Proverbs 29.18


I had a friend who flew hang-gliders many years ago
and he told me a story that ended up convincing me that I should never attempt it.
Now hang-gliders, like aircraft,
have an instrument that the pilots use called an artificial horizon.
Basically it is a plastic ball bobbing in liquid like a compass,
but what it tells you is which way is up.
Now that might be strange to know,
but apparently when you're flying it can get quite confusing as to which way is up
- especially when the weather gets bad
and you end up flying through mist or something.

Anyway, this friend of mine had purchased a new artificial horizon for his hang-glider.
I think he bought either a cheap one or a second hand one.
So off he went flying,
and the wind conditions were so good that he flew up really high in the sky.
Unfortunately he then encountered a large cloud
and ended up inside it.
It was so big that my friend could not see anything up or down, left or right, ahead or behind him.
Everything was white.
He checked his artificial horizon and was horrified to find that it wasn't working any more.
So along he flew.
Then he felt his hang glider pull to the right and to the left, up and down and so on.
He realised that he was now doing all sorts of loops in the air inside this cloud,
and he had no idea which way he should go.
He didn't know if up was down,
left was right or so on.
He was trapped.

Then he caught a quick glimpse of the ground through a break in the cloud to his right.
With a point of reference now in his mind,
he was able to break through the bottom of the cloud
and was then able to safely land.
If he had not found this break in the cloud,
he probably would have died.

Isn't it interesting that a person's life can be determined by the performance of a small instrument?
You see, the instrument was a guide for him to follow.
But when the instrument failed, he had no idea where to go.

In the Christian life we all need God to guide us.
It is God who gives us the direction we should take,
and how we should act as we go there.
If God does not guide us,
then we become lost.
We have no point of reference,
no way of knowing which way is up or down,
no way of knowing what is right or wrong,
or what we should believe or not believe.

1. The interpretation of Proverbs 29.18

The verse that we are looking at this morning is from Proverbs 29.18.
If any of you have visited other churches
or heard lots of preachers in your time,
then you may have heard of this verse.
You may have heard the verse quoted from the King James Version Bible.
It goes like this:

Where there is no vision, the people perish

Now all the preachers and Christians that I've heard over the years apply the verse this way.
What they say is that we need a vision in the Church
- we need a vision of what great things God can do in our Church.
We need to attempt great things for God.
And of course God has given us leaders in our church who God gives these visions to.
But if a church does not have a vision,
or if a church does not follow the leader's vision,
then God will curse them - they will perish.
The church will be ineffective
because they refuse to obey God
by working at achieving this vision.

Now let me be brutally honest.
That sort of interpretation of that verse is wrong.
It imposes our ideas and beliefs upon the verse
rather than finding out what the verse actually says.
Rather than letting God speak to us through that verse,
God's voice is silenced by this interpretation.

This is quite a serious thing for me to say I realise.
However, let me try to prove this assertion to you.
For a start, the quote used from the King James Version is actually not the entire verse.
If we read the entire verse from the King James version, it sounds like this:

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

Let us dispense with the thees and thous and wherefores shall we?
What does the NIV say?

Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint; but blessed is he who keeps the law. (NIV)

Now doesn't that give the verse a different meaning?
You see the problem with the King James version of that verse is that when they wrote it in 1611,
the words "vision" and "perish" had slightly different meanings that what they have today.

Let me start off by looking at the word "Revelation".
What does the word actually mean?
It is actually the same word used for the experience of Prophets as they receive oracles and directions from God.
The Hebrew word is Hazon,
and is used in Isaiah 1.1,
which says "The Vision / Hazon concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw".
The NIV translates this word as vision,
but you can see what it means
- it is something that God is giving to his prophets to speak to the people of Israel and Judah.
In Jeremiah 14.14, God is speaking about false prophets.
He says "I have not sent them or appointed them or spoken to them.
They are prophesying to you false visions".
Again the word vision / hazon
- the same word used here in Proverbs 29.18.

So how do we use this to understand Proverbs 29.18?
It is saying that God needs to speak to his people through his appointed prophets.
But what happens when there is no revelation?
When there is no vision?
When God chooses not to speak to his people?
If we stick with the King James version,
it says that the people "perish".
But notice what the NIV says.
It says that "the people cast off restraint".
Now what does this mean?

