“Where there is no vision, the people perish”: One of the most misapplied verses in the Bible

Chris —  June 29, 2010

“Where there is no vision the people perish,” the King James Version translation of Proverbs 29:18, is one of the most misunderstood and misapplied verses in the Bible.

Christian leadership books often quote Proverbs 29:18 as a rationale for a church writing a vision statement.  The KJV version reads, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” This wording fits nicely for those who want to persuade others regarding the need for a vision statement.

While it is good for leaders to communicate vision, Proverbs 29:18 is not talking about a leader’s vision.  Rather, “vision” here refers to special revelation and the principle is that that apart from God’s Word, society quickly spins into moral chaos.

The ESV gives this translation of Proverbs 29:18.

Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law (Proverbs 29:18, ESV).

The word translated “prophetic vision” refers to special revelation or God’s Word.[1] The word translated “cast off restraint”[2] carries the idea of there being a total loss of social order. It is the same word used in Exodus 32:25 to describe the Israelite’s frenzy during the Golden Calf disaster. The NIV translation reads:

Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies (Exodus 32:25, NIV).

If a people do not hear God’s Word, then we can expect society to break down and even local churches to cast off restraint.[3] “Social harmony and restraint cannot be achieved without the exhortations of the prophets and the teaching of the law.”[4] Public morality depends on knowing the law of God.[5] Fabarez argues that the reason there is so much immorality in evangelicalism today is because God’s Word is not preached.[6]

UPDATE: See also this post on Proverbs 29:18 revisited and this post on reading Proverbs and Tim Challies: Where There is No Vision . . . (Proverbs 29:18)

UPDATE: Regarding Proverbs 29:18, James Hamilton writes:

Proverbs 29:18 proclaims, “Where there is no vision . . . the people are set loose, but as far as the one who keeps the law . . . blessed is he.” The word rendered “vision” is a term often used to describe the visions of the prophets. Proverbs 29:18 appears to be describing the blessed restraining power of the Law and the Prophets. Disregarding the visions of the prophets is like walking blindly toward a precipice, but the danger is not an abstract fall from an impersonal height. Rather, the danger lies in defiling the holy God by transgressing his boundaries. Yahweh is a God of justice, and “the ways of a man are before the eyes of Yahweh, and all his paths he observes” (Prov 5:21). The fear of judgment leads to salvation. (God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology, 272-273).

[1] “חָזֹון”, see Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, Edward Robinson, Charles A. Briggs, and Wilhelm Gesenius, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament : With an Appendix Containing the Biblical Aramaic : Based on the Lexicon of William Gesenius as Translated by Edward Robinson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), 302. Waltke concludes that this word refers here to, “the sage’s inspired revelation of wisdom.” Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 446.

[2]“פָּרַע,” has the idea of “let go, let alone.” Brown, Driver, Robinson, Briggs, and Gesenius, 828. There is some confusion about the meaning of this verse because of the King James Version translation, “perish.” See Robert L. Alden, Proverbs: A Commentary on an Ancient Book of Timeless Advice (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983), 202.

[3] This Proverb has been used a great deal in recent years as a biblical defense for local churches writing vision statements. Writing a vision statement is a good idea. However, this verse doesn’t apply to that task. Alden summarizes, “Verse 18 has been misinterpreted for many years, probably because of the way it reads in the KJV; ‘Where there is no vision the people perish.’ ‘Vision’ here does not refer to one’s to need formulate goals and work toward them, nor does it mean eyesight or the ability to understand. ‘Vision’ instead is a synonym for what a prophet does. Thus its real meaning is God’s ‘guidance’ (TEV), ‘revelation’ (NIV), ‘authority’ (NEB), ‘prophecy’ (NAB).” Alden, 202. See also, Kaiser, 10-11. Kaiser applies this passage directly to a call for expository preaching. Delitzsch summarizes, “People are only truly happy when they earnestly and willingly subordinate themselves to the word of God which they possess and have the opportunity of hearing,” quoted in Waltke, 447.

[4] Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, The New American Commentary, vol. 14 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1993), 232.

[5] Derek Kidner, The Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1975), 176.

[6] Fabarez, xiii.

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57 responses to “Where there is no vision, the people perish”: One of the most misapplied verses in the Bible

  1. This is good Chris.
    As always, context is king (after Jesus, of course ;->).

  2. My son was the first to tell me I misunderstood what this verse really was saying. Thanks to you and my son first bringing it to my attention I learned something today. Thanks !!

