Psalm 68 contains just part of a verse that enables us to consider it as being Messianic, ‘Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast led captivity captive: thou hast received gifts for men’, v. 18. This quotation appears in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, although the wording is slightly revised, ‘Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men’, 4. 8. Whist this article focuses on verse 18, it may be of benefit to begin by making some introductory comments.
The heading of the psalm states that it is ‘A Psalm or Song of David’. He composed at least half of the psalms that were sung in the religious ceremonial activities of the Jewish people, and for that reason he is called the ‘sweet psalmist of Israel’, 2 Sam. 23. 1. The heading also informs us that the psalm was to be given to the ‘chief musician’. The ‘chief musician’ was the man who directed the music for the singing of the psalm and, in David’s time, Asaph was that man.
There is considerable debate amongst expositors as to what prompted David to write this psalm, but one possible occasion relates to the return of the Ark of the Covenant from the house of Obededom to Jerusalem. The details of this final journey are recorded in 2 Samuel chapter 6 and 1 Chronicles chapters 13 to 16, and, as the procession made its way, there was singing, rejoicing and music; it was a scene of ecstatic joy.
Verse 1 is almost identical to a verse in Numbers, ‘And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moses said, Rise up, Lord, and let thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee’, 10. 35. Whenever the ark moved forward triumphantly in the wilderness, Moses would quote these words. David repeats them in verse 1 because the ark was moving in triumph back to Jerusalem – the only occasion in David’s reign when the ark was moved.
There are several subdivisions in the psalm, but it contains two principal sections. Verses 1 to 18 relate to the past, and verses 19 to 35 look on to the future; the psalm, therefore, is both historic and prophetic. The historic section does not refer to Israel’s failings in the wilderness but to the power and faithfulness of God to Israel in liberating them from Egypt, leading them through the wilderness and locating them safely in Canaan.
Whilst the opening half of the psalm has already taken place, the psalm awaits its complete fulfilment in the millennial reign of Christ. It heralds the ultimate victory of the Lord over every rebel opposition to His entitlement to reign as King of kings and Lord of lords.
There are differences of opinion relative to the interpretation of the words ‘captivity captive’, but I believe an examination of its occurrences in the Old Testament will help to clarify its meaning in Ephesians. The phrase occurs three times in the scriptures, two have already been mentioned in this article and the other occurrence is in Judges chapter 5 verse 12, ‘Awake, awake, Deborah: awake, awake, utter a song: arise, Barak, and lead thy captivity captive, thou son of Abinoam’.
Due to their disobedience, the Lord sold the Israelites into the hand of Jabin, king of Canaan, and for twenty years they were in captivity. Having eventually repented of their waywardness, God’s people were liberated, and in the last verse of Judges chapter 4 we read, ‘And the hand of the children of Israel prospered, and prevailed against Jabin the king of Canaan, until they had destroyed Jabin king of Canaan’. The whole of chapter 5 is taken up with the triumphal song of Deborah and Barak, and it is against the backdrop of Israel’s liberation and the defeat of Jabin that in verse 12 we read about captivity being led captive. Those who once held Israel captive are themselves now held in captivity.
As already noted, the first half of Psalm 68 is historic, tracing God’s majesty, power and faithfulness in not only freeing Israel from the Egyptian bondage but settling them into their own land. En route they were opposed by various enemies, but God led Israel to victory removing every form of opposition. Phillips states, ‘Alien kings fled in terror from many a battlefield. The victorious Hebrews, flushed with victories handed them by God, would go through the abandoned tents of the enemy collecting the spoil. The women at home would divide the spoils of war brought back by the triumphant troops’.1
We see therefore that in the passage in Judges and in Psalm 68, the phrase ‘captivity captive’ refers to victories achieved, of foes being defeated and of spoils being shared. As that is how the phrase is used in the Old Testament, I see no reason to deviate from that usage in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
All too frequently we limit the events that transpired at Calvary to what, by God’s grace, has come to us, but this is a very limited perspective. We are deeply grateful that our Saviour bore our sins in His own body on the tree, but He did much more than that. At the cross the Lord defeated the devil and annulled his power over death, ‘that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil’, Heb. 2. 14. In fulfilment of the prophecy made in Eden, the seed of the woman had bruised the head of the serpent, Gen. 3. 15.
