It is sometimes assumed by modern readers that when believers in the Bible heard a message or saw a vision while praying, it was something people perceived with their physical eyes and heard with their physical ears. If anyone else had been present with these believers when they heard God speak or received their vision, we sometimes assume that they too would have heard what the recipient heard and seen what the recipient saw. Since few if any of us today hear God audibly or in any sense see God physically, we can easily conclude that the dynamic way in which God intersected with the lives of believers in Scripture is no longer available to us today.
While the Lord did sometimes interact with his people in a physically observable way—for instance, when the Lord led the Israelites in the wilderness—this was not the ordinary way God related to his people.
God’s ordinary mode of communication, both in biblical times and today, is to speak and appear to those who have the spiritual capacity to hear and see spiritual realities (Ez 12:2, Mat 11:15; 13:9-19; Acts 7:51). It is a spiritual hearing and seeing and as such it is a private experience, given only to the one intended by God to receive it. In other words, it is an experience that took place in what today we would call the imagination.
For example, young Samuel heard the voice of the Lord, but Eli could not hear it (1 Sam 3:2-10). When Daniel received his vision of a man by the Tigris River, he said that he “alone saw the vision; the people who were with me did not see the vision” (Dan 10:7). What is more Daniel referred to the other visions he received as revelations that “passed through my mind,” implying that they were subjective experiences (Dan 7:1, 15). He referred to the visions of Nebuchadnezzar in the same fashion (Dan 2:28, 30; 4:5).
The Hebrew words commonly used for “vision” indicate their subjectivity. The words hazon and hizzayon indicate a unique kind of seeing, something that is distinct from ordinary physical seeing. Also, the word for “prophet,” one noted for his receptivity to visions, is hozehl, or “seer”—one who sees what others cannot see. Prophets see what they see because they are “in the Spirit,” as John said (Rev 1:10). The assortment of symbolic images and words recorded in the book of Revelation were not things anyone other than John could see. They took place in his Spirit-inspired imagination.
The private and imaginative nature of this spiritual hearing from God is also indicated by the fact that there seems to be no clear distinction between a vision and a dream. The two are virtually equated, as when Isaiah spoke of certain nations to be destroyed. He said they would be “like a dream, a vision of the night” (Is 29:7). The only real distinction that can be made is that vision generally occurs while one is awake, while dreams come when one is asleep.
Both are internal spiritual experiences. They both consist of images in the mind. They both take place in the imagination.
To many modern Western people, of course, saying the dreams or visions of the Bible took place in the imagination sounds like I’m denying their authenticity. Therein lies the problem: we often identify the imagination with make-believe, but ancient people in general, and people in biblical times in particular, did not. Rather, they generally understood that the imagination was a means through which God could communicate with his people. God spoke to his people by “what passes through the mind.”
The total foundational content of what God wants his people to know, of course, is revealed once and for all in his inspired Word, the Bible. When God speaks to his people today, he does so not to add to biblical revelation but to apply it.
While sleeping or awake, God communicated then and communicates now to those who are receptive to the things he wants people to hear and see.
He inspires the imagination. God wants to be known by his people in concrete, vivid, personal, and transforming ways. And this has never ceased. God is still sending signals, as it were, but we have too often discredited those signals by writing them off as make-believe. Do you have eyes to see and ears to hear?
—Adapted from Seeing Is Believing, pages 84-86