The thoughts or mental images a person has while asleep. The Scriptures refer to dreams from God (Nu 12:6), natural dreams (Job 20:8), and false dreams (Jer 29:8, 9) such as those that involve divination.
Dreams From God. Dreams from God were received by Jehovah’s servants and by persons not devoted to him. (1Ki 3:5; Jg 7:13, 14) Some furnished warnings that protected his servants, and others gave them guidance. Thus, in a dream God warned Abimelech the king of Gerar not to touch Sarah, with the result that she remained undefiled. (Ge 20) Complying with “divine warning in a dream,” the astrologers who visited Jesus did not return to murderous Herod. (Mt 2:11, 12) In response to angelic instruction in dreams, Joseph took Mary as his wife and also fled with Jesus and Mary into Egypt. Later dreams from God led Joseph to return from Egypt with them and settle in Nazareth in order to fulfill the prophecy, “He will be called a Nazarene.”
Some dreams from God gave his servants assurance of divine favor or helped them to understand how Jehovah was aiding them. When God was about to conclude a covenant with Abram (Abraham), a deep sleep and great darkness fell upon the patriarch, and Jehovah then apparently spoke to him in a dream. (Ge 15:12-16) At Luz (Bethel) God caused Jacob to have a dream in which he saw a ladder reaching from earth to heaven, thus denoting communication with heaven. Angels ascended and descended on it, a representation of Jehovah was stationed above it, and God pronounced a blessing on Jacob. (Ge 28:10-19; compare Joh 1:51.) It was also by means of a dream that God, years later, showed his approval of Jacob and gave him angelic instruction to return to his homeland.
As a youth, Jacob’s son Joseph had dreams that indicated he had divine favor, these dreams also being prophetic. In one, he and his brothers were binding sheaves in the field. Joseph’s sheaf stood erect, and those of his brothers encircled it and bowed down to it. In another dream, the sun, moon, and 11 stars bowed down to him. (Ge 37:5-11) Both of these dreams were fulfilled when Jacob and his household moved to Egypt during a severe famine. To obtain food, they all became dependent upon Joseph, then Egypt’s food administrator.
Some dreams from God experienced by persons not worshiping him were also prophetic. In Egypt, while Joseph was imprisoned with Pharaoh’s chief of the cupbearers and chief of the bakers, these men had dreams that God enabled Joseph to explain as meaning that in three days the chief of the cupbearers would be restored to his position, whereas the chief of the bakers would be executed. These events occurred three days later, on Pharaoh’s birthday. In time these dreams served the purpose of bringing Joseph to Pharaoh’s attention as a man having God’s spirit.
Warning and the prophetic element were combined in two dreams that Pharaoh of Joseph’s day had in one night. In the first, he saw seven fat-fleshed cows devoured by seven poor, thin-fleshed cows. In Pharaoh’s second dream, seven full and good ears of grain came up on one stalk, only to be swallowed up by seven shriveled, thin, wind-scorched ears of grain. Joseph, ascribing the interpretation to God, correctly explained that both dreams pointed to seven years of plenty to be followed by seven of famine. (Ge 41) It was God’s direction to save many from starvation and particularly to preserve the life of Abraham’s descendants, to fulfill his promises to Abraham.
Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar also had two prophetic dreams from God. One was of a metallic image with a head of gold, breast and arms of silver, belly and thighs of copper, legs of iron, and feet of iron and clay. A stone cut out without hands struck and crushed its feet and then pulverized the rest of the image. Daniel identified Nebuchadnezzar as “the head of gold” and explained that a succession of human kingdoms would follow that of Babylon. Ultimately, God himself would set up a Kingdom that would “never be brought to ruin.”
In another dream from God, Nebuchadnezzar beheld a great tree that was chopped down, its remaining rootstock being restrained with “a banding of iron and of copper” until “seven times” passed over it. In keeping with Daniel’s explanation, boasting Nebuchadnezzar (symbolized by the tree that was cut down) went mad, remaining in that state until seven times, or years, passed. Thereafter he acknowledged God’s supremacy, and his sanity having returned, he was reestablished in his kingship.
Daniel himself had a dream from Jehovah in which he beheld four huge beasts coming up out of the sea, these creatures representing human governments. (Da 7:1, 3, 17; see BEASTS, SYMBOLIC.) Daniel also saw the Ancient of Days, from whom “someone like a son of man” received lasting “rulership and dignity and kingdom.”
Joel foretold that the outpouring of God’s spirit would be followed by such manifestations as prophesying and the dreaming of inspired dreams. (Joe 2:28) It was on the day of Pentecost in the year 33 C.E. that some 120 disciples of Jesus Christ received the holy spirit and began speaking in various tongues “about the magnificent things of God.” (Ac 2:1-18) Later, other believers, including the former persecutor Saul (Paul), received the holy spirit and were empowered with miraculous gifts. (Ac 8:17-19; 9:17; 10:44-46) While in Troas, Paul had a night vision or dream that provided guidance as to where he and his associates were to preach “the good news.” (Ac 16:9, 10) Other disciples doubtless also had dreams under the influence of God’s spirit, fulfilling the words of Joel’s prophecy.
When Jesus Christ stood on trial before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor’s wife sent him this message respecting Jesus: “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I suffered a lot today in a dream because of him.” (Mt 27:19) Evidently of divine origin, the dream should have warned Pilate that Christ’s case was one of extreme importance.
Natural Dreams. Natural dreams may be stimulated by certain thoughts or emotions, sensations or daily activities (anxiety, one’s physical condition, his occupation, and so forth). (Ec 5:3) These dreams are of no great significance. (Ps 73:20) A hungry person may dream of eating and a thirsty one of drinking, but they awake unsatisfied. Comparable delusion was in store for all the nations “waging war against Mount Zion.”
Concerning the pagan view of dreams, it is stated: “Babylonians had such trust in dreams that on the eve of important decisions they slept in temples, hoping for counsel. Greeks desiring health instruction slept in shrines of Aesculapius, and Romans in temples of Serapis. Egyptians prepared elaborate books for dream interpretation.” (Harper’s Bible Dictionary, edited by M. and J. L. Miller, 1961, p. 141) But such practices did not exist among faithful Hebrews and early Christians. The Scriptures warn against looking for omens, whether in natural dreams or in various incidents.
False Dreams. False dreams are Biblically condemned. According to the Law, a false dreamer who urged the committing of idolatry was to be put to death. (De 13:1-5) God might sometimes speak to his true prophets by means of dreams (Nu 12:6), but he was against “the prophets of false dreams,” who led his people away from true worship. (Jer 23:25-32; 27:9, 10) Practicers of divination were described as speaking “valueless dreams.”
The Bible speaks of dreams in a figurative sense in describing the ungodly defilers of the flesh who slipped into the Christian congregation. Jude warned fellow believers against such men “indulging in dreams,” these persons apparently dreaming (imagining) that they could with impunity violate God’s Word and defile flesh in the congregation. This was a mistake, for they would inescapably receive adverse judgment from the Supreme Judge, Jehovah.