Modern people do not talk about oracles very much. To many, oracle is a "religious" word, one used by those interested in religion. In that sense, it shares a place with words like redemption, justification, reconciliation and sanctification. These latter words (counting their derivatives), however, appear in aggregate hundreds of times in God's Word, while "oracle" occurs only 21 times in the King James Version. Yet it carries an important meaning. What is an oracle?
Of Definitions and Dragons
Webster's Second International Dictionary defines an oracle as,
the medium by which a god reveals hidden knowledge or makes known the divine purpose. . . .
Of more importance to us is a second definition:
The revelation or utterance supposed to issue from a divinity through a medium, usually a priest or priestess thought to be inspired.
One may recognize in oracle such words as "oration," "orator," "oratory" and "orison." They all find their root in the Latin verb orare: to pray, utter or speak.
So an oracle is at once a medium and a message.
The most famous oracle in classical antiquity illustrates this medium-message connection. In central Greece, at the foot of Mount Parnassus, lies the town of Putho, wherein lived the Delphian oracle, a priestess who chanted prophetic messages—oracles. Those seeking to know their future flocked to her. In Greek mythology, a serpent, Puthon, inspired and guarded the priestess, that is, the oracle. The god Apollo killed the dragon and, appropriating his name, called himself Pythius. He named the priestess/oracle the Pythia.
So, the medium (person) who voiced the revelation of Puthon (and later of Apollo) was the Delphian oracle, or the Pythia. But the gods' revelations themselves were also oracles.
Surprisingly, Puthon is even mentioned once in the Bible. Paul, Luke and Timothy had not been too long in Philippi when they ran into a "certain damsel possessed with a spirit of divination" (Acts 16:16). The word "divination" is puthon in Greek, the source of our English word python. Demons are the source of pagan worship (I Corinthians 10:20). The young lady, probably not herself the Pythia, was possessed nevertheless by the same demon who backed up the pagan practices at Delphi. As an aside, in all likelihood, that demon's name is Apollo, perhaps an associate of the Apollyon of Revelation 9:11.
The Singular Oracle
"Oracle" appears only 17 times in the Old Testament (KJV). On one occasion, the translators render the Hebrew word dabar as "oracle." Dabar means "word." This rendering is found in II Samuel 16:23: "And the counsel of Ahithophel . . . was as if one had inquired at the oracle [word] of God."
At first glance, it appears that "oracle" here means the message—God's revelation concerning this or that. While that is not a wrong understanding, it is a bit too simplistic: We do not inquire at a message; we inquire of, in or from a message. The various literal translations of God's Word confirm that "at" is in fact the correct preposition. We inquire at a place. Thus, the oracle is a place where a message is spoken.
The other 16 renderings of "oracle" in the Old Testament strikingly confirm this conclusion. In each of these cases, the translators rendered the Hebrew word debir as "oracle." This is an obscure word that means "back, part behind, hindmost chamber" according to The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Make no mistake about it: Debir is a very special word indeed.
It is not the regular Hebrew word for "behind," which is ahghar, as in Genesis 19:17. The angel enjoins Lot and his family from turning back to see Sodom and Gomorrah fall: "Escape for your life! Do not look behind you. . . ." Nor is it the regular Hebrew word for "back," "backward" or "hinder," which is ahghor, as in Isaiah 1:4. God calls the folk of "Judah and Jerusalem" (verse 1) a "sinful nation [which has] . . . turned away backward."
Debir first appears in I Kings 6:5, where God describes Solomon's Temple:
Against the wall of the temple [Solomon] built chambers all around, against the walls of the temple, all around both the sanctuary and of the inner sanctuary [(debir) "oracle" KJV].
Verse 16 makes clear what this oracle in fact is:
He built twenty cubits of the rear of the house with boards of cedar from the floor to the rafters; he built it within for the sanctuary [oracle—debir], the Holy of Holies. (The Amplified Bible)
In this verse, "Holy of Holies" parallels debir, or "oracle," explaining what the oracle is. The oracle of which God speaks here is none other than the Most Holy Place, the inner room wherein the Ark of the Covenant resided. Other translators render debir as "Holy Place," "sanctuary," "inner house," "hinder room," "back room," "recess," "inner sanctuary."
Debir is special. The translators never render it as the regular word for "behind" or "back."
