Read Psalm 68.
When I was a kid, my grandparents on my dad’s side owned a piece of property up in the Catskills. Growing up, I spent plenty of weekends and a good chunk of my summer vacations up there. It’s beautiful country, a world removed from what most people think of when they think of New York.
What I remember most are not events, but pictures snapped by my senses—the scent of the early morning breeze in summertime, the brightness of the constellations set against the blackest of night skies, the heat of a roaring bonfire nearly out of control. The pace was different. Somehow, both the days and nights seemed longer.
I also remember the long car ride up there. It took about three and a half hours. The thing is, you don’t really drive up to the base of a mountain and then throw your car in a low gear to climb to the top. You sort of meander your way into the hills, and before you realize it, you’re on top of a mountain. It’s not like out West, where the mountains are clearly differentiated from the valleys below. The Sierras are sharp, jagged things climbing high out of the flat earth beneath, while the Catskills are soft and subtle, and take you a bit by surprise.
Zion is like a hill in the Catskills, hardly a mountain at all—yet David makes a big deal out of reaching its summit: “When you ascended on high, you took many captives; you received gifts from people, even from the rebellious—that you, LORD God, might dwell there” (Psalm 68:18).
The image is that of God as a conquering King, returning from battle with the spoils of war. In the psalm, God leads a trail of prisoners in His wake and carries with Him gifts from these defeated subjects. His destination? The temple (or the tent where the ark was housed) atop Mount Zion. It has been suggested that this psalm was sung whenever the ark of the covenant returned to Jerusalem after a successful battle.
When Paul dealt with this notoriously difficult passage in the book of Ephesians, he saw an image of Christ:
This is why it says:
“When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.”
(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:8–13)
In Paul’s mind, the ascent of the risen Jesus was not a simple jaunt to the top of Mount Zion; it was a flight to the heights of heaven. The gifts were not from the Lord’s enemies, but from the Father. And Jesus didn’t merely receive them—He gave them out to His people. They are spiritual gifts to bless the Church.
It’s hard to make sense of Paul’s use of Psalm 68 in Ephesians. No one reading the psalm would walk away with his conclusion. The passage doesn’t appear to be about the ascension of Jesus into heaven or the gifts of the Spirit. Paul even has to change some of the words to make his point. (Compare Ephesians 4:8 with Psalm 68:18 to see the differences.) So what are we to do?
Well, for one, Paul gets a pass. Ephesians is every bit as inspired as the Psalms. If the Holy Spirit worked through Paul to give us this interpretation of Psalm 68, then so be it. The Spirit authored both texts. Surely, He has the right to tell us how it should be understood in light of the work of Jesus.
But there’s another reason I think we can trust the explanation we receive in Ephesians. The Old Testament is intended to point us to Christ. Jesus Himself said as much on the road to Emmaus. “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). One of the ways the Old Testament does this is by using earthly things to describe heavenly realities. For example, we know that the tabernacle, and later the temple, were copies of the heavenly temple (Exodus 25:40; Hebrews 8:5). The promised land was an image of the new heavens and the new earth (Hebrews 11:13–16). And behind physical battles, there were often spiritual conflicts (2 Kings 3:26–27; Ephesians 6:12).
The ark returning to Zion in triumph was always symbolic of the Lord returning to heaven, victorious over the real enemies of God’s people—dark spiritual forces who oppose God and His plans for this world. So while Psalm 68 may, on the surface, be about the Lord’s victory over a nearby human enemy of Israel, it points us to Jesus’ greater victory over spiritual enemies. “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15).
With sin paid for at Calvary, Jesus is now able to give His people new hearts and new lives. In Christ, each one of us is now fit to be a temple of the Holy Spirit. And so, the Spirit was given at Pentecost. Just listen to how Peter described what happened on that incredible day: “Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear” (Acts 2:33). He ascended on high—much higher than the stature of Zion—and He gave gifts to His people.
Our King is victorious, and we have received the blessings.