Interpreting Dreams

 

            Last week we began to speak about dreams. Do you remember the two main points? First, God speaks to his people through dreams, he did so in the Bible and he still speaks to us today, to Christians and non-Christians. Second, we need to tune in to hear God speak, that is expect that he can speak to us through dreams and pay attention to them.

            That sounds easy enough, there is only one problem and that is that it may not be immediately clear just what God is saying. We all have dreams that are full of pictures and images, and often they can be quite confusing. How do we know what the objects in our dreams mean? How can we learn the language God uses in dreams? We will look at some dreams and speak about some practical principles and ways for interpreting dreams.

 

The Value of Dream Interpretation

            We also mentioned last Sunday that in the ancient world dream interpretation was considered a science which required skill and intelligence, and being a dream interpreter was a considered an honoured profession. The Bible confirms that dream interpreters were considered wise men.

            In the Old Testament Joseph’s and Daniel’s ability to interpret dreams earned them recognition and a position of authority. Gen 41:8 tells us that Pharaoh had a dream which troubled him, so he sent for all the wise men and magicians of Egypt but none of them could interpret the dreams for Pharaoh. He heard about Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams and released him from prison in the hope that Joseph might be able to tell him he meaning of his dream. After Joseph interpreted the dream, Pharaoh said, "Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God? Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are.’ (Gen 41:38-39). As a result of his interpretation Joseph was elevated to be the second most powerful man over Egypt.

            Similary, in Daniel chapter 2 we are told that Nebuchadnezzar had a dream that troubled him and that none of the wise men and sorcerers in his kingdom could interpret. Nebuchadnezzar summoned Daniel who was able to unravel the dream for him.  The king was so impressed that he fell upon his face before Daniel: “Then King Nebuchadnezzar fell upon his face and paid homage to Daniel, and commanded that an offering and incense be offered up to him. The king answered and said to Daniel, ‘Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery.’ Then the king gave Daniel high honours and many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon.” (Daniel 2:46-48). The ability to interpret dreams was regarded as one of the highest forms of wisdom and brought Joseph and Daniel recognition and position before their kings.

 

The Wisdom of God

            What is interesting in these examples is that while the Egyptian and Chaldean wise men and magicians were not able to offer the interpretation, Joseph and Daniel understood the dreams. Why?

            Listen to Dan 2:4:  Then the Chaldeans said to the king in Aramaic, "O king, live forever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will show the interpretation.” The wise men and magicians feel quite confident in their own ability to interpret the dream. Now listen to Daniel 2:19-23: “Then the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision of the night. Then Daniel blessed the God of heaven...’Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might... he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding; he reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with him. To you, O God of my fathers, I give thanks and praise, for you have given me wisdom and might, and have now made known to me what we asked of you...”.

Joseph makes a similar statement in Gen 41:15-16: “And Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.’ Joseph answered Pharaoh, ‘It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favourable answer.’"

            In Daniel’s and Joseph’s case it is God who provides the interpretation and gives wisdom to reveal the mystery of the dream correctly. Joseph and Daniel know it is God who gives the wisdom for interpretation and openly acknowledge God for it. God gives the dream and he is the one who imparts the interpretation.         This is the most important rule for understanding your dreams: Turn to God to understand your dream. Avoid any other spiritual sources for interpretation.

Practically that means that we need to steer clear of any assistance for interpretation that is not biblically based. The book stores and the internet offer a multitude of information on dream interpretation, there are ancient Greek or Egyptian sources as well as recent writings on offer about dream symbols and types of dreams.  However, the sorcerers, magicians and wise men of the king were not able to explain the dream God had given to the king. Jer 23:32 warns: “Jehovah says, Behold, I am against those who prophesy false dreams, and tell them, and cause my people to go astray by their lies.” We rely on God, the author of the dream to reveal the dream to us. Gen 40:8: “Do not interpretations belong to God”. Steer clear of dream interpretation books, dictionaries, articles and websites that tap into other spiritual sources and do not rely on the Bible.