  3. You’re welcome. Glad you found the link.

  4. thanks for your comments. that verse is taken out of context so often. the last part of the verse explains it…Happy is he who keeps the Law (instruction of God)
    Without the revelation of God we are unrestrained and left to ourselves, but praise God that He has given us His instruction!!

  5. Tom, Thanks for stopping by. Chris.

  6. I do not want to sound rude, but I think you are missing the point. God is providing vision to guide followers to live righteously. Mmm.. a leader [GOD] provides a vison to followers [workers] to sucessfully [righteously] understand the task. You are basically saying the same thing; however, you are using the proverb much more literally than someone you applies this to a modern day leadership example. You are both right!

  7. Brian, thanks for interacting with the post. I certainly agree we need visionary leadership. I think the NIV or ESV are better translations than the KJV on this one.

  8. I would say the vision is ours to perceive but not a product of our imagination. The vision is God’s revelation and message for us to stand in awe of, to meditate upon, absorb, experience, take to heart, act upon in obedience and be thankful for.
    What I think we drastically need today is prophetic evangelists of the calibre of the Wesley’s, Moody, Whitefield, Graham, Bonnke, etc. to address the sins of this modern world and the churches increasing conformity. Especially the sins of corporate greed and control perpetrated on an increasing scale by governments voted into power by hypocritical Christians. We need these people to exhort and point us once again in the right direction. If we’re afraid that our church attendances will dwindle, I think we need to ask ourselves; what would God be more interested in,…..numbers…or…commitment?

  9. Jim van Ommen June 15, 2013 at 2:42 am

    Isaiah 55:11 is our guideline.

  10. Apostle Jacob Zenega Lukhova September 27, 2013 at 2:26 am

    So true

  11. sexyconfidentwoman October 16, 2013 at 5:20 pm

    Well I like all 3 translations they are all still considered the word of God and I don’t see anything wrong in applying the first translation to vision statements and goals why not especially if our goals are too great and unreasonable that need divine intervention.
    The bible also says to make our living a holy sacrifice to God what would be the harm in using this perspective of making our goals as a zealous effort in keeping to commitments and pleasing God in the process. Fair play!!

  12. sexyconfidentwoman October 16, 2013 at 5:25 pm

    Keeping God in mind when making our vision statements can only lead to a happier God, also its a good idea to start practicing rather then none at all.

  13. Cleveland Bates November 8, 2013 at 6:50 pm

    I totally agree with Brian revelation, vision is essential in the kingdom and most assuredly in the church. If there is no vision,
    direction, or leadership in the house people will perish, spiritually
    it is very much a leaders job to teach sound doctrine and feed Gods people a balance diet of the word..you are saying somewhat the same thing but far to literal.

  14. Cleveland, thanks for stopping by.

  15. I appreciate your teaching the “full counsel of the word’, and not just what people want to hear. Unfortunately, we are in times where people want their ears tickled, and want to lean on their own understanding, so keep up the teaching of the word!!

  16. Elaine, thank you so much for your encouraging words. You are right. There is a great deal of pressure to merely tell people what they want to hear.

  17. Having had a good discussion on what vision is all about, I would like to share a vision I have. Nothing really prophetic and forgive me for calling it a vision, it’s perhaps just wishful thinking ( but not necessarily with the limitations we normally associate with that statement). All of us that have participated in this discussion and aired our theological knowledge, can we now pray for what I mentioned earlier:

    “What I think we drastically need today is prophetic evangelists of the calibre of the Wesley’s, Moody, Whitefield, B.Graham, Bonhoeffer, Bonnke, M.L.King etc. to address the sins of this modern world and the churches increasing conformity. Especially the sins of corporate greed and control perpetrated on an increasing scale by governments voted into power by hypocritical Christians. We need these people to exhort and point us once again in the right direction. If we’re afraid that our church attendances will dwindle, I think we need to ask ourselves; what would God be more interested in,…..numbers…or…commitment?” ( Gideon)

    Do we have to wait for another war before our churches are filled to overflowing, as it did in 1940; or another famine; or another natural disaster; or are we just standing back, wait and see as we join the global warming sceptics. The next warming may be much more than just that. We read Exodus and shake our heads at the remarkable unbelieve of the Israelites, time after time……..I think we as a church, as a nation need to look in the mirror and see ourselves for whom we are.
    The Lord bless each one of you as you “Fight the good fight with all your might(remembering that) Christ is your strength and Christ your might. Lay hold on life and it shall be thy JOY and crown eternally”

  18. Jim,

    Thanks for the prayer. I do pray that we would see a great turning to Christ.