To "cast off restraint" is the Hebrew word Para.
It means anarchy.
It means lawlessness.
It means everyone doing what they want to do.
Think back earlier on in Israel's history.
Moses receives the Ten Commandments from the Lord at the top of Mount Sinai.
He comes down from the mountain and what does he find?
He finds that the people of Israel had created a golden cow as an idol,
and the people are running riot.
Exodus 32.25 says
"Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughing-stock to their enemies".
The phrases "running wild" and "out of control" use the same Hebrew word we find in Proverbs 29.18 - Para - to "cast off restraint".
It shows a people doing what they please,
with no inhibitions or concern for what God wants.
It also gives the idea of sexual immorality,
of a people not interested in sexual purity.

So logically, therefore, Proverbs 29.18 says this:
When God is not speaking his prophetic word through his appointed prophets,
then the people lose their ability to restrain themselves from sinful behaviour
- they become riotous and promiscuous.

Now I find it interesting when preachers and Christian writers pick and choose verses
without keeping them in their context.
Obviously proverbs is simply a list of sayings,
but we must remember what the rest of this verse says.
It says again:

Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint; but blessed is he who keeps the law. (NIV)

Now you must understand that I'm trained as a High School English teacher.
What we see here in this proverb is a literary device.
The phrase "But blessed is he who keeps the law" is a reversal of what was said previously.
In other words, you have one situation in which God does not speak and the people run riot,
but in the other situation you have a person who keeps God's law and is blessed.
It is a reversal.
You have God not speaking on the one hand,
then you have God's law being kept in the other.
You have anarchy and sin on the one hand,
you have blessing in the other.

The Hebrew word used here for law is Torah.
You may have heard it before.
It refers specifically to the first 5 books of the Bible -
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
Those books formed the basis of the Jewish faith.
The law regulated the people's worship of God
and it gave them instructions on how to live.
More than that, the law was also seen by the people of Israel as God speaking to them.
In Psalm 119.72, it says:

The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold

So while the word Hazon - vision - refers to God speaking through his prophets,
the word Torah - law - refers to God speaking through the text of the Bible
- in this case, the first five books.

So how are we to summarise these verses?

When God does not speak,
or when the people do not hear God's voice,
then the people descend into sin,
into anarchy,
into depravity.
But when the people do hear God's voice,
if the people listen to God
and take to heart what he says,
then God will bless them.

2. Applying this to our lives.

So what we've done so far this morning is to examine in painful detail how this verse is to be understood.
We've seen that many Christians have misinterpreted this verse and put their own spin on it.
We've seen how certain words need to be clearly defined in order for us to understand what God is really saying through this verse.
Now after all that technical stuff,
let's try to work out what it means for us today.

I believe that Christians today are in serious trouble
because they attend churches that do not allow God to speak,
or where God's voice is not clearly heard.
And what happens when a church,
either deliberately or accidentally,
silences God's voice?
Well, the people of that church are more likely to descend into sin,
they are more likely to have an immature faith,
they are more likely to have serious misconceptions about God and their faith
and they are more likely to have political divisions.
In fact, when a church fails to listen to God's voice, unbelief can spread,
and many members may not even be Christians at all.

So it all goes back to listening to God's voice.
If we take Proverbs 29.18 to heart,
then it goes back to listening to God's voice
as he speaks through his prophets,
and it goes back to listening to God's voice speak through Scripture
- the Bible.

Now is not the time to spend examining in minute detail the issue of prophecy in the church.
That can be done in the future some time.
However I will say this.
In Ephesians 2.19-20 Paul says that the church is built on the foundation laid by the Apostles and prophets
with Christ Jesus as the Cornerstone.
Prophets were people in the early church that God used to reveal things to in much the same way as the Apostles did.
How do we know what they prophesied about?
In Revelation 19.10, the Apostle John says that

the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.

This is an important verse
- write the reference down.
Revelation 19.10 - the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.
In the early Church, prophets existed to tell the church about Christ
- who he was and what he came to do.

Another important verse to do with Prophets can be found in Hebrews 1.1-2.

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.

