Biblical Dream Interpretation and Its Symbols – John Boruff

Write the vision and make it plain on tablets. –Habakkuk 2:2

I just dreamed that someone was writing me a letter of complaint and concern over the fact that I believe in dream interpretation. This person’s view was that it was too subjective, and therefore prone to error. This person’s conclusion was that I should rely on reason alone for all decision-making; and never resort to dream interpretation.

Well, I have several problems with this line of thinking, because I know it is popular, and has existed for centuries:

Michael Willmann - Jacob's Dream1. Biblical Symbols. All prophets and dream interpreters in the Bible relied on the prophetic symbols that had already been established by former Biblical figures. In other words, as the canon of Scripture developed, we may understand that Joseph, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, the book of Revelation, and its likely even the parables of Jesus all relied on symbology that derived straight from the Scriptures that had already been accepted up until that time: the Old Testament. On Genesis 20:3, The NIV Study Bible says, “Dreams were a frequent mode of revelation in the Old Testament (see Genesis 28:12; 31:10-11; 37:5-9; 40:5; 41:1; Numbers 12:6; Judges 7:13; 1 Kings 3:5; Daniel 2:3; 4:5; 7:1).” In other words, the Old Testament prophets (and Christ and the apostles) would have resorted to the Old Testament for their understanding of dream symbols. For Christian prophets and dream interpreters, we are at liberty to use the Old Testament for understanding dream symbols, provided that we only use such symbols through the lens of the New Testament, and the Reformation understanding of salvation.

2. Human Imperfection. Even if Christians decide to practice Bible-based dream interpretation, they are still subject to error; as they are human and not likely able to interpret Biblical symbols accurately, at least all the time. In such cases, I believe the Holy Spirit will intervene and communicate more clearly for those who pray and seek more clarity about the will of God in such matters, because “interpretations belong to God” (Genesis 40:8). However, this does not mean that you need a “gift” of dream interpretation, and just be mysterious about it; God has given us the Scriptures and reason to be able to understand His signs and symbols, just as the Department of Transportation expects us to understand street signs and lights. Dream interpretation is just like that; look at the Bible for your understanding of dream symbols, because a great majority of the Bible is based on prophetic dreams and their interpretation in the Biblical tradition.

3. Dream Journaling. As you dream, if you truly believe a dream could be from God, as it may have divine elements, and an absence of temptation or fear of evil, but rather a divine message of encouragement, warning, or comfort (1 Corinthians 14:3), then do what it says in Habakkuk 2:2: “Write the vision and make it plain on tablets.” Get into the habit of journaling your dreams and writing what you believe to be their interpretations in a collection of composition notebooks. You could, like me, end up gathering a collection of these notebooks that spans over several years. It may be that the very words of God to you personally are contained in these notebooks! An astounding responsibility! More importantly, though, even if some tragedy occurred, and these notebooks were to be destroyed, you still carry the dreams and what you understand about them in your heart, so you could always re-write them again. These notebooks are not on the same level of authority as Scripture: a sensitive point for Reformed Christians. The first chapter of the Westminster Confession was designed against this very practice, with the notion that all divine revelation has been committed “wholly unto writing” in the Bible, and to protect men from the “malice of Satan,” it suggests that the Holy Spirit no longer provides revelation through dreams. Personally, I don’t accept this view, because of Acts 2:17: “It shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions, your old men shall dream dreams.” Correct me if you think I’m wrong, but are not the “last days” in this text referring to the entire church age? And if not, are they not at least applying to the end-times just before Jesus returns to destroy the Antichrist? Either scenarios are reasonable interpretations of the text; and in either of these two scenarios, prophetic dreams and visions are said to be experienced by Christians–which would mean that the first chapter of the Westminster Confession is incorrect on this point, about God supposedly committing all divine revelation “wholly unto writing” in the Scriptures: there must remain room for a level of dream interpretation.