At the cross our Lord also defeated the varied ranks of Satanic forces. What seemed to human eyes to be a tragic defeat was in fact the greatest of all victories. At Calvary, the unseen powers of darkness were utterly routed, ‘having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it’, Col. 2. 15. In relation to this verse, Vine in his Expository Dictionary writes, ‘There is no doubt that Satan and his hosts gathered together to attack the soul of Christ … the powers of darkness gathered against the Lord at that time, fiercely assaulting Him to the utmost of their power’. Despite His physical sufferings, the Lord repulsed their attack and completely overthrew His demonic assailants and thereby ‘captivity had been led captive’. The full proof of that victory was demonstrated three days after His crucifixion when the Lord rose from the dead and subsequently ascended to take His place at the right hand of the majesty on high.
Although the apostle makes mention of the ascension in verses 7 to 10, his primary reason for quoting Psalm 68 was not to show that the Lord’s ascension had been foreshadowed in Old Testament writings. He quotes David to substantiate the truth that he had just declared in verse 7, ‘unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ’. There are several passages in the New Testament that tell us about spiritual gifts and from them we learn that each member of the godhead is involved in those gifts being given; in Ephesians the giver is Christ. Those gifts, which are itemised in verse 11, were not given by Christ whilst He was on earth but were consequent to His ascension and exaltation.
We have already observed that there is a difference in the quotation made by Paul in Ephesians to that written by the psalmist. David stated, ‘thou hast received gifts for men’, whereas in the Epistle it states that the ascended Christ ‘gave gifts unto men’. Just as there is a great diversity of opinion in relation to the phrase ‘captivity captive’ so there is as to why Paul changed the wording in the phrase now being considered. One explanation is that Paul was not following the genuine text of the psalm but was quoting an old Jewish interpretation that he was familiar with, and which, instead of ‘received gifts among men’, paraphrased ‘gave gifts to men’.
Another explanation for the difference relates to the contents of the psalm and of the Epistle. Psalm 68 focuses upon Israel and God’s triumphs. Therefore, David thinks of the mighty victor receiving gifts because of His conquests on behalf of Israel. The Apostle Paul is writing about the Christ and the church which is His body. He understands Psalm 68 as referring to Christ who, having triumphed over the infernal hosts and ascending to heaven, now dispenses gifts for the benefit of His people, the church.
McBride in his commentary on Psalm 68 presents the following suggestion, ‘The gifts which the risen and ascended Lord gives to men are the captives themselves … a true servant of God is one who primarily sees himself as a captive servant of the Lord. He has forfeited all his own rights to the service of his heavenly Lord, his risen Head and in this he finds true freedom and the commensurate divine enabling to carry out the ministry with which God has entrusted him.
However, the risen Lord has looked among His captives, and has taken up gifts “in the man” i.e. taken up individual persons he has captured and redeemed and even though they ?were once avowedly “rebellious" to the throne of God are now gifts which He can now give to His church in His service’.2
The psalm concludes by presenting a millennial scene as Israel, which once was under the heel of the Gentiles, is strengthened by God. The worship of the beast, that was enforced on all peoples, has been eradicated, and the temple at Jerusalem becomes the centre of God’s global worship, ‘Because of thy temple at Jerusalem shall kings bring presents unto thee … Sing unto God, ye kingdoms of the earth; O sing praises unto the Lord; Selah: To him that rideth upon the heavens of heavens, which were of old; lo, he doth send out his voice, and that a mighty voice. Ascribe ye strength unto God: his excellency is over Israel, and his strength is in the clouds’, vv. 29, 32-34.
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