Interpretation of Dreams

Understanding dreams and visions is an integral part of the book of Daniel. Is this how God speaks to us today?

Even though Daniel was selected from among the Jewish captives taken to Babylon for his intelligence and ability to quickly learn “the language and literature of the Chaldeans” (Daniel 1:4), he was probably surprised when he was called upon to interpret the dreams of King Nebuchadnezzar. Furthermore, as time went on, Daniel received some very significant visions of the future.

What can we learn from these accounts? Do our dreams also need to be interpreted?

Before considering the dreams and visions found in the book of Daniel, let’s briefly note what had transpired with Daniel and his three friends, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, after they were forcibly taken to Babylon. The eunuch who oversaw the Jewish captives gave these four men the Chaldean names of Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego (Daniel 1:6-7).

After three years of training, these young men were interviewed by the king, who “found them ten times better than all the magicians and astrologers [the wise men who were the king’s advisers] in all his realm” (verse 20). They then began to serve the king along with the other wise men and counselors (verse 19).

Although Daniel and his friends had greatly impressed the king, their abilities were not entirely innate. As verse 17 explains: “As for these four young men, God gave them knowledge and skill in all literature and wisdom; and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams.”

In this passage we find an important key regarding the interpretation of dreams: If God chooses to communicate with someone through a dream or vision, He will make sure the message is understood. Either the person will understand or God will provide someone who will be able to interpret the message.

Let’s now consider the references to dreams and visions in the book of Daniel.

Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a great image

Soon after beginning to serve the king, Daniel and his friends faced a frightful situation. “Now in the second year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign [he had apparently been coruler with his father when he conquered Judah], Nebuchadnezzar had dreams; and his spirit was so troubled that his sleep left him” (Daniel 2:1).

The dream was apparently so intense that the king asked his wise men to interpret it for him (verses 2-4). Yet in connection with his request, the king put the wise men in a dire predicament. He wouldn’t tell them his dream. Instead, he insisted that they tell him both the dream and its meaning. His reasoning was that if they could tell him his dream, he could have confidence in their interpretation (verse 9). If the wise men couldn’t perform this task, the king decreed that they would be killed (verse 5).

Placed in this awkward position, the king’s wise men argued, “There is not a man on earth who can tell the king’s matter; therefore no king, lord, or ruler has ever asked such things of any magician, astrologer, or Chaldean. It is a difficult thing that the king requests, and there is no other who can tell it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh” (verses 10-11).

Although his wise men were correct—that such a feat is not possible for humans without the assistance of God—the king did not want to hear such an explanation. He became “angry and very furious, and gave the command to destroy all the wise men of Babylon” (verse 12).

Since Daniel and his three friends were included among the king’s wise men, they were also to be executed (verse 13).

When Daniel learned of the king’s command, he asked the king to give him time so he might be able to give the king the interpretation of his dream. Granted a delay, Daniel and his friends asked God to reveal the dream and its interpretation so they and the other wise men would not perish. God heard their prayers and revealed the “secret” to Daniel (verse 19).

Having now come to know the king’s dream and its explanation, Daniel thanked God for giving him this understanding (verses 20-23). He also told the king that God was the One who had revealed this information to him (verses 26-30).

The important lesson we learn about dreams from this account is that God is the only One who can provide the interpretation of dreams and visions. Humans cannot acquire this ability on their own.

Another dream by Nebuchadnezzar

Sometime later, King Nebuchadnezzar had another troubling dream: “I saw a dream which made me afraid, and the thoughts on my bed and the visions of my head troubled me” (Daniel 4:5). So, once again, the king asked his wise men to interpret the dream for him. This time the king told his counselors the dream, yet they could not provide its interpretation (verse 7).

At last Daniel came before the king. Apparently having remembered his earlier experience, the king remarked three times that Daniel has in him “the Spirit of the Holy God” (verses 8, 9, 18). Speaking to Daniel, he said, “No secret troubles you” (verse 9). Although King Nebuchadnezzar did not heed the advice Daniel gave him (verses 27-33), nor did he necessarily stop worshipping his false gods, he did seem to understand that God was the One who made it possible for Daniel to interpret his dreams.

Belshazzar sees a hand writing on the wall

Belshazzar was a successor to Nebuchadnezzar. One day he made a great feast for 1,000 of the leading people in his kingdom. While the king and his guests were drinking out of the gold and silver vessels that had been confiscated from the temple in Jerusalem and while they were praising their pagan gods, “the fingers of a man’s hand appeared and wrote … on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace” (Daniel 5:5).

The text does not state that this strange occurrence was a vision, but it was a divine message that needed to be interpreted. Upon seeing this supernatural appearance of a hand writing on the wall, the king’s festive mood quickly changed “and his thoughts troubled him, so that the joints of his hips were loosened and his knees knocked against each other” (verse 6). Belshazzar then frantically called for his wise men to read the writing and interpret it, but they could not do so (verses 7-8).

