Proverbs 29:18 is one of the better known of the many proverbs in the book of Proverbs, but one that is least understood and one that is abused the most. Proverbs 29:18 has been used to defend political causes and to promote environmental issues.
The primary reason for this misuse of Proverbs 29:18 is because of the translation of this verse as it appears in the King James Version of the Bible. The KJV translates Proverbs 29:18 as follows:
“Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he” (Proverbs 29:18 KJV).
Now, compare the KJV with the translation that appears in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV): “Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint, but happy are those who keep the law.”
The reason for this difference is that the Hebrew word for vision, hazôn, is generally used to designate the revelation of God’s will to prophets. The word hazôn is used to describe the visions of Isaiah (Isaiah 1:1) and of Nahum (Nahum 1:1).
What the wiseman is trying to communicate to his audience is that without prophetic revelation and without the preaching of the prophets calling the people into a faithful relationship with God and obedience to his word, people lose restraint and abandon God’s law.
The word of the wiseman reminded the people of the darkest time in the history of Israel when prophetic visions were not widespread: “In those days [the days of Samuel] the word of the LORD was rare and prophetic visions were not widespread” (1 Samuel 3:1 HCSB).
A few scholars have understood the lack of prophetic vision to mean that at the time this proverb was coined that there were no prophets in Israel and that the preaching of the prophets was silent. However, this may not be necessarily the case.
Several times in the Bible it is said that divine revelation was withheld in times of Israel’s apostasy. In the days when there was no king in Israel and people did whatever they wanted (Judges 21:25), the word of the LORD was rare and there was no frequent vision (1Samuel 3:1).
The same sentiment was expressed by writers who were dealing with the consequences of the fall of Jerusalem:
“Zion’s gates have fallen to the ground; He has destroyed and shattered the bars on her gates. Her king and her leaders live among the nations, instruction is no more, and even her prophets receive no vision from the LORD” (Lamentations 2:9 HCSB).
“Disaster after disaster will come, and there will be rumor after rumor. Then they will seek a vision from a prophet, but instruction will perish from the priests and counsel from the elders” (Ezekiel 7:26 HCSB).
The role of the prophets as interpreters of God’s will to the people is reflected in the translation of Proverbs 29:18 in the Septuagint (LXX): “There shall be no interpreter to a sinful nation: but he that observes the law is blessed.” When there is no one to teach, inspire, and exhort the people to be faithful to God, people perish.
Without God’s word to guide them, “people cast off restraint.” This same Hebrew word was used twice to describe the people’s depraved behavior during the celebration associated with the making of the golden calf:
“Moses saw that the people were out of control, for Aaron had let them get out of control” (Exodus 32:25).
The moral and spiritual problem of the community comes when prophecy ceases. The people cast off restraint when the voice of the prophets falls silent. When there is no one to bring a divine revelation to them, people will desperately seek God’s word:
“They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it” (Amos 8:12).
The wiseman says that people who willingly and earnestly submit themselves to the word of God are truly happy people. Law or Torah in Proverbs 29:18 means divine teaching, the word of God.
The word “law” may be used in Proverbs 29:18 as a reference to the Law of Moses, to the teachings of the prophets, or to the instructions of the wisemen. Whatever the meaning of the word “law,” the law here stands for God’s word. Obedience to God’s word is essential to the well-being of a nation or an individual: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, the people he chose for his inheritance” (Psalm 33:12).
People who hear and obey God’s word enjoy a special blessing from God. However, they perish and are destroyed for lack the knowledge of God’s word:
“My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. . . . [They] have forgotten the law of God” (Hosea 4:6).
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary