Christian Dream Interpretation: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

By Dr. Malcolm Webber

There is no question that God uses dreams to speak to His people. This is clear in the Bible.

And He said, “Hear My words: If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make Myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream …” (Numbers 12:6)

At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night, and God said, “Ask what I shall give you.” (1 Kings 3:5)

Now when they had departed, 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 …” (Matthew 2:13)

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; (Acts 2:17)

This raises several important questions:

  • Does everyone receive dreams from God or only a few prophetically-gifted people?
  • Does every dream we have come from God?
  • How should we interpret dreams?

In certain parts of the Church today, dreams are taken very seriously as a way for everyone to hear from God. Many believers work hard at remembering their dreams, writing them down, and trying to interpret them to understand God’s purposes for their lives and for others. But should they be doing this?

In addition, there is a popular practice of teaching people how to interpret dreams. The method is usually along the lines of “a staircase means this …”, “the color blue means that …” and so forth. There are courses and “prophetic schools” that teach people these things. But is such a practice biblical?

As Christians, our supreme source of authority in all things is the written Scriptures. Thus, in order to understand dreams, we must look at what the Bible says about them.

Many years ago, I did a comprehensive study of every mention of dreams in both testaments, and I discovered that there are four ways in which dreams are mentioned:

  1. General mentions of dreams
  2. General mentions of prophetic dreams, both true and false
  3. Specific instructions given clearly by God in a dream
  4. Dreams given by God with veiled meanings that require interpretation

Let’s look closely at each of these four categories.

1. General mentions of dreams

These are the normal dreams – or in some cases, nightmares (bad dreams) – that everyone experiences. There is no indication that these normal dreams have any prophetic significance or that they need to be “interpreted.”

For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words. (Ecclesiastes 5:3)

Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when You rouse Yourself, You despise them as phantoms. (Psalm 73:20)

The lives of the wicked are sometimes compared to dreams – short-lived, gone in a moment:

[The wicked man] will fly away like a dream and not be found; he will be chased away like a vision of the night. (Job 20:8)

Sometimes dreams are mentioned figuratively in the sense of futile ambitions and imaginations:

For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the One you must fear. (Ecclesiastes 5:7)

In this regard, we may describe a person who has no clear purpose as a “dreamer.” It is not a designation of them as prophetic, but simply describes the unrealistic nature of their aspirations.

The vast majority of dreams that we all have are of this nature. They have no special meaning.

2. General mentions of prophetic dreams, both true and false

In these passages, God affirms that He does give prophetic dreams. For example:

And He said, “Hear My words: If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make Myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with My servant Moses. He is faithful in all My house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord …” (Numbers 12:6-8)

And it shall come to pass afterward, that 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)

There is no indication given in these passages about whether the dreams need any interpretation or, if they do, how to go about that. They are simple affirmations that God does give dreams.

There are also mentions in the Bible of people receiving dreams that do give direction, but those dreams are not from God and the direction they give is false.

Behold, I am against those who prophesy lying dreams, declares the Lord, and who tell them and lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness, when I did not send them or charge them. So they do not profit this people at all, declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 23:32)

For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in My name; I did not send them, declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 29:8-9)

3. Specific instructions given clearly by God in a dream

In this category are those passages that describe God (or an angel) speaking directly to someone in a dream. The instructions that God gives are direct and clear and need no interpretation. These dreams, as well as the next category of veiled dreams, can be given by God to anyone. They are not limited to leaders or prophetically-gifted people. Here are some examples:

But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman [Sarah] whom you have taken, for she is a man’s [Abraham’s] wife.” (Genesis 20:3)

But God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream by night and said to him, “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.” (Genesis 31:24)

At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night, and God said, “Ask what I shall give you.” (1 Kings 3:5)

Joseph, Mary’s husband, had many of these. Each time the dream was crystal clear, requiring no interpretation:

And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:19-21)

And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. (Matthew 2:12)

Now when they had departed, 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 …” (Matthew 2:13)

But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and His mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” (Matthew 2:19-20)

But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. (Matthew 2:22)

Sometimes such dreams used symbols, but those symbols were always self-evident. The intended meaning was obvious. Everyone knew immediately what they meant. There was no need for skilled interpretation. The people involved did not have to consult a list of “dream meanings” to determine the intention of the dream.