Prophets revealed the mystery of God's work.
But in Christ, that mystery is revealed.
Who was Jesus?
He was no less than God in Human form
- man and God in one.
We worship Jesus as God.
What did Jesus come to do?
He came to teach us about God,
and he came to die on the cross for our sins.
When Jesus died on the cross,
he was a sin sacrifice
- he died for our sins and took the punishment that we deserved.
And all those who trust in Christ
and bow down to him as their Lord and God
have had their sins taken away
and have the promise of eternal life.

So when Proverbs 29.18 says
"where there is no revelation the people cast off restraint",
what we can understand now is that this special revelation of prophecy is now revealed
as being God's plan of salvation through his Son, Jesus Christ.
What is vision?
What is this special revelation?
What is this prophecy?
It is the message of Christ,
it is the Gospel.
It is when Christ as Lord and saviour is preached, proclaimed and understood.
So when there is no gospel preached,
when the message of Christ is ignored or not understood,
then the church will descend into sin and rebellion.

But what about the rest of the verse?
"Blessed is he who keeps the law".
We have to believe that this refers to the Bible
- God's word,
written by the Holy Spirit.
We have to understand that the Bible needs to be read and explained and applied in the life of the church,
and when this is done,
people will be blessed.

So how do we know God's voice?
How do we hear God's voice?
We hear God's voice when the message of the gospel,
the message of Christ crucified and risen again,
the message that we should repent and trust in Christ for our forgiveness,
we hear God's voice when this message is proclaimed.

We also hear God's voice when the Bible is opened,
when the Bible is taught,
when the Bible is explained and applied.

Now these are not two different ways that God speaks.
As though God speaks one way through the Bible
and in another way through Christ.
It is, actually, one way.
When God speaks through the gospel of Christ,
we find that message explained in the Bible.
And when we read and apply what the Bible says,
we ultimately read and apply the message of Christ.

What do you expect from a church?
Do you expect love and care?
Do you expect signs and wonders?
Do you expect powerful music and heartfelt passion?

The simple fact is that when God's voice is not heard in a church,
then the people lose sight of the meaning behind their faith,
and sin enters in.
When we come together as a church,
as God's people,
we come to worship God.
But when we worship God,
we worship him on his terms,
and in the way he wants us to worship.
God is engaged in our worship.
When we come together as the body of Christ
God is there with us.
And if it is true worship, then God will speak.
And how does God speak?
He speaks when his Word is read and explained,
and he speaks when the message of Christ is proclaimed.
What this means in practical terms is simple.
When we come to church on a Sunday,
we should expect to hear the Bible read,
we expect to hear a sermon that explains the meaning and application of that part of the Bible,
and we expect that this all ties together in showing how God sent his Son, Jesus, to die on the cross for our sins.

It sounds simple.
It's too simple!
But so many churches have abandoned this simple fact.
In some churches, the Bible is read but is never explained.
Sermons can focus on everything else except what God says in the Bible.
God does not use sermons that are not based on his word.
In some churches, the Bible is read,
but people wish to hear what the Holy Spirit is saying rather than the Bible.
I find that incredible.
The Holy Spirit wrote the Bible.
And if that's the case then the Holy Spirit wouldn't contradict what he has written in scripture,
and yet so many churches have leaders who say that the Spirit has taught them this that and the other thing,
despite the fact they might contradict what the Bible says.
God is not a God of confusion
- he speaks clearly and unambiguously.
He never contradicts himself.
If you want the Holy Spirit to move in your church
and change people,
then simply rely upon him as he works through the reading and explanation of the Bible
and the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ.
Such activity by the Spirit may seem boring,
it may seem unspectacular.
It may even appear unspiritual.
But we can know that when God's word is preached,
and when the Gospel of Christ is proclaimed,
God's Spirit will always be at work.
It is undeniable.
We may not see it,
but we know that he is at work.

So if you're sitting there in a few weeks or a few months and think to yourself
"This church isn't that wonderfully exciting",
ask yourself this.
Is the church preaching from God's word?
Is the church proclaiming the Gospel of Christ?
If the answer is yes, then know for certain that this is a church that God is working in.
Don't judge by outward appearances
- judge by what God sees as important.

