How the Language of Symbolism works in Dreams and Visions (Part 1)

How the Language of Symbolism works in Dreams and Visions (Part 1)

God uses dreams and visions to speak to us, but often we miss the message because we do not understand the language they use. For many of us, dreams seem full of bizarre scenes void of obvious meaning. In your dreams people fly, animals talk and objects act in impossible ways. This is because dreams most often employ the language of symbols. Rather than using words, they use pictures to communicate.

At first this picture language appears strange and unfamiliar, but in our waking life, we use imagery all the time. A coloured light signals the place to stop, a red cross points to a place for medical help; a hand sign relays peace. Each picture acts as a symbol that communicates effectively – all without words. Symbols are a universal language that transcend communication barriers. Once you understand how they work, they become one of the easiest languages to understand. As the saying goes, a picture tells a thousand words. Often they speak more powerfully and more clearly than words ever could.

Thinking Symbolically

To understand the message of dreams and visions, we need to learn their language. We need to learn to think symbolically. We need to ask, what does this symbol mean to me?

For example, what do you think of when you see an eagle? What do you think of when you see a lion? A rock climber? 

The object or image acts as a signal that acts to represent something that is often intangible in your life – an emotion, a memory or a truth.

God speaks in the language of symbolism throughout the Bible. Let me give you an example from the time of the Patriarchs. The Egyptian Pharaoh dreamt of seven skinny cows devouring seven fat cows. This mysterious dream is interpreted by Joseph as a prophetic warning from God (Genesis 37:9; 41:1-4). The skinny cows represented seven years of drought. The fat cows seven years of prosperity. Without preventative action, Egypt was heading for a national disaster. The drought years would consume the years of abundance. In this case, cows acted as a symbol of economic prosperity. They were a common feature of Egyptian agricultural life. The dream was employing a symbol that was immediately recognizable to its Egyptian audience.

Changeable Meanings

There’s an important caveat here. If you did the short activity above with a group of your friends, you’ll notice that sometimes you will come up with very different answers for each image. You may have all thought of “freedom” for the eagle, but what about the lion? or the rock climber? A lion could mean a range of things depending on who you are, your cultural background and your attitude towards animals. The rock climber, for example may represent adventure and excitement to one person, but fear and trepidation to others. Symbols are often unique to the person. What a symbol means to me may be different to what a symbol means to you.

The same is true in different cultures. We’ve mentioned the symbol of the red cross. It is an important symbol that is used in war zones by the world’s largest humanitarian organisation to send a message of safety and protection. It literally means “don’t shoot.” However the red cross is not used in Islamic countries. In these places, the symbol of a red crescent is used. For Muslims, it is the crescent that communicates protection, not the cross. 

You’ll also see the use of cultural symbols throughout the Bible. A seven-branched lampstand has little significance for us today (Exodus 25:31-40), but for the Jews it was a powerful symbol that represented God’s temple and the place of his presence (Eg. Zechariah 4). The seven-headed dragon in the book of Revelation is a mystery to us today, but for the people of the 1st Greco-Roman world, it was an obvious symbol for the Roman empire with its well-known seven hills (Revelation 13:1). 

The ABCs of Symbols

Of course there are also generic symbols that tend to transcend cultures. I often call these the “ABCs” of symbols. A red heart for example means “love” in almost any culture. The symbol of a house in a dream almost always signifies a person’s life. Newborn babies frequently represent the beginning of something new.

Our God is a masterful communicator. When he speaks to us in dreams and visions, he will tailor his message to our culture and situation. He will select symbols that have significance and meaning to us. That’s why it’s important not to rely too heavily on the dream dictionaries you find in bookstores. These may be helpful in encouraging you to think symbolically, but they are not always useful since symbols change in their meaning depending on how they are used and who the message is directed to. The question is always, what does the symbol mean to you?

When God speaks, he intends to be understood. There is nothing overly clever about dream interpretation. You do not need to be an expert or have some sort of special gift or skill to do it. Once you understand how symbolism works, it is not difficult to understand what God is saying to you. For when God speaks, he intends to be understood.

This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams” (Acts 2:16,17).

This teaching taken from the Awaken Your Dreams Teaching Series.

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