    I fear – – -that it will take a great trial to get people’s attention. Thanks for the prayer.


  19. I love the comments shared here. When dealing with this scripture we must interpret vision correctly. How do we do this? By the content. This “vision” is not at all associated with goal casting. We can only treat this verse in the context that is implied, that is, without God’s guidance the people will perish, but blessed are those that keep the law. Plain and simple. Vision in this since is not some abstract idea or thought or dream or voice coming down from heaven, or some feeling that has been put on one’s heart, but this is plainly speaking of the written Word of God, the law. So to use it as saying those who are leaders must cast vision down to the followers is not exegetically correct. Keep in mind that we are all followers and that there is only one leader. No where in the New Testament does it say that one man receives from God what needs to be relayed to the people within a particular congregation. So to say that a leader “cast the vision” is not even a biblical idea for the New Testament church. See the vision has already been set by THE Leader and its found in the Word. Now if you are “the leader” and you do want to set goals for “your” congregation or for the community there’s nothing wrong with that, it helps to articulate what you would like to see happen, your desires. But we can’t use this scripture or God to try to give credit to the reason why we are asking everyone to get behind our ideas. See sometimes the line gets blurred for christians because vision has a different meaning for those in the church. We see vision as coming from God, the business community sees vision as a man’s or company’s desires for the future. We must clearly distinguish between the two and it’s easy to do. See God’s vision has already been articulated through the written Word, any other “visions” on the lines of individual church growth, new campus openings, packing a pew, money goals, direction of your particular church, etc. are all man’s desires (i.e. vision) not necessarily ordained by God. (No matter how much a person says this was given to them from God or that God put this on their heart.) As leaders, even though we may want to motivate people to get behind our desires, we must not in anyway allow them to think that they have been divinely ordained by God. If we do we are unknowingly setting up “our” congregations for failure on a multitude of levels. And saying well at that time that’s what God wanted us to do is not fixing the problem, you actually just compounded the problem. But being truthful and saying these are my desires for our future will allow people to see the difference between God’s vision and Man’s desires. Now if that desire fails miserably, its not God’s fault, and believe me every idea you conceive, no matter how well intentioned or good it may seem at the time, will not always have the desired outcome. God’s vision, Man’s desire…. Don’t confuse the two. This verse is not correctly used when used to try and convey a persons desires for the future of a particular organization. Context is king! And as good bible teachers we must only use a verse in the way that God intended it to be used, not by what else we think it could be saying.

  20. Lewis,thanks so much for the good interaction. You are right – – “Context is king.”

  21. Well spoken Lewis, I totally agree !
    But for all our perfect and less perfect perceptions of the word vision, wouldn’t it need to result in some action no matter how insignificant it… may seem to us… and I’m coming back to the Gideon experience?

  22. Very interesting and engaging comments. But for me I would like to believe that the vision still remains God’s though the execution is by man in order to achieve God’s purposes according to his decrees. It cannot be correct to assume that God does not impress his vision upon his people.

  23. Evans. I agree emphatically. I am the pastor of a local church and we have a number of areas of our vision that we stress repeatedly. Your qualification is just right. It needs to be God’s purposes according to his decrees. What I hope that people will take from this post is that this verse stressed our need to hear the Word proclaimed and when we do not then we will see people casting off restraint.

    Thank you for stopping by.

  24. I really do want to say how thankful I am for this discussion on this topic.
    The Lord is dealing with me on this>

  25. nath from warri Nigeria March 29, 2014 at 6:41 pm

    what an argument, God! No wonder Jesus said; “you say you see and yet you are blind” now let the blind recieve their sight! This is the summary of that verse, it merges with what God said to the prophet, “WRITE the vision (assignment), make it plain (in simple words) write it on top tables (display it) or (act it) that they who may see it will run with it. Therefore, vision is simply the assignment given to man by God, an idea or revelation from the heart of God from the foundation of the world, for an apointed person or apointed time. E.g Moses, (take my people out of egypt into the promise land) its a statement, it determines where they are going to, and as well their destination before leaving this world. But what confuse many is the breaking down of the vision where other plans need to be made to execute the vision, e.g resources, ideas, labour etc…. So many people are so confused about this second part when it’s been carried out, because the custodian of the vision failed in refreshing the vision to his followers. Tnk u

  26. At church the other night, the pastor talked about having a vision for the call of God. That God’s still calling men and women of God to rise up and fulfill their purpose. You think to yourself, that could be me fulfilling this vision. You get excited about it and believe it, commit to it, take ownership of it and be obedient to what God gave you. Willing to sacrifice and work with one another and get along. He gave examples of seeing yourself helping out in meeting needs that need to be met and being involved. I’m pretty sure his opening verse was proverbs 29:18. So in using this scripture to back up his preaching he misapplied the verse. (?)

