Where there is no vision the people perish: but he that keepeth the law happy is he. Proverbs 29.18.
HAVE WE NO VISION?
Substance of sermon preached on Sunday 28th November 1982 at Rehoboth Baptist Chapel, Coventry. P. G. Watts
“Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he”. Proverbs 29.18.
What a wonderful variety and diversity there is in the inspiration of Holy Scripture! God has been pleased to speak in so many ways. There are divine histories, laws, and prophecies; there are psalms and songs, gospels, and epistles, and there are these proverbs – wise sayings spoken mostly by Solomon whose prayer for wisdom was so wonderfully answered.
In some chapters in the book of Proverbs it is possible to discern a theme, but for the most part the proverbs are self-contained sayings. Wise and weighty, short and pithy, they contain their whole intent and purpose within themselves. So this proverb – “Where there is no vision the people perish” – is true both in a natural and in a spiritual sense.
1. General Principles
It is true naturally of all human societies and governments. Where there is no vision among the members or leaders of the group, no forward planning, no sense of purpose, there is bound to be deterioration. The meaning behind the phrase “the people perish” is that they are made naked. They are vulnerable, exposed to danger. There is a connection between a lack of vision and vulnerability among the people. Confusion, lawlessness, and ultimately revolt will follow as surely as night follows day. Even then, in such a state, the law-abiding citizen – and especially the one who treasures a love for the law of God – will find happiness. “Where there is no vision the people perish: but he that keepeth the law,happy is he.”
This proverb is always true, therefore, of those societies and nations which, in their government, have no recourse to a higher authority, no vision of God. When a community turns away from God, from His word, His laws, His revealed will, there is no vision and the seeds of destruction are already sown, the people perish. Where people depend solely upon the wisdom of man they are vulnerable, exposed ultimately to the forces of anarchy. God has given in His word laws which are essential to the right and wise ordering of society, and man abandons and turns away from the law of God at his own peril and to his own perishing. A godless society is a dangerous society: and the measure of a society’s unhappiness, its discontent, frustration, immorality and violence is the measure of the extent to which it has turned away from the commandments of God.
There are also some societies, some tribes and communities, which have never had this vision. The word of God has never come to them, never been preached to them. Throughout the history of the Church of God this fact has been one of the strongest incentives to missionary work, to the spread of the truth, the preaching of the gospel, because those who are taught of the Lord know that “where there is no vision the people perish”. There has been a constant succession of heroes of the faith who have been burdened for souls and for nations, who have braved great dangers, suffered crushing losses, overcome insurmountable obstacles to bring this vision to those who are ignorant of it. And surely we must be aware that there are millions in our own country today who have never honestly been confronted with the pure truth of the word of God. They are in danger of perishing.
The truth of this proverb can be demonstrated from history. The rise and fall of the Babylonian, the Greek, the Roman empires and many others, bear eloquent testimony to it. They fell because they became increasingly decadent, because they turned away even from that which is revealed in the conscience and by natural law. Look by contrast at the history of the Jewish nation which has survived so remarkably. In that nation there has been at least an outward recognition of God and His law and, in terms of survival, the proverb has been illustrated.
2. Illustrated in the Old Testament
This proverb is to be applied in a more particular way, however, to the salvation history of God’s people. God has been pleased to reveal Himself in history through His chosen people; Israel in the Old Testament order, the Church of Jesus Christ in the New. The vision is then an entrusted vision. There were times in Old Testament days when the vision shone brightly, times of spiritual advancement: and there were also times of decline, of turning away from God’s word. Indeed there were times when, linked with the disobedience and sin of God’s covenant people, the vision well nigh faded into oblivion. It is important to notice the connection between decline and disobedience. Yet always, despite the frailty and fickleness of His people, God has, according to His own sovereign power and purpose, maintained the vision. He has always had a remnant. How sleepy everything seemed to be when the lad Samuel was dedicated to the service of God’s house! Eli, though a godly man, had become careless, dilatory. His eyes were waxing dim. His ears were not attuned to the voice of God. There was no open vision. The word of God was rare. A decline had set in. There had been a sinful neglect of the commandments of God. They were wild, lawless, and dangerous days. Then God spoke. It was entirely an act of God’s sovereignty. We are always utterly dependent upon the revelation of God Himself. And with Samuel a new era began, the raising up of a mighty prophet of the Lord.
The same principle is illustrated in the time of Asa, King of Judah:-
“And the Spirit of God came upon Azariah the son of Oded: And he went out to meet Asa, and said unto him. Hear ye me, Asa, and all Judah and Benjamin; The Lord is with you, while ye be with him; and if ye seek him, he will be found of you; but if ye forsake him he will forsake you. Now for a long season Israel hath been without the true God, and without a teaching priest, and without law … And in those times there was no peace to him that went out, nor to him that came in, but great vexations were upon all the inhabitants of the countries. And nation was destroyed of nation, and city of city …” (2 Chronicles 15.1-6).
