In every language, the same word can often have a variety of meanings. For example, what does the word bow mean? As a noun, it can be something formed by a ribbon on a gift box. It can be an instrument a hunter would use. It can be part of the frame for a pair of eyeglasses. It can be a critical part of playing a violin. You can use the word to describe part of a ship. As a verb, it can refer to lowering your head as a sign of courtesy when greeting someone. It can describe bending something in a curve. The word can refer to crushing with a heavy burden.
Sometimes eager students of scripture look for “the meaning” in a word that describes how it is used everywhere it occurs in the Bible. This overly simplistic approach can lead to some erroneous conclusions. While there are some words that are highly unique and specialized—like phylactery—other words may have different meanings that are discovered by looking at the context. As with English, the context helps us understand the meaning of the words so that we can correctly understand what the author is trying to convey. That context is both grammatical and historical.
For example, one abused verse in the book of Proverbs is Proverbs 29:18. The first part of the verse in the King James translation reads, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” One of the buzzwords in the modern American church is vision. We want leaders who are visionary. We draft vision and mission statements for churches and mission agencies. And so when we look at this verse we see an endorsement about embracing a picture of a preferred future, which is at the core of the visioning process. The Bible seems to affirm our enthusiasm for developing vision in the church.
Unfortunately, that approach distorts scripture. It takes a modern day definition and imposes it on the text in a way that was alien to the author. The word vision in today’s vocabulary often refers to a thought or conception of the future in the mind of a leader looking for goals to achieve for himself or his organization. In numerous places I’ve read authors who cite Proverbs 29:18 as an endorsement for the concept of advancing visionary leadership in the church, just as others do in the business world. But that is not what the passage teaches.
The word translated vision in the KJV of Proverbs 29:18 is a Hebrew word that refers to a revelation of God to man. When young Samuel was ministering before Eli, God did not disclose himself to the people much. 1 Samuel 3:1 states, “There was no frequent vision.” In Micah 3:6 God speaks of his judgment as a refusal to disclose himself further to the people. The text tells us, “it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without divination.” The prophets will have nothing to say because God will be silent. The revelation to Daniel in Daniel 8:2 is described as a vision. The ESV aptly translates this word in Proverbs 29:18 as “prophetic vision” and NIV as “revelation.”
In the context of the Old Testament language, this verse tells us that if God does not speak, the consequences for man are not good. The KJV translates the following verb in verse 18 as “perish.” The NIV uses the phrase “cast off restraint.” The concept here is a letting go, even to the point of running wild. It makes me think of the uninhibited behavior often associated with Mardi Gras. Without God’s clear guidance, we tend to do that which seems logical to us, which often leads to moral and social chaos.
If we give some care to our reading of the Bible, we will grow in our understanding of the truth. If we fail to do that, we may misrepresent God in ways that are embarrassing, if not destructive.