God’s Power for Us (again): Psalm 68 in Ephesians 4.8-10

Ephesians 4.7-16 is a wonderful passage with a powerful message of how God empowers each and every one of us to grow into truth, into perfect maturity, and into Christlikeness, not just for our own sake, but for the sake of the Church and the world as a whole. But it begins with a very strange sequence: A simple statement, which is justified by a biblical quotation that both seems to be a stretch and also misquotes the original, from Psalm 68, and then followed by an explanation that only adds to the confusion. And so before moving on in Ephesians, I think it’s important to stop and acknowledge this weirdness and see what might be going on with it.

As a reminder, here is the text in question:

(4.7) But to each one of us is given grace in accordance with the measure of Christ’s gift. (8) Therefore it says: “Ascending on high he took captivity captive; he gave gifts to the people.” (9) And what does ‘he rose up’ imply except that he also descended into the lower parts of the earth? (10) The one who descended is the same as the one who ascended above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.

In order to try to understand what might be going on in this passage, I’ll first explore the textual problem itself, looking at the different recensions (’textual families’) and then the bigger picture of Psalm 68’s meaning and use. Then I’ll turn to Paul’s curious explanation and see if we can’t demystify it.

Textual Considerations

The quotation in v.8 is from Psalm 68.18 (67.19 in the Septuagint’s numbering). However, the text given here is not found in any of the major ancient versions of the Hebrew Bible. And, in fact, both the Hebrew and Greek textual traditions have the opposite meaning:

  • Hebrew: “Ascending on high, you captured captives [or captivity], you received spoils from men
  • Greek: “Ascending on high, you captured captivity, you received gifts among men.”

What’s going on here? Why would Paul feel the need to ‘prooftext’ a simple statement like “To each one of us is given grace in accordance with the measure of Christ’s gift”? And if he did, why would he seemingly conjure one up, when there are so many other possibilities with greater relevance? The whole situation seems so odd that I think something else must be going on here.

First, it has to be pointed out that while none of the major recensions agree with Paul’s reading, it is attested in other ancient sources.* Ancient Syriac and Aramaic texts have the verb ‘to give’ here, as do some important Coptic (Late Ancient Egyptian) manuscripts. So, it would seem possible that Paul was  familiar with a text that had the sense of ‘give’ instead of ‘receive.’

But, where might such an alternative reading come from in the first place? To answer this, we’ll have to turn to Psalm 68 as a whole.

Psalm 68

Psalm 68 is a praise of God’s triumph over the enemies of the people. It begins with a prayer:

Let God rise up; let his enemies be scattered;
let those who hate him flee before him.
As smoke is driven away, so drive them away;
as wax melts before the fire, let the wicked perish before God.
But let the righteous be joyful;
let them exult before God;
let them be jubilant with joy. (Psalm 68.1-3)

It goes on to recount the stirring victory of God in battle. But, this victory is always brought back to God’s justice and mercy towards those most at risk: the widows, orphans, and ‘needy’. This central part of the psalm, recounting the spoils of war that God takes — a symbol of God’s total victory over God’s enemies — provides the immediate context for the verse Paul quotes. The Psalm then ends with this praise:

Awesome is God in his sanctuary, the God of Israel;
he gives power and strength to his people.
Blessed be God!

A couple things are worth noting here. First, the Psalm ends with the same idea that is represented by the alternative textual traditions and interpolated into the Ephesians quotation. While, yes, the Psalm recounts God’s military victory and the spoils of war, it is also always focused on the stakes this victory has for the community of faith, and it ends with a promise of gifts of power and strength: It is God’s victory as a gift for the people of God, which puts it squarely in the realm of meaning we find in Ephesians 4.8. So even if Paul’s quotation is ‘wrong’, it doesn’t actually misrepresent the spirit of the Psalm.

And second, the themes of this Psalm should jump out to anyone who has been reading Ephesians. The Psalm includes many ideas — at times down to the same words — we’ve seen throughout this study: themes of divine power and strength over God’s enemies, God’s gifts, God’s mercy and concern for the wellbeing of the faithful, the idea of the heavenly realm, the people of God as God’s ‘inheritance’, and the promise of power to them. The Psalm also ends with the same expression with which Ephesians begins: “Blessed be God.” And, as we will see in future studies, the expressions the Psalm uses for worship will appear in Ephesians 5, and Ephesians 6 exhorts for the faithful to be strengthened by God to withstand attack (Ephesians 6.10-17). With this in mind, Paul’s reference to this Psalm stops seeming remotely random or out-of-place. In fact, it seems very appropriate and relevant to his message.

While yes, Paul is thinking more of spiritual foes than the physical ones the Psalm has in mind, this type of spiritual application of the Hebrew Scriptures was very common in early Christianity, and indeed in early rabbinic Judaism. There is some evidence that Psalm 68 was associated in Jewish tradition with the feast of Weeks (Pentecost), which commemorated the giving of the Law of Moses; if this tradition reached as far back as Paul’s day, then there would already have been precedent for such spiritual application of this Psalm. This is even more compelling considering that in Christianity, Pentecost came to celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit — the source of the empowerment Ephesians has in mind! (For a discussion of the evidence for and against this position see, especially Arnold’s commentary on Ephesians.) At any rate, Christians certainly understood Psalm 68 to speak into God’s ultimate victory in Christ. At some point in early Christianity (later than the writing of Ephesians), the first verses of the Psalm became associated with the celebration of the resurrection at Easter. To this day, the words, “Let God arise! Let his enemies be scattered!” are synonymous for Eastern Orthodox Christians with their Easter celebrations.

