Charles Buck Theological Dictionary
Among the Heathens, was the answer which the gods were supposed to give to those who consulted them upon any affair of importance. It is also used for the god who was thought to give the answer, and for the space where it was given. Learned men are much divided as to the source of these oracles. Some suppose that they were only the invention of priests; while others conceive that there was a diabolical agency employed in the business. There are, as one observes, several circumstances leading to the former hypothesis: such as the gloomy solemnity with which many of them were delivered in caves and subterraneous caverns: the numerous and disagreeable ceremonies enjoined, as sometimes sleeping in the skins of beasts, bathing, and expensive sacrifices; the ambiguous and unsatisfactory answers frequently returned: these look very much like the contrivances of artful priests to disguise their villany; the medium of priests, speaking images, vocal groves, &c. seem much to confirm it. On the other hand, if we may credit the relation of ancient writers, either among Heathens or Christians, this hypothesis will hardly account for many of the instances they mention.
And since it cannot be proved either impossible or unscriptural, is it not probable that God sometimes permits an intercourse with infernal spirits, with a design, in the end, to turn this and every other circumstance to his own glory? Respecting the cessation of these oracles, there have been a variety of opinions. It has been generally held, indeed, that oracles ceased at the birth of Jesus Christ: yet some have endeavoured to maintain the contrary, by showing that they were in being in the days of Julian, commonly called the apostate, and that this emperor himself consulted them; nay, farther, say they, history makes mention of several laws published by the Christian emperors, Theodosius, Gratian, and Valentinian, to punish persons who interrogated them, even in their days; and that the Epicureans were the first who made a jest of this superstition, and exposed the roguery of its priests to the people. But on the other side it is observed,
1. That the question, properly stated, is not. Whether oracles became extinct immediately upon the birth of Christ, or from the very moment he was born; but, Whether they fell gradually into disesteem, and ceased as Christ and his Gospel became known to mankind? And that they did so is most certain from the concurrent testimonies of the fathers, which whoever would endeavour to invalidate, may equally give up the most respectable traditions and relations of every kind.
2dly, But did not Julian the apostate consult these oracles? We answer in the negative: he had, indeed, recourse to magical operations, but it was because oracles had already ceased; for he bewailed the loss of them, and assigned pitiful reasons for it; which St. Cyril has vigorously refuted, saying, that he never could have offered such, but from an unwillingness to acknowledge, that, when the world had received the light of Christ, the dominion of the devil was at an end.
3dly. The Christian emperors do, indeed, seem to condemn the superstition and idolatry of those who were still for consulting oracles; but the edicts of those princes do not prove that oracles actually existed in their times, any more than that they ceased in consequence of their laws. It is certain that they were for the most part extinct before the conversion of Constantine.
4thly. Some Epicureans might make a jest of this superstition; however, the Epicurean philosopher Celsus, in the second century of the church, was for crying up the excellency of several oracles, as appears at large from Origen's seventh book against him. Among the Jews there were several sorts of real oracles. They had,
first, oracles that were delivered viva voice; as when God spake to Moses face to face, and as one friend speaks to another, Numb. 12: 8.
Secondly, Prophetical dreams sent by God; as the dreams which God sent to Joseph, and which foretold his future greatness, Genesis 27:5-6 .
Thirdly, Visions; as when a prophet in an ecstacy, being neither properly asleep nor awake, had supernatural revelations, Genesis 15:1 . Genesis 46:2 .
Fourthly, The oracle of the Urim and Thummim, which was accompanied with the ephod, or the pectoral worn by the high priest, and which God had endued with the gift of foretelling things to come, Numb. 12: 6. Joel 2:28 . This manner of inquiring of the Lord was often made use of, from Joshua's time to the erection of the temple at Jerusalem. Fifthly, After the building of the temple, they generally consulted the prophets, who were frequent in the kingdoms of Judah and Israel.
From Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, who are the last of the prophets that have any of their writings remaining, the Jews pretend that God gave them what they call Bathkol, the Daughter of the Voice, which was a supernatural manifestation of the will of God, which was performed either by a strong inspiration or internal voice, or else by a sensible and external voice, which was heard by a number of persons sufficient to bear testimony of it. For example, such was the voice that was heard at the baptism of Jesus Christ, saying, This is my beloved Son, &c. Matthew 3:17 . The scripture affords us examples likewise of profane oracles. Balaam, at the instigation of his own spirit, and urged on by his avarice, fearing to lose thy recompence that he was promised by Balak, king of the Moabites, suggests a diabolical expedient to this prince of making the Israelites fall into idolatry and fornication, (Numb. 24: 14. Numb. 31: 16.) by which he assures him of a certain victory, or at least of considerable advantage against the people of God. Micaiah, the son of Imlah, a prophet of the Lord, says (1 Kings 22:20 , &c.) that he saw the Almighty, sitting upon his throne, and all the host of heaven round about him; and the Lord said, Who shall tempt Ahab, king of Israel, that he may go to war with Ramoth Gilead, and fall in the battle? One answered after one manner, and another in another.
At the same time an evil spirit presented himself before the Lord, and said, I will seduce him. And the Lord asked him, How? To which Satan answered, I will go and be a lying spirit in the mouth of his prophets. And the Lord said, Go, and thou shalt prevail. This dialogue clearly proves these two things; first, that the devil could do nothing by his own power; and, secondly, that, with the permission of God, he could inspire the false prophets, sorcerers, and magicians, and make them deliver false oracles.
See Vandals and Fontenelle's Hist. de Orac; Potter's Greek Antiquities, vol. 1: b. 2. ch. 7; Edwards's Hist. of Red. P. 408; Farmer on Mir. p. 281, 285; Enc. Brit. article ORACLE.
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Buck, Charles. Entry for 'Oracle'. Charles Buck Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/cbd/o/oracle.html. 1802.