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Discerning Dreams

Paul King is a pastor, theologian, historian, and educator. In his book, Is It of God, he provided much needed biblical and practical counsel about discernment. This article is a chapter from the second volume of Is It of God, bringing seasoned wisdom to a controversial topic.


It is clear from Scripture that God does speak through dreams, It is also clear from Scripture that not all dreams are from God. It is thus not a question of whether or not they can be genuinely of God, but a question of discernment of their source (God, self, or demonic), as well as discerning their meaning.

John Wesley gives us wise counsel for today: “Do not hastily ascribe things to God. Do not easily suppose dreams, voices, impressions, visions or revelations to be from God. They may be from Him. They may be from Nature. They may be from the devil. Therefore, believe not every spirit, but ‘try the spirits whether they be from God.’”


God’s Purposes for Dreams, Visions, and Voices

In talking with Job, Elihu first of all acknowledges that God does speak through dreams: “Indeed God speaks once, or twice, yet no one notices it. In a dream, a vision of the night, when sound sleep falls on men, while they slumber in their beds…” (Job 33:14-15). Then through poetic Hebrew parallelism he gives three purposes of God for dreams:

  • Revelation/Instruction:Then He opens the ears of men and seals their instruction” (v. 16). To “open” is a word of revelation, disclosure, discovery, as to prophets (Amos 3:7; 1 Sam 3:7, 21; 9:15). It is also used of visions and trances (Num 24:4, 16). God gives instruction through dreams and visions, and seals it, meaning that it is authenticated. God sometimes does this through repeated dreams or visions (v. 14).
  • Correction/Humbling: “That He may turn man aside from his conduct and keep man from pride” ( (v 17). Dreams and visions can lead to repentance as when Isaiah cried out, “I am a man of unclean lips!”
  • Warning of Spiritual, Emotional, or Physical Danger: “He keeps back his soul from the pit and his life from passing over into Sheol” (v 18). Joseph was warned through a dream to go to Egypt to avoid Jesus being killed by Herod (Matt 2:13).

Additional Purposes of God

  • Understanding the thoughts of our mind. God may use dreams as an allegory of life to reflect our souls—to reveal inner thoughts, feelings, distress, etc. Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar that God revealed to Daniel the mystery his dreams “for the purpose of making the interpretation known to the king, and that you may understand the thoughts of your mind” (Dan 2:30).
  • Stirring faith in Christ. Saul’s vision and hearing the voice of Jesus on the Damascus road brought him to faith in Christ, Many Muslims are coming to faith in Christ from visions and dreams.
  • Giving ministry insight and direction. Ananias was given a vision instructing him to go and minister to Saul. God sometimes gives ministry assignments through visions and dreams.
  • As catalysts for healing. Ananias was given further instructions to minister to the newly converted Saul who had “seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, so that he might regain his sight” (Acts 9:12). God gave to both Ananias and Saul visions about healing.
  • Encouragement and confirmation. Gideon had received a word from the Lord internally but had some hesitation. So the Lord gave him further confirmation through a dream and interpretation that others had received (Judges 7:12-15).

Dreams, then, can be tools of discernment for insight, revelation, and understanding from God; and for instruction, guidance, and encouragement much the same as the gift of prophecy. The Holy Spirit can use dreams to humble us, convict us of sin. and lead us to repentance and course change in our life.


Discerning Other Sources of Dreams and Visions

From Self

It is clear from Scripture that God does speak through dreams, It is also clear from Scripture that not all dreams are from God.

Many dreams and internal visions come from our own minds, inner psyche, imagination. They are neither from God nor from demonic sources. They may be random thoughts or related to things that we have done or seen or heard that day. Even external visions can occur as hallucinations, especially if someone has been sick or without nourishment.

Meaningless dreams and visions from self. Sometimes I like to call some of these “pizza dreams”—from whatever we ate that night. Scripture indicates that some dreams have no interpretation. Some fly away (Job 20:8) or are swept away (Ps 73:19-20) and cannot be found or recalled. Thus there is no indication that they are from God or that God wants someone to learn something from them. Further, “in many dreams and in many words there is emptiness [or vanity]” (Eccl 5:7).

Meaningful dreams and visions from self. Not all dreams and visions from self are meaningless. Dreams may reveal a person’s inner psyche. This is the common psychological approach and is often speculative, subjective, and very secular—like the dream interpretation theories of Freud and Jung. Although elements of truth may be found in their theories that correspond to Scripture, most elements of their theories are unbiblical and unreliable. (I speak not as a psychologist, but as a theologian and pastor with psychology and counseling training who believes in Christian approaches to the field).

