You have ascended on high, You have led captivity captive; You have received gifts among men, even from the rebellious, that the Lord God might dwell there. (Psalm 68:18)
The Ascension Psalm
The first half of this Psalm God traces Israel’s history through the wilderness (vv. 1–17); in the second half we get the future deliverance of Israel and the millennial kingdom under Adonai (vv. 19–35). Verse 18 connects the two sections and is wonderfully messianic in character, however, not Messiah in His ministry upon the earth as revealed in the Gospels, but His place in heaven. The Apostle Paul quotes Psalm 68:18 in Ephesians 4:8 to show the ascension of Christ with the intent to show the relationship of that to the giving of gifts to the body of Christ. This is the reason why Christians often call Psalm 68, the “Ascension Psalm.”1 In many ways, it is a very remarkable and unique psalm as we will see.
A Cornucopia of Divine Names
Psalm 68 has been recognized for its use of multiple names of God, it has been characterized as a cornucopia of divine names, using eight different names throughout the psalm:
Elohim (twenty-three times); Jah (one time); El Shaddai (one time); Jehovah (YHWH five times); El (two times); Adonai (six times); Jah Elohim (one time); Jehovah Adonai (one time).
But it is the divine name, “Adonai” (“supreme master” or “Lord”), which stands out by occurring six times in this Psalm. The significance of this is that “Adonai” in the Psalms often refers to Christ in the Psalms (see for example, Ps. 8:9 and Ps. 110:1). The use of Adonai in Psalm 68 is prophetic of Christ’s Lordship as Man. He ascends on high in triumph and leads the enemy captive under whose power mankind had been.
Captivity Taken Captive
Psalm 68:18 says that, “When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive.” Paul quotes this phrase in Ephesians 4:8 in connection with Christ’s ascension as well; but what does it mean? Some interpret this in a positive way believing the “captivity” here are those who had died in faith but not set free or brought from Hades to heaven.2 But we believe that this is incorrect. Part of the blessing and victory brought to man through Christ’s work was the destruction of Satan’s power over those who have believed. Christ came to “destroy3 the works of the devil” (1 Jn. 3:8). When Christ ascended He led the adversary captive, in setting Man above all things, He led captive all that could have power over man. The companion verse to this is found in Colossians 2:15, Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.
Gifts to Men
The prophecy in our text (v. 18), is the very center of the Psalm. It declares the ascension of Christ as Man to the throne of God. According to the Apostle Paul, it is the ascension of Christ which the Holy Spirit points to here, especially in relation to the gifts of Christian ministry. He wrote:
But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore He says: “When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men.” (Now this, “He ascended”—what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.) And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.4
Though the Church is not directly revealed in the Old Testament, now that the “mystery”5 has been revealed through the New Testament apostles, we can look back and see God’s councils concerning it (see Eph. 3:3–9).
He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things. What does it mean when it says He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He descended into death, from heaven’s throne down to the dust of death—an unmeasurable distance, though we sometimes sing:
Thou didst measure then sin’s distance; Darkness, wrath and curse were Thine;
Man-betrayed, by God forsaken; Thus we learn Thy love divine.
He descended and “tasted death,” was bodily raised from the dead, and then ascended to the right hand of God. In Ephesians we see Christ as the ascended Lord (Eph. 1:20–23; we will recall the name “Adonai” of this Psalm). As the Ascended Man Christ is both Lord and Head; these are both emphasized in Ephesians 1 and 4.
In Ephesians 4 we see Christ as the ascended Head of the “one body” on earth. He receives gifts “in man” (DBY; “among men” ESV; NKJV)6 and communicates these gifts to the body of Christ.
In Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians we read that the Holy Spirit distributed various gifts to men.7 But in Ephesians it is the men themselves who are the gifts given to the Church by Christ: pastors, evangelists, and teachers. The gifts of a miraculous nature may pass away. But the gifts from the ascended Christ (as revealed in Eph. ch. 4) will abide as long as there is still a Church on the earth, for the Head is faithful to nourish the body as long as it is here.
The Apostle Paul omits the last part of verse 18, which speaks of the “the rebellious,” because it refers to Israel in the future who will also be blessed by God at that time. The Church is nourished by Christ now as Israel will be strengthened by Adonai in a coming day, for “He it is that giveth strength and might unto the people. Blessed be God!” (v. 35).
People sometimes ask, “Why don’t we see more gifts in operation among God’s people?” Brother J. N. Darby once responded to that question with, “If there were more devotion there would be more gifts.” May this stir our hearts and may we covet the best gifts in order to edify the saints and build up the body.
1. Psalm 22 is the Psalm of the Sin Offering and Psalm 16 is the Resurrection Psalm.
2. See comments on Psalm 16 where this view is mentioned in more detail.
3. “Undo” – DBY.
4. Ephesians 4:7–12.
5. “Mystery” in the biblical sense is not something that is “mysterious” or hidden, but something that is revealed to the initiated or at the time of God’s choosing. For example, there are many types and shadows of the Church in the Old Testament but they could not be known until the death of Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit.
6. In Paul’s quotation of Psalm 68:18 found in Ephesians 4:8, he states that Christ has given gifts “to men.” For a technical discussion of this see the NET Bible note R.
7. It is interesting to see that in Romans 12 it is God who gives the gifts; in 1 Corinthians 12 it is the Holy Spirit who gives the gifts; and in Ephesians 4 it is the Lord Jesus in heaven who gives the gifts.