Articles Understanding Symbolic Language

A common mistake people make when interpreting their dreams is to understand it as literal.  Most of our dreams are symbolic in nature and symbols are the universal language to dreams. The western world by enlarge is accustomed to the language of logic and reason rather than metaphor and imagery.  Many cultures and nations, both today and down through history, use symbols to illustrate what the spoken word often fails to convey.

Symbols and metaphors are frequently interconnected, that said, symbols are more widely used than metaphors. A symbol, unlike a metaphor, can often mean more than one thing.

For instance, in my seminars I often ask what the symbol of a lion means in the Bible. The most common answer is that a lion symbolises Jesus. The Scripture that people are usually thinking of is recorded in Revelations 5:5. ‘Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah.’

However, the symbol of a lion contains other meanings. The Bible uses a lion to describe Satan in 1 Peter 5:8. ‘Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.’

A lion is used as the symbol to describe believers in Proverbs 28:1. ‘The righteous are as bold as a lion.’

If you happened to belong to the Brisbane Football Club as a player or support staff it may symbolise your work life given that the team is called the Brisbane Lions.

It is said a picture paints a thousand words. When Jesus chose to define himself he did not use the language of logic and reason, he used the illustrative and universal language of pictures and imagery.

I am the living water – John 4:14
I am the bread of life – John 6:35
I am the door – John 10:9
I am the good shepherd – John 10:11

It’s helpful to study the 46 parables of Jesus, which are full of symbolism and metaphor. You will notice the various symbols and their application to everyday life.

It is important to understand no one symbol means the same for everyone; it’s not a one-size fits all approach.  An example of this is the ancient symbol of a swastika. To Hindus and Buddhists and other Asian countries it is a sacred symbol. For the rest of the world, it is a symbol that signifies the death and destruction associated with the Nazi Party.

As helpful as dream dictionaries are they can be equally useless. One of the great myths about dream interpretation is that there’s a set of rules people need to follow. Even though I teach on the 5 Keys to Interpreting Dreams the underlying qualifier is that the individual is unique and it is the individual’s understanding, social and cultural context that contribute to the interpretation of their dream.  

One of the main focuses in the courses and seminars I run is to create awareness of symbolic language—to help people understand that the Holy Spirit may be speaking to them in dreams and visions though they might be unaware of it.

You can grow in this area by developing your personal vocabulary of symbols. This is done by considering symbols you may have dreamed of, and asking yourself what they mean to you in your own personal social and cultural context, or what they mean to you in light of your Biblical understanding. The broader your understanding of symbols, the more ability you will have to accurately interpret God given dreams. The Holy Spirit is the ultimate teacher and instructor (John 16:13), and it is assumed that you will always include Him in your quest and search for insight.  

You may wish to refer to the Common Dreams area on this website. My book In Your Dreams will also be a valuable resource.