Scripture does show us that dreams can reveal unfulfilled desires. God exposes what we hunger and thirst after (Isa 29:8). God makes clear that some dreams or visions are unsatisfying, leaving a person discontented or disappointed: “… like a dream, a vision of the night. It will be as when a hungry man dreams—and behold, he is eating; But when he awakens, his hunger is not satisfied, or as when a thirsty man dreams—and behold, he is drinking, but when he awakens, behold, he is faint and his thirst is not quenched” (Isa 29:7-8).

Such dreams that leave the soul empty and unfulfilled are from self, not from God, and God does not suggest any possible interpretation or meaning to be found in Him. Although they are not dreams from God and may be due to inner conflicts such as stress or anxiety, God may use such dreams to expose a person’s inner self—and reveal that the person needs to find their fulfillment in God.

Dreams and visions from one’s own imagination. God also exposes visions and dreams that are neither from God nor from Satan, but from one’s own self or imagination: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘Do not listen to the words of the prophets who are prophesying to you. They are leading you into futility; they speak a vision of their own imagination, not from the mouth of the Lord” (Jer 23:16).

Dreams from the deceptions of the heart. Because the unredeemed or unsanctified heart is deceitfully wicked, God says that some dreams and visions come from the deceitfulness of the heart: “I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy falsely in My name, saying, ‘I had a dream, I had a dream!’ How long? Is there anything in the hearts of the prophets who prophesy falsehood, even these prophets of the deception of their own heart” (Jer 23:25-26). Such false dreams lead people astray, lead to reckless boasting, and do edify (Jer 23:32).

Filthy polluting dreams and visions. Jude writes of filthy dreamers [or polluting dreams] that defile the flesh: “these men, also by dreaming, defile the flesh, and reject authority, and revile angelic majesties” (Jude 8). Some translations render it “filthy dreamers.” Commentators note that Jude is referring to the false prophets of Jeremiah 23 and the deceitful dreams and visions of their heart.


From Satan or Demonic Sources

Some people have claimed that all dreams are from God. To do so, one must ignore, deny, and wrench Scripture out of its context. The IVP Bible Background Commentary affirms from the biblical context, “Dreams were one of the standard means for receiving messages from a god in the ancient Near East.” It was clearly understood in biblical days that some dreams were supernatural communication from alternatives sources to Yahweh, which were evil spirits. Therefore, the context to the Israelites was clear: Prophetic dreams as supernatural signs and wonders from Yahweh did indeed occur, but such dreams could occur in other religions as well, and even those dreams could well come true. However, their fulfilment did not mean they were from Yahweh, so stay away from them.

Scripture shows that angels sometimes appear in visions and dreams. Most of these mentioned in Scripture are angels from God, but Paul also warns: “though we, or an angel from heaven preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:8). And again, “Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14). If an angel can appear in a dream or vision (as Scripture affirms), and if an angel can preach a false gospel (as Scripture warns), and if Satan does indeed disguise himself as an angel of light (which Scripture assures) then an angel in a dream or vision can preach a false gospel or be a satanic angel of light. Just because you see a bright angel in your dream or vision, it does not automatically mean it is from God.

Image: Tom Eversley

We read above that in Jeremiah 23 some dreams come not from God but from one’s imagination. However, the case is different a few chapters later in Jeremiah 27, in which God warns even more strongly, “Do not listen to your prophets, nor to your diviners, nor to your dreamers, nor to your enchanters, nor to your sorcerers … who prophesy a lie to you” (Jer 27:9). Dreamers and prophets are here lumped together with diviners, sorcerers, and enchanters. While it is possible that some of these may have feigned some supernatural encounters, each of these had real demonic occult roots in the supernatural. Therefore, such dreamers and prophets are supernaturally prophesying against Yahweh’s counsel from the same occultic sources. The inference, then, is that the source of the prophecies and revelations of the dreamer and prophets are occultic.

Zechariah gives another example of false supernatural dreams and visions: “For the demons have spoken vanity and the diviners have seen a lying vision and have spoken a revelatory word of false dreams” (Zech 10:2).[i] Such demonically-inspired dreams and visions seduce people to go after other gods and not follow Yahweh (Deut 13:1-5) and lead people astray into the occult (Jer 27:9-10). God takes dreams, visions, and prophecies seriously. He warns not to mess around with them, not to speak from our own imagination or expose ourselves to demonic dreams.


