living Translation, Gift edition (Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2006).

[15] ESV New Classic Reference Bible (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2011).

[16] The Lockman Foundation, New American Standard Bible (Anaheim, Calif.: Foundation Publications, 1999).

[17] Holman Bible Editorial Staff, HCSB Study Bible (Holman Bible Publishers, 2010).

[18] Robert Young, Young’s Literal Translation of the Holy Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995).

[19] Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship (InterVarsity Press, 2008), 567.

[20] Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 1-15 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004), 2.

[21] II et al., A Reader’s Hebrew and Greek Bible, 1379; Freedman, Beck, and Sanders, The Leningrad Codex.

[22] The King James Study Bible.

[23] Claude Mariottini, “Proverbs 29:18,” Dr. Claude Mariottini – Professor of Old Testament, accessed January 26, 2015, http://claudemariottini.com/2010/03/17/proverbs-2918-2/.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Benjamin D. Sommer, “Revelation at Sinai in the Hebrew Bible and in Jewish Theology,” Journal of Religion 79, no. 3 (July 1999): 424.

[26] Allan Langner, “The Golden Calf and Ra,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 31, no. 1 (2003): 43–47.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

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