  27. Leana,

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say he misapplied the verse – – The idea that God is still calling men and women to rise up is biblical – – in that sense, it is consistent with the verse. I think it is problematic when pastors/preachers use this verse to justify programs or man made visions that really don’t flow out of Scripture.

    Does that make sense?


  28. Yes makes perfect sense. I was a little confused for a sec because some of the examples given were to meet the needs of our church but for individuals called to that position, in no way was he trying to use the verse to justify any man made visions.
    Thank you!

  29. Ronald Ellis Porter August 10, 2014 at 10:02 am

    I understand that the word of God from the Old Testament to The New Testament warns us of false prophets and being bewitched. That said, let us remember the scripture warning Jesus gave us in Matthew 24: 23-28. The way of Balaam is as real and practiced today. Here is an excerpt from Bible.Org : Peter warned against “the way of Balaam,” Jude against “the error of Balaam” and John against “the doctrine of Balaam” (II Peter 2:15; Jude 11; Revelation 2:14). God evidently considers these warnings necessary and appropriate for Christians even today.

    Yet Balaam, in his day, was a genuine prophet (note II Peter 2:16), possessed great knowledge concerning God, and even received direct revelations from God. What, therefore, were his way, his error, and his doctrine?

    “The way of Balaam” was a readiness to prostitute his high spiritual gifts and privileges for “The wages of unrighteousness” (II Peter 2:14), being willing to preach something contrary to God’s Word for personal gain.
    “The error of Balaam” was evidently his willingness to compromise his own standards of morality and truth in order “greedily” to accommodate those of his pagan patrons (Jude 11).
    Finally, “the doctrine of Balaam,” which even in John’s day was already infiltrating the church, was to use his own teaching authority to persuade God’s people that it was all right for them also to compromise these standards, even “to commit fornication” (Revelation 2:14) with their idol-worshipping enemies.
    No wonder Micah (the faithful prophet) urged God’s people to “remember” Balaam and his tragic end (Numbers 31:8).

    Henry Morris, Source unknown
    Don’t believe this then read Deuteronomy 14:22-29 and you’ll see how false prophets use Gods word in a lie.
    Read the word and pray for understanding. Ask God to heal you of itching ears and dependency upon mankind revelations. Be filled with the Holy Spirit and he will lead you into all truth.

  30. FINALLY … a pastor gets this verse right! Good on ya, brother!

  31. Thanks Rob. That is encouraging!

  32. I was just talking to a friend in church this morning how I used to see this (KJV) verse but through listening to preaching receive many revelations (seeing) of God’s word. I wonder what the original text is but revelation (of God’s Word) would be a good translation in place of vision.

    These caught my eyes as I browse through the comments:
    1) People hear God’s word all the time … but it is a revelation that is key. [Hearing they do not hear, seeing they do not see]

    2) It is interesting to note that the name Jesus was mentioned only once (sorry twice. did a recount). No not God, not Christ but Jesus, the name above all names, and the name Father which Jesus came to reveal. It is good to lift His name high.

    3) A modern day DL Moody? Found one

    My Pastor : )

    Revelation of Jesus in the scripture is an exciting Emmaus journey.


  33. Amen Peter. Thank you for stopping by.

  34. Thank you for sharing your insight. I must share that fifteen years ago, a friend quoted this verse to me in the wrong context and once in a while, I stumble over it, in the wrong context and fall into self condemnation because half of the time I don’t know what direction I should be going without a clear “vision”. I was not getting that direction/vision that I thought I should so in turn, I felt that there was something that I was doing wrong and/or I was not worthy enough to get that clear direction.
    Your article lifted away the bricks that have been on my back for all these years!
    Thank you.

  35. Suzy – – You made my day. Thank you so much. I appreciate the feedback. Very encouraging.

  36. While everything that have been said is quite good, my take is that God through his scripture takes a concept so well known to us and uses it to teach us a spiritual lesson. For example when Jesus said love your neighbor, he went on to explain by neighbor he don’t mean the person next door as was he case with the story of the Good Samaritan. Infact the identity of a neighbor was left open ended.

