Dreams Topical Study

Preaching and Worship Resources about Dreams

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Dreams are sequences of images, thoughts, sensations, or emotions — sometimes narratively connected — that appear unbidden in our minds during sleep. Researchers differ widely on the meaning of dreams and even on whether dreams have any meaning at all. In Scripture, dreams are emblems of anything perceived as transitory. They are widely presented as instruments of revelation from God, who often is portrayed not only as the giver of revelatory dreams, but as the only proper interpreter of them.

In Scripture

"One night they both dreamed — the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were confined in the prison — each his own dream, and each dream with its own meaning. When Joseph came to them in the morning, he saw that they were troubled. So he asked Pharaoh's officers, who were with him in custody in his master's house, `Why are your faces downcast today?' They said to him, `We have had dreams, and there is no one to interpret them.' And Joseph said to them, `Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me'" (Gen. 40:5 - 8).

"[Pharaoh] sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men. Pharaoh told them his dreams, but there was no one who could interpret them to Pharaoh. Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, `I remember my faults today. Once Pharaoh was angry with his servants, and put me and the chief baker in custody in the house of the captain of the guard. We dreamed on the same night, he and I, each having a dream with its own meaning. A young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard. When we told him, he interpreted our dreams to us, giving an interpretation to each according to his dream'" (Gen. 41:8 - 12).

"Joseph said to Pharaoh, `Pharaoh's dreams are one and the same; God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do. The seven good cows are seven years, and the seven good ears are seven years; the dreams are one. The seven lean and ugly cows that came up after them are seven years, as are the seven empty ears blighted by the east wind. They are seven years of famine'" (Gen. 41:25 - 27).

"`Hear my words: When there are prophets among you, I the Lord make myself known to them in visions; I speak to them in dreams'" (Num. 12:6).

A thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night. You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning (Ps. 90:4 - 5).

"When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream" (Ps. 126:1.

"To these four young men God gave knowledge and skill in every aspect of literature and wisdom; Daniel also had insight into all visions and dreams" (Dan. 1:17).

"Afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions" (Joel 2:28).

"The teraphim utter nonsense, and the diviners see lies; the dreamers tell false dreams, and give empty consolation. Therefore the people wander like sheep; they suffer for lack of a shepherd" (Zech. 10:2).

"An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, `Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.' All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: `Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,' which means, `God is with us'" (Matt. 1:20 - 23).

"An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, `Get up, 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).

"When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, `Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead'" (Matt. 2:19 - 20).

Points to Ponder

Dreams are common to all humanity and, for all we know, maybe to some other creatures as well.

They are mysterious. They arrive and depart unbidden, combining an array of images and sensations that, if remembered, may baffle us. Dreams may jumble together people who have never met each other in real life and feature them in actions and circumstances that bear little relation to lived reality. Dreams often have a fantastical feel in these ways.

Dreams may scare us to such a degree that when we wake, we feel relief. Alternatively, dreams may excite enormous joy. In Shakespeare's The Tempest, the strange creature Caliban reflects on the riches within his dreams:

Be not afeared: the isle is full of noises,

Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices

That, if I then had waked after long sleep,

Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,

The clouds methought would open and show riches

Ready to drop upon me, that, when I waked,

I cried to dream again.

(The Pelican Shakespeare, ed. Northrup Frye (Penguin, 1959), 3.2.132 - 140.)

This is Shakespearean genius. Just five concluding words open a whole world of cascading joy: "I cried to dream again."

Researchers have identified certain common themes in people's dreams: flying, falling, being chased, being naked or otherwise shamed in public, facing an exam in a course we have neglected. But common themes do not make dreams less elusive. Do they mean anything? If so, what? If not, what's their purpose? To consolidate memories? Reveal repressed desires (Sigmund Freud's theory)? Regulate or sharpen emotions? Resolve psychic tensions? There appear to be more theories than certainties.

In Scripture, such as in Psalm 90, dreams can be an emblem of the transience of life. But more commonly they are a natural medium through which God or God's angel communicates with human beings. In 1 Samuel 28:15, Saul complains that God "has turned away from me and answers no more, either by prophets or by dreams" — as if these are the standard mediums God would naturally use. In Matthew's gospel, Joseph is given Jesus' name, warned of danger from King Herod, and then reassured of safety once Herod is dead — all in dreams! In Joel 2 a gorgeous prophecy says "your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions." This is presented as the inevitable result of God's Spirit being poured out on all flesh, and the verse is famously quoted and fulfilled at Pentecost as described in Acts 2.

It's worth noticing that the conversion stories missionaries tell these days often involve dreams. A missionary might witness to a person about the power and love of Jesus Christ, but for a time nothing happens. But then the person might have an eerie dream, perhaps featuring Jesus Christ himself, and the conversion happens with an awesome inevitability. God has reached into this person's life via a medium the person simply can't ignore.

Dreams are highly significant in the stories told in Genesis about Joseph. His brothers hate him and sell him to strangers because he tells them of dreams in which they bow down to him. In Egypt, Joseph interprets the dreams of Pharaoh's chief cupbearer and baker. When Pharaoh hears about it, he sends for Joseph so that he might interpret Pharaoh's dream. Joseph explicitly identifies God as the giver of interpretations, but Pharaoh credits Joseph, and Joseph ends up rising to power in the land.

In a similar story, Daniel prevails in Babylon because he can tell King Nebuchadnezzar what he dreamed and also interpret his dream. Daniel testifies that he can do this only because the God of Israel has revealed these things to him. Daniel turns out to be a credible witness to the power of God just because he can bring forward God's power to reveal and interpret dreams.

Finally, are we morally responsible for our dreams? In his great Confessions (10.29 - 30), Augustine reflects on the fact that after his conversion to Christ and the abandonment of his lustful habits, he is still troubled by lustful dreams. They are the residue of his sin. He feels guilty for having the dreams, but wants to know if he is actually guilty for having them. He appears to conclude that, because dreams appear unbidden, he is not, but cautions that to whatever degree he approves of his lustful actions in a dream, then he is guilty. Of course, this is a tricky business. Is subconscious approval actual approval?

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Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.