“Wherefore He saith, ‘When He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men’” Eph.4.8.
“Thou hast ascended on high, Thou hast led captivity captive: Thou hast received gifts for men; yea, for the rebellious also, that the LORD God might dwell among them” Ps.68.18.
The verse cited above, Eph.4.8, clearly refers to the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ. The fact that it employs a quotation from Psalm 68 confirms that this is a Messianic Psalm. However, there are some important differences. We note that the Ephesian citation is shorter than the corresponding verse in Psalm 68, and also that the “gifts” are received for men in the Psalm and are given unto men in Ephesians. The gifts referred to in each passage are different: they are the tangible spoils of war in Psalm 68, and the spiritual provision of gifted men in Ephesians chapter 4. Rebellious men are referred to in the Psalm, but not in Ephesians. This is not a matter of any concern. While the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek involved some textual variations, the citation of the Septuagint text here in Ephesians accords it the authentication of Divine inspiration. The context of the ascended Lord and the Church which is His body in Ephesians does not require reference to “the rebellious”.
This short summary should be sufficient to demonstrate that Ps.68.18 is employed in Eph.4.8 in a totally different context. So, let us deal briefly first of all with the Ephesian passage. Then we can consider Ps.68.18 in its primary context, in this confidence-building Psalm, which is an assurance of the unassailable progress of Divine purpose.
THE QUOTATION OF PSALM 68.18 IN EPHESIANS 4.8
“Wherefore He saith” refers to the testimony of Holy Scripture in Ps.68.18, quoted in support of the Divinely-inspired Epistle to the Ephesian assembly. This phrase assures us of the Divine voice in the Scriptures. It is, therefore, a practical encouragement to apply ourselves to reading the Bible, both extensively and intensively. When we read, we should always remember one of the six points of advice of Mr. Brownlow North (1810-1875) to young Christians: “Never neglect daily private Bible reading; and when you read, remember that God is speaking to you, and that you are to believe and act upon what He says. I believe that all backsliding begins with the neglect of prayer and Bible-reading.”1
1. Moody-Stuart, K. “Brownlow North The Scottish Evangelist”. John Ritchie Ltd., Kilmarnock.
“When He ascended up on high” develops the theme of God’s victory from Psalm 68 to demonstrate in the New Testament that God’s complete triumph has been accomplished in a Man, “the” Man, Christ Jesus.
“He led captivity captive” confirms that our Lord Jesus Christ as Man has led captive all the power that previously had dominion over men. “Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, He also Himself likewise took part of the same; that through death He might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” Heb.2.14,15. The devil who led us captive is now a defeated foe. “The prince of the power of the air” Eph.2.2, was totally impotent as the Lord Jesus Christ passed through the devil’s sphere of operation in triumphant ascension by virtue of Calvary’s conclusive and comprehensive victory and His glorious resurrection.
“And gave gifts unto men” is a consequence of Calvary’s victory. In a coming day the Lord will bind Satan and bestow Millennial blessings upon earth. However, another evidence of His victory is present and personal. Men freed by salvation are gifted to the Church and hence to individual assemblies, and Satan is powerless to prevent it. In this passage the gifts are the men themselves: apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastor-teachers, Eph.4.11. The foundational gifts of apostles and prophets are long gone, but through them we have our complete New Testament. Satan could not thwart that, nor has he been able to suppress the publication, printing and distribution of the Scriptures. The gospel still goes forward through the gift of evangelists. Assemblies are still being led and fed by pastor-teachers. There is no lack of interest in bestowing such gifts by the ascended Christ and no power of hell can thwart His purpose; but could there be a monumental lack of exercise and application on the part of those intended to be gifts to the work of God today?
Now let us go back to Psalm 68.
THE STRUCTURE OF PSALM 68
There are three pause points in the Psalm, denoted by the word “Selah” vv.7,19,32. On that basis the Psalm divides into four parts: vv.1-7; 8-19; 20-32 and 33-35. However, perusal of a Newberry Reference Bible will show eight separate paragraphs indicated. Various commentators have employed other divisions. Whatever methodology is employed, let us not obscure the sheer scope of this Psalm or be blind to its multifaceted display of the glories of God as revealed therein in the array of Divine titles.
