Have you ever had a dream that bothered you? Have you ever wondered if there isn’t perhaps some significance in a dream that you had? What does the Bible say about dreams, visions, prophecies, imagination and spiritual impressions? These are some of the matters that I would like to consider in this article.
First, we must take into account that dreams have played a role in the shaping of history. Many kindergarten picassos have created renditions of their first exposure to a dream story in the Bible: the one of Jacob’s ladder. Famous other dream-and-interpretation stories include those of Joseph and Pharaoh, Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar, Joseph and Mary, etc. The last time we find a reference to dreaming in the Bible is in Jude 8, but in this case the dreamers are frowned upon. It tells of people who joined the church with ungodly intentions: “Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones.” In short, they used their dreams to benefit themselves. These dreams were clearly not from God.
God often used dreams in the Bible to speak to people directly. In Acts 2:17 Peter pointed the crowds to the glorious fulfilment of Joel 2:28, which was happening right before their eyes: “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”
We are left with a question: How do we distinguish between reality and illusion, between the liars and the truth-speakers?
Let us begin by considering the usage of the word “dream,” since it is useful to take into account that it may be referred to in a few ways. First, when we speak of dreaming, we generally speak of an impression—something that is not real. A dream involves the imagination. Man has the ability to create pictures, or images, inside his mind, hence the word imag(e)-ination. When we dream at night our minds often involuntarily recycle our fears and wishes, shaping those things that stir our emotions into a storyline. Depending on the nature of the emotions, we could be having sweet dreams or nightmares or a whole bunch of bizarre things in between; of course, various physiological and psychological factors, such as diet and busy schedules, also have their influence.
Our imaginations, however, are not only active while we sleep; they are also at work while we are awake. One of the most famous examples of this is the words “I have a dream,” spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was not referring to something he had seen while asleep, but was using his imagination to project a possible future.
Now, whether they come about while one is asleep or awake, it must be noted that not all dreams are useful wellsprings of godly inspiration. Unfortunately, self or Satan are also possible alternative sources of dreams. So, again, the question is, how can we know the difference?
Beside the good and truthful dream events of the Bible, we also see the condemnation of people who falsely ascribed their dreams to God, thereby taking the name of the Lord in vain.
In Job 4, Eliphaz the Temanite was trying to compel Job to listen to him by claiming that the source of what he was trying to tell Job was a supernatural dream. Listen to his impressive-sounding account:
Now a word was brought to me stealthily; my ear received the whisper of it. Amid thoughts from visions of the night, when deep sleep falls on men, dread came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones shake. A spirit glided past my face; the hair of my flesh stood up. It stood still, but I could not discern its appearance. A form was before my eyes; there was silence, then I heard a voice.
Now whether Eliphaz really had this experience or not is unclear. What is clear, however, is that God was not impressed by all this hair-raising rattle-my-bones stuff. When God finally spoke at the end of the book, He said to Eliphaz: “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” If Eliphaz had really heard from God in his dream, he wouldn’t have had to suck the cocktail of truth and lies from his thumb as he did.
Jeremiah shows us that fake spirituality did not die out with Eliphaz. Chapter 23 provides a picture which fits many of the imagineers we see in our day:
I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, “I have dreamed, I have dreamed!” How long shall there be lies in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart, who think to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, even as their fathers forgot my name for Baal? Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? declares the LORD. Is not my word like fire, declares the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces? Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets, declares the LORD, who steal my words from one another. Behold, I am against the prophets, declares the LORD, who use their tongues and declare, declares the LORD.
It is not clear whether these enthusiastic dreamers were self-deceived or deliberately deceptive; whichever, they were still liars (v. 26), and like them, the not-so-innocent modern-day dreamers still steal God’s words in their practice of deception (v. 30). Consider Isaiah 43:19, one of modern-day dreamers’ favourite texts for tacking onto an imaginative proclamation in an attempt to add some biblical weight to it: “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
Some Christian friends believe that it is allowable to “misquote” God because it is possible that you did not “hear” Him 100% correctly. But according to Deuteronomy 18:20-22, God’s people do not have the luxury of such hearing malfunctions available as an optional excuse, should the tales not turn out to be entirely accurate:
But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die. And if you say in your heart, “How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?”—when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.
Obviously, there weren’t many options. If you didn’t get it absolutely 100% right, you were a dead man. If, for example, you told people that God told you that He was going to supply your church with a new building and it didn’t happen, you would be facing the death penalty. (Of course, not specifying the date of the happy event is a clever fail-safe—though pointing it out may be perceived as politically incorrect.)
Ezekiel (13:6) was instructed to pronounce God’s judgement upon the foolish prophets who followed their own imaginations but yet professed to be speaking for God:
They have seen false visions and lying divinations. They say, “Declares the LORD,” when the LORD has not sent them, and yet they expect him to fulfil their word.
Have you heard the words “God told me” or “God showed me” from someone lately? I trust that you will at least consider that if they didn’t mean, “I read it in the Bible,” you have a responsibility to question the source. Some friends would simply write off your questioning of their dreams or other revelations as the unbelief of a Christian with a very boring spiritual life. Our glad reply to that would be that we absolutely believe in supernatural revelation, and that God has already supplied us with a source of it. His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness. We really don’t need more revelation than His Word, which thoroughly equips us for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16). “Thoroughly” and “every” in the previous sentence does not prevent God from using other means of revelation, but it should give us comfort in the sufficiency of Scripture to prepare us for whatever God expects of us. Take up and read!