Commenting on the Acts 2:17 passage and its context, Matthew Henry said, “It is observable that though Peter was filled with the Holy Ghost, and spoke with tongues as the Spirit gave him utterance, yet he did not set aside the Scriptures, nor think himself above them; nay, much of his discourse is quotation out of the Old Testament, to which he appeals, and with which he proves what he says. Christ’s scholars never learn above their Bible; and the Spirit is given not to supersede the Scriptures, but to enable us to understand and improve the Scriptures…It refers to the last days, the times of the Gospel, which are called the last days because the dispensation of God’s kingdom among men, which the Gospel sets up, is the last dispensation of divine grace, and we are to look for no other than the continuation of this to the end of time. Or, in the last days, that is, a great while after the ceasing of prophecy in the Old-Testament church. Or, in the days immediately preceding the destruction of the Jewish nation, in the last days of that people, just before that great and notable day of the Lord spoken of, Acts 2:20 [edit:–personally, I agree with his first interpretation of the “last days”; and that is why I believe Christian dream interpretation is for the entire church age]…and Henry concludes with a statement that certainly sounds like a charismatic continuationist view: “as our Messiah ever lives in Heaven, reigning and interceding for His church on earth, so this Spirit of grace, the Advocate, or Comforter, that was given now, according to the promise, will, according to the same promise, continue with the church on earth to the end, and will work all its works in it and for it, and every member of it, ordinary and extraordinary, by means of the Scriptures and the ministry.” Henry believed that the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit–prophetic dreams and visions–would continue with the church until the very end of time by means of the Scriptures and the ministry. That is, through Biblical dream interpretation, and prophetic ministry in church services, as described in 1 Corinthians 14.

5. Biblical Reference Tools and Dream Interpretation. There are some dictionaries and reference books that may be helpful as you try to practice Biblical dream interpretation. None of these books are any substitute for the Bible itself, but they might help you speed up the process of dream interpretation. 1. Using a website such as studylight.org can be helpful. Just search a particular word that resembles something you saw in a dream; and see if you can derive any symbolic meaning from the occurrences of that word in several Biblical passages; especially if there is a recurring meaning or theme in several passages of Scripture surrounding that word–for example the word “blood”–you may be on to something if you saw blood in your dream. As with all sound Biblical interpretation, however, you must examine the context of your dream–both while in the dream and while awake–your real life experiences in the past 48 hours and their possible influence on your dream; and also, the context of the Scripture that seems to have a correlation to the dream symbol that is in question. 2. Strong’s KJV concordance would be a helpful substitute for studylight.org. 3. Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias; for example: The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary or The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. 4. Charismatic dream symbol dictionaries: these can be a lot more specific and can speed up the process of interpretation, but make sure to consult the Bible for anywhere they may be lacking: Ira Milligan’s Understanding the Dreams You Dream, Paula Price’s The Prophet’s Dictionary, Joe Ibojie’s Illustrated Dictionary of Dream Symbols, and Adam Thompson and Adrian Beale’s The Divinity Code. 5. Charismatic books about dreams and visions: Jim Goll’s The Seer and Dream Language, Herman Riffel’s Dream Interpretation: A Biblical Understanding, and the CDs by John Paul Jackson are helpful: Understanding Dreams and Visions and The Biblical Model of Dream Interpretation. 6. I would advise against any use of blatantly New Age, occult, non-Christian, Jungian, Freudian, or any other such books on dreams: Morton Kelsey’s books contain these elements, so I would avoid them. Dabbling with such models of dream interpretation, I believe, gives access to the devil and a spirit of divination.

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About John Boruff

John Boruff is a Philosophy and Religion graduate from UNC Pembroke. In his free time, he blogs about the Christian life; and has special interests in evangelism and spiritual gifts. He identifies himself as a Reformed Arminian Pentecostal. He’s also a husband and dad. John loves street preaching. His influences are Leonard Ravenhill, David Wilkerson, John Wesley, Charles Finney, etc. John is always in the process of writing; and is posting free e-books on this site for cultivating a deeper Christian life. Among them are his 'How to Experience God' and 'The Gospel of Jesus Christ.' He is currently working on the lives of great prophets in church history—from Catholic saints to Protestant reformers and revivalists. He is also working on a Biblical theology of poverty alleviation.
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