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For many years this proverb has been misinterpreted, probably because the KJV translates it "Where there is no vision, the people perish." One can infer from that translation that wise groups must have a five-, ten- or twenty-year plan for the future if they do not wish to become defunct as an organization. And many have taken just that meaning from this text.
However, the word vision does not refer to one's ability to formulate future goals and plans. Instead, it is a synonym for the prophetic word itself. It is what a prophet does. It refers to the prophetic vision, revelation which comes as the word of God.
Israel endured times when the prophetic word was silent. When Samuel was a young boy, "in those days the word of the LORD was rare" (1 Sam 3:1). For all the times Israel rejected the word, God sent a famine on the earth; not a famine of food and water, but an even more damaging famine: a famine of the word of God (Amos 8:12; see also 2 Chron 15:3; Ps 74:9).
Besides vision, a second key word has been misunderstood in this verse: the word perish. This does not refer to the perishing of churches with inactive planning committees (a fact which may be true on grounds other than those presented here in this text). Nor does it mean the perishing of the unevangelized heathen who will die in their sin if someone does not reach them quickly (a fact which is also true on other grounds).
The word translated in the KJV as "perish" has a very impressive background to it. It means "to cast off all restraint." It clearly warns that where the word of God is silenced so that it no longer comments on the local situation, the results are terrifying. The populace becomes ungovernable as they cast aside all that is decent and civil for whatever their own baser appetites wish to indulge in.
The best picture of how this takes place can be found in Exodus 32:25. While Moses was absent for a mere forty days on Mount Sinai receiving the law of God, the people began to fear that he would never return. Without the input of the prophetic word, the people began to get out of control. They cast off all restraint and began to dance about a newly made golden calf. They ate and drank and indulged in open immorality, apparently recalling what they had seen in Egypt.
Without the announcement of the word of God, teaches this text, the people will become unrestrained, disorderly and grossly obscene in their manner of life. The verb means to "let loose," that is, "to let one's hair down," whether literally or figuratively (see also Lev 13:45 and Num 5:18).
On the other hand, this proverb continues, "Blessed is he who keeps the law." Thus, on the one hand, people are in an untenable position when the voice of the preacher ceases, because they let loose and nothing is left to restrain them; but, on the other hand, they are only truly happy when they have the good fortune of possessing the word of God and then place themselves under the hearing and doing of that word.
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