For example, in Genesis, Joseph’s dreams used symbols:

Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. He said to them, “Hear this dream that I have dreamed: Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and stood upright. And behold, your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf.” (Genesis 37:5-7)

Then he dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, “Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” (Genesis 37:9)

Notice that everyone immediately knew what the dreams meant!

His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?” So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words. (Genesis 37:8)

But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?” (Genesis 37: 10)

Thus, even though such dreams use symbols, they are still “clear dreams” requiring no interpretation beyond a straightforward understanding of an obvious symbol.

But God does also give dreams in the Bible that require interpretation.

4. Dreams given by God with veiled meanings that require interpretation

For such dreams, with no exception, the interpretation was not given according to some set of rules or principles of dream interpretation. The interpretation was given by God, supernaturally.

For example, in Genesis 40, Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer and chief baker were in prison for offending their master and each had veiled dreams, but they could not interpret them.

And 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 interpretation. 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 …” (Genesis 40:5-8)

Notice Joseph’s response. He did not look to his own skill or knowledge in dream interpretation. He did not consult the “Dream Interpretation Manual.” Instead, he looked to God to give him the interpretation:

… And Joseph said to them, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me.” (Genesis 40:8)

Later, Pharaoh heard about this and he asked Joseph to help him with his two dreams of the cows and ears of grain:

Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they quickly brought him out of the pit. And when he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came in before Pharaoh. 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.” (Genesis 41:14-15)

Again, notice Joseph’s response:

Joseph answered Pharaoh, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” (Genesis 41:16)

Joseph specifically stated that he did not have a special ability or even a method of dream interpretation. Instead, he relied on God to supernaturally give him the meaning.

Pharaoh also acknowledged that the interpretation came from God:

Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are.” (Genesis 41:39)

In the book of Daniel there are more examples of this. Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, had a veiled dream. He knew it was significant and he asked his magicians and sorcerers to tell him the dream and its interpretation, but no one could do it:

The Chaldeans answered the king and said, “There is not a man on earth who can meet the king’s demand, for no great and powerful king has asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or Chaldean. The thing that the king asks is difficult, and no one can show it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh.” (Daniel 2:10-11)

The angry king ordered that all the “wise men” (including Daniel and his friends) be killed. In response, Daniel went to the king and requested time to give him the interpretation. Then he did this:

Then Daniel went to his house and made the matter known to Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, his companions, and told them to seek mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery, so that Daniel and his companions might not be destroyed with the rest of the wise men of Babylon. Then the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision of the night … (Daniel 2:17-19)

Notice again that Daniel did not use some method or consult a book of dream interpretation principles. In fact, Daniel did not even need to hear the details of the dream to figure out the interpretation. Instead, he sought God and God supernaturally showed him both the dream and its interpretation.

Daniel answered and said: “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might … 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, for You have made known to us the king’s matter.” (Daniel 2:20-23)

When he went to the king, Daniel told him that God had supernaturally revealed the interpretation:

“No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or astrologers can show to the king the mystery that the king has asked, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and He has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days. Your dream and the visions of your head as you lay in bed are these: To you, O king, as you lay in bed came thoughts of what would be after this, and He who reveals mysteries made known to you what is to be. But as for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because of any wisdom that I have more than all the living, but in order that the interpretation may be made known to the king, and that you may know the thoughts of your mind.” (Daniel 2:27-30)

Later, in Chapter 7, when Daniel had his own dream of the coming kingdoms of the world, again the interpretation was given to him:

I approached one of those who stood there and asked him the truth concerning all this. So he told me and made known to me the interpretation of the things. (Daniel 7:16)

This is consistent throughout the Scripture. Any time in the Bible, when God gave a veiled dream that required interpretation, He always gave the interpretation supernaturally.

