An overview of ways God spoke to people in the Old Testament, how that changed with Jesus, and what it means for us today.
Do you get a little frustrated when the bible says, ‘The LORD said…’, but then doesn’t explain how He said it?
In this article I will give an overview of some ways God spoke in the bible – mainly focusing on Old Testament times, and then briefly touch on how that changed with Jesus – and what that means for us today.
I approach dream interpretation from a biblical perspective. My belief is that our dreams can come from God, and understanding them is best understood within the context of an ongoing relationship with Him.
- How did God speak in the Old Testament?
- How did things change when Jesus came?
How did God communicate in the bible?
As a follower of Jesus for over 40 years – and church leader for more than half of those – I have studied the bible at great length. When I read it, I’m always intrigued – and maybe a little frustrated – at the matter-of fact way things are reported, as though we should know what they mean.
One of those things is the little way it mentions the phrase ‘The LORD said….’, or ‘The LORD told them to…’ I’ve always wondered exactly how God told them those things! Is it just me, or do you also wonder?
I have a much better idea now of how God could have spoken to them than I did years ago – because I have been interested in the subject for many years and done some research.
In this article I will give an overview of what I’ve found – mainly focusing on how God spoke to people in the Old Testament. We will then briefly consider how things changed with Jesus, and how that relates to us today.
How did God speak in the Old Testament?
God walked and talked with people
In the very early chapters of the bible, we see something special; a tantalising picture of what life was like. In Genesis chapters 1-3 we get a brief glimpse of God walking in the garden in the cool of the day with Adam and Eve.
- Genesis 3:8, NASB Now they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day…
Wouldn’t you love to walk and talk with God? I definitely would, so I’m taking this image as our biblical baseline for relationship with God! Sadly, as we all know, things changed, and Adam and Eve lost that close degree of relationship. We are all suffering from the fallout of that moment.
In the rest of the early chapters of Genesis, some people (like Enoch) still had a close relationship with God:
- Genesis 5:21, NASB Enoch walked with God…
Those early days were certainly remarkable times, and ones we cannot fully comprehend now. But reading on through Genesis, it appears this close relationship was gradually lost over time. Once we get to Abraham, things are much closer to the sitation we have today. So for the rest of this article we will focus from that time onwards.
God spoke through angels
In the Old Testament, angels sometimes came with messages from God. Some of those times it was very obviously an angel, but other times they didn’t recognise them as angels at first – because they looked like people. Here are a couple of examples of angel appearances:
- Genesis 19:1, NASB Now the two angels came to Sodom in the evening as Lot was sitting at the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he stood up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground…
- Judges 13:13, NASB And the angel of the Lord said to Manoah…
You could go through and find many angels in the Old Testament; their appearance continued into the New Testament – as recorded in Matthew chapters 1-2, around the time of Jesus’ birth.
Sometimes we don’t know whether the heavenly visitor was God or angels; the bible seems to use them interchangeably. In the account of Moses and the burning bush, it tells us that the angel of the Lord appeared. Then it switches in the same paragraph to saying that God called him.
- Genesis 3:2-4, NASB Then the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush…When the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said…
It is often like this in the bible. If an angel appeared on God’s behalf it was treated the same way as if God Himself was speaking. Therefore, if the bible says, ‘God did…’ or ‘God said…’, it might have been an angel; we are not always told.
This is the same today. Angels are still used to represent God to us and to carry His messages.
More about angels…
God spoke in dreams
You might be surprised to hear that here are more than twenty dreams recorded in the bible.
The first is in Genesis 20 when God spoke to Abimelech in a dream and told him that Sarah was Abraham’s wife. There are also some more famous ones, such as Pharoah’s dreams which Joseph interpreted and King Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams which Daniel interpreted.
Angels sometimes appeared in dreams, for example in Jacob’s dream below. This also happened several times to Joseph in Matthew 1-2, around the time of Jesus’ birth:
- Genesis 31:11, NASB Then the angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob’…
In 1 Kings 3 God Himself appeared to Solomon in a dream.
- 1 Kings 3:5, NASB In Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream at night…
In bible times, people took dreams very seriously – and expected God to speak through them. For more on this subject, click on the image below for a comprehensive summary of bible verses about dreams.
