How to understand the symbolic language in dreams

I have found over the years that some of the tools I use to study the bible have also helped me to interpret my dreams.  This article covers the use of symbolic language such as metaphors and similes.

This article is part of the series: Dream interpretation and the bible.

Picture of bible with words 'wings like eagles' highlighted.

Those crazy dreams!

Have you ever woken up from a dream and thought, ‘that’s just crazy’? Maybe it is so ridiculous that you’re sure there could never be any sense in it. I have been there too. I haven’t always believed that my dreams could be important. So with that in mind, let us consider a real dream as an example:

A strange dream

“In my dream that night ..four huge animals..came out of the sea. The first animal looked like a lion, but it had the wings of an eagle. While I watched, its wings were pulled off. It was then pulled erect so that it was standing on two feet like a man. Then a human heart was placed in it. Then I saw a second animal that looked like a bear. It lurched from side to side, holding three ribs in its jaws… Next I saw another animal. This one looked like a panther. It had four birdlike wings on its back. This animal had four heads ..After that, a fourth animal appeared in my dream. This one was a grisly horror—hideous. It had huge iron teeth. It crunched and swallowed its victims. Anything left over, it trampled into the ground. It was different from the other animals—this one was a real monster. It had ten horns.”

Picture of a lion roaring

If I had this dream I would be tempted to dismiss it as being too weird to even try to understand! However the more astute of you have probably realised that this was an actual dream from the bible! It is recorded in Daniel 7 (this version is from The Message). This dream is actually part of a larger portion of revelation that was given to Daniel more than 500 years before Christ, and describes the various kingdoms that would rule on the earth between that time and the coming of Jesus. Once you understand the figurative nature of the animals and the nations they represent, they actually depict with astounding accuracy the events that we now call history. So much so, that some scholars insist that it must have been written afterwards!

What is my point? Just because a dream seems crazy, it does not mean that it is meaningless. The bible is full of language like this. Old Testament prophets such as Zechariah had similar night visions, and the apostle John saw visions while he was in the spirit, and recorded them in the book of Revelation. These visions were not literal in the sense that there were real lions with wings, for example, but the events that they symbolised were literal, or carried a real message from God.

“The reason that dreams often seem so weird is that the language is symbolic.”

I would like to suggest that our dreams, however crazy, can contain revelation from God that is vitally important for us in the context of our individual lives and current affairs. The reason that they seem so weird is that the language is symbolic.

Literal or figurative?

The bible contains a great deal of historical literature which is obviously meant to be understood literally. There is also much direct teaching. However there are also many parts which are meant to be understood figuratively, or symbolically.

I have learnt from experience, that in dreams, God usually uses symbolic language rather than literal. (See dreams as parables). Many times in the past I have initially taken something in a dream literally, only to realise later that the thing I thought applied to someone else (because I dreamed about them) was actually about me. I have found that God can be sneaky like that!

“For dreams, the plain meaning is rarely the main meaning!”

So for dreams, I would say from my own experience that, ‘The plain meaning is rarely the main meaning!’ Of course this is a generalisation, and I know that some people have a greater proportion of literal dreams than I do. However this principle has served me well so far, and I definitely would always start by asking the question, “Is this dream symbolic?”

No need to be alarmed!

This is actually very helpful to know, and helps us from jumping to wrong conclusions about a dream, or becoming unduly anxious about what the interpretation might be. For example people often ask me about dreams of someone dying. This can be quite distressing and worrying if this happens in a dream. However in the vast majority of cases this is usually representing an area of our life which is coming to an end, and is unlikely to be literal.

Dream of someone dying

“l dreamt that my husband and I were with our son in a boat. It was a lovely scene on a tropical sea. Then our son suddenly appeared to die in the dream, although we could still hear a faint heartbeat. We managed to get him to a hotel.”

Picture of boat

This was one of my dreams from around 2010. It felt quite alarming when I first woke up because it was so vivid, and I might have dismissed it as a nightmare if I didn’t understand symbolic language. After a short time had passed however, I was able to think about it objectively and was able to understand the meaning. I was very glad it wasn’t literal!

