I am in my Bible reading cycle now at the point where I am reading through the entire Bible again. My cycle is to read through the entire Bible, then take a break for a year or two and read specific books to study them, then read through the entire Bible again. When I read through the Bible, I try to find a new way to read through it each time, either by reading a different version or reading a different format. At this time I am reading through the NET version of the Bible. The NET pays specific attention to the original languages of the Bible with its copious footnotes explaining why certain terms are translated as they are. I have been in Proverbs lately and I hit a verse that surprised me--and made me realize how it is has been misused in Christian culture.
The verse is Proverbs 29:18. The version I am used to hearing is the KJV: "Where there is no vision, the people perish." I've heard this used often to support the idea that people need to have goals and objectives. You usually hear it at church planning meetings or ministry meetings: "If we don't have goals, we won't make it." Now, I am all for goals. But that is actually not what this verse is about. Actually, even in the way it's quoted above, there is an immediate problem: it's only half the verse and it's the only half I ever hear in the goal context. In the KJV, the rest of the verse says: "but he that keepeth the law, happy is he." Hum...This is a contrast with the first part as indicated by the "but." How does people not having goals contrast to keeping the law? Are people without goals inherently against God's law?
The answer was revealed to me in the NET translation. A clearer translation of this verse is "When there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but the one who keeps the law, blessed is he!" The footnote in the NET points out that the Hebrew term here for "vision" refers to "divine communication to prophets." This is not about a group communicating their vision for a church or ministry. It is about God communicating His word to His prophets. Thus, the people in the first part are without God's direction and "cast off restraint." The Hebrew says the people are "let loose" or "let alone," the idea being that they "run wild." Now we see how the first part of the verse does indeed contrast easily with the second part. People without God's direction run wild, but the one who follows the law is blessed. The person in the second part is not running wild or let loose, but is under God's guidance.
Instead of telling churches and ministries to impart their vision, this verse is making the point that those without God's communication will throw off restraint. It's a warning even to us today that without God's word, people will run around doing whatever they want bringing chaos to society. Unfortunately, much of our society today is a perfect example of this proverb.