Without Vision, the People Perish

When you enter our little church in the Central Pennsylvania countryside, the first thing you’ll notice is an old brown sign. These words are written in an old English font, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18). I remember being struck by the words when I first entered the building back in the Spring of 2013. But what does this mean? Why would a church be so bold as to make this the central feature of its entrance? Let’s take a moment to examine it together.

We begin by stating the obvious, this ancient Hebrew proverb is not demanding that apart from what many call a “vision statement” a church will certainly fall to pieces. The Hebrew word behind “vision” is synonymous with “the word of the Lord” or “the Law” (cf. Psalm 119).  It can be God’s spoken Word to His prophets and through His prophets, or God’s written Word. When we consider this same passage in other English translations the word “vision” is shown to function this way: 1) “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” (KJV); 2) “Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint;” (ESV); 3) “Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint;” (NIV). By “vision” the text has in view none other than the Holy Word of God; His special revelation given today in the Bible. But how we to consider the language of “perishing” then?

The word provided in the KJV for “perish” is found elsewhere in the Old Testament. We find a picture of what our proverb looks like in motion in that paradigmatic moment of idolatry, the scene of the Golden Calf in Exodus 32. Space does not allow us to go into detail concerning what may be estimated to be one of the darkest moments in Israel’s history, but what can be said is this: No sooner does God proclaim what His Law demands does Israel proceed to break it as viciously as possible. They were dancing and singing and worshiping a golden statue of a calf, “and they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Exod. 32:4 ESV) God, ready to destroy Israel, was stayed by reminders of His covenant to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Though God was gracious, punishment inevitably came. They were commanded to drink the bits of gold-powder from the recently hammered-down statue, they were cut to pieces by the Levites, Aaron was publicly rebuked by Moses, and God lastly sent a plague.

What are we to gather from this? God takes the glory of His Holy Name, His sacred worship, and His Word most seriously. So seriously in fact, that He punishes with extreme prejudice those who would oppose Him by resisting His Word. In this very story, we find the same Hebrew word from Proverbs which was translated as “perish” in Exodus 32:25, “Moses saw that the people had broken loose”.  The people were “naked…unto their shame” (KJV), or simply put, “the people were out of control” (NASB). All of this is united together as a picture to show us what happens when God’s people abandon God’s Word.

The Bible is not an arbitrary list of rules established by some misogynistic totalitarians but is a reflection of our God’s holiness and His desires. As one Reformed scholar put it, “The Word is truly the soul of the church.”

Is this how you view the Bible today? Accepting all of it as flowing from the lips of our God and King? We cannot decide which bits of the Bible we accept and which portions we reject. We do not have such authority. Indeed no one does, and for every word we shall be held accountable. In that same proverb God promises us, “blessed is he who keeps the law.” (Prov.29:18) God always keeps His word. So, will it be to bless us today for our joyful and Spirit-wrought obedience? Or will it be to our shame? May we treasure His holy Word.

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