In this dream, our son was representative of the church which our husband and I were leading at the time (God had used this particular son many times to represent the church in my dreams, so I understood the symbolism). God was letting us know that the church as it currently existed had come to the end of its season, and it was time to move to a new place. A few years later, we did close the church by unanimous decision of the congregation, and they all moved with us to become part of a larger church with a similar heart to ours (symbolised by the hotel in the dream). The actual church ended, but the heartbeat continued!

So how can we get into a ‘symbolic’ way of thinking? Well, if you read the bible regularly, the chances are that you understand symbolism pretty well already. The bible is full of symbolic language, and is very useful for getting a feel for how God speaks in dreams.

Similes in the bible

A simile is a figure of speech where one thing is compared with another. One thing is said to be like another thing. Similes are very widely used in the bible, particularly in the wisdom literature, psalms, and prophecy. Jesus also used them in his parables.

Let us consider an example from the prophet Isaiah:

Wings like Eagles

Isaiah 40:31 NASB

Yet those who wait for the LORD will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles. They will run and not get tired, They will walk and not become weary.

Picture of man running and eagle flying

In this example, being able to rise up with renewed strength is said to be like the flight of an eagle. The wings referred to are not literal wings but metaphorical ones, and the image helps us to engage with the concept being conveyed. I know that many people have been comforted and inspired by this verse, by reflecting and meditating on the way an eagle flies and soars on the wind.

In a similar way to this example, flying in dreams can also represent being able to rise up in the power of the Holy Spirit above our circumstances.

A few more examples of similes from the bible:

  • Psalm 22:14 I am poured out like water, And all my bones are out of joint; My heart is like wax; It is melted within me.
  • Proverbs 4:18 But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, That shines brighter and brighter until the full day.
  • Song of Solomon 4:1 How beautiful you are, my darling, How beautiful you are! Your eyes are like doves behind your veil; Your hair is like a flock of goats That have descended from Mount Gilead.
  • Matthew 13:44 The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field.

Metaphors in the bible

metaphor states that one thing is another thing. This is not literally true, in the sense that they are not actually the same, but the symbolism helps to explain the idea or make a comparison.

Here is a familiar example of a metaphor, also from the book of Isaiah:

Passing through waters

Isaiah 43:2 NASB

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; And through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, Nor will the flame burn you.”

Picture of wave

Although this verse could be literally true (Daniel’s three friends in the bible did actually survive the fiery furnace), this verse is usually understood in a metaphorical way. Most of us understand that going through difficult times can feel like drowning amidst the waves, or like going through the fire

Here is a dream that uses some of the same symbolism that we discovered in Isaiah :

A dream of a boat

“I was in a boat on the sea. It was scary and I was afraid. However there was a man in the boat with me. I didn’t recognise him, but he seemed familiar and was helping me.”

Picture of boat on a stormy sea

This dream from a colleague contains a scenario of passing through waters similar to Isaiah 43. If we understand the biblical metaphor we can see that this dream is about the dreamer going through difficult times where there is a feeling of potentially being overwhelmed. We also know from Isaiah 43 that God promises to always be with us during these times. Therefore, we can recognise that that the familiar feeling man in the dream is actually God, who is communicating with the dreamer that He is with them.

Some more examples of metaphors in the bible:

  • Psalm 18:2 The Lord is my rock and my fortress.
  • Psalm 23:1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
  • Isaiah 64:8 We are the clay, you are the potter.
  • Mathew 5:13 “You are the salt of the earth”.
  • John 15:5 “I am the vine, you are the branches”.

Final thoughts

I have found that understanding the symbolic language in the bible has greatly helped me to understand dreams. When interpreting a dream, I will often look to see whether any of the elements are used by God in the bible. Many times I have found it to be relevant, because God often uses similar illustrations in our dreams.

I would thoroughly recommend meditating on some of the metaphorical bible literature. This really helps in several ways:

  • Our minds become tuned into God’s pictorial language
  • We gain understanding of God’s heart and ways
  • We can easily recognise common bible symbols in our dreams

You could start with some of the references listed in this article. Some other ideas are:

  • Psalm 23
  • The I AM statements of Jesus in John’s gospel

“God often uses similar illustrations in our dreams to the ones we find in the bible”

If you’d like to know more about the biblical model of dream interpretation, please do get in touch! You can also check out my Facebook group where you can meet other Christians who are learning about dreams.

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Learn the symbolic language of dreams. #DreamSymhols #Spirituality

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