Hearing of this mysterious occurrence, the queen came to the banquet hall to tell the king that a man named Daniel “in whom is the Spirit of the Holy God” (verse 11) had previously interpreted the dreams of King Nebuchadnezzar. When summoned, Daniel interpreted the writing, which indicated that Belshazzar’s kingdom would soon fall to the Medes and Persians.

Dreams, visions and messages in the book of Daniel

In addition to interpreting the two dreams of King Nebuchadnezzar and the writing on the wall for King Belshazzar, Daniel also received several messages from God. The following chart provides a list of these divinely inspired messages from God recorded in the book of Daniel.



Daniel 2

Nebuchadnezzar has a dream about Babylon and future kingdoms.

Daniel 2:19

Through a night vision from God, Daniel comes to understand the king’s dream and its interpretation.

Daniel 4:1-27

Nebuchadnezzar has another dream, which announces judgment on him for his pride.

Daniel 5

Belshazzar sees a hand writing on the palace wall proclaiming the end of his kingdom.

Daniel 7

Daniel has a vision of four beasts and a little horn.

Daniel 8

Daniel is given a vision of a ram (representing the Medo-Persian Empire) and a male goat (representing Greece).

Daniel 9:22-27

Daniel receives a vision—the 70 weeks prophecy—predicting the coming of the Messiah and His ministry.

Daniel 10-11

Daniel is granted a vision of Persia, Greece, the king of the North and the king of the South.

 A consistent element in all of these dreams, visions and messages is that God gave Daniel, often through the archangel Gabriel, the understanding of these messages (see Daniel 2:19; 7:15-16; 8:15-16; 10:1). More complete explanations of these messages from God are or will be covered in other articles in this section.

Researchers have found that dreams are quite common for humans, especially during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep—the time when our brains are most active. In an article titled “How Dreams Work,” Lee Ann Obringer provides the following facts about dreams:

  • Most dreams last between five and 20 minutes.
  • Everyone dreams several times a night.
  • And on average, we spend about six years of our lives dreaming (

Even though we spend a substantial amount of time dreaming, few of us are able to recall with much detail what our dreams were about. If our dreams are scary, we refer to them as nightmares, and it is common for us to be awakened in fear by these types of dreams. Apparently, we remember these dreams better than others because they are more recent in our memories. The longer we go without recalling our thoughts while dreaming, the harder it seems for us to remember them.

Application for today

Since we spend so much time dreaming, do we need to try to better remember our dreams in case God is sending us a message?

In the New Testament we find that God communicated with Joseph, the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus, by means of a dream on several occasions (Matthew 1:20; 2:12, 13, 19, 22). We also note that God revealed an important truth about gentiles being allowed in the Church through a vision to Peter (Acts 10) and that Paul occasionally received visions from God (Acts 16:9-10; 18:9; 26:19). And the last book of the Bible—the book of Revelation—was a vision given to John (Revelation 9:17).

Yet we also see that when God chose to reveal something in the New Testament, such as He did through the prophet Agabus, He began doing so through His Holy Spirit, which was now being given to those who repented of their sins and who were baptized (compare Acts 2:38; 11:28; 21:10). When the elders met in a conference at Jerusalem to consider whether male circumcision was required of gentile converts, the Holy Spirit guided their decision (Acts 15:28).

God did indeed speak to mankind occasionally through dreams and visions that He gave to His prophets (Numbers 12:6), and He will do so again when Christ returns to earth and the Holy Spirit is made available to “all flesh” (Acts 2:17-18). However, today Christians are to be “led by the Spirit” (Romans 8:14).

The book of Hebrews further notes, “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2). Unlike the people who lived during the Old Testament times, we can have personal copies of the Bible—God’s words of instruction given through His prophets and His Son in both the Old and New Testaments—to guide us.

While recalling a dream can be the basis of an interesting conversation, Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes warns us that “a dream comes through much activity” and that “in the multitude of dreams and many words there is also vanity. But fear God” (Ecclesiastes 5:3, 7).

God can communicate with us through a dream or a vision if He so chooses; but in general, He does not currently operate in this manner. Solomon’s admonition is to focus on fearing God—that is, obeying God and living as He commands—instead of looking for special messages from God in our dreams. That remains good advice for us today.

For further study on how God guides and leads Christians today, see the section about the “Holy Spirit.”

About the Author

David Treybig

David Treybig

David Treybig is a husband, father and grandfather. He and his wife, Teddi, have two grown children and seven grandchildren. He currently pastors the Austin, Texas, congregation of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association. He has served in the pastoral ministry for over 40 years, pastoring congregations across six states.

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