Visions occur frequently in the Bible as instruments of supernatural revelation. They are audiovisual means of communication between a heavenly being and an earthly recipient.
The terms used to designate visions in both Testaments have to do with seeing or perceiving. The Old Testament terms for vision (the Hebrew verbs raa and haza and their several noun derivatives) mean simply to look at or to see. In the New Testament, horao [εἶδον , ὁράω] is one of the Greek verbs for see, observe, or perceive, but its related noun (horama [ὅραμα]) is the common term for "vision."
Revelatory visions portray scenery or dramatic circumstances to the human recipient while the human is awake. The distinction between a vision and a dream has to do with whether the human is awake or asleep; the result is the same. The prophetic use of dreams and visions is summarized in the Lord's dramatic defense of Moses in the face of Aaron and Miriam's revolt: "When a prophet of the Lord is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams" (Num 12:6).
Visions are most frequently found in the prophetic portions of the Old Testament. A prophetic work could be titled as a vision (Isa 1:1; Nahum 1:1), and certain propheciesEzekiel, Daniel, Zechariah—developed a greater capacity for visionary revelation. The extensive use of the term in nearly all the Old Testament prophets implies that visions were a normal medium for receiving the divine word. As such, the "vision" of the Old Testament prophets represents not just a visionary drama perceived by the eyes (as in Isa. 6, for example), but also a distinctive worldview or perception of reality that was proclaimed through the prophets. So the prophetic vision may be both a scenic, visual communication and a more general prophetic worldview. Sometimes a prophetic sermon is introduced as a burden (or "oracle, " massa, ). But even this is something that the prophet "sees, " usually using the term haza [חֲזָה] (Hab 1:1; NIV's "the oracle that Habakkuk the prophet received" ).
Visions are also central to the biblical literature known as apocalyptic. There are many definitions of apocalyptic and exactly what we mean by the term can only be explained in sweeping generalities. Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, and Revelation are the biblical books that exhibit the traits of apocalyptic material most clearly, though there are other passages in the Bible and other books from the ancient world that have similar features. In these books, God has revealed details of future events to a seer (human recipient), making heavy use of dreams and visions. The seer is permitted to peer into the heavens to witness scenes that determine future events, and the vision is usually explained by an angelic interpreter.
Visions play an important structural role in the Book of Ezekiel. The book is introduced as the "visions of God" (1:1). The opening chapter depicts four living creatures in human form, each accompanied by wheels within wheels. The book is structured around visions of the "glory of God" (1:28; 8:2-4; 10:18-22; 43:1-5), which portray the sacred and holy presence of God, first departing from the Holy City and then returning. The departure of the glory of God was due to the sinfulness of Israel (10:18-22), but his return was in keeping with his promises (43:1-5).
The prophecies of Zechariah contain a series of eight "night visions" (1:7-6:15). Though the interpretation of these chapters is difficult, it is clear that the visions reveal God's intention to deliver the beleaguered restoration community. The first and last visions stress the sovereignty of God, hence surrounding the others in a tenor of certainty. These visions contain an important prediction of the coming of God's servant, "the Branch" (3:8), a term that in biblical thought became synonymous with "Messiah."
As an apocalyptic book, Daniel is also a book of visions. The first six chapters are historical narratives in which the God-given ability to interpret dreams and visions plays an important role (Dan 1:17). It was Daniel's vision of the night that saved Daniel and the wisemen of Babylon from the irrational Nebuchadnezzar, who had been frightened by his own bizarre dream (Dan 2:1, 19). Daniel was the only "wiseman" in Babylon who could interpret Nebuchadnezzar's second dream (chap. 4) and Belshazzar's encoded message on the wall (chap. 5). The second half of Daniel contains four visions of great theological importance. The visions of chapters 7 and 8 are related to each other. Chapter 7 is both a dream and a vision (vv. 1-2), in which the coming triumphant kingdom of God displaces the four great kingdoms of earth. The vision of chapter 8 presents more details of the experiences of God's people under the rule of the Medo-Persians and Greeks, and is interpreted by Gabriel. The third vision (Dan 9:20-27) comes to Daniel as a result of his prayer. The final vision (chaps. 10-12) is about the future attempt to destroy Judaism in 169 b.c.
Besides the Book of Revelation, visions in the New Testament are concentrated in the writings of Luke. Gabriel appeared to announce the births of John (Luke 1:8-20) and Jesus (Luke 1:26-37). Ananias and Paul received visions to prepare Paul for baptism (Acts 9:10-19). Likewise, Peter and Cornelius received visions to prepare them for Peter's ministry among Gentiles (10:3-35). Angelic visions freed Peter from prison (12:9), called Paul to a European ministry (16:9), and encouraged Paul in his ministry at Corinth (18:9). So the visions of Luke-Acts announce God's plans for the immediate future or empower the church for the present.
The Book of Revelation is a record of prophetic visions given to John, who was exiled on the island of Patmos. The book is in the form of a letter (received address, 1:4-7, and concluding blessing, 22:21), the main body of which consists of a single, yet highly sectioned, visionary experience (1:9-22:5). The vision was revealed by a heavenly messenger, whose purpose was to point out "the things that must soon take place" (1:1; 22:6). The visions of the book reveal the struggle between God and Satan and their servants in heaven and on earth, in addition to visions of God's care for his people. John's role, as the human recipient, was to hear and see "these things" and to respond with appropriate reverence (22:8).
Throughout the Bible, visions of God and his sovereign lordship are needed in order to propagate his truth among humankind. Where prophetic vision is lacking (NIV's "revelation, " Prov 29:18), proclamation of God's will among his people ceases, and civilization itself is jeopardized.
William T. Arnold
See also Revelation, Idea of
Bibliography. R. D. Culver, TWOT, 1:274-75.