The Power of a Picture: Why God Speaks in Dream-Visions

By: Tania Harris

Why does God speak in dream-visions? The picture language of dreams and visions can be confusing and obscure.

All sorts of weird and wonderful imagery come up in our dreams. Why would God seemingly shroud his message in pictures and symbols?

Scripture doesn’t explicitly provide us with a rationale for the use of dream-visions, but there must be one, since God uses them so frequently!  Over one third of the material in the Old Testament is in the form of a dream/vision and God speaks almost exclusively in this way in the early church (Acts 2:17, book of Acts). As a master communicator, we would expect that God would select the most effective means to get his messages across.

The Power of a Picture

Our answer becomes clearer when we look to the insights of neuroscience. Here we learn that visual imagery is one of the most effective tools of communication. It’s been said that messages containing imagery are six and a half times more likely to stay with us than those without them! That’s why advertisers and marketers love them. As it’s been said, a picture really is worth a thousand words!

But there’s more to it than just the use of imagery. Dream-visions usually place visuals into the context of a story. This has an even greater impact on our brains. MRI scans tell us that when we watch a story unfold, we process it as participants rather than spectators. Not only does the dream engage the language part of our brains, but it also activates the parts we would normally use if we were actually experiencing it. What’s more, when we see images in our mind, the chemicals associated with emotions are released into our bodies. This has an impact on our physiology and neural pathways. It effectively changes us. The impact is felt throughout our bodies, emotions and minds.

Of course, you probably know this from your own experience. You wake up from a dream feeling like you’ve actually been there. You really believe you can fly! You feel the terror of being chased and the palpable relief when you wake up and realise you’re safe. You feel the jubilation of receiving a longed-for gift and the disappointment later when you realise you only dreamed it. We enter the story and see it; hear it and feel it. Then we are changed by it. The effect is long-lasting.

The Valley of Bones

You sense this same impact in many of our most famous biblical dream-visions. Take the prophet Ezekiel’s experience back in the 6th century BCE. At the time, the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon – far from home and despairing of any return. So, how did God speak to encourage them? He could have simply used words; “I will restore your hopes and return you to your land.” But he didn’t. Instead, he showed Ezekiel a scene (Ezekiel 37:1-10).

“There’s a desolate and lonely valley. Strewn across the valley floor is an array of bones. They’ve laid there so long, they’re dry and brittle, bleached white by the sun.

Suddenly there’s movement. A blast of air stirs on the horizon. It swirls and blows across the valley, sweeping away the dust and exposing the bones. In response, the bones begin to shake and tremble. Joints lock and seal, clicking together in rhythmic flow. From the scatter comes order. From the dust comes alignment. Gradually flesh appears. Muscle and tissue envelope the bones, finding natural curvature and form. Limbs and torsos, toes and fingers take shape along the valley floor.

Still the corpses lay, helpless in the void until a final breath of wind surges through them and they rise with grace and fortitude. Together they stand in formation, united in resolve and strength.”

You can imagine how Ezekiel felt as he watched the vision unfold. You can sense the stirrings of hope that lingered when he woke and the passion that was lit as he witnessed the rise of the army.

Golden Pipes of Oil

Now consider another time not much later when a remnant of God’s people had started to return to their homeland. After such a long season languishing in Babylon, they were faced with the devastation of their city. Among them, the ruins of their most precious building, the Temple.

In the midst of their hopelessness, how did God speak? He could have said: “I am calling and equipping two leaders to rebuild the temple.” But instead, God showed Zechariah a scene with some familiar items (Zechariah 4).

“The lamp from the temple – the menorah – comes into focus. It is hammered out of solid gold and decorated with the blossoms of the almond tree. From its base, seven channels curve upward and flower into cups as though waiting to be filled. At each side of the lamp, stand two olive trees, towering and sturdy like soldiers on guard.

Extending out from the branches of the olive trees is a golden pipe that connects to the lamp. Streams of golden oil begin to flow from the pipe, emptying into the lamp’s channels and filling them one by one. Eventually the oil saturates the wicks, fuelling the dryness and causing them to flicker into a warm and steady blaze.”

Zechariah would have little doubt about the meaning of his vision. The feelings of powerlessness brought by the ruins would have fled as he was encouraged by the appointment of two leaders and the Spirit-anointed flame.

A Crystal Clear River

Finally, consider a later time when God’s people, the church, were cowering under the pressures of Rome’s worldly system and acutely aware of the potential for persecution. How did God communicate hope and perseverance to John and the seven churches of Asia Minor? Again, the Spirit could have used a simple sentence to communicate God’s heart: “I will restore and reward you for your suffering,” but instead God unveiled a scene (Rev. 22:1-3).

“There’s a river of water, clear as crystal. It runs freely without trace of contamination or obstruction. High above, its source is a place where the flow is unceasingly and never runs dry. The river courses through the city, carving a wide path and refreshing everything in its wake. Along its banks, are trees, strong and towering, offering shade and shelter to all who walk beneath. the leaves of the trees are plump with verve and their boughs heavy with fruit. They are ready to be plucked and used for healing.”

At a time where there was little reward in denying the ill-gained pleasures of Rome’s power, John’s visions offered the church a manifest taste of God’s kingdom and its immeasurable treasures of love, joy and peace.

As the master communicator, it should be no surprise that God uses dream-visions to speak. God has always used what neuroscience has more recently discovered. His visual communiqués give us promise and hope. They switch on our brains, capture our imaginations and mobilise us into action. Faith is set alight as God vividly reveals his plan and invites us to enter it!


Article supplied with thanks to God Conversations.

About the Author: Tania Harris is a pastor, speaker, author and the founder of God Conversations.

Feature image: Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash 

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