The World's Oracles
By Horatius Bonar, 1867
"The idols have spoken vanity!" Zechariah 10:2
There are not many who think for themselves; and even those who are reckoned to do so, depend for the materials of thinking upon what they hear, or see, or touch. In the things of God this must be so, much more than in others. It is in hearing him that we are furnished with materials for thinking rightly about him. "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." God's place is to speak, and ours is to listen. He expects us to listen to him, for he has a right to speak; and we know that, if we do not, we are sure to think wrong concerning himself and his ways; concerning both good and evil.
But we do not like this. It is irksome to be always in the attitude of listeners; at least, of listeners to God. We prefer guessing, or speculating, or reasoning. Or, if we find that we must have recourse to some authority beyond ourselves, we betake ourselves to any pretender to wisdom—and, above all, to any one who professes to be the representative of the invisible God, and to speak in his name. Hence the Gentiles resorted to their "oracles". And the apostate Jews turned to their "witchcrafts," and to private oracles, or household gods, called "Teraphim," set up in imitation of the great public oracle, the Urim and Thummin, through which God spoke to them in his holy place. It is to this that Zechariah refers, "The idols" (Teraphim) "have spoken vanity" (10:2). They whom you consult as the depositories of divine wisdom, who pretend to guide you and to utter truth, have spoken vanity; they have cheated you with lies.
Such was Israel's history. They trusted in faithless oracles. They became the dupes of those to whom they had come for guidance in the day of perplexity. They had grieved away the voice that spoke to them by the jeweled breastplate, and they had betaken themselves to other voices that only misled and befooled them. Their Teraphim spoke vanity!
This has been man's history too, as well as Israel's. He has chosen another counselor instead of God. It may be the Church, or reason, or public opinion. He has betaken himself to some oracle; he has listened to its utterances; it has cheated him with words of vanity; and its divinations have been as the treacherous staff—which not only breaks under the weight of the traveler—but pierces his hand as he leans on it.
Poor world! Such is your story—misplaced confidence, disappointment, darkness—the blind following the blind—until one pit receives both the leader and the led!
The world's Teraphim have not been few; nor has their authority been either weak or transient. They have swayed millions of destinies; not always consciously, on the side either of the speaker or the listener—but still irresistibly. There is "public opinion"—that mysterious oracle, whose shrine is nowhere—but the echoes of whose voice is everywhere. No Hindoo ever crouched before his idol with more of submissiveness than do men, calling themselves enlightened, cringe before the shadowy altar of this "unknown God"! No! of this Moloch, through whose fires has been made to pass many a tortured conscience that would gladly have sided with God and with truth—but dared not, lest it should stand alone.
But, besides this idol, or oracle, of public opinion, there is the standard of "established custom"—schools of literature and philosophy, or theology; and there is what is called the spirit of the times. More! There is sometimes the idol of personal friendships, or of admired authors, or of revered teachers. What havoc do these often make of consciences! How they mislead and pervert! How subtly do they work in drawing the confidence away from God, and in setting up other standards of truth and holiness than God's word!
Then let us mark on what points these Teraphim mislead us. They misrepresent the real end and aim of life, assuring us that the glory of the God who made us cannot be that end, inasmuch as that is something quite transcendental, something altogether beyond our reach, or our reason, or our sympathies. They give doubtful, often delusive, answers to such questions as these, "What is truth? What is happiness? what is holiness?" In regard to these things, most certainly, the world's idols have spoken vanity. We can give no credit to their utterances. He who trusts himself to their guidance will go utterly astray. He will miss the very things he is seeking. He will not get hold of truth; he will come short of happiness; and, instead of holiness, he will become satisfied with some artificial standard of moral character which man has set up for himself.
But how is it thus? Why are men thus misled and befooled? They have no confidence in God himself; nor have they learned to say, "Let God be true, and every man a liar." They seek not the Holy Spirit, nor submit themselves to him as their Teacher. They look askance at the Bible, as if there were some danger in making too much of it, or as if it were only one out of the many standards by which we are to measure ourselves and our opinions; no, as if, in these days, there was so much in the Bible of what is obsolete and unsuited to an age like this—that, were it not for some traditional reverence for that book, and admiration for its beauties—it might in a great measure be set aside. Besides, men do not like the teaching that they get from God and his word. It does not suit their tastes. They do not relish it at all. Hence they choose the prophets of smooth things—the "Teraphim" that utter lies and vanity. "These are your gods, O Israel." These are the world's oracles. As for God, and his Spirit, and his book, they say, as the king of Israel did of Micaiah, "I hate him, for he does not prophesy good concerning me—but evil" (1 Kings 22:8).
