Updated: May 16
How to Interpret Our Dreams with Wisdom
I had the weirdest dream last night.
That’s usually how the conversation goes when someone introduces the topic of dreams with me.
And it’s true -- dreams are weird!
They are a tumbling combination of abstract images and scenes that seem to mean something and yet at the same time you feel you are grasping at nothing. They can be confusing and mind-boggling. In spite of this, they can be an incredible experience. My youngest daughter even suggests that some dreams need to be more crazy, like say, dreams about whole worlds of candy or chocolate.
“There is no dream that is without nonsense” - Rabbi Johanan (B.T., 55a, 5)
God doesn’t speak to us in dreams to confound us, but to astound us!
… and that means we can be confident if He has something to say to us in a dream, He will also make it possible to discern it’s meaning.
Interpreting our visions in the night is not so different from interpreting our visions in the day, in that the goal is to discern the heart and mind of God. I have discovered that learning to interpret dreams correctly takes time and practice, not to mention doses of both humility and a sense of humour.
NOT LOST IN TRANSLATION
Dream interpreters were common in the ancient world and today you only have to spend a short time online to see a pop-up offer to interpret your dreams (for a small fortune of course).
It could even be said that it was quite fashionable for someone to announce a dream - irrespective of where the dream came from or if they had just made it up to tickle the ears of their hearers. People were so eager to receive an oracle or divine their future, they would encourage the prophets or spiritualists to dream dreams, and used them to further their own agendas. It got so bad, God had to call a halt to the fake news being spread in his name.
“Indeed, I am against those who prophesy false dreams,” declares the Lord. “They tell them and lead my people astray with their reckless lies, yet I did not send or appoint them. They do not benefit these people in the least,” declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 23:32)
‘Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have.” (Jeremiah 29:8)
False dreams are just fancy flights of imaginations and they will eventually fail to come true (although conveniently some would re-envision their dream to make excuses for this). Their interpretations do not come from any divine source, but from their own imaginations.
The pagan king Nebuchadnezzar (king of Babylon c. 605 BC – c. 562 BC) reveled in astrology, yet even he finally got fed up with the failure of his own mystics to interpret his dreams. So he asked a godly man named Daniel, “Are you able to tell me what I saw in my dream and interpret it?”
Daniel replied, “No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about.” (Daniel 2:26-27).
i.e. any true meaning that could be derived from a dream would be lost in their pagan translations
“...there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries” (vs27)
In others words, God doesn’t just give us dreams to mess with us. He wants to reveal to us mysteries, ideas, strategies, and things we could not have seen or understood in our own way of thinking.
Therefore, we can ask the Holy Spirit to give us a sensible explanation that can be tested and applied in a practical way.
With that in mind, if you are asking God to ‘reveal to you the mysteries in your dreams’, here are several keys to interpreting the visions you are seeing.
SEVEN KEYS TO DREAM INTERPRETATION
1. Pay attention
Many of the details of our dreams are lost to us the moment we wake. However, God-dreams tend to be quite vivid and linger long enough for us to be able to take note. Job observed, ‘God does speak—now one way, now another— though no one perceives it.’ (Job 33:14). Those who listen to the Spirit of God can recognise when God is speaking. Check out early posts in the Daring to Dream series to find out how you can discern what dreams are from God or other sources.
"When we perceive it, we need to preserve it." @hint.holler
When you have a dream, pause and pay attention. Write it down with as many details as you can recall so that you can come back to it later and unpack it further.
Sometimes our dreams are a prophetic picture of things that are in our future. There may be more information to come or God is preparing us in advance. Regardless of timing, having a notebook means we can refer back to them and find confirmation as things unfold.
“Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it.
For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false.
Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.”
2. Take note of what you noticed
Often after waking from a dream, a lot of it can remain fuzzy, but some details stand out so clearly they feel real. As you are writing down all the details you can remember, try asking yourself these questions:
What objects or places stand out to you?
What symbols or colours appear?
What activities or behavior is happening?
Who are the people and what are they doing?
What are the words that are being spoken or written?
Sometimes the devil isn't in the detail, God is -- so it pays to take notice. He is perfectly capable of elaborating further if we need him to. As you process your dream, invite the Holy Spirit to help you make sense of what you are seeing or hearing. Some things will stand out as obvious, others will require a little more attention and time.
3. Check the voice messages
Dreams in which God speaks or writes specific words are special in their simplicity. When God speaks in a clear and direct voice there may be no need to interpret anything, but we can test it.
One of the most vivid dreams I’ve ever had was when God spoke four words to me. In the dream I was at a church meeting packed with people worshiping. After being caught up in the passion of the message that followed, I was taken from the crowd and found myself sitting in a room with a group of leaders gathered around me praying. Suddenly the preacher stepped up, laid their hand on my head, and bent down to whisper in my ear, “Fear God not man.” In that instant I woke, fully awake, the voice of God powerfully thundering in my mind.
That voice message was clear enough! I knew exactly what He was saying and what it meant for me. Yet, God is not superficial. Often He is doing a deeper work in us. In that moment He was highlighting my past, my present and my future.
It was deeply personal and I may never fully describe what He spoke into my spirit that night, but I had a deeper revelation of who He was as a result.
Even when He speaks that clearly, we can go for more, expecting that He will reveal not just what He wants but Who he is.
4. Metaphorically speaking
Aside from a clear announcement, prophetic dreams are almost always metaphorical. This means we don’t interpret everything literally and start building an ark because we saw waters flooding our night visions (my daughter actually had a dream last night about a dam breaking and wanted to know if she and her friends were safe).
