Without revelation the people run wild,
but one who keeps the law will be happy.
Proverbs 29:18 HCSB
This is a somewhat well-known but sadly misunderstood verse. The Authorized Version (also known as the King James Version) reads more familiarly, “Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” The misunderstanding comes from imposing modern ideas of “vision” onto the verse, without understanding the intent.
In today’s day, “vision” comes in the form of mission statements or plans (or even visionaries, those responsible for “having the vision” and planning toward that vision). Proverbs 29:18 then becomes a justification for vision statements and for positions that exist to formulate and propagate those visions.
More modern translations help clarify what’s actually being said here. The HCSB very helpfully translates the Hebrew word ḥazôn. This word does mean “vision,” but vision in the sense of God revealing His word to His servants the prophets by way of visions. Various translations bring this out: “divine guidance” (NLT), “prophetic vision” (ESV), “redemptive revelation of God” (AMP note).
When Proverbs 29:18 speaks of lacking vision, it refers to a lack of the Scriptures. The lack of revelation is not due to God’s refusal to make Himself known, but because sinners reject and suppress the truth. Setting each line of the proverb next to one another helps us see the connections:
Without revelation → run wild
keep the law → happy
This verse conveys the same truth quoted by Jesus in the wilderness temptations: “Man must not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4 HCSB). To do the will of God (“keep the law”) is sustaining food, just as Jesus told the disciples.
Without the Scriptures, we run wild, throwing off all restraint and inhibition. Like fools, we think that being completely unfettered and unrestrained is unadulterated freedom. On the contrary, it is not. John Kitchen’s comment I quoted elsewhere is quite appropriate here:
“Could it be, then, that God’s boundaries are not designed to restrict our freedom and dull our enjoyment, but to expand our boundaries and heighten our pleasure?”
The greatest joy comes not from throwing off restraint; in fact, according to Proverbs 29:18, it is the exact opposite of uninhibited living. The boundaries of God’s holiness heighten joy and intensify pleasure. O for grace to trust Him more!