            Before we get into specifics on how to interpret, let’s ask the question, why do we need to interpret at all? If God wants to pass something on to us, why doesn’t he say it clearly so that there is no danger of us misunderstanding his message?

            John Jackson says this: God speaks to us in mystery because we have the ability to comprehend.[1] When the disciples ask Jesus why he speaks in parables he answers: “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given... This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand...But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear…This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet: "I will open my mouth in parables…”. (Matt 13:11,13,16,35)

            Jesus explains that he speaks to his people about God’s kingdom and God’s salvation in parables because he knows that they have been given understanding ears and eyes. Jesus speaks in riddles because this is God’s chosen way of revealing his mysteries. Jesus encourages us to use the gift that God has given us to understand God’s mystery.  In 1 Corinthians 2:10, 11 Paul states that the mysteries of God have been revealed to us through the Spirit of God: “These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.”  The greatest mystery that God could impart to us and that Paul refers to in this passage is “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). And in Col 1:27 Paul says: “...to them [his saints] God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory”. If God chooses to make his biggest and most important piece of information, Christ’s death for us and his plan of salvation for all humankind, a mystery that we can only understand through the Spirit, then it is not surprising that God would use the same approach for other things that he may want to reveal to us.

Sometimes God may give us a clear word and the reason why that may happen is this: God may give us a clear word when the battle is going to be difficult.  We learned in the second last session of the prayer school with Suzette Hattingh that there is usually an incubation period, a period of testing or waiting between the promise of God and the fulfilment. The clearer God speaks to us, the harder the period of testing will be. And so God gives us a clear word because he wants us to know that the word was from him and that it was not our imagination. When times get hard we need to be able to stand on a clear word of God. After God had shown Joseph in two dreams that his brothers would bow down to him, Joseph had a very clear understanding that this would happen, yet the promise took a long time to be accomplished and the time of testing was hard.

            However, more often God speaks to us in mystery. God loves intrigue and he loves for us to strive to understand his ways and knowing him. [Pro 25:2] Therefore he creates opportunities for us to learn is language. God gives us dreams that we need to ponder and interpret so that in the process of learning we come to understand him and his ways more. He makes us think so that we can grow in knowledge and trust in God. And the more we understand him and the greater the intimacy levels with God are, the more dreams we will have about something other than us. The more we will be given opportunity to understand and pray into issues that surpass our own personal world and reach beyond us. These are called extrinsic dreams, dreams that concern others or other things.

            So, the most important rule for interpreting dreams is to ask God for understanding and seek his wisdom.  Turn to God for wisdom and value the opportunity to make sense of your dreams. Value the opportunity to interpret because as you do that you will get to know God, learn about how he communicates and grow in intimacy with him.   

 

Practical Questions for Dream Interpretation

            Some years back Edgar had a dream in which he was on a train that took him to heaven. There were other people on the train with him. Some of these people looked alive but were in fact dead. In heaven there was a huge library. There were some people lined up to get in, and others who sat in front of the library searching books, books that were part of their particular denomination, and these people were not quite sure if they wanted to enter. The person at the counter indicated to Edgar with his eyes that he could enter and leave the library at his leisure.

            Before we start interpreting this dream let’s take a moment and compare this to another dream:

After Jesus was born, Joseph had a dream: “…behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." (Matt 2:13)

            What is the difference between the two dreams? In the second dream the message is clear. There is no interpretation needed, what is said is how it is meant. There are no pictures or images, just a clear directive. This is called a literal dream. Literal dreams do not need to be interpreted because they do not use symbolic language. If you have a literal dream, there is no chance that you misunderstand the message of the dream. What you see or hear is exactly how it is in reality. In Joseph’s situation, when Jesus life was in danger, a literal dream made sure that Joseph couldn’t misinterpret the message and that he understood clearly what steps needed to be taken to keep Jesus’ safe.  

            However, the vast majority of dreams conceal their message in pictures and images. These are called metaphorical dreams. They are not literal but have symbols, and they come as parables, riddles and puzzles that need to be decoded.