God spoke through Urim and Thummim
God gave Israel a system whereby He could meet with them. By His instructions they built the tabernacle: This was a tent where the presence of God could dwell with them. The High priest would offer animal sacrifices and keep the lamp burning before the altar. Once a year He could go as Israel’s representative into God’s very presence in the Holy of Holies – the innermost sanctuary.
Later, this whole system became replaced by the temple at Jerusalem, which served the same purpose.
They also had something called the Urim and Thummim. We don’t know exactly how the system worked. But these were things that the priest had, and he would ask a question in God’s presence. They would get a yes/no answer from God in response.
- Exodus 28:30, NIV Also put the Urim and the Thummim in the breastpiece, so they may be over Aaron’s heart whenever he enters the presence of the Lord. Thus Aaron will always bear the means of making decisions for the Israelites over his heart before the Lord.
This seems rather a crude method of hearing God, and the potential for meaningful conversation seems limited! However, it worked for Israel as a way of making important decisions – such as whether to go into battle, etc.
God spoke face to face
It appears that Moses had a special relationship with God. We don’t know exactly what this looked like, but the bible tells us that God spoke face-to-face with him, as one speaks to a friend.
- Exodus 33:11, NIV The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.
Moses heard God speaking through the burning bush, and also had the experience of going up a mountain to meet with God – which was obviously a very special time. It seems he may have been in the heavenly realms while he was up there, because later on the elders of Israel were able to join him.
- Exodus 24:9-11, NASB Then Moses went up with… seventy of the elders… and they saw the God of Israel; and under His feet there appeared to be a pavement of sapphire… and they ate and drank.
Moses also went regularly to the tent of meeting to meet with God; this was a precursor to the tabernacle that we have already mentioned.
I have always been intrigued by Moses’ experiences. He was under the old covenant, the old sacrifice system. Yet, he had a relationship with God that is described as face to face. This is something that I would love to have. Doesn’t that make you hungry for more?
God spoke through prophets and seers
The Holy Spirit hadn’t been poured out en masse in those days, but we know that God’s Spirit came on certain specific people (such as a man of God, prophet, or seer) so they could convey God’s word to the rest of the people. Therefore, people could go and ask one of these specific people for a word from the LORD. Samuel was a good example.
- 1 Kings 13:1, NASB … a man of God came… and he cried out, “…this is what the Lord says…”
- 1 Samuel 3:10, NASB Then the Lord came and stood, and called as at the other times: “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for Your servant is listening.”
We can learn much from how God spoke to the prophets. If we read their books in the bible it gives us more clues about how they heard from God:
- God came and stood before Samuel (maybe it was an angel representing God)
- Isaiah and Ezekiel saw the Lord in visions of the heavenly realms (Isaiah 6:1, Ezekiel 1:1)
- Jeremiah saw pictures (Jeremiah 1:11)
- Daniel had dreams, visions, and angel visitations
- God spoke to Hosea through the illustration of his life situation and marriage
- Amos had visions
- Zechariah had night visions
- Micah got words
If you are interested in learning about hearing God’s voice, I recommend reading through the prophetic literature, and noting down whenever you see something about how God spoke to them. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you things as you read.
Learning from a bad example
When we are struggling to hear God, it can be easy to feel desperate and turn to less helpful sources of information. This happened to King Saul in the bible. Saul got really frustrated because God went silent. The usual methods that people used to hear from God were not working for him.
- 1 Samuel 28:6, NIV He inquired of the Lord, but the Lord did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets.
This is very helpful for us, because it lists the main ways that God commonly communicated to people in those days:
- In dreams
- Through the Urim and Thummim
- Through the prophets
In the end, Saul got so desperate that he went to a witch and asked her to call up the prophet Samuel who was dead. He had exhausted every normal means of hearing God he knew. He felt as though God had abandoned him. The story did not end well for him. You can the rest of 1 Samuel 28 to see what happened.
Have you ever been so desperate to hear from God that you were tempted to go to a psychic or similar? Many people are! We all have a hunger for our Creator deep inside. This story is a warning to all of us; it never works out well to go to sources other than God for our information. If God seems silent on a matter it is best to be patient – and keep seeking God Himself; we can’t force His hand.
How did things change when Jesus came?
The whole situation changed in the New Testament – after Jesus came. Due to His death and resurrection, we are now under the new covenant. The curse of separation that came with the fall of Adam and Eve was broken. It is now possible for every one of us to have a face to face relationship with God like Moses did – or better!.
