Oracles of the Ancient World

HABAKKUK 1 An oracle is any divine pronouncement through a prophet that directs human action in the present or foretells future events. In the Old Testament an oracle always refers to a communication from God through a prophet (2Ki 9:25; Isa 13:1; Hab 1:1; Mal 1:1).The three New Testament instances of oracles all have Israel's God as their source and refer to the revelation begun in the Old Testament and finalized in Christ (Ac 7:38; Ro 3:2; Heb 5:12 with 1:1-2). Significantly, Scripture (Nu 22-24; 1Ki 18:20 —40), along with numerous extrabiblical texts from Syria-Palestine,Anatolia,1 Mesopotamia and (to a lesser extent) Egypt, attest to the fact that peoples of other nations believed that they, too, received oracles from their gods.

  • The Bible presents the classical prophets as ambassadors of the heavenly court (2Ki 17:13) who authoritatively presented the revelation of God to his people (2Ch 36:15-16; Isa 44:26).

  • Prophets sometimes mentioned the Holy Spirit's role in inspiration (Joel 2:28-29; Mic 3:8; Zec 7:12).

  • At times the source of the message is said to have been a dream or vision (Isa 6:1-13; Jer 31:26; Zec 2:1), but ordinarily the mode of inspiration is unspecified.

  • Sometimes oracles provided a divine answer to human questions (2Sa 2:1; Hab 1 — 2), but often they were initiated by God.

  • The divine revelations were at times framed as parables or allegories (2Sa 12:1-7), and sometimes oracles were acted out (2Ki 13:14-20; Eze 4).

  • The prophets pronounced oracles of warn-ing against both individuals (1Sa 13:13-14) and nations (Isa 17; Eze 15; Am 4:1-3) but also oracles of salvation that predicted a day when God would restore his people (Jer 31:31-34; Eze 36:16-32; Am 9:13-15; Zec 8:1-8).

Prophets of the pagan deities sometimes delivered messages similar to those of Israel's prophets. Like Israel's God, these gods purportedly demanded homage and declared judgments. But Biblical prophecy was distinct in at least three ways:

  • Only Yahweh among the gods of the ancient world spoke in order to establish, maintain and enforce a covenant relationship with his people (Dt 4:5-9).

  • Whereas many pagan oracles were ambiguous as to their intent and fulfillment, Biblical oracles were generally clear and specific (Dt 18:14-22). •

  • Only from Israel's prophets did a staunch monotheism confront polytheistic idolatry (Dt 5:7-10; 6:4-5; Ps 115; Isa 40:18-31).