There is no biblical precedent for a list of principles or “manual of meanings” regarding how to interpret dreams. There is not even a single instance of anyone interpreting a dream along the lines of, “The moon in a dream means this … therefore God is telling us such and such …” or “A staircase in a dream means this … therefore God is telling us such and such …”

Dream Interpretation and the Occult

But while this approach to interpreting dreams is nowhere found in the Bible, it is a well-established and ancient occult science.

Before I became a believer I was fascinated by the occult and New Age philosophies and practices. I would frequently go to my favorite occult bookstore to look over every aspect of paganism, witchcraft and the rest.

After I came to Christ, I noticed that so many Christians were fascinated by dreams and there were many books that explained how to interpret dreams using the “this means that” approach. One day I decided to visit the occult bookstore again and go to their dream section. It was a big section of books, all describing this practice and there were all the latest Christian books on the subject – the very same books my Christian friends were studying!

The historical reality is that this approach to dreams has been practiced for millennia by pagans, psychics and people of every religion. It is fundamentally an occult practice. This is easily demonstrated – just google “dream interpretation” and see what you discover!

Sadly, many Christians today take their dreams very seriously and create considerable confusion for themselves and for others around them. This fleshly fascination with dreams and the occult approach to interpreting them undermines the authority of the Word of God and distracts God’s people from doing what they really should be doing. In addition, the ministries that focus on helping people to “interpret” their dreams create even more confusion and distraction – and, sometimes, serious deception.

As we have seen, the practice of “learning” how to interpret dreams has no basis in the Bible but is deeply rooted in the occult. It should not be practiced in the Church.

The Bottom Line

Most dreams are meaningless. They should not be written down. We should not attempt to interpret and understand them. They are just the normal processing of our brains at night as we consolidate memories and so forth. Dreams can also be the result of too much spicy food late at night or a very stressful day!

… a dream comes with much business … (Ecclesiastes 5:3)

If God does give a dream, then usually He gives a very clear, specific message in it. There is no interpretation necessary. Most of the prophetic dreams in the Bible are of this nature – they are direct, clear and straightforward. At the end of this article there is an exhaustive and categorized list of all mentions of dreams in the Bible. Of the 21 God-given dreams that are recorded in the Bible, 13 (62%) are of this nature.

In the times when God gives a veiled message in a dream (representing eight or 38% of the God-given dreams in the Bible), the interpretation must be received by the supernatural revelation of the Holy Spirit, rather than by using a preset list of dream “meanings” or by using certain methods or principles.

We must stay with the Word of God and not be led astray by a practice that has no biblical basis and that will confuse and mislead us. In Jeremiah 23, God gives a profound contrast between following His Word and being led by lying dreams:

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? (Jeremiah 23:25-29)

What has straw in common with wheat? God’s Word is like fire and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces. Let us stay with His Word!

We should be grateful to God for when He does give someone a true dream. He is the Living God and He speaks to His people today. But let us not be confused and led astray by an emphasis and a method that is rooted in the occult and not in the Word of God.

Let us return to the simplicity and purity of the Word of God and the Spirit of God!

An Exhaustive and Categorized List of All Mentions of Dreams in the Bible

The following is a list of every mention of dreams in the Bible, categorized according to this model:

  1. General mentions of dreams
  2. General mentions of prophetic dreams, both true and false
  3. Specific instructions given clearly by God in a dream
  4. Dreams given by God with veiled meanings that require interpretation

Please note that a long story involving a dream is counted as a single incident. Thus, the story about Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2 is counted as a single incident, whereas the dreams of the cupbearer and baker in Genesis 40 are counted as two. Each dream or mention of a dream is counted as a single incident.