- Hebrews 10:20, The Passion Translation (TPT) For he has dedicated a new, life-giving way for us to approach God. For just as the veil was torn in two, Jesus’ body was torn open to give us free and fresh access to him!
At Pentecost, after Jesus had returned to heaven, the Holy Spirit was poured out on everybody.
- Acts 2:4, NIV All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit
This is a game-changer!
God spoke through the Holy Spirit
The outpouring of the Holy Spirit means that hearing God is not limited to a ‘man of God’ or a specific prophet. We don’t need to wait around for God to send an angel for us to hear His voice. God, incredibly, resides within our inmost being!
We now have His presence as an inner voice, constantly guiding us, speaking to us and communicating with us. This can come through thoughts, feelings, impressions, words and pictures – to name but a few ways.
Jesus is our shepherd, and as his sheep we are all able to hear His voice through His Spirit.
- John 10:27, NASB “My sheep listen to My voice; I know them, and they follow Me.”
All those ways that the Old Testament prophets heard from God are now available to every follower of Jesus – not just the gifted ones.
Every follower of Christ can now potentially hear God in all the same ways that the Old Testament prophets did.
Examples in the book of Acts
We can see this worked out in the New Testament through the accounts in the book of Acts. We recently studied Acts in our church and were encouraged to see how the Holy Spirit was constantly leading the early Christians and guiding them:
- Acts 4:8, NIV Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them…
- Acts 13:4, NIV The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia…
- Acts 13:9, NIV Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said…
We can take inspiration from everything that they did. Just as they had the Holy Spirit, so do we today! We can be filled in the same way that they were – and expect to live our own lives led by the Spirit.
- We can also live lives led by the voice of the Holy Spirit within us.
God spoke in many ways
All of the ways God spoke in the Old Testament (except those relating to the temple system and the Urim and Thummim) are still available to us today – as they obviously were in the New Testament. Here are some examples:
- Angels: In Acts 12 an angel appeared to help Peter
- Dreams: In Acts 16 Paul dreamed about a man in Macedonia
- Visions: The book of Revelation is a series of heavenly visions received by John
- Prophets: Acts 21:10 mentions a prophet called Agabus
- Directly: Paul mentions in Galatians 1:12 that he got his revelation from Jesus himself
The New Testament is full of people living in relationship with God through the Holy Spirit. That elusive face to face relationship is within our grasp!
A plug for dreams
In my blog I mostly write about dream interpretation, because I have come to realise over the past 15 years that God is speaking to people through night dreams all the time. For me, it was a missing piece of the puzzle in terms of hearing God’s voice (see my story).
The turning point for me came when I realised God was speaking to me in my dreams – just like in the bible!
We saw from the bible that dreams were very important in both the Old and New Testament. I believe they are still just as vital today for hearing God’s voice and living in close relationship with Him. That has been my experience, plus that of many others.
If you want to develop your relationship with God, do check our some of my other articles about dreams – and be prepared to go on an exciting journey with God!
Each story and encounter with God in the bible is an example of what is available to every believer in Christ! I am convinced that God wants a close level of relationship with all of us. So let’s aim high! It’s what Jesus died for.
We have seen that in the Old Testament God mainly communicated through:
- Dreams and visions
- Urim and Thummim
- Face to face encounters
- Prophets and seers
Through Jesus’ death and resurrection we now all have the potential to hear God personally through the Holy Spirit: through dreams, visions, pictures, words, feelings and impressions; through angels and face to face encounters with God Himself!
I hope this article has given you some ideas about how God spoke to people in the bible – and I hope you feel inspired to learn to hear this same God for yourself, through His Spirit.
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The purpose of this blog is to provide biblical foundations for interpreting dreams and encourage others to make their own dream journey. I am primarily a writer and bible teacher – who loves dreams, and I hope you will be inspired to learn to interpret your own dreams.
It is not currently my aim to routinely engage in dream interpretations or provide training, except through writing blog posts. You can read my most up to date position on interpreting dreams here: Requests for dream interpretations.
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The information contained above is provided for information purposes only. The contents of this article are not intended to amount to advice and you should not rely on any of the contents of this article. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this article. Jennifer Needham disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this article.
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