Our proverb provides its own commentary. A vision of God had been lacking and the people had been perishing. Then God revealed Himself again through the prophet in the time of King Asa and there was a reformation.
The same maxim is illustrated by the Babylonian exile. It seemed as if the light would be extinguished for ever. Ezekiel prophesying the event says: “Mischief shall come upon mischief, and rumour shall be upon rumour; then shall they seek a vision of the prophet; but the law shall perish from the priest, and the counsel from the ancients” (Ezek. 7.26). The prophet Jeremiah also had this to say of God’s chosen nation: “Her gates are sunk into the ground; he hath destroyed and broken her bars: her king and her princes are among the Gentiles; the law is no more; her prophets also find no vision from the Lord” (Lam. 2.9). Again the Psalmist speaks of a similar state of affairs: “We see not our signs; there is no more any prophet: neither is there among us any that knoweth how long” (Psalm 74.9,10). Yet God had not cast off His people for ever. He would be favourable toward them again.
3. Illustrated in the New Testament
When we come into the New Testament and to the days when John the Baptist came preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God we find that things were again at a very, very low ebb in the spiritual life of Israel. The rule of the Pharisees and Sadducees had taken a heavy toll. Then suddenly, in the grace of God, John the Baptist’s powerful voice in the wilderness was heard, and, shortly after, the open vision of the ministry of the Son of God. The Lord Jesus Christ was moved with compassion toward the people because they were like sheep not having a shepherd. There was no one to lead them or to guide them. He knew that “where there is no vision the people perish”. So He exhorted His disciples to pray that the Lord of the harvest would send out labourers so that there might be a time of blessing and fruitfulness and increased vision. And what a transformation in the life of Israel and in the history of the world was wrought by the coming of the Saviour! Who could ever calculate the influence of that one precious life? How thankful we are that God has spoken in these last days by His Son!
Then there was the mission to the Gentiles. They were in such a state of ignorance. Addressing a group of cultured pagans at Mars Hill Paul was led to say: “And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17.30). A new era was beginning. The Church of Jesus Christ was entrusted with a world-wide mission. The gospel was not to be confined to the Jews. The Gentiles were perishing because they had no vision, but now it was the purpose of God that the gospel should be preached to them. And all through the history of the Church of Jesus Christ the vision has fluctuated. There have been times of revival, of great blessing; times when the church of Jesus Christ has been established, when it has grown, when the gospel has been an amazing power for good in the world. And there have been other times when it has seemed that it would completely die out, just a tiny flicker of light in one corner. The word of God has been neglected, the gospel compromised, the commandments of the Saviour ignored; and at such times there is great danger because “where there is no vision the people perish”.
1. The vision of the gospel
Now what about us today? We have the word of God, we have the gospel. God has given us many privileges, many blessings. To come under the sound of the preaching of the gospel, to be living in days when there is an open vision is itself an inestimable privilege. We should not take it for granted lest it be taken from us. We must always remember that it is an entrusted vision. We are accountable for our use of it, our attitude towards it. It cannot escape our notice that we live in days when increasingly, in both secular and religious society, people are turning away from the vision, either in ignorance of it or in deliberate rejection of it. We live in days when more and more it seems that the true Church of Jesus Christ hides away, when there is not an open, unashamed, public proclamation of the everlasting gospel. Those of us who call ourselves Christians are ashamed and insular. We ourselves have little vision. And all the time this is happening the people are perishing.
God has revealed to us that it is His will that the gospel should be preached in all the world. The coming of Christ, His life, death and resurrection is something which God has done publicly, openly. The Lord Jesus Christ is the Light of the world. This world which was made by the powerful agency of the word of the eternal Son of God has seen the wonder of Almighty God incarnate. “That was the true light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not” (John 1.9,10). Have we become accustomed to, even indifferent to, the great facts of the gospel? What an amazing thing that the One who created the world was in the world as a real Man! Is this a truth of which we should be ashamed? Is it something we should hide away or keep to ourselves when people are perishing all around us? Is not the very heart of the gospel that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3.16)? At the beginning of the fourth gospel John says: “And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us”. The glory of the Lord was being revealed. And John adds: “we beheld his glory”. He saw it. Have we seen it – the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ? Do we know the power of this vision in a personal way as the Apostle Paul when he said: “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4.6). It needs the same power to bring spiritual light and spiritual vision to a dark, benighted mind as was needed when God spoke into the darkness and said “Let there be light.”