Edgar’s dream is a metaphorical dream. It reveals truth by using the pictures of a train, a library, books. If we wish to understand the picture language that God uses in our dreams, the best place to go to is the Bible. Read the Scriptures. The Scriptures are filled with picture language, with parables, metaphors and symbols.

Metaphorical dreams may be more difficult to interpret but they also can be our most meaningful dreams. Metaphors force us to go to God to understand the dream and so reveal God’s perspective to us.

            When we try to discover the meaning of a dream, like Edgar’s now, there are some practical questions that can assist us:

 

1. Who is the main character of the dream?  About whom is the dream?

            When we interpret dreams we first need to know if a dream is about us or someone else. Are we the observers or participants or the main character in the story.[2]  Sometimes we have dreams where we may be floating above and witnessing people or events, but we have no emotional involvement and play no role in what is happening. Then the dream is not about us but about what we are witnessing and about other people. Or we may be participants, we are part of the events, and they affect us to some extent but we are not the main character. If we are a main participant of what is happening in the dream and our emotions are intense, the dream is about us. We will generally know by the intensity of our emotions, if we are the main character.  So the first question we need to ask is, “About whom is the dream?” Edgar’s dream is about himself, and though there are other people in the dream, the focus is on him. Who is the main character of the dream?

 

2. What is the main point of the dream? Every dream has a main focus.

            While there are other elements in the dream that have some meaning, it is important to focus on the main point and not over-interpret our dreams or over-emphasise some issues.

If you focus on too much detail, you will lose the interpretation. Too much detail detracts from the main issue. John Paul Jackson calls it ‘Reducing the dream to its simplest form’[3].  The point of Edgar’s dream is encouragement, revealing to Edgar that for his ministry he has access to the library, the knowledge that is available from God. We could read meaning into the length of the train or how many people were on it, or how big the library is, or what books people were reading, and some of it may be relevant and bring additional meaning to the dream, but if we get too stuck on every detail we are likely to miss the main point of the dream and attach significance to the wrong parts of the dream. What is the main point?

 

3. What captures your attention?

            Dreams can be confusing because they have different elements, pictures and colours in them. What helps us to distinguish the important details from the unimportant details is to watch out for what captures our attention. What details stand out for us? Edgar’s main focus was on the entrance of the library, and on who was allowed to enter, and who wanted or did not want to enter. Some details may not be fascinating in themselves but the fact that we seemed to be fascinated by them may indicate their importance. For instance in a dream you may be driving in a car, but what captures your attention most are the straight white lines on the road. In that case the lines will be significant for the interpretation of your dream.[4] They may indicate for instance what road, what path in life, you are travelling on, one that is straight and clearly marked. Or your main focus may be on the spotless white colour of your car and so show that you are involved in a ministry-vehicles often stand for a type of ministry-that is spotless, righteous and pleasing to God.

What captures your attention?

 

4. What is the context?

            The context guides us in our interpretation of the meaning of the details. It is important to remember that symbols have layers of meanings and so we can’t assign one particular meaning to one type of symbol and expect it to be the same for everyone and for all dreams. Elements may mean different things in a different context. The mustard seed in the Bible can stand for the word of God (Matt 13:3ff), or for the kingdom of God (Matt13:31ff, Mk 4:30ff) or for descendants (Matt 22:24ff). The colour red in dreams can stand for anger or war or sin, but also for passion. A book can stand for the word of God, words or the law, or it can indicate knowledge or learning. Vehicles in general can indicate a type of ministry. Therefore a train can stand for a large ministry or the church or be a vehicle to your destination. What an element means in each case is determined by the context of the dream.  If the book appears with you in a dream when you are a young child, it may stand for your life’s plan. If it appears with you as an old person, it may stand for judgement, for the Lamb’s book of life. We need to look at the context and determine what the context speaks about.

