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Freedom From Religion: A Cautionary Tale from Prov. 29:18

I remember attending our church’s Wednesday night children’s program. All of us would gather together in the middle of the classroom and sing “Read your Bible, pray every day and you’ll grow, grow, grow”. And with each “grow” we’d stretch taller and taller until finally our little fingers were straining towards the ceiling –still a significant distance away from our four-foot average height.

From that stance we’d sing the next verse, “Don’t read your bible, don’t pray every day and you’ll shrink, shrink, shrink” And we’d slowly wilt down to the floor.

Truthfully, on the days when I’m struggling to open text, I will often sing that song to myself.

But as basic as that song’s message is, it doesn’t capture the deep, dramatic devastation that crushes those who ignore it.

Anyone who has read any Christian leadership verse has probably heard Prov. 29:18, “Without vision, the people perish.”

The problem with this familiar quote is two-fold: (1) It’s only the first half of the verse and (2) it’s a quote from the KJV that is quite a semantic distance from how we in this century understand the word “perish” (yet one more reason to read from multiple translations).

1. It’s Only the First Half of the Verse

The whole verse reads (in the KJV), “Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.”

If the text were simply cautioning us that a missing mission statement causes people to loose heart, then the second half of the verse is a non sequitur.

But if we understand that by “vision”, the writer is intending an actual spiritual vision from God (the “word of God”, if you will), then the second half makes sense.

This is, in point of fact, how most of the other English translations render it:

NKJV: Where there is no revelation…
Where there is no prophetic vision…
NIV: Where there is no revelation…
CSB: Without revelation…
NLT: When people do not accept divine guidance…

2. How We Should Understand “Perish”

But how we understand “perish” on this point is most important. It can be rendered as “cast off restraint”:

NKJV: Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint
Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint
NIV: Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint
CSB: Without revelation people run wild…
NLT: When people do not accept divine guidance, they run wild.

And lest we fall victim to “chronological snobbery”, the Geneva Bible (1599, 11 years before the KJV) translates it, “Where there is no vision, the people decay…”

In other words, when the text says “perish” it’s not just that people die, it’s that they intentionally liberate themselves from godliness –plunging head-long into the worst that God-forsaking humanity has to offer.

In God’s wisdom, He is willing to give us what we want. And contrary to the American zeitgeist, not all “liberation” is freedom; it can be enlistment into the worst kind of slavery imaginable.

And that brings us to the oft-neglected second half of the verse: “…but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” (KJV)

The one who designed it was kind enough to explain vast portions of it though His “Holy prophets and apostles (2 Pet 3:2). But all too often we treat God like the grandpa who sits in the corner telling the same stories over and over again, failing to understand that He’s the Creator who is still waiting for us to listen and obey.

So after walking off the Father’s property, our stary-eyes looking forward to making our own way, we found our decayed self and world and ask “Where is God?”

Not only is this true on a corporate level (which is what this text is specifically targeting), it is also true on a personal level.

My separation from God’s words will result in my emancipation from His life-saving harness –the only binding keeping my soul from falling to its death.