Other Yellow and Red Light Danger Alerts

Even though God sometimes uses dreams, visions, and voices as tools of discernment, we need to exercise discernment of the tools of discernment as well. Some of the danger signals that could indicate a Yellow Light or Red Light,[ii] include the following:

  • Pride. God’s answer to Paul was “No,” not because he had sinned, not because he lacked faith, not because there was some curse on his life, but as a preventative measure—to keep Paul from pride in his visions and revelations. Madame Guyon, who experienced many supernatural revelations from God, also warned that Satan uses visions and dreams to convey vanity and self-love. She encourages us to die to self in order to insure safe visions and ecstasies.
  • False guidance. Accepting such guidance without discernment provides a doorway for false supernatural encounters.
  • Passivity. This will be discussed in Chapter 26, “Dangers of Passivity.”
  • Seeking experiences or manifestations rather than God Himself. If you desire an experience so strongly that you are seeking after it rather than God Himself, the dark powers would love to provide you with a counterfeit manifestation that looks like the real thing. Visionaries such as Madame Guyon, Hildegard, and Teresa of Avila all emphasized making Christ central.
  • Lucid dreaming that involves manipulating your dream or vision. Dutch psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden (1860–1932) coined the term “lucid dreaming” to describe the state of being asleep as well as being self-aware and “in control” of your dreams. Lucid dreaming is not of God when it goes beyond interacting within a dream to controlling the dream. This would be more akin to occult means and hypnosis, not an interactive dream from God.
  • Danger of Accepting All Dream Thoughts Uncritically. Dreams are thoughts in our sleep. Can demons place a thought in our mind when we are awake? Of course. Then they can place a thought in our mind when we are asleep. The mind can be affected, influenced, distorted, controlled, deceived, or demonized (Mark 5:15; Luke 8:35); blinded (2 Cor 3:14; 4:4); and corrupted (2 Cor 11:3) by demonic powers—if when awake, certainly when asleep. Paul exhorts: “We are destroying speculations (“casting down imaginations”—KJV) and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:4-5). This involves spiritual warfare against those thoughts, imaginations or speculations (including those in sleep) that rise up against true knowledge of God. We are to bring “every thought captive to obedience of Christ”—not just thoughts in wakening hours, but all thoughts, including those in the sleeping hours.
  • Cautions in Fasting. Fasting led by the Spirit is biblical, but not all fasting is Spirit-led (Isa 58:3-5; Matt 6:16-17). Fasting in the flesh or prolonged excessive fasting and prayer combined with sleep deprivation, and/or asceticism can actually cause false manifestations—false visions, dreams, or voices. May Mabette Anderson cautioned that “a weakened body often gives the adversary easy access to the spirit.” A.B. Simpson expressed concern: “Good people who shut themselves up in cells and closets in weeks of fasting and prayer without proper exercise, nourishment or sleep, or without any change of mental or spiritual attention, are very apt to see visions and dream dreams that do not always come from above.


Discerning True and False in Dream Interpretation

We have seen from biblical examples that dream interpretation can be valid. However, we can also glean principles from Scripture about what is appropriate and what is not appropriate dream interpretation.

Danger of Jungian Dream Interpretation

While we recognize valid insights from psychological theory in harmony with Scripture, including some from Carl Jung, we must be very careful and eclectic in our acceptance of such theories. Great discernment is needed and they must be sifted through Scripture. Jung himself was influenced and fascinated by supernatural occult phenomena, thus opening up a person for psychic or demonic deception. Paul advises us, “But a natural [psyche—psychic, soulish] man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Cor 2:14).

Danger of Over-Spiritualizing

Don’t strain to get the meaning or attempt to find too much meaning in dreams and visions. As with Jesus’ parables, dreams and visions usually have one main theme, not necessarily spiritual significance with every detail. Paul warned not to go beyond what is written. When we over-allegorize or over-mystify, we are going beyond what is written (1 Cor 4:6). The mystical is only given to us by God for direction, awareness, and growth spiritually, not for relishing in the mysterious.

