The first question, therefore, to engage our attention is: what is there in Psalm 68:18 that warrants Paul in changing “received gifts” into “gave gifts”?

If our assumption is correct that Paul has infallibly grasped the sense of this passage in writing “gave” instead of “received” this ought to become clear to us from a study of Psalm 68 itself. It seems to us that a brief study of this Psalm is in order.

In general it can be said that in this Psalm the poet is recounting the mighty victories and triumphs of Israel over all her enemies. These victories, however, the psalmist does not ascribe to the prowess of Israel in battle, but solely to the Lord who arises to her defense and thus scatters the foes.

The keynote of this Psalm is undoubtedly expressed in the first verse, which reads: “Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered before Him: let them also that hate Him flee before Him. . . . .But let the righteous be glad; let them rejoice before God; yea, let them exceedingly rejoice.”

This great victory of the Lord over all the enemies of Himself and of His covenant people finds its climatic description and magnification in the 18th verse, the verse quoted by Paul in Ephesians 4:8. God has, according to the psalmist, perfected the overthrow of the enemies, and come to make His abode among His saints in “ascending on high and receiving gifts from men; yea, for the rebellious that He might dwell among them.”

Many have been the attempts to ascertain the Old Testament event, recorded in the Scriptures, to which the psalmist here refers. Among expositors there is no unanimity; great is the divergence of opinion. Some would have David here speaking of the signal victory over the Syrians and Ammonites, when the Ark was brought back in triumph to Jerusalem. I Chron. 19:10-19. Others insist that the “ascending on high” refers to the translation of the ark from the house of Obed-Edom to Mt. Zion, and that with this every part in the Psalm would harmonize. II Sam. 6:8. Again, others find in this Psalm fragments of the song of Moses, spoken at the occasion of Israel’s marching after the Ark of the covenant and led by the Cloud in the desert, and also, parts of, or at least, the sentiments of the Song of Deborah (Numbers 10:35; Judges 5).

How are we to judge of this?

It seems to us, that we need not busy ourselves too much to seek the one particular victory of God in His people over the enemies. It is enough to keep in mind that the events here spoken of are, indeed, historical. They happened. Added to this, we should constantly bear in mind that the description of the Lord’s victories are portrayed to us in poetic strains. The language does not permit us to ascertain to any degree of certainly the particular historical reference.

For us it is enough that we see the general thrust of this Psalm. We will then see that what the Holy Spirit wrote in Psalm 68 is the general underlying principle that is true in every particular ease of Israel’s victories over the enemies.

As far as the particular passage in Psalm 68:18 is concerned we believe that the clearest exhibition of this principle may be noticed in the removal of the Ark from the house of Obed-Edom to Mt. Zion by David. We believe that back of this ascension of the Ark under David lies the Captivity of the Ark by the Philistines at the battle of Aphek under Hophni and Phinehas, the two wicked sons of the High Priest, Eli. I Samuel 4-6.

In favor of this historical reference is the following in the Psalm: 1. That this Psalm is attributed to the authorship of David. It is called: “A psalm or song of David.” Now it was under David that the Ark was brought to its resting place in Zion. 2. That in this case of the capture of the Ark it was in “Captivity”. To this dark and seemingly hopeless period the text seems to refer. That the Ark ascended implies that it has first descended. To this we may add, that it seems quite certain that the Psalm does allude to the “ascension” of the Ark as the symbol of the gracious presence of God. That the Ark did go out with Israel into the fray, into battle is evident from II Samuel 11:11. Besides, such was ideally the intent of the Ark. When Israel marched in the desert the Ark, carried by the priests went before them. Thus it was also in passing over Jordan over against Jericho under Joshua, the son of Nun. And we all know the biblical account of the place that the presence of the Ark took in the capture of the city of Jericho.

  1. Further, it should be noted, that the very words of Psalm 68:1, quoted earlier in this essay, are the ones that Moses spoke when the Priest would pick up the Ark in their migration in the desert. Thus we read in Numbers 10:35: “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. And when it rested, he said, Return, O Lord, unto the many thousands of Israel.”
  2. In the light of the foregoing threefold considerations it would seem, that this Psalm refers to the time of David’s bringing the ark of the covenant into Zion. In so doing “captivity was taken captive.” The seeming defeat of Israel and Israel’s God proves to be the everlasting victory. And we read that at this occasion David indeed gave gifts unto men. We read: “And he dealt among all the people, even among the whole multitude of Israel, as well to the women as men, to everyone a cake of bread, and a good piece of flesh, and a flagon of wine”. II Samuel 6:19.

David indeed gave gifts unto men.

And the Lord, God, did so in him.

At least that was the positive design of God in taking captivity captive, in overthrowing the armies of the Philistines and lowering them to the earth.

Hence, when the psalmist here speaks of “receiving gifts” from men, it is quite evident that the wording must be viewed as having something full and expansive in it. Indeed, the Lord received gifts, Israel rides on the heights of the enemies. God does not merely wish to destroy, but by the wonder of grace, represented in this very Ark of the mercy-seat, He wishes to bless. He wishes to dwell amongst His people as Jehovah, as God. He wills to show Himself to be the one who is both able (God) and willing in faithfulness (Jehovah). Thus He is mindful of His people as a tender Shepherd of His flock. Not one is forgotten. In so redeeming Israel in the very presence of the Ark, God reveals Himself as the God of justice and of mercy. It is the triumph of the righteous cause of God in His people in Zion.

Such is evidently the import of this passage. Thus it is explained by Paul in Ephesians 4:8.

However, there is a difference between the “taking captivity captive” in Psalm 38 and that referred to in Ephesians.

In the latter passage we have the real presence of God in His Son in the flesh; in the former we have God revealed in the shadows and types, in the mercy seat of the earthly tabernacle and the priesthood of Aaron.

This is a tremendous difference.

In the latter times God has spoken unto us through His Son. In His Son God has come to dwell amongst us, His people. He, the Son, has assumed the flesh and blood of the children. (He has made Himself of no reputation. Willingly He came to be the “Captive”! He is buffeted, spit upon, contradicted of men, a man of sorrows. Never was anyone so completely captive, and so willingly a bondman as He. He entered into the “lower parts of the earth”, i.e., he entered into all the relationships of us the children under the curse of the law and under the law of death. Indeed, he descended, as never the ark in Eli’s day could. Truly here one must say: Ichabod! the glory has departed from Israel.

He suffered under Pontius Pilate; he was crucified, dead and buried.

Lower than He none has ever descended!

Yet, the grave and the pains of death could not hold Him. He arose from the dead, and He ascended on high.

And this ascension on high was into the city of David. Oh, to be sure, he did not ascend into the earthly city of David in the land of Palestine, but into the heavenly city which has foundations, whose Builder and maker is God. Into this city He entered passing through the heavens. Above all the heavens He ascended.

Surely, in so doing all the enemies of God’s people are destroyed. For He must reign until He hath put all things under His feet. Is He not the King Priest, a Priest forever after the order of Melehizedek.

And what a gracious High Priest!

For all the needs of the whole church He cares. He gives, graciously gives gifts unto men.

In Him is the fullness of wisdom, righteousness, holiness and complete redemption. With this wisdom and knowledge all must be filled till all arrive unto the perfect manhood, the full stature in Him. And this is all gift. It is His loving care for each member of the body of which He is the head.

Very concretely these gifts of knowledge, of doctrine and reproof come to us through the teaching ministry. Christ’s death and ascension have made the preaching of the gospel a reality. And through this preaching all collectively and each individually receives the full measure of the gift of Christ.

Each, therefore, receives His allotted portion. And this portion must by every joint that supplieth in the body be used to the advantage of all.

Thus the Lord, the glorified Jesus receives a form in us. Ascension in the highest heavens begins to be realized in our lives. God, the Lord, thus comes to dwell among His people.

Thus one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one body.

And one God who is above all, through all and in all!