Dying for a Vision?

eye glasses sxc hu smallI’m not sure which is worse, the constant misuse of Proverbs 29:18a (KJV) or how many times I find myself saying, “That’s not a good translation,” whenever I try to explain the whole proverb.

Now, I have to say, “the whole proverb,” because I’ve never heard anyone actually quote the whole thing when throwing it out in a board meeting, or motivational sermon. Once, during a seminar session at a conference, I asked a group of pastors if anyone could tell me the second half of “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Everyone began looking around, shrugging, murmuring. One pastor finally shouted, “There’s a second half?” A great set up… I didn’t even have to pay him to do it.

So… Yes, indeedy, there is a second half, and it should, if we understand the nature of Hebrew poetry, raise some serious questions about the way almost everybody uses the first half. Proverbs 29:18b (KJV) says, “but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.”

The BUT should be a big tip off that Proverbs 29:18 is what we in the Biz call, “antithetical parallelism.” This means that two succeeding lines of Hebrew poetry make essentially the same point… BUT from opposite perspectives. In antithetical parallelism, opposite actions net opposite results. “Where there is no vision,” whatever that means, is the opposite of “Keeping the Law.”

So when someone uses, “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” to promote the importance of organizational planning, or clearly defined mission statements, she or he (or it, if that preaching parrot I saw on Ripley’s Believe It or Not was for real) is not properly interpreting the proverb. They’re not preaching heresy, but anytime one replaces the intended meaning of a passage with another, no matter how true that other meaning is, they have concealed the message of the Holy Spirit.

Now in antithetical parallelism there are always word pairs that are meant to suggest the same thing, and others that are supposed to suggest opposites.

In our proverb,  the opposites are pretty clear. First, we have ABSENCE of X standing opposite to KEEPING Y. Second, we have PEOPLE PERISH opposite HAPPY IS HE.

But “perish” isn’t exactly a good translation of פּרע PARA’ which means “letting loose,” as in “letting one’s hair fly.” We have a similar saying, “let your hair down” but while we mean “relaxing a bit” & “having fun” פּרע PARA’ suggests wild abandon… moral melt-down. It is one of the key terms describing the depravity of the Israelites with the golden calf. (Exodus 32:6ff)

Happy isn’t the best translation either. Americans are HAPPY crazy, associating the term with pleasantness, being in a good mood, feeling positive about the day, having a good time. If feeling truly introspective, we might use happy to speak of deep contentment, satisfaction with the way life has turned out. אשׁר ESHER, however, is not about emotion or warm fuzzy feelings, whether those feelings are shallow or deep. ESHER is about being in a blessed place, a place of divine favor, of ultimate goodness, of stability. This HAPPINESS is not a promise of perfection in life, or perfect health, or an absence of sorrow or loss. It concerns finding a life of stability and strength. A life of wholeness, certainty and blessedness, even in the midst of sorrow, struggle and loss.

Ironically, the key to understanding this antithetical proverb is actually found in the two synonymous terms… neither of which are well translated in the KJV. See, I told you I would say that a lot.

The term translated Law presents two problems.

The first is that Christians really need to get over their Law vs. Grace paranoia. We cannot hear the beauty of the Law as praised throughout the Old Testament if we are stuck on false notions of “Law” as a failed program that stands diametrically opposed to salvation in Christ. Paul says that without the law men would not come to know sin as sin. The law is a tutor to being us to Christ. It is good and holy… when used lawfully… i.e. rightly.

The second is that תּורה Torah is better translated here as “divine teaching,” and generally as “instruction.” The term encapsulates in some instances, with the entire Pentateuch or the whole of the Old Testament, incorporating the narratives, poems, oracles and legal codes alike.

The final term to be unpacked… the biggie… the center of misunderstanding around which swirls devious misconstruals is VISION. While we use vision to speak of 1. physical sight 2. plan or goal or mission 3. hallucination  4. ecstatic revelation. חזון hazon, however, pronounced HA-ZONE, is a technical term with a singularly narrow meaning. It is used 35X in Scripture to mean exclusively PROPHETIC REVELATION.  In this context, it means the same thing that Torah does… divine word.

This is why I love the translation of Proverbs 29:18 in the ESV, “Where there is no prophetic vision, the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law.” Ummmm… except for the law part. So let me try a rather loose rendering that captures the spirit of the proverb.

“When the prophetic voice (commonly represented in the sacred scriptures) is absent from a community, those in that community cast off moral restraint to their own harm, but when people dedicate their energies to living life in keeping with divine instruction, they find a stable, productive, and both earthly and eternally rewarding existence.”

3 thoughts on “Dying for a Vision?

  1. rico says:

    awesome explanation i love it and appreciate your hard work an dedication!!!!!!!!

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