So there is a substantial history of spiritual application of this Psalm in terms of God’s victory over spiritual enemies. As Clinton E. Arnold summarizes the situation:

By analogy to God as the triumphant Divine Warrior who, after he ascended his throne, received gifts of homage from his captives, Paul “depicts Christ as the triumphant Divine Warrior who, after he ascended to his throne, blesses his people with gifts.”

Again, even if Paul depends on a lesser known textual tradition, it is one that accurately expresses the theme of the Psalm as a whole. It may perhaps have been an intentional gloss, conflating the one expression from v.18 with that from v.35 as a way of summarizing the meaning of Psalm and its relevance to the Christians in Asia Minor.

Ascent and Descent

But, all this being as it is, we are still left with one final problem in the form of Paul’s rather unhelpful explanation:

(9) And what does ‘he rose up’ imply except that he also descended into the lower parts of the earth? (10) The one who descended is the same as the one who ascended above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.

What is this language of ascent and descent all about, and how does it connect to the giving of gifts?

The funny thing is that the ascent language is pretty clear. Ephesians has already stressed the importance of the Ascension, specifically as an event which marginalizes the ‘principalities and powers’ and places them under Christ’s authority. So it makes sense that Paul would find this a relevant meaning in Psalm 68.18. But the language of descent, which he unnecessarily introduces here, is far less certain. What ‘descent’ is he talking about? And how is it relevant?

There are three major options:

  1. It could refer to the Incarnation: In this case it would refer to the whole dispensation of God’s plan as enacted in Jesus’ birth, life, teaching, ministry, and death.
  2. It could refer to the Harrowing of Hades, the ‘quasi-biblical’ teaching from early Christianity that Jesus descended into the realm of the dead to release them from bondage to death: In this case the reference here would be to the destruction of Sin’s domain.
  3. It could refer to Pentecost: In this case it would emphasize the gift of the Holy Spirit as a gift of Christ’s very own presence and life.

All of these options have reasons to commend them and reasons why they seem unlikely. The situation is so unclear that each of my three main dialog partners in this project takes a different approach. (Klyne Snodgrass prefers option 1, Clinton E. Arnold takes option 2, and Ralph P. Martin espouses option 3. See their commentaries for their respective rationales.)

A look at similar imagery elsewhere in the New Testament is likewise inconclusive. The contrast between the ideas of ascent and descent is used in John 3.13 and Romans 10.6-8, but in rather different ways. Similarly, Psalm 68.18’s language of “capturing captivity” (or captives) appears twice elsewhere in the letters traditionally attributed to Paul, but in one case (Colossians 2.15) it is the principalities and powers that are taken captive, and in the other (2 Corinthians 2.14) it is the saints (imagined as being recaptured from their state of captivity to sin). In its own way the lack of any unified use of this imagery in the New Testament is helpful, in that it means that it probably doesn’t actually matter. The descent may not be any one of the three options, but the general, humble, loving, and self-sacrificial character of God that underlies all three. Once again, this idea would bring Ephesians in line with the Philippians 2 hymn: Christ’s humility, as seen in the incarnation and his willingness to die in order to save others, is the characteristic that motivates God’s raising and glorifying him (Philippians 2.5-11). Following this same logic, Christ’s presence in the gift of the Holy Spirit would be a similar exercise in self-giving love and fit equally well into the scheme. And it is through this gift that Jesus is able to “fill all things.”

Conclusion

This post has been a great example of why I don’t like to skip over parts of the New Testament that seem strange, irrelevant, or like they don’t fit. Upon deeper exploration, Ephesians 4.8’s apparently random misappropriation of Psalm 68.18 turns out to be an intentional allusion to Scripture which emphasizes the book’s own themes: the victorious God giving gifts to the faithful to strengthen them for spiritual battles to come. And the confusing explanation, though remaining unclear in its specific reference, can be understood to reflect the basic Christian premise that loving, self-giving humility is the path to true glory and power, as defined by God.

We could gloss the logic of the passage, then, with something like this:

But to each one of us is given grace, as Christ graciously gives it to help us fend off our spiritual enemies. It’s just like that Psalm where God, vanquishing Israel’s enemies who sought to oppress the powerless, gave them strength to fight future battles. For Christ — the same Christ who humbly came down to serve and teach and die for our freedom — was also ‘raised up’ in victory, where he sits in authority over all our spiritual enemies, and will one day fill the whole cosmos with his own glorious love. And he gave some to be apostles …

From that point, the passage carries on with the calling to grow into maturity and Christlikeness as a result of that power given to us in Christ.

To my mind, this has been a very worthy pitstop on our journey through Ephesians. In the next post, we’ll pick up the narrative again in 4.17.

 

* Please see the full bibliography for the series for details.

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