How exactly did God “speak” to people in scripture?

“God spoke to David.” “God spoke to _____.” “God told _______ such and such.” We find this all over scripture, but most of the time the method is left out. Occasionally a dream is mentioned or an angel or a burning bush, but the bulk of God’s communication is presented as plain dialogue without any mention of the medium.

Does God just speak to people from the sky? Why doesn’t he do that today? Oh, but he still does of course, right? You’ll find quite a few Christians that will answer yes or no to that. Maybe we are filling in the blanks with something of our own invention. Why not? Take a look at this discussion about the many instances of God talking to David.

Note, it’s not clear what particular method of consulting an oracle David used, but the common ones – drawing lots, divining through gems set in the priestly breastplate – were not verbal, and since David is nowhere presented as a seer vouchsafed direct communication from God, there is no reason to assume that an actual dialogue took place as it seems to be reported.

We might recall that even when God wants to convey to David the divine judgment that not he but his son will build God a house in Jerusalem, He does not address David directly but conveys His detailed message through Nathan the prophet in a dream vision. In the case of David’s inquiry of the oracle then, the writer almost certainly counted on his audience’s understanding that God did not in fact respond to David in this manner, that the inquiry itself was made not through speech but through some manipulation of cultic objects, and that what is reported is by no means the form but rather the gist of the inquiry.

-Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, p.69

Geesh, the idea that David might have used “cultic objects” such as casting lots to determine the will of God would freak a lot of churchgoers out that I know. But what alternative is more plausible?

I’m not sure but I think these are great questions. I think you could argue that since the Holy Spirit has come, NOW God does speak to us directly, or at least that is perhaps a more frequent form for us than it was for folks in the OT. This would jive with C.S. Lewis’s notion that God operated in more imperfect “old school magic” methods in the ancient past and has been progressively moving away from that stuff. Hence no more temple rituals, etc. This can be seen in his explanation of Merlin in That Hideous Strength.