But how do these Teraphim speak their vanities? They do not need to do so by uttering gross error. No, it is seldom that they try this, though, undoubtedly, error and deception are the reals goals at which they aim. But they mingle the true and the false together; so that the true is neutralized by the false, and the false is adorned and recommended by the true. The fair fragments of the latter hang like gems around the former—making it lovely and attractive. With what seductive persuasiveness, do these counselors of the world, these oracles of the race, win the ear of men! They point to the great men who have pursued paths very far asunder, from those who stick so sternly for adherence to the naked word of God. They bid us listen to the world's philosophers and poets. They ask us to take the experience of these mighty men of mind or song, and to abjure the narrowness and one-sidedness into which we shall otherwise be shriveled up, if we become men of one book—even though that book should be the Bible; and men of one school—even though that school should be that of the apostle Paul.
And why do these oracles speak thus? They are fond of speaking, and they like to be listened to. It is a great thing to be consulted as an oracle, and to be quoted as an authority. They have no high or sure standard of their own, and hence they can only speak according to their own foolishness. "They know not, neither do they understand; they walk on in darkness." They "grope for the wall as the blind" (Isaiah 59:10); and they who set their trust on them must be content to spend their lives in doing the same.
The world has always had its oracles, its Teraphim, its false teachers. By them it has been guided in the strange career of separation from God, which the apostle calls "the course of this world" (Eph. 2:2). They have helped to mold the world, and to make it what it is; and in its turn it has, in large measure, molded them and made them what they are. For "the god of this world" is the god of these gods, the oracle of these oracles. "The spirit which works in the children of disobedience" (Eph. 2:2), is the spirit which speaks through these oracles, and which is, by means of these servants of his, imbuing the world more thoroughly with his own falsehood and unholiness, conforming it more entirely, age after age, to his own image—and withdrawing it more widely from the living Jehovah, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Formerly, it was more as "the ruler of the darkness of this world" that Satan wrought and spoke; now, it is more as an "angel of light" into which he has transformed himself (2 Cor. 11:14), that he may ensnare the more—no, deceive, if it were possible, the very elect. "A horrible and shocking thing has happened in this land—the prophets give false prophecies, and the priests rule with an iron hand. And worse yet, my people like it that way!" (Jer. 5:30, 31). No wonder that he should ask, "But what will you do when the end comes?"
It is as the angel of light that Satan is now the world's oracle, or rather, the inspirer of its oracles. He has changed his voice as well as his garb and aspect. He has hidden his grossness, and modified his language to suit the change. He has veiled his sensualism under the guise of poetry, and thrown the mantle of philosophy over the offensive nakedness of atheism. He is still an atheist with the scoffer; a wanton with the lewd; a blasphemer with the profane. For he changes not. But, to disgust as few as possible, and to entangle in his net the many who shrink from all open grossness—he has set up a more refined system of worldliness, of which the watchwords are, "Harmless amusements," "Innocent gaiety," "Intellectual feasts," "Healthful sports," and such like!
Now, there are amusements which are harmless—but are these in the theater or opera? There is gaiety which is innocent—but is this to be found at the mirthful party, and in the giddy whirl of the dance? There are sports which are healthful—but are these at the racetrack, or in the boxing ring? There are feasts of the intellect—but are these contained only in the light novel or the loose song? Are they to be found in the lecture-rooms of those who cleverly substitute philosophy for faith, reason for revelation, man's wisdom for God's; who prove to us that, though the Bible may contain the thoughts of God, it does not speak his words; who artfully would reason us into the belief that sin is not guilt—but only a disease, a mere moral epidemic; who maintain that incarnation of Christ, not his death—is the basis of divine reconciliation; that the tendencies of mankind are all upward, not downward; that forgiveness of sin is not a thing needed by anyone, seeing condemnation can have no place under the government of a God of love; who affirm that, though the love of God leads us to conclude the existence of a heaven, yet that his righteousness does not by any means infer the necessity either for a judgment or a hell?
As an angel of light, all his snares and sophistries partake, more or less, of light. He does not appeal directly to our lusts—but to our love of the beautiful and the bright. He does not take his stand upon our natural hatred of God—but upon our thirst for truth and knowledge. By such indirect methods he beguiles us as effectually into error and sin—no, seduces us as surely into apostasy from God—as when he ensnared our first mother, under the promise of wisdom. "You shall be like God!" he says still—independent of all other beings and wills, thinking what you please, enjoying what you desire, and taking in the whole round of indulgences, physical and intellectual, at your will.
As an angel of light he instructs his oracles (as we see in the journalism of the age) to appeal to men's natural humanity, that so he may get them to substitute this for salvation through the blood of the covenant, and brotherhood in the Son of God. He instructs his oracles to address themselves to our intuitions of virtue and uprightness, that he may by these supplant holiness, and conformity to the image of "the Word made flesh." He instructs them to press home amendment of life and the relinquishment of all gross, offensive evil—that he may utterly efface the idea of being "born again," of the necessity of "conversion," and of the Holy Spirit's indwelling fullness—as the one true source of all that God calls "religion." Thus he "blinds the minds of those who believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine into them" (2 Cor. 4:4).
Tutored by this angel of light, these oracles of earth speak of the "majesty of man's profound thought;" or of "the splendid might of man's mind"—in all the elation of intellectual pride. They speak loftily of "the world's vast lie," of "earth's falsehoods," of the age's "shams," all the while complacently congratulating themselves that they have found their way out of these unrealities. They think to dig through the husk into the kernel of all religions, and, out of their uncertain speculations, to construct a new theology. "Attempt the high," they say; "seek out the soul's bright path." "Upon the summit of each mountain-thought, worship your God."
They spurn the belief that this lapsed creation is wholly evil; exulting in its self-rectifying, self-regenerating power. "The universal cure of disease, still bounds through nature's veins."
It is from Satan as an angel of light, and from his oracles as the reflections of that light, that we have most to dread. The disguises which he is putting on are fatally seductive. The lengths to which he goes, in pretended reverence for religion; the subtle skill which he has put forth in beautifying what is sensual, in refining what is carnal, in glossing over what is gross—the artful way in which he has mixed up the true and the false, the lawful and the unlawful, the certain and the uncertain, the earthly and the heavenly, the human and the divine; the marvelous cunning he has displayed in infusing a sort of religious element into what is meant to be the counteractive of religion; in throwing a religious line over subjects and scenes, intended by him to withdraw the heart from God; the sophistry by which he has succeeded in substituting the beauties of Pantheism for the blasphemies of Atheism; the dexterity by which he has introduced love for the Creator's works, instead of love for the Creator himself, natural "earnestness" for the zeal of the renewed man, self-reliance for dependence upon the Almighty, sympathy with "nature" for fellowship with God; the successful subtlety with which he has confounded opinion with truth, speculativeness with honest inquiry, credulity with faith, misanthropy with separation from the world! These things are truly fitted to alarm, inasmuch as they threaten the obliteration of every sacred landmark, and the final substitution of evil for good, and darkness for light.
The illumination coming from the Sun of righteousness is one thing, and that proceeding from Satan, as an angel of light, is quite another. Satan's object is to confound these two kinds of light, so that men may be misled, as by the gleam of a false beacon, which ensnares even a skillful pilot, and hurries the secure vessel suddenly upon the rock. One of our greatest dangers in these days, arises from this effort of the evil one. If he had set up his light in a wholly opposite quarter, and given it a color like himself—the lurid glare of hell—men would not have been deceived. But he has imitated so nearly the hue of the true light, and placed it so near the heavenly lighthouse, that thousands mistake the beacon, and find themselves unexpectedly a wreck!
Thus it is that the idols have spoken, and do still speak, VANITY. They cheat men with a thousand falsities. They proclaim hopes—which end in disappointment. They dupe the heedless—and then mock their miseries. They promise men liberty, while they themselves are the servants of corruption. They promise the bread of truth—and give only the husks of error. They promise joy—and defraud the unwary with the "pleasures of sin." They speak peace—when, instead of peace, there is wrath. They teach men to say, "I am rich, and increased in goods, and have need of nothing"—when they are "poor, and miserable, and wretched, and blind, and naked." They tell men "Tomorrow shall be as this day, and much more abundant," when time is on the edge of bankruptcy, and the world's great famine is at hand, when men's famished spirits shall ask for bread in vain; when earth shall plead for something to fill the craving void—which should have been filled by God himself and his incarnate Son—and there shall be nothing but the chaff, or the sand, or the wind!
Shun the idols that speak vanity. Listen to no voice, however pleasant, but that which is entirely in harmony with God's word. Take nothing for truth, except what comes from him. Follow no light but that of him, who says, "I am the Light of the world." Abjure every pleasure, every indulgence—of which Christ is not the alpha and the omega—or which would grieve that Holy Spirit of God, whereby we are sealed unto the day of redemption.
Men may say, Don't be singular, don't pretend to be wiser or better than others. Let us answer, without shrinking, "Let God be true, and every man a liar." Those who have listened to the oracles of earth's lying vanities have always been a multitude; while they who have listened to God have always been few. Let not this discourage us. We have but one voice to listen to, and it speaks articulately, so that we have no excuse either for hesitation or mistake. While others are listening to the idols who speak vanity, let us be intent on knowing what the Lord has spoken. Many may walk on in darkness; but it is written, "The wise shall understand" (Dan. 12:10). Let others betake themselves to "the wizards that peep and mutter; should not God's people seek unto their God?"
What though the lying oracles have spoken—are they our gods? Are they the representatives of Him in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge? Do they speak according to the law and the testimony?
It is written, "The idols have spoken vanity." They have cheated their worshipers. They are doing so still. They give fair words—but that is all. The outcome is disappointment and shame. Are you allowing yourselves thus to be cheated by Satan and his pretended wisdom—by the world and its deceiving oracles? Are you the dupes of these idols, who, having once lured you into the snare, will only laugh at your calamity? Be wise in time. For the day of these oracles is fast running to a close. "The idols he will utterly abolish." The vanities which they have spoken will be soon exposed. The hollowness of their promises will, before long, be detected. Listen not to them—but to the faithful and true Witness—to the words of the living God; to him who says, "Learn of me;" to him who utters no vanity—but who has the words of everlasting life—the truth which fills, and satisfies, and gladdens—yes, who is himself "the Way, the Truth, and the Life."