The orientals, and in particular the Jews, greatly regarded dreams, and applied for their interpretation to those who undertook to explain them. We see the antiquity of this custom in the history of Pharaoh's butler and baker, Ge 40; and Pharaoh himself and Nebuchadnezzar are also instances. God expressly forbade his people to observe dreams, and to consult explainers of them. He condemned to death all who pretended to have prophetic dreams, even though what they foretold came to pass, if they had any tendency to promote idolatry, De 13:1-3. But they were not forbidden, when they thought they had a significant dream, to address the prophets of the Lord, or the high priest in his ephod, to have it explained. The Lord frequently made known his will in dreams, and enabled persons to explain them, Ge 20:3-7; 28:12-15; 1Sa 28:6; Da 2; Joe 2:28; Mt 1:20; Ac 27:22. Supernatural dreams are distinguished from visions, in that the former occurred during sleep, and the latter when the person was awake. God spoke to Abimelech in a dream, but to Abraham by vision. In both cases he left on the mind an assurance of the certainty of whatever he revealed. Both are now superseded by the Bible, our sure and sufficient guide through earth to heaven.
God has frequently made use of dreams in communicating his will to men. The most remarkable instances of this are recorded in the history of Jacob (Ge 28:12; 31:10), Laban (Ge 31:24), Joseph (Ge 37:9-11), Gideon (Jg 7), and Solomon (1Ki 3:5). Other significant dreams are also recorded, such as those of Abimelech (Ge 20:3-7), Pharaoh's chief butler and baker (Ge 40:5), Pharaoh (Ge 41:1-8), the Midianites (Jg 7:13), Nebuchadnezzar (Da 2:1; 4:10,18), the wise men from the east (Mt 2:12), and Pilate's wife (Mt 27:19).
To Joseph "the Lord appeared in a dream," and gave him instructions regarding the infant Jesus (Mt 1:20; 2:12-13,19). In a vision of the night a "man of Macedonia" stood before Paul and said, "Come over into Macedonia and help us" (Ac 16:9; see also Ac 18:9; 27:23).
The revelation of God's will in dreams is characteristic of the early and less perfect patriarchal times (Ge 28:12; 31:24; 37:5-10); to Solomon, 1Ki 3:5, in commencing his reign; the beginnings of the New Testament dispensation (Mt 1:20; 2:13,19,22); and the communications from God to the rulers of the pagan world powers, Philistia, Egypt, Babylon (Ge 20:3; 40:5; 41:1); Elihu, Job 33:15; Daniel 2; Da 4:5, etc. The dream form of revelation is that most appropriate to those outside the kingdom of God. So the Midianite (Jg 7:13), Pilate's wife (Mt 27:19). But it is the Israelites Joseph and Daniel who interpret; for pagandom is passive, Israel active, in divine things to the glory of the God of Israel. Dreams were a frequent means of imposture and idolatry De 13:1-3; Zec 10:2).
The dream form of revelation is placed below that of prophecy and even divination (Nu 12:6; Joe 2:28; 1Sa 28:6). "Trances" and "visions" are mentioned in the Christian church, but not dreams. While God has acted and can act on the mind in a dream (wherein the reason and judgment are dormant, but the sensations and imaginations active and uncontrolled by the judgment), His higher mode of revelation is that wherein the understanding is active and conscious; consequently, the former mode appears more in imperfect stages of the development of God's scheme than in the advanced stages. "In the multitude of dreams are divers vanities" (Ec 5:7), i.e., God's service becomes by "dreams" (foolish fancies as to what God requires of worshippers); and random "words," positive vanity of manifold kinds; compare Mt 6:7, "they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking."