Question: "What does it mean that without vision the people perish?"
Answer: The King James Version of Proverbs 29:18 says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” Some have used this verse to emphasize the importance of vision in leadership. Without a long-term plan—without a vision—people are doomed to wander aimlessly.
Of course, it is true that having an idea of where one is headed helps in getting there. Proverbs 29:18 is not talking about having a business or ministry vision. Other translations of the Bible help clarify the point of Proverbs 29:18 for modern readers. The NIV puts it this way: “Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint; but blessed is the one who heeds wisdom’s instruction.” The ESV has, “Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law.”
The “vision” in this verse refers to a divine communication as from a dream, revelation, or prophecy. The same Hebrew word used in Proverbs 29:18 is found in 1 Samuel 3:1 in the context of the rarity of the word of the Lord and the infrequency of prophetic visions. It is also used to introduce the prophetic books of Isaiah and Obadiah and several of the visions of Daniel. Lack of vision, then, is a lack of God’s revelatory word.
Proverbs 29:18 says that “the people perish” where there is no vision. The word translated “perish” or “cast off restraint” in the original means “to loosen” and thus “to expose or uncover.” The same Hebrew word is used in Exodus 32:25 during the golden calf incident: “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” (emphasis added). It is also used in Leviticus regarding uncovering one’s head or letting one’s hair hang loose (Leviticus 10:6; 13:45; 21:10). Other proverbs use the same word to denote “ignoring” or “neglecting” instruction (Proverbs 1:25; 8:33; 13:18; 15:32) and “avoiding” the path of the wicked (Proverbs 4:15).
With this we understand that, without the Word of God, people are “loose”; that is, they go their own way. They live without restraint. Ultimately, living in such a way will lead to death because to ignore God’s way is to ignore the way of life (Romans 6:23). So what is the remedy to such lethal waywardness?
The next part of Proverbs 29:18 tells us: “Blessed is the one who heeds wisdom's instruction.” We are blessed when we keep God’s directives. Psalm 19 elaborates on the perfection and trustworthiness of God’s Word. His precepts “are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes” (Psalm 19:8). David, the psalmist here, goes on to describe God’s decrees as “more precious than gold” and “sweeter than honey” (verse 10). He writes, “By them your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward” (verse 11). Lest anyone be confused, this is not a call to legalism. Life is not found in our ability to obey a list of dos and don’ts. Within Psalm 19 we see indications of relationship with God. David talks about the fear of the Lord being pure (verse 9), he calls himself God’s servant (verse 13), and he calls God his “LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer” (verse 14). When Jesus named the greatest commandment, He referred to the command to love God (Mark 12:28–34). Our obedience to God and our keeping of His Word flow from a relationship in which we are loved by God and we love Him in return (1 John 4:7–10).
Hebrews 1:1–2 says, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.” Jesus has come into the world as the living Word of God (John 1:1, 14). God has also given us the written Word, the Bible. When we fail to read God’s Word and live it out in our lives, we become people “without vision.” When we ignore God’s Word, we begin to live without restraint to our own peril. Conversely, when we heed God’s Word, we are blessed. Jesus said, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:9–11). God has given us His Word, and He calls us to be faithful to it. In keeping God’s Word, we will find joy in Him.