 Category
Abimelech’s dream in Genesis 20:3-73
Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28:10-22. This is later interpreted by Jesus in John 1:51.4
Jacob’s dream in Genesis 31:10-133
Laban’s dream in Genesis 31:243
Joseph’s first dream in Genesis 37:5-83
Joseph’s second dream in Genesis 37:9-103
The cupbearer’s dream in Genesis 404
The baker’s dream in Genesis 404
Pharaoh’s first dream (the cows) in Genesis 414
Pharaoh’s second dream (the ears of grain) in Genesis 414
And He said, “Hear My words: If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make Myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream …” (Numbers 12:6)2
The prophets and dreamers, both true and false, in Deuteronomy 13:1-52
The dream Gideon heard in Judges 7:13-153
God refuses to speak to Saul through dreams and other means in 1 Samuel 28:6, 152
Solomon’s dream in 1 Kings 3:5-153
When I say, “My bed will comfort me, my couch will ease my complaint,” then You scare me with dreams [i.e., nightmares] and terrify me with visions … (Job 7:13-14)1
[The wicked man] will fly away like a dream and not be found; he will be chased away like a vision of the night. (Job 20:8)1
For God speaks in one way, and in two, though man does not perceive it. In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls on men, while they slumber on their beds … (Job 33:14-15)2
How [the wicked] are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors! Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when You rouse Yourself, You despise them as phantoms. (Psalm 73:19-20)1
You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning: in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers. (Psalm 90:5-6)1
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy … (Psalm 126:1-2)1
For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words. (Ecclesiastes 5:3)1
For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear. (Ecclesiastes 5:7)1
And the multitude of all the nations that fight against Ariel, all that fight against her and her stronghold and distress her, shall be like a dream, a vision of the night. (Isaiah 29:7)1
As when a hungry man dreams, and behold, he is eating, and awakes with his hunger not satisfied, or as when a thirsty man dreams, and behold, he is drinking, and awakes faint, with his thirst not quenched, so shall the multitude of all the nations be that fight against Mount Zion. (Isaiah 29:8)1
His watchmen are blind; they are all without knowledge; they are all silent dogs; they cannot bark, dreaming, lying down, loving to slumber. (Isaiah 56:10)1
The dreams of the false prophets in Jeremiah 23:25-322
So do not listen to your prophets, your diviners, your dreamers, your fortune-tellers, or your sorcerers, who are saying to you, “You shall not serve the king of Babylon.” (Jeremiah 27:9)2
For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in My name; I did not send them, declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 29:8-9)2
As for these four youths, God gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom, and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams. (Daniel 1:17)2
Nebuchadnezzar’s first dream in Daniel 24
Nebuchadnezzar’s second dream in Daniel 44
… because an excellent spirit, knowledge, and understanding to interpret dreams, explain riddles, and solve problems were found in this Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar … (Daniel 5:12)2
Daniel’s dream in Daniel 74
And it shall come to pass afterward, that 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)2
For the household gods utter nonsense, and the diviners see lies; they tell false dreams and give empty consolation. Therefore the people wander like sheep; they are afflicted for lack of a shepherd. (Zechariah 10:2)2
Joseph’s first dream in Matthew 1:20-213
Joseph’s second dream in Matthew 2:123
Joseph’s third dream in Matthew 2:133
Joseph’s fourth dream in Matthew 2:19-213
Joseph’s fifth dream in Matthew 2:223
Pilate’s wife’s dream in Matthew 27:193
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; (Acts 2:17)2
Yet in like manner these people [false teachers] also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones. (Jude 8)2

From the above chart, we can make the following summary analysis:

General mentions of dreams10 (23%)
General mentions of prophetic dreams, both true and false13 (30%)
Specific instructions given clearly by God in a dream13 (30%)
Dreams given by God with veiled meanings that require interpretation8 (18%)

This article is submitted by Lisa Nagle of LeaderSourceLeaderSource is a Missio Nexus member.  Member organizations can provide content to the Missio Nexus website. See how by clicking here.

Become a Certified MPD Coach

The latest missions content delivered right to your inbox!

Stay up-to-date with Missio Nexus and the Great Commission community.

Related Articles

Welcoming the Stranger

Presenter: Matthew Soerens, US Director of Church Mobilization, World Relief Description: Refugee and immigration issues have dominated headlines globally recently. While many American Christians view these…

Responses