We develop a composite picture of "oracle"—a clear picture of what it means—by merging the meaning of dabar ("word") in II Samuel 16:23 with the meaning of debir ("back") in the books of Kings and Chronicles. The oracle of God is the room wherein He abode, the Holy of Holies, from which He at times spoke. In the Old Testament, the oracle is God's speaking place.
In Psalm 28:2 debir makes its only appearance outside the books of Kings and Chronicles and forms a fine bridge to the New Testament understanding of the word "oracle." Like the other Old Testament instances we mentioned, debir is in the singular:
To You I will cry, O Lord my Rock: Do not be silent to me, lest, if You are silent to me, I become like those who go down to the pit. Hear the voice of my supplications when I cry to You, when I lift up my hands toward Your holy sanctuary [oracle, KJV].
Alone and troubled, David knows that he can look in prayer toward God's speaking place, His holy abode, from which He will surely break silence, speaking and acting—repaying the wicked "according to their deeds" (verse 4). David worshiped the Logos, He who all powerfully speaks and acts.
The Plural Oracle
With the witness of David, it is not at all surprising that the Greek word translated as "oracle" in the King James Version of the New Testament derives from logos, "word." That Greek word is logion, a diminutive of logos. Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words defines logion as "a divine response or utterance, an oracle." Let's take a minute to examine the only four occurrences of logion in the New Testament:
Acts 7:38: "This is he who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the Angel who spoke to him in Mount Sinai, and with our fathers, the one who received the living oracles to give to us."
The speaker, Stephen, is most specifically alluding to Exodus 19:3, where
Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, "Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel."
See also Psalm 147:19, where the psalmist avers that God "declares His word to Jacob, His statutes and His judgments to Israel."
The living oracles in Acts refers specifically to the Ten Commandments, more broadly to the Torah, which were to be given "to us," to the church of God. God's Old Testament utterances are for us today.
Romans 3:1-2: "What advantage then has the Jew or what is the profit of circumcision? Much in every way! Chiefly because to them were committed the oracles of God."
Paul extends the meaning of oracles here in two ways—in content and audience:
The content of the message includes the entire Law. Since the general context is circumcision (see chapter 2), we can conclude that the oracles given to the fathers included the covenants and hence the promises that attended them. The context does not limit the oracles to the revelation of God in the Pentateuch, but can include the Writings and Prophets as well.
The audience of the message includes those outside national Israel. Just before he writes of the oracles being committed to the Jews, Paul informs us that "he is not a Jew, who is one outwardly; . . . but he is a Jew, who is one inwardly" (Romans 2:28-29). Paul is speaking of the "Israel of God" (Galatians 6:16). In this regard, Peter makes an instructive statement in his conversation with the gentile Cornelius:
The word [logos] which God sent to the children of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—He is Lord of all—that word you know, which was proclaimed throughout all Judea, and began from Galilee after the baptism which John [the Baptist] preached. (Acts 10:36-37)
Peter came to recognize that the oracles of God are for all men, God showing "no partiality" (verse 34).
Hebrews 5:12: "For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food."
In context, God tells us one of the purposes of His revelation to mankind. The writer of Hebrews scolds his audience for being "dull of hearing" (verse 11). Using an analogy of milk, the nourishment of children, against "strong meat" (KJV), the fare of those "who are of full age," he laments that he needs to "go back to the basics," the first principles of God's revelation. Not using that revelation to exercise their senses "to discern both good and evil" (verse 14), they had failed to grow up.
The purpose of God's revelation is to provide the nourishment, the food, by which we come "to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:13). It is God's revelation, His oracles, which allow us to "go on to perfection" (Hebrews 6:1).
I Peter 4:11: "If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God."
In verse 7, Peter tells us to be sober and to watch, for "the end of all things is at hand." In this section on Christian living, the apostle says that the Christian "no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God" (verse 2). In verse 10, he says we must use whatever gift God has given us (see also Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:7) "as good stewards of the manifold grace of God." As an example, he mentions that those speaking (and writing?) must do so according to God's oracles—His revelation to man.
Webster and God's Word
Did Webster cover all the bases when he developed his definition of the word "oracle"? Not fully. Remember, he saw an oracle as "a person who spoke for a deity" and "the utterance spoken by that person."
But the Old Testament attaches a third meaning to oracle: the place from which the utterance emanates. We saw that the Old Testament uses "oracle" some 16 times to refer to the Holy of Holies. The pagans did not use "oracle" in this way. For example, when someone went to the oracle of Delphi, he went to the priestess or prophetess there—the Pythia—to hear the utterances of Apollo. The ancients apparently did not use "oracle" to refer to a place, per se.