The alternative to this is a church that does not preach from the Bible
and does not proclaim the gospel of Christ.
We may still get people coming every Sunday.
Heck we might even attract lots of people.
But don't let outward success fool you.
Too many churches today try to get people to attend through their music ministry
- that by having wonderful, uplifting choruses and songs, people may get attracted to the church
and have their lives changed.
That won't work.
There's nothing wrong with good music,
but it should never be the central focus of worship.
Other churches adjust their message in order to attract people.
They say that we can gain more and more blessings from God
if we pray harder
and have more faith
and give more money to the church.
We can have riches.
We can have healings.
We can have success and happiness.
And that is what they preach.
But they are not preaching from scripture,
and they are not proclaiming the gospel,
and that means that they are a failure in God's eyes
- they have failed to listen to God's voice.

Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint; but blessed is he who keeps the law.

What about our daily lives?
We should read the Bible as much as we can.
We all need time to sit down and meditate on God's word.
I find it good sometimes to read the Bible with a pen in my hand and a blank piece of paper
- then I can jot down all the questions I have
and the applications I can make from what I read.
The fact is that our Bibles should be used so often
that we have to get them replaced every couple of years because of overuse.
If your Bible is the worst looking book on your shelf,
with pages ripped,
writing all through it,
the cover coming off,
then that is good.
We should read it often.
We may not be able to read it every day,
but we always have the opportunity to read it over the course of the week.

Remember that the Bible is a Spiritual document.
It is powerful.
It is the Holy Spirit's way of changing people and teaching people.
The words you read from the Bible are powerful
- but we need to always pray that God will guide us
and help us understand it.
And we should be careful that we do not misunderstand or misinterpret what God is saying
- if we do then understand that God does not work when his word is ignored or butchered.

Now if you're a Christian here today,
then please understand that I'm not promising that by reading the Bible regularly
and by attending a church that teaches the Bible
and proclaims the gospel of Christ
will suddenly make your life so much easier to live.
There's no quick fix I'm offering here.
God isn't offering it either.
But we need to realise that God works in our hearts,
and he often works when we don't realise it.
You will still have problems.
You will still suffer.
But know that despite all this God is working in your life.
How do we know?
Blessed is he who keeps the law.
Think about the first half of Proverbs 29.18:
Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint.
Now reverse it.
Where there is revelation,
where God does speak,
the people submit to God's rule
and are blessed.

Now if you've come today
and you might not think of yourself as a Christian,
then know that God has actually been speaking to you.
And what he is saying to you is this
- stop rebelling against me
and start listening to what I say.
More than that,
God is also saying that while he is offering no quick fix to your life's problems now,
he is offering you forgiveness and new life.
All you need to do is to Admit your sinfulness to him,
Believe that Christ died on the cross for your sins,
and Commit your life to him.

If you do that, then know that you have the promise of heaven
- of eternal life.
And when you become a Christian,
know that God has revealed himself to you.
Where God reveals himself,
God speaks,
and those who listen to him submit to his rule
and are blessed.


Think back to the story I told about my hang-gliding friend.
In order for him to survive while flying he needed to have that artificial horizon
- an instrument that told him which way was up and down.
Because it broke he was in danger of dying.

If we are to live our Christian lives and please God,
then we need to hear the voice of God.
If we can't hear him,
or if we don't listen to him,
then we're doomed.
We will descend into sinfulness and depravity
and, in the end, we will perish.
We will die.
But if we listen to God's voice then we will be blessed,
we will submit to God's rule over our lives
and we will,
in the end,
be with him in paradise forever.

What is God saying to us?
He is telling us about his Son, Jesus Christ,
who died on the cross so that our sins may be forgiven,
and rose again so that we may have new life.
He is telling us about how he loves us.
And he also tells us about what to believe and how to live.
And all these things can be found in the pages of the Bible.

When you open the Bible and read,
God speaks.
Our time at church should always revolve around listening to God's voice
as the Bible is read and explained.
And our time at church should always be focused on the means by which the church was created
- by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
If we have these things in our church and in our daily lives, then we can know that God is working.

Let's pray.

Heavenly Father,
Thank you that you speak to us. That you that you have given us ears to hear, minds to understand and hearts that burn when we hear your voice. We pray that we may never stop listening to your powerful life-giving word. Thank you for Jesus, thank you that he died on the cross for our sins and that he rose again so that we may have new life. Help us to never forget that fact, and to keep it at the forefront of our hearts and minds as we approach each day. We ask that you bless our church, that we may grow in love for one another and for you. Amen.

From the Kerygmatic Department

© 2005 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/

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