TITLE AND INTRODUCTORY COMMENTS
This is a Psalm of David to the chief Musician. It is a processional Psalm of pulsating power speaking to the emotion as well as the intellect. It is a Psalm of purpose to lift the spirit and direct the step. It reflects on the past as it refocuses on the future. While there are textual difficulties in the Psalm that have puzzled many commentators in seeking to determine which of a number of possible interpretations apply, we should not allow those to lessen the joy of this inspired marching song. What David the minstrel-king by inspiration did for Israel in 1000B.C. is similar to what a prolific hymnwriter wrote in 1707A.D. to lift the hearts of the faithful.
Come ye that love the Lord,
And let your joys be known;
Join in a song with sweet accord,
And thus surround the throne.
We’re marching to Zion,
Beautiful, beautiful Zion;
We’re marching upward to Zion,
The beautiful city of God.
The incident in David’s life that provides the immediate context for the writing of Psalm 68 is the celebration of the return of the Ark of the Covenant, or Ark of the Testimony, from the house of Obed-edom to Zion, 2Sam.6.2-18; 1Chr.15.25-16.1. Yet by inspiration the Psalm reprises the history of the nation of Israel from Sinai until the coming Millennial Kingdom. It covers the setting forth of the Ark, Numbers chapter 10; takes snatches from the Song of Deborah, Judges chapter 5; and looks forward to the future Kingdom.
The Psalm also employs a comprehensive range of the names of God: Elohim; Jehovah; Adonai; Shaddai; Jah Jehovah; Ha El; Jah Elohim. These names are cited appropriately, King David taking comfort that God is able to meet every need of His people.
THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT
The commencement of Israel’s long march from Sinai must have been wonderful to behold. Silver trumpets sounded, the tribes moved in order, the Tabernacle with its holy vessels and furniture were covered and conveyed as directed, with the standard of the tribe of Judah in the vanguard. “And they departed from the mount of the LORD three days’ journey: and the ark of the covenant of the LORD went before them in the three days’ journey, to search out a resting place for them. And the cloud of the LORD was upon them by day, when they went out of the camp. 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’” Num.10.33-36.
Almost four hundred and fifty years later the Ark, recovered by God from the Philistines, is to be moved from its temporary resting place to Zion. Priests and Levites carefully approach the Ark in the home of Obed-edom, 2Sam.6.12-19; 1Chr.15.11-29. They know that carelessness in its handling meant death, as had occurred earlier when “Uzzah put forth his hand to the ark of God, and took hold of it; for the oxen shook it. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there for his error; and there he died by the ark of God” 2Sam.6.6,7; see also 1Chr.13.9,10. Yet they would be encouraged that the Lord had blessed the household of Obed-edom for their reverent lodging of the Ark for three months, 2Sam.6.11; 1Chr.13.14.
David must also have been apprehensive as the Levites carefully carried the Ark from the home of Obed-edom to commence the journey to Zion. The Ark on the move, even without the visible presence of the Lord in the pillar cloud, was impressive. Oxen and fatlings were sacrificed and the procession was accompanied by trumpet sound and shouting.
DETAIL OF PSALM 68
We shall now consider the Psalm in more detail, based upon the paragraphs indicated in the Newberry Reference Bible.
God’s dealings with His people in the past should ever be a present encouragement as we face the future. God is unchanging. As He was at Sinai, so He is at the homestead of Obed-edom. The Ark is again to be lifted by staves onto the shoulders of Kohathites and so the name of God, Elohim, ‘The Strong One’, is invoked for success and protection: “Let God arise” v.1.
Irrespective of our own personal exercise we must give God His true place and due worship. David has already sustained public failure: his natural thought processes had devised the new cart and a man had died when he put his hand to steady that which speaks of Christ. It was only in God’s grace and mercy that David had not been smitten as well! So, he learns the lesson that everything depends upon God even when our actions are in accord with Scripture.
David also recognises that, unlike the commencement of the Ark’s wilderness journey, there is now no visible representation of God in the pillar cloud, no rod of power, nor miraculous provision, etc.; but God has not changed; His word and ways have not changed and, on that basis, David’s faith rests in God. So, the words of Israel’s first national anthem, its hymn of praise and slow march, ring out.
When God’s presence is real in the midst of His people there will be an evident response to the appeal, “let His enemies be scattered: let them also that hate Him flee before Him” v.1. When God arises, our enemies, who are also His enemies, will be driven from before His face. No doubt the faithful remnant of Israel will raise a similar appeal in a future day of tribulation; but it also has the essence of revivalist desire. In this regard we know that God’s power has not diminished. So, is it that we have lost the fear of God that Moses and Israel had at Sinai; that David had at Nachon’s threshing floor when Uzzah was smitten; or here at the home of Obed-edom?