Discerning Dream Interpretation

  • Dream interpretation must be led by the Spirit of God, not the soul of man. Even a lot of so-called “Christian” dream interpretation is subjective and speculative, not divinely-inspired. Joseph makes clear that he interprets not by his own ability or thoughts, but interpretation of dreams belongs to God (Gen 40:8, 16, 22; 41:12-16). The same term is used of Daniel’s interpretation of dreams (Dan 5:7, 8, 26) and was attributed, not to human or psychic ability but to the fact that “in whom is the spirit of the holy gods” (Dan 5:11, 12, 14).
  • Record your dreams and visions. God told Habakkuk, “Record the vision, and inscribe it on tablets, that the one who reads it may run. For the vision is yet for the appointed time …” (Hab 2:2). Keep a notepad or recorder handy, especially by your bed at night.
  • Rather than seeking a dream interpretation book, seek the Lord and His Word for the interpretation. Many books on dream interpretation go far beyond Scripture. A good book on hermeneutics or biblical interpretation provides a sound guide.
  • Pray for an interpretation. Sometimes you will not understand the meaning of the dream or vision you or another person has received. As you pray, the Holy Spirit may give you a word of knowledge or wisdom, a prophetic word, or tongues and interpretation to provide supernatural insight.
  • Take time to reflect on the meaning and receive confirmation. Peter was reflecting on the meaning of the vision he had in a trance, and the Lord gave him the meaning and confirmation through a knock on the door (Acts 10:19). Joseph’s dream confirmed that Mary was indeed pregnant by the Holy Spirit and that he should take Mary as his wife.
  • Understand that different symbols can signify the same thing (e.g., Gen 41:25—cows and stalks of grain).
  • Understand that symbols can sometimes have opposite meanings depending upon the context. For example, a lion can be a divine or godly symbol (Jesus is called the Lion of Judah and the righteous are as bold as a lion) or a demonic symbol (Satan roars like a lion).
  • Inanimate objects may be animated in dreams or visions. For example, in Joseph’s dreams, the sheaves of wheat, the sun, moon and stars bowed down.
  • The interpretation may come later. Sometimes you may not know what it means or whom it is for at the time. Later, God reveals to you the meaning and the person to whom it applies as in the vision.
  • Repeated dreams or visions have significant meaning. Hildegarde of Bingen had visions with clarity from God, but dreams were another story. She had terrifying dreams and was not sure what to make of them. She waited until they persisted, then she went to her spiritual director for counsel. She models for us to wait and see if the dreams repeat themselves, then go to a spiritual director for further insight and direction.
  • Similar themes repeated in dreams or vision have special significance. Sometimes God repeats a dream or vision for emphasis to:
    • give greater assurance or certainty, especially when the dream is hard to believe, as with Joseph’s two dreams with the same theme.
    • certify the determination and soon action of God, as Joseph explained regarding Pharaoh’s dreams.
    • affirm that God has confirmed it, determined it, and will bring it about (Gen 41:25, 32).
    • confirm or establish by two or three witnesses. Sometimes we will receive more than one dream, vision, or mental image, or more than one person will receive similar, but related, insights. These multiple images will confirm their reality and reinforce their importance to the one who is receiving prayer.




Excerpted and adapted from the forthcoming second volume of Is It of God? Applying Principles of Discernment, by Dr. Paul L. King. Used by permission.


Further Reading:

Read “Basic Biblical Principles of Discernment,” an excerpt from Paul L. King, Is It Of God? A Biblical Guidebook For Spiritual Discernment Volume 1 (Newberry, FL: Bridge-Logos, 2019).



[i] This is my expanded literal translation from Hebrew. The NASB reads: “For the idols have spoken vanity and the diviners have seen [chazaha vision, revelation, prophecy] a lie and have told [dabar—used of a revelatory word] false dreams.”

[ii] Editor’s note: For more about Paul King’s helpful categories of Green Light, Yellow Light, and Red Light, see “Basic Biblical Principles of Discernment,” which is an excerpt from his book Is It Of God? A Biblical Guidebook For Spiritual Discernment Volume 1 (Newberry, FL: Bridge-Logos, 2019).

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Category: Living the Faith, Summer 2020

About the Author: Paul L. King holds a D.Min from Oral Roberts University and a D.Th. from the University of South Africa. He served for 16 years on the faculty of Oral Roberts University as Coordinator of Bible Institute programs and Adjunct Professor in the College of Theology and Ministry. Author of 12 books and more than 60 articles, he was ORU 2006 Scholar of the Year. He has also served as Scholar-at-Large for the D.Min. program at Alliance Theological Seminary, Doctor of Ministry Mentor for the Randy Clark Scholars program at United Theological Seminary and Global Awakening Theological Seminary, Leadership and Church Ministry Consultant and Trainer, an ordained pastor with the Christian and Missionary Alliance, Interim Consulting Pastor for the Plano (Texas) Chinese Alliance Church, and Faculty Director of Purdue Ratio Christi/Christian Faculty and Staff Network. His books include God's Healing Arsenal: A Divine Battle Plan for Overcoming Distress and Disease (2011), Anointed Women: The Rich Heritage of Women in Ministry in the Christian & Missionary Alliance (2009), Only Believe: Examining the Origin and Development of Classic and Contemporary Word of Faith Theologies (2008), Genuine Gold: The Cautiously Charismatic Story of the Early Christian and Missionary Alliance (2006), Binding & Loosing: Exercising Authority over the Dark Powers (1999), and A Believer with Authority: The Life and Message of John A. MacMillan. Twitter: @PaulLKing.

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