Determining what each image or symbol means can be tricky due to the fact different cultures and religions assign their own meaning to various icons. For example, the eagle was a symbol of power of the god of Jupiter to the Romans, and was adopted by the Nazi’s in a deliberate nod to Roman Imperialism. To the Jews, it represents God’s mercy. For American’s today it represents freedom.
I believe God wants us to understand what He is saying to us, so He uses imagery that conveys a meaning we can grasp in our own language. So we must first interpret the meaning of these symbols, objects or people in our current context.
What is its primary meaning?
Without taking ourselves too seriously (or over analyzing everything), you might find the simplest explanation is often the most significant one. The first question to ask, is what does it mean to YOU. Take it at face value and don’t over-complicate it!
e.g. God has frequently used the image of an eagle when referring to my writing while He has often referenced arrows in my preaching. They both might mean something else to others, and it doesn't mean He can't use other symbols, but as soon as those images appear, I know what He's referring to.
What is it’s secondary meaning?
If nothing comes to mind, you can still go to the Scriptures where you can look up how God uses that imagery or wording Himself. What is the most common meaning ascribed to that symbol in the Scriptures? What context is it used in?
You can find more listed here as a starting point: Biblical Symbols
For more interesting insights into symbols and common occurrences in dreams, take a look at Zoran Paunovich’s website.
When you make the right connection there will be an ‘aha’ moment in your spirit. If it doesn't sit right, don't force an interpretation, especially if it seems to conflict with other things God has been speaking to you about in others ways. Like all prophecy we need to test it according to Scripture (1 Thessalonians 5:20-22, 1 Corinthians 14:29). That is where you might need some extra help to process.
5. Phone a friend
Like the TV show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,' sometimes dream interpretation leaves us with several possible answers, or we need confirmation before locking in any decisions based on what we feel God is telling us. Our dreams are not secrets to be kept, so feel free to phone in a friend.
Even Daniel, the infamous interpreter of the ‘visions-of-kings’ needed some friends to process his dreams with. Not only had the king asked Daniel to interpret his dream, but he refused to describe it to him (thanks for nothing). He insisted Daniel should be able to describe both the dream and its interpretation.
Rather than rush to give the king the first thing that came to mind, Daniel took the dream problem straight to his friends.
“Then Daniel returned to his house and explained the matter to his friends Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. He urged them to plead for mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery, so that he and his friends might not be executed with the rest of the wise men of Babylon. During the night the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision.” (Daniel 2:17-19)
Praying and processing together allows the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom through others. God has given some people the gift of discernment and they can help you make sense of what your dreams are revealing. Others are so familiar with dream language that they have a knack for picking out what is significant with ease. After hearing their thoughts you might find yourself slapping your forehead - of course!
They are also handy for making sure you don't do something crazy, just because your dream was.
6. Lean into the theme
Reoccurring dreams often have the same theme presented in different ways. For example, another pagan ruler, a pharaoh, had several dreams that predicted famine, but each dream emphasised it in different ways (Genesis 41). When God's man-of-the-hour, Joseph, was asked to interpret them, he considered all the various versions to determine God's message - He intended to care for both His people and their enemies if they trusted Him and prepared well.
"Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, “The dreams of Pharaoh are one and the same. God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do." (Genesis 41:25)
He goes on to point out the reason he had different versions of the same dream.
"The reason the dream was given to Pharaoh in two forms is that the matter has been firmly decided by God, and God will do it soon." (Genesis 41:32)
This is not unlike how Jesus would describe the Kingdom of God using different parables to make His point - “the Kingdom of God is like”. One or two words fail to adequately convey the beauty and power of God’s kingdom, so like the many facets of a diamond, He lets us see it from different angles to begin to comprehend what it is like.
Sometimes one dream may have a series of scenes with one theme that comes across all of them. If you can sum up that theme in one word, it can give you a hint as to what God may be wanting to work on in your life. e.g. grace, forgiveness, ministry opportunities
7. Look for the promise
When Ps Helen Gwyn shared about dream interpretation in a recent ‘Chats with Rach’, she pointed out the importance of not giving in to fear when we receive a ‘bad’ dream that appears to suggest danger (see this article 'The Good, the Bad, the Ugly' for more about this).
For over a year she lived in fear of a perceived threat to her family as a result of a dream she had that involved a prowling lion. After prayer from another mentor, she realised how she didn't need to let her interpretation of that dream be fueled by fear, instead she could give it over to God and face her future with faith.
Now, Helen says she deliberately looks for the promise God offers in any kind of dream. Where is the hope He gives for victory? What pathway does He offer to escape possible threats?
We may not be able to interpret every detail in our dreams, but we can look for this one thing and anchor everything else on that hope.
“God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie,
we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged.
We have this hope [salvation through Jesus] as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.”
“A dream which is not interpreted is like a letter which is not read.” - Rabbi Hisda, (B.T., 56a, 5).
Interpreting dreams is not pursuit of personal enlightenment, but to discover the glory of God. Daniel made it clear it was not his own gift or wisdom that gave him the ability to receive and interpret a dream on the kings’ behalf, but God Himself.
“As Your Majesty was lying there, your mind turned to things to come, and the Revealer of Mysteries [God] showed you what is going to happen. As for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because I have greater wisdom than anyone else alive, but so that Your Majesty may know the interpretation and that you may understand what went through your mind.” ( Daniel 2:29-30)
Receiving and interpreting dreams from God should draw you closer to Him. It is an opportunity to engage in an intimate and meaningful exchange of ideas with the Holy Spirit as He reveals the heart and mind of God to you.
So dream on, my friend. May God reveal many mysteries and missions to you as you live for Him --
-- and may you wake up wiser as He lives in you.