What are oracles?

By Elizabeth Prata

An oracle is on the lips of a king; his mouth does not sin in judgment. Proverbs 16:10

And Balaam lifted up his eyes and saw Israel camping tribe by tribe. And the Spirit of God came upon him, and he took up his discourse and said, “The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, the oracle of the man whose eye is opened (Numbers 24:2).

The Lexham Bible Dictionary defines oracle as

A divine message communicated through a human mediator to one or more human recipients.

Wells, S. (2016). Oracle. In The Lexham Bible Dictionary.

So how an oracle different from a prophecy? Technically they both are divine messages delivered from the mind of God to the tongues of man, with intent to proclaim His revelation to a wider audience. God is using a human instrument for His tongue.

However, oracles were usually something that humans sought from God, instead of Him delivering a message unprompted by human inquiry, as usually happened with prophecy. These oracles were specific, someone was seeking an answer to a specific question, rather than the sweeping prophecies given that covered a general time frame. Of course, exceptions to this abound.

Many oracles were sought by kings and leaders for political purposes (“Will I win this battle?”) but the lay-people also sought oracles too. (e.g. 1 Kings 22:1-7)

Since some prophets or seers received compensation for oracles, the tendency was to then deliver favorable oracles to the consumer so the money would keep flowing.

Scholars like Westermann and Sweeney have identified a variety of subgenres for prophetic speech Two subgenres of judgment speech are:

  1. oracles against foreign nations, best known from their collections in the major prophets (Isa 13–23; Jer 46–51; Ezek 25–32)

  2. the woe oracle, which identifies wrongdoing and announces punishment much like typical judgment speech and is marked by the exclamation “woe” (e.g., Amos 5:18–20; Ezek 16:23). The New Testament also includes woe oracles spoken against individuals or groups (e.g., Luke 10:13; Matt 23:13–36). Wells, S. (2016). Oracle. The Lexham Bible Dictionary.

You might remember the Magic 8 Ball. It was a black ball made of hard plastic that a child could hold in two hands. It had a clear window at the top and you asked it a question, shook the ball, and waited until an icosahedron  floated tot he window with a message in it. The answers always disappointed me as a kid. “Try again later,” or “Maybe.” The ancient world was rife with oracle locations. The two most famous were the oracles of Apollo at Delphi and Zeus at Dodona. When seekers arrived and asked the oracle a question, answers that came were often vague. So if you were frustrated as a kid receiving vague answers from the Magic 8 Ball, imagine the seekers at Delphi or Dodona!  Yet still, many thousands still came to seek answers from the ‘gods.’

Of course, the only God there is, is Yahweh, and His answers (oracles) are true and specific. Romans 3:2 says

To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God, meaning, the Jews were entrusted to receive messages from God via a human medium, usually a prophet or a priest. How wonderful that He has grafted the Gentiles in, so now we can understand the oracles of God, His word via the Holy Spirit.

When we come back to the New Testament, we see that Christian teachers, functioning as prophets, also spoke the “oracles” of God. Peter said, “Whoever speaks, let him speak, as it were, the oracles of God” (1 Pet. 4:11, NASB). The author of Hebrews also used the word oracles to describe the words of God that had originally been communicated to the believers (Hebrews 5:12). Source: In Holman treasury of key Bible words