David is confident in God’s power. He had witnessed it in chastisement. Now he longs to see it moving in blessing to benefit His people. Enemies are very real to us but not to God: “As smoke is driven away, so drive them away” v.2. No matter how thick, dark and acrid smoke is, it will be dissipated by even the gentlest of breezes. David desires that opponents be driven away. He also employs the metaphor “as wax melteth before the fire” v.2, desiring that Israel’s enemies, no matter their appearance or form, should perish at God’s presence.
If God’s presence caused consternation to His enemies, it is a comfort to His own people: “But let the righteous be glad; let them rejoice before God: yea, let them exceedingly rejoice” v.3. Israel’s perpetual longing is for a time of uninterrupted joy and jubilation. The faithful remnant emerging from tribulation in a future day will experience it. David seeks to bring it into present experience. It should be our desire also, but is it our experience? “We also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement [‘reconciliation’]” Rom.5.11.
The songs of Scripture are theological masterpieces, speaking of God in His Person, His attributes, His purpose, His ways, etc. They focus upon redemption and salvation. This song is no different. The songs in the Bible stand in direct contrast to the banal and repetitive lyrics that are often presented as ‘modern Christian music’; modern they may be, but the other two descriptions are more questionable.
This song extols the matchless might of God’s strength employed in the defence of the vulnerable. If the first words of this Psalm recall Numbers chapter 10, this first song takes us back to Exodus chapter 15. Moses was moving under the direction of God when a song was sung. Now David is moving, sensitively judging that God is favourable, and a song is sung: “Sing unto God, sing praises to His name: extol Him that rideth upon the heavens by His name Jah, and rejoice before Him” v.4.
The name JAH2 is a transliteration and contraction of the redemptive name Jehovah by which God revealed Himself to the children of Israel. This title occurs twice in this Psalm, vv.4,19, and also in the verse “Trust ye in the LORD for ever: for in the LORD Jehovah [Jah Jehovah] is everlasting strength” Isa.26.4. God not only reveals Himself through His Word, but binds Himself by His Word to perform all He promises. Moses could say, “The LORD [Jah, the Eternal, inhabiting eternity] is my strength and song, and He is become my salvation” Ex.15.2. We take comfort from the fact that the Jehovah of the Old Testament is the Lord Jesus Christ of the New Testament.
2. JAH “is a contracted, poetical form of ‘Jehovah’. The abbreviation, however, must not be understood as a diminution, but rather as an intensification of the awful incomprehensible name” — J.M. Flanigan, “What the Bible Teaches – Psalms”. John Ritchie Ltd., Kilmarnock, 2001.
The precise meaning of the phrase “Extol Him that rideth upon the heavens by His name” v.4, has been the subject of much discussion. The Authorised Version translation, just cited, ties in closely with “to Him that rideth upon the heavens of heavens” in v.33. However, the Revised Version renders the phrase, “Cast up a high way for Him that rideth through the deserts” (and Darby’s translation is similar). This rendering is similar to the thought contained in Isa.40.3; 57.14; 62.10, which seems more appropriate to the overall context of the Ark on the move toward Zion with the removal of all obstacles. It also prefigures the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ per the words of John the Baptist: “For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make His paths straight’” Matt.3.3. At His first advent no preparation was made for a ‘royal welcome’. At His second advent He will advance unhindered through the devastation resulting from tribulation to receive His rightful place.
The rejoicing, or exulting, referred to is not that of any personal pleasure in judgment upon the wicked, but because “a father of the fatherless, and a judge of the widows, is God in His holy habitation” v.5. War and tribulation produce casualties and victims, often dehumanised by statistics. But while this Almighty One resides in the heaven of His holy habitation He is not remote from us. He is near to the orphan and dispossessed. Those who weep for a father lost find relief in His care. Widows, who in grief may be exploited, will find in Him One Who comes to their defence. It cannot be otherwise for such is the essential character of the God we have.