    With this verse, by using the word vision, the word picture we have already is eyes. In fact one of the Meaning of the word chazon which is translated vision is sight (mental). The normal concept here being people who don’t have eyes are bound to perish because they do not know where they go and they are going to hurt themselves.

    Of course in proverbs god is not talking of physical eyes but I think the concept is the same, if you are to escape destruction, spiritual distraction, your eyes need to be open so that you have a good vision of God, of life, of yourself. Remember when Jesus said people have eyes but can’t see. These people didn’t have vision and so they were stumbling into darkness.

    Ultimately when we our eyes are opened the most significant thing to see is God himself. The good news is when we see God, we see the world from Gods perspective, we understand (see) our mission much more clearly and therefore we can pursue it effectively.

    So the misunderstanding that we may draw people to is their need to see the wrong things. However hard you try to write a church vision statement, go to retreats to learn the same, engage experts, if the first thing you see is not God himself, you aren’t seeing any. And I think that what fails us. We try to see so many things but not God.

  37. Thanks Robert Kenya! Great thoughts.

  38. Thank you Chris. I’m glad I founf your website. Reading, studying, and preaching in context is always important.

  39. Thanks Will. I’m encouraged to hear from you.

  40. without vision the people perish =
    without an aim/direction in your life, you will fall apart. In order to succeed in life you must have a vision.
    I’m not religious by any means, but I took something from this. The principles in the bible are relevant to everybody, not just the religious.

  41. Congratulations Pat, being religious won’t do much for you !
    Being a follower of Jesus Christ, the Son of our Creator God is the only source for true vision and purpose and direction and fulfillment and joy in Life !
    Greetings from Hobart, Tasmania, Jim.

  42. Zoom out for perspective and in for direction

  43. Steven J. Hazen MD December 15, 2015 at 8:41 am

    Again, why I study the most original text I can collect. I find accepting without studying for self can be an – “oops”. So fond of the way I thought I knew it. Alas, today, went to sources. Does not read “without vision, the human perishes”. So, NET search. Then, used my own library. Septuagint in Greek 1851 AD text of mid 250 BC LXX. Here is my current best personal transliteration 12/2015: Proverb 29:18.
    “Absolutely not, could there be extant (standing out) one leading forth a transgressing multitude (people of same habits).However, one keeping the Law is most blessed”.

  44. It’s great to hear about someone really digging into the word. Steven, thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  45. Of course people would perish if they have no vision. The moment you are born again you have a vision, a plan and a goal to accomplish Gods will.
    Like Joseph he had a vision, he did not allow all that was happening to him deter him from that vision. Thrown into the pit did not bother him, because he knew where is going to be as long as he was following gods word.
    Being accused and thrown into prison, did not stop his vision coming to pass. There is no need to struggle, mourn or cry in all that you go through if you know your vision.
    A man that knows his vision and walking in the will of God would not interfere with all that is happening around him…he has that assurance his vision will gone to pass, come what may.
    What about our lord Jesus, was he not a man who had a vision. What was his vision, likewise God has a vision for each one of us. It is my understanding that our vision will come to pass as we follow his word.

  46. It’s tough to beat the Joseph narrative: such a wonderful picture of God’s providence.

  47. I agree with the context of the scripture however, I also feel it still speaks to the importance of vision for businesses and organizations. Essentially it’s saying that without something to keep people focused on the right things, they’ll lose focus and be about everything which comes to their imagination. As stated, they cast off restraint. It’s human nature. That said, it’s very important to discern the vision through prayerful discernment.

  48. Vincent Andrews May 3, 2017 at 10:01 am

    So this has got to be one of my favorite Bible verse of all and I feel while both opinions are viable ones, we are forgetting the author and purpose of the book. It is a father bestowing his wisdom on his son so he walks the upright path which is Wisdom. The law calls for a six day work week. Try getting into a heap of trouble after toiling six days straight.its simple forks. Have a purpose, work your backside in doing that purpose and in doing so it makes it easier to uphold the law. The law was a bunch of thou shalt nots. Idle hands folks is a common theme throughout and a young man with plenty of time on his hands is bond to be swept into the harlots bed! I am not a Christian so please don’t let my prospective lead you astray if if I am wrong but I have read the book numerous times and sometimes you have to take the context clues and put them together! I enjoyed reading most of the comments. Thank you and have a blessed day.

  49. Vincent, thanks for stopping by and for your thoughts.

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