Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint,
but blessed is he who keeps the law.
I have often heard the first have of this verse ripped out of context in a dangerous way. It is usually quoted from the King James, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Then the one quoting it will use it as a tool to preach a sort of visionary leadership. Perhaps the person will be charismatic, and will be leading the people to listen to his own personal visions. Or perhaps the person is a pastor who wants to control his congregation by claiming that he is the visionary they must follow or perish.
The problem is that we are not letting the verse do what proverbs are supposed to do. This is a great example of an antithetical parallel. The verse has two halves that are intended to contrast. This is nothing new. A great many proverbs say to us, If A then something bad, but if B, then something good. A and B in that example are contrary positions that lead to very different outcomes.
Keep the antithetical parallelism in mind with this verse. When there is no prophetic vision, something bad is coming. What is the opposite? Is the biblically given opposite a call for charismatic giftings or visionary leadership? The verse says in the second half, “but blessed is he who keeps the law.” The good side of the parallel is that the blessing of God is on the one, not who has a vision, not who has a visionary leader, but on the one who keeps the law of God. Stop, think that through, and then move on.
The proverb is not telling us to seek out new prophets or find visionary leadership. The proverb is telling us that if we do not want to perish, we must be people who cling to and obey the word of God. The word of God rightly taught and applied is the prophetic vision that prevents the people from perishing. Wise people who want to spiritually live love the word of God and keep it. That is the point of this proverb.
So, please, dear friends, if you hear someone use this proverb out of context, be ready to help. It does not take a lot of exegetical heavy lifting to get it right. Just draw out the parallels and show that the issue here is that people perish when the pastor turns from Scripture, not when he lacks charismatic gifts or modern, visionary leadership skills.