5. The vision in personal Experience
What then are the main elements of true spiritual vision in personal experience? I will briefly suggest three things. Firstly there is a sense of the greatness, the majesty, the omnipotence of Almighty God. The first thing that happens when a person is truly born again is that God becomes a living reality. The eyes of the soul are opened and we see that God is not just an idea, not a proposition, but He is the living God, transcendent, far above all conception of Him. We catch a glimpse of the vision which Isaiah saw of “the Lord high and lifted up and his train filled the temple”. And it changes our view of everything. It sets all things in a completely new perspective. Where there is not this vision of God the people perish. As individuals, as churches we need to see more and more of the greatness of the majesty of Almighty God. Where there are low views of God the people are left in a dangerous and vulnerable condition.
The second main element in this spiritual vision is a sense of the awfulness of sin. When we begin to see God as He really is we begin to see ourselves as we really are. We have a new and humbling perception of the sinfulness of sin. This brings us into submission to the word of God, His laws and His ways. As individuals and as churches we need to be convicted more of our sin: for where there is no vision of sin superficial remedies are suggested and the people remain unawakened to the danger they are in.
Then, thirdly, there is the felt need of salvation. When our eyes are opened to see our natural state then we begin to see our urgent, pressing need of salvation. As the gospel is preached to us we begin to see the beauty and suitability of the Lord Jesus Christ as the Saviour of sinners. Often in the Bible the verb “to see” is used in the same way as the verb “to perceive” or “to believe”. Where there is not this vision of Christ the people perish. I do not mean something spectacular or essentially visionary in its nature, a dreamlike experience, but spiritual sight, spiritual communication. Paul speaks of this as “shining in our hearts”. If you have ever seen just a glimpse of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, you will want to see and know more. You will never fully be satisfied till you see Him face to face. Yes, Christians are people of vision, on a journey, with a blessed object in view. They know that what they have seen is what others need to see if they are to be saved from perishing.
6. Vision in the churches today
What has this proverb to say to us in our local churches? The obvious question surely is: do we have a vision? What do we want when we think about the future? Do we want things to go on as they always have done? Do we want to preserve, as in a time capsule, the conditions of thirty, forty or fifty years ago? I hope not. I hope that we want to know more of a sense of the presence of Almighty God as we meet together for worship than we have known, to see more of His greatness and majesty:
Had I a glance of thee, my God,
Kingdoms and men would vanish soon;
Vanish as though I saw them not,
As a dim candle dies at noon.
I hope that we want to know, as we meet together for praise and prayer and preaching, that God is surely among us. I hope we have a vision of the Church of Jesus Christ in which its members are drawn closer together in a bond of spiritual fellowship, in which men take knowledge of us that we have been with Jesus. I hope we have a vision for the Church in which there will be a more practical fulfilment of Jesus’ new commandment that we love one another:
“A new commandment I give unto you. That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another” (John 13.34). I hope we have a vision of the Church of Jesus Christ in which there are many new converts, in which men and women and boys and girls are drawn from all walks of society, from all types and backgrounds, in which the one thing that draws them together is the gospel, the everlasting gospel of the grace of God. I hope we want to know more of the power of the gospel, to see people wrought upon by the Holy Spirit, to hear again the sound of those who cry: “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” I hope we want to see the Lord’s cause again built up and established and made a praise in the earth. I hope we want our churches to be known in their communities as a place where the living God makes Himself known in a living way. Where there is not this vision the people perish. Where there is this vision there will be prayer, a burden, there will be action commensurate with the vision. We have a work to do and a duty to discharge.
Does someone say: Perhaps we are living in the last times, perhaps God is bringing everything to an end. What if it is His sovereign will that he should withhold His Spirit? Still our proverb stands. Still the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children. Still the gospel is to be preached whether men will hear or whether they will forbear. The secret things belong to God. He is sovereign. Let the Lord do what seemeth Him good. The truth remains that you and I are accountable to God for our use of and our attitude towards a vision that is entrusted to us. If we are called to labour on in a situation of great discouragement, in which we never witness the realization of our hopes and prayers, then still it is true that “he that keepeth the law, happy is he.”
Finally let us remember that this vision is fully realized in heaven. The people who have seen by faith the Lord Jesus Christ, who have had this revelation of God in their souls, who have by grace become disciples of Jesus, obedient to His commandments, will one day be with Him which is far better. They shall see Him face to face. The Church militant will become the Church triumphant. But where there is not this vision the people will perish eternally.
May the Lord give to us an ever deepening and increasing sense of the spiritual vision, and a thankfulness that He, in sovereign mercy, has been pleased in these last days to reveal Himself in the person of His dear Son.