The biblical meaning of the word oracle (Lat. oraculum) is primarily found in its plural form or as oracles. The term refers both to divine responses to a question asked of God as well as to pronouncements made by God without any petition for an answer ever being made or any question asked. In one sense, oracles were prophecies since they often referred to the future; but oracles sometimes dealt with decisions to be made in the present.
Frequently, oracles are messages delivered by God to prophets like Isaiah. There is a distinction in the variety of biblical oracles between the kind of oracles that were sought versus those oracles that came without any request. The first kind might be described as decision oracles. The second type is often referred to as pronouncement oracles. Decision oracles came when people asked God a question or sought His divine counsel. Decision oracles, then, were God’s response to questions and concerns in the present or the here and now. Such an oracle did not condemn sin or predict the future in any specific sense.
Pronouncement oracles, on the other hand, were God’s word rendered as a response to a situation or in regard to a particular person even though no explicit oracle had been directly sought from God. This kind of oracle usually told what was going to happen or a future event. Pronouncement oracles also frequently condemned sin and served as a verbal or oracular expression of God’s view of present acts or circumstances. In that sense, many of the prophecies in the Old Testament can be considered to be pronouncement oracles. Because they were God’s word, these pronouncements were true, even if they could be changed as was the case in Jonah’s pronouncement over Nineveh. Pronouncement oracles were given to produce an effect—people were to hear what God had said and, then, to change their ways accordingly. The pronouncement oracles issued against foreign nations, though, form a subset and a special group.
It is important to note that oracles were given through special people. Although anyone could seek a word from God and many, such as Gideon or Abraham, received an oracle directly; these divine communications usually came through either priests or prophets. Isaiah prophesies this, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone” (Is 9:1). And so Saint Matthew, in the gospel for today, as the evangelist, he repeats the great prophecy: “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light…” (Mt 4:15). About eight centuries before, Isaiah, too, was talking about how a coming King would bring light. The coming king would bring light even to places far away from Jerusalem and Judah, foreign-type places, Gentile places, like Zebulun and Naphtali. The prophecy of Isaiah was that those distant lands, those Gentile lands, would nevertheless see the light.
In the period after Epiphany, the following oracle of Isaiah is often used: “Arise! Shine, for your light has come, the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you. Though darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds, the peoples, upon you the Lord will dawn, and over you his glory will appear be seen” (Is 60: 1-2). Arise (Heb. Qumi ‘ori)—literally means to get up and, among its synonyms, you would find words like emerge, spring up, and come to the Light. The mere word arise implies getting up from being brought low and, thus, being restored. When Jesus healed the lame man at the pool of Bethesda (Jn 5:1-18) He most likely used the identical word in Aramaic (v. 8) in His command to be healed.