Aside from this, Webster's definition seems to fit the biblical use of "oracle." God's Word makes it clear that His oracles are His utterances, His revelation to mankind. Also, God uses people to communicate His message. The Logos Himself, as well as Moses, all the prophets and the apostles, served as oracles of God.
Jesus Christ spoke the words of the Father. "God . . . has in these last days spoken to us by His Son" (Hebrews 1:1-2). In the book of John especially, Christ Himself attests to this more than once:
I have many things to say and to judge concerning you: but He who sent Me is true; and I speak to the world those things which I heard from Him. (John 8:26)
For I have not spoken on My own authority; but the Father who sent Me gave Me a command, what I should say and what I should speak. (John 12:49)
The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works. (John 14:10)
[T]he word which you hear is not Mine but the Father's who sent Me. (John 14:24)
For I have given to [the disciples] the words which You have given Me, and they have received them. . . . (John 17:8)
Moses gave the people the utterances of God time and again. As they were about to enter the land, he reminds the people that he "taught you statutes and judgments, just as the Lord my God commanded me. . . "(Deuteronomy 4:5). See also Exodus 19:3.
The prophets spoke God's words. As Hebrews 1:1 says, "God, who at various times and in different ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets. . . ." God's Word backs this statement up with some specific examples:
David, as a preface to his "last words," tells us that,
The Spirit of the Lord spoke by me, and His word was on my tongue. The God of Israel said, the Rock of Israel spoke to me. (II Samuel 23:2)
See also Acts 1:16, where Peter mentions the words "which the Holy Spirit spoke before by the mouth of David concerning Judas. . . ."
Ezekiel "expressly" received the word of God, "by the River Chebar; and the hand of the Lord was upon him there" (Ezekiel 1:3).
Jeremiah had a similar experience later. "Then the Lord put forth His hand and touched my mouth, and the Lord said to me: ‘Behold, I have put My words in your mouth'" (Jeremiah 1:9). See also Jeremiah 36:2, where God commands Jeremiah to write down "all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel, against Judah, and against all the nations."
Zechariah, the high priest in the days of Joash, spoke for God (II Chronicles 24:20).
Balaam, an unrighteous prophet, also spoke God's words. See Numbers 23:5, where "the Lord put a word in Balaam's mouth, and said, ‘Return to Balak, and thus you shall speak.'"
The apostles spoke God's words. Peter, speaking to Cornelius, tells us that the apostles
are witnesses of all things which [Christ] did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem. . . . Him God raised up on the third day, and showed Him openly, not to all the people, but to witnesses chosen before by God, even to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead." (Acts 10:39-41)
Remember John 17:8, cited above. There Christ said that the apostles (then disciples) "received" the words given to them through Christ by the Father. Notice two specific comments of two principal apostles:
John, speaking for all the apostles, makes it plain that he has declared what he saw and heard from God.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life . . . that which we have seen and heard we declare to you. . ." (I John 1:1, 3).
Peter assures the end-time church that the apostles...
did not follow cunningly devised fables [Greek, myths] when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty. (II Peter 1:16)
The message of the apostles came from God. They did not speak myths. Those people lacking the ears to hear His revelation will turn quickly enough to the Pythia, who speaks under inspiration of the serpent Python and the demon Apollo.
Old and New Speak—and God's Truth
Peter states the broad principle that God uses people to communicate His message in II Peter 1:21:
For prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.
By Peter's time, there were two testimonies, as it were, two witnesses—the Old and the New Testaments. That is probably why "oracle" always appears in the plural in the New Testament.
However, the two testimonies form only one message, which the apostle Paul talks about in his first epistle to the Corinthian church:
And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. (I Corinthians 2:1)
In verse 7, he contrasts the words of man with those of God:
But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory.
God's revelation makes its hearers—and doers—wise. The oracles of God are not the Old Speak of the world, the fancy rhetoric—empty sophistries—of man's civilization, inspired by Satan. Nor are the oracles of God the New Speak of foxes, wily leaders who think nothing of manipulating truth for their own purposes. Instead, the oracles of God are His revelation to mankind, and are, taken together,
given by inspiration of God, and [are] profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. (II Timothy 3:16-17)