 

5. What is your dream vocabulary?

            Pictures, symbols and metaphors also differ for each person. We are all shaped by our culture and upbringing, and so our individual experiences determine what something means to us. To an Australian a bicycle may symbolise a slow mode of transport and therefore could be an arduous or slow type of ministry, for a person who has grown up in poor circumstances in Mozambique, it may symbolise a blessing and a new and faster way of moving forward spiritually.

            To one person a baby may symbolize immaturity, to another it may appear in their dreams as a symbol of some fledgling ministry the Lord has given them. To someone like Edgar a book is something positive, something related to learning and insight. To someone who prefers hands-on work and hates reading, it might stand for legalism or pressure.

            What an object or a detail means to us depends on our culture and individual circumstances. Therefore a good practical way to become more familiar with what details mean to us is to develop a dream vocabulary. Make a list of elements that appear in your dreams, such as animals, modes of transportation, colours. Ask yourself what does this symbol mean to me?

            Back to Edgar’s dream. What did it mean for him? Since vehicles usually stand for some form of ministry, the train is most likely is his ministry, a continuous steady ministry. He is travelling on it with other people, who are linked to him through ministry, yet some are spiritually dead. The destination of the train is heaven, that is, the goal of the ministry is intimacy with God, being with God, and taking others with him. The library in heaven is God’s wisdom, God’s knowledge of all things. Some people want to have access to that knowledge and line up, others are not sure if they want in. Edgar is allowed in and out and so may have access to the wisdom and knowledge of God. That alive knowledge, that alive word of God is important to Edgar’s ministry to bring life to those who are travelling with him and are spiritually dead. It’s an encouragement that as Edgar preaches the word, God allows him insight into his knowledge so that it can be used for ministry and bring life to those that are spiritually dead.

 

Knowledge and the Holy Spirit           

            As we follow these five practical questions to gain an understanding of our dreams, we need to apply our minds and actively seek an understanding of parables and symbols in the Bible, we need to understand our culture and circumstances and learn to view the components of the dream in their context. That is we must apply our minds and actively choose to learn Biblical principles of interpreting. However, as we use these aids for interpreting, the most important rule for understanding dreams is to ask God for wisdom and submit our minds to his Spirit.  Jack Deere says this about understanding dreams and dream symbols: ”How do we discern these things? We interpret dreams the same way we interpret the Bible: Contextually with the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Both Joseph and Daniel were very careful to say that the interpretation of dreams belongs to God. All of the rules for the interpretation of symbols in the Bible are also valid for interpreting symbols in dreams. However, without the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the greatest literary genius in the world will fail to produce a beneficial interpretation of either dream or biblical text. If we are willing to patiently meditate on our dreams, taking time to write down the ones we think are more meaningful, and pray about their meaning, sooner or later God will unlock the mysteries of our dreams to us.[5]

            Jack Deere makes this point: Our minds and God’s wisdom must go together to understand dreams correctly. Knowing that the interpretation comes from God is not an excuse to be idle. We gain knowledge of the Biblical rules for interpreting pictures, metaphors, parables by reading the Bible, and interpret dreams contextually but we do so with the guidance of the Spirit. And as we seek God’s Spirit patiently, and pray, sooner or later God will unlock the mysteries of our dreams to us. We acquire the skill to understand and subject it to the revelation of God.    

            Sometimes the understanding of a dream may come more easily. An angel may explain the dream to us, as in Daniel 9:21-22: “While I was speaking in prayer, the man Gabriel, whom I had seen in the vision at the first, came to me in swift flight at the time of the evening sacrifice. He made me understand, speaking with me and saying, O Daniel, I have now come out to give you insight and understanding.” Or God may simultaneously explain the dream to us as we sleep. You may hear a voice explaining the dream to you in a dream or you may be aware that you are dreaming and at the same time know what the dream means.

            However, in most cases you will not immediately know what your dream means, and then write your dream down. Mostly God wants you to learn the principles of dream interpretation, rather than give you the answer simply. As you write your dream down, pray over it and draw on the dream language that you have learned from reading the Bible you will gain an understanding of your dream and the language God uses. Sometimes it takes longer and we may see something throughout the day that has meaning to our interpretation. God may unfold the meaning over weeks or sometimes even months as we mature in our understanding of God. Sometimes the answer is anticlimactic to what we learned in the process. The process is often more important than the answer itself. God wants us to gain skills and understanding of spiritual principles, of how to discern things spiritually and know what they mean, and subject our skill to God’s Spirit and wisdom.

            I am going to finish off with an example that uses symbols and shows that we need to understand spiritual principles in order to interpret a dream correctly and that not understanding the principles behind it can give you a completely different and false interpretation.

            Jack Deere tells about a dream: “Years ago a pastor’s wife came to me with an upsetting dream. She dreamed that she was being raped by men who had tied her hands behind her back. They were also strangling her with a string of her own pearls. She was terrified by the dream and asked me if I thought it was literal. I didn’t think it was literal but I had no context in which to interpret the dream. I asked her what was going on in her life. She said that she and her husband were serving as pastors in a relatively large church with multiple staff members. Some of the members had begun to say both untrue and unkind things about her husband. One of the pastors in particular was leading what was obviously an attempt to discredit the pastor and get them to leave the church. I still couldn’t connect the dream with the woman’s present circumstances, but I was sure it wasn’t literal. My assurances weren’t particularly comforting to this woman. Later that day I told Paul Cain the dream. He asked me about the circumstances and then gave me the interpretation. He said the rape represented what the other pastors were doing to this couple. They were trying to take away not only the reputation of this couple, but the ministry that God had given them in the church. I asked him what it meant that the woman had her hands tied behind her back. He said the staff was doing this behind their back and giving them no chance to face their accusers. Consequently they had no way of defending themselves against the charges. What about the pearls? Paul said that the pearls represented the woman’s husband, her most precious possession. Their attack on her husband’s integrity was ‘choking’ the life out of her.....Then Paul said, ‘Jack, tell her this dream represents how God feels about what is being done to them. The slander and gossip, the underhanded attempt to remove them from ministry, is like a vicious rape in the eyes of the Lord. Tell her that if she and her husband won’t fight back and keep their heart free of bitterness and accusation, the Lord will let them emerge from this victoriously. When I told the pastor’s wife what Paul had said, she was tremendously encouraged...In the end it all happened just as Paul said it would.”[6]

            Unless we are familiar with the spiritual principles that underlie this dream, the dream takes on a completely different meaning. What some might think looks like a warning of some terrible nightmare that is going to be inflicted on this woman, or others might take as an indication that the woman has some unsolved emotional issues or memories in regards to men, was in fact meant as a divine encouragement. The outcome of passing on the right interpretation was that the pastors couple took courage from it and was determined to forgive and not fight back, and as a result of their behaviour in that matter they were able to continue in their church and in their ministry.

            We need to understand the language God uses in dreams to recognise the message of the dream. Knowing these principles of how to interpret does not come overnight but is the result, if we familiarise ourselves more and more with how God uses symbols, if we read the Bible, pray and speak to God, and subject our minds to the Holy Spirit and the wisdom of God. Appreciate the opportunity to interpret your dreams because you will get to know God and his language and learn to become discerning in spiritual things.  Appreciate the opportunity to interpret your dreams because as you do, you will grow in intimacy with him and hear him speak to you.

 

 



[1] John Paul Jackson, Understanding Dreams and Visions, audiofile, accessed form: www.streamsministries.com/store/product

[2] John Paul Jackson, Understanding Dreams and Visions, audiofile, accessed form: www.streamsministries.com/store/product

[3] John Paul Jackson, Understanding Dreams and Visions, audio file, accessed from: www.streamsministries.com/store/product

 

[4] Deere, J. (1996). Surprised by the Voice of God. Eastbourne: Kingsway Publications, p226.

 

[5] Deere, J. (1996). Surprised by the Voice of God. Eastbourne: Kingsway Publications, p226.

 

[6] Deere, J. (1996). Surprised by the Voice of God. Eastbourne: Kingsway Publications, pp227-228.