He also acts for the benefit of those in other situations. Loss and grief may be sudden arrivals which crush and disorientate; but loneliness and isolation are also discouraging and depressing. For such, God also acts with compassion: “God setteth the solitary in families: He bringeth out those which are bound with chains” v.6. The One Who blessed Abraham and Sarah with Isaac; gave a child to the Shunammite and her husband; brought Ruth the Moabitess to Boaz and gave them an Obed; gave Jairus and his wife their only daughter back from the dead, still exhibits those qualities of grace. God promotes and protects families. He also restores families. Prodigals are watched for until they return. Prisoners are released: Joseph to receive honour and a bride; Paul to renewed service and the salvation of a Philippian household. We recall the Saviour’s words in the synagogue at Nazareth: “The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He hath anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor: He hath sent Me to heal the broken hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the LORD” Lk.4.18,19.
However, in contrast, “the rebellious dwell in a dry land” v.6. Those who were rebellious on the journey from Egypt died, their “carcases fell in the wilderness” with unmarked cemeteries at every point in their thirty-eight-year wanderings. It will also be true at the end of the Millennial Kingdom when those feigning allegiance withdraw far from Jerusalem and refuse to present themselves to worship the King and/or attend the designated feasts. They will experience “no rain” and “the plague, wherewith the LORD will smite the heathen” Zech.14.17-19. Although some would seek to deny it by word and lifestyle, we do live in a moral universe and God will have the last word.
This next paragraph provides a retrospect, first of all of the journey from Egypt to Sinai and then to Canaan: “O God, when Thou wentest forth before Thy people, when Thou didst march through the wilderness” v.7. David takes encouragement from God’s dealings at the birth of the nation in Egypt and immediately thereafter. But there are also parallels with Deborah’s song in Judges chapter 5. It is always beneficial to recall God’s dealings and power in former days, and that others have trodden faith’s pathway before us. We each have our own unique ‘pilgrim’s progress’ to fulfil and we can take courage from the example of others. Older believers should recount their own experiences with God in faith’s trials, and what they learned. Whether the enemy was the Egyptians in Moses’ day, or Canaanites in the time of Deborah and Barak, God was able to bring His people through from slavery, bondage, repression and impoverishment to freedom and a song. David recognises that he too needs the presence of God, and so do we in this post-modern age of moral relativism and aggressive atheism!
The presence of the Lord amongst His people is vital to spiritual progress and testimony. David lived when a conditional covenant applied. Now we have an indwelling Holy Spirit, the completed Scriptures and better promises; but failure to cultivate the presence of God is to our impoverishment and weakness.
David is impressed by the energy that God evidenced: “when Thou wentest forth … when Thou didst march” v.7. The procession of the Ark would be careful as well as celebratory and he desired the presence of God in this current exercise. So should we. Otherwise our gospel preaching will lack conviction and power, open air preaching and tract distribution will become sporadic and desultory, and personal testimony will become tentative, or non-existent. We need to keep step with those who have gone before, align ourselves with God’s guidance, and follow. Who can tell, perhaps great times may return? After all, God has not changed!
We then have the word “Selah” v.7: ‘stop, pause, reflect’. Harold St. John3 comments that “Selah” in this Psalm occurs at the beginning of a stanza instead of at the end.
3. “The Collected Writings of Harold St. John, Volume No.1” Gospel Tract Publications, 1989.
David recalls that when the Ark moved from Sinai God moved heaven and earth in support of His people: “The earth shook, the heavens also dropped at the presence of God: even Sinai itself was moved at the presence of God, the God of Israel” v.8. His presence was manifest at Sinai. Deborah and Barak referred to it: “LORD, when Thou wentest out of Seir, when Thou marchedst out of the field of Edom, the earth trembled, and the heavens dropped, the clouds also dropped water. The mountains melted from before the LORD, even that Sinai from before the LORD God of Israel” Judg.5.4,5.
The Psalmist Asaph had similar experiences with God, resulting in his statement, “I will remember the works of the LORD: surely I will remember Thy wonders of old. I will meditate also of all Thy work, and talk of Thy doings” Ps.77.11,12. These meditations bring Asaph to a comparable conclusion as David’s: “The waters saw Thee, O God, the waters saw Thee; they were afraid: the depths also were troubled. The clouds poured out water: the skies sent out a sound: Thine arrows also went abroad. The voice of Thy thunder was in the heaven: the lightnings lightened the world: the earth trembled and shook” Ps.77.16-18.
David records parallel movements of God in the days of Deborah and Barak: “Thou, O God, didst send a plentiful rain, whereby Thou didst confirm Thine inheritance, when it was weary” v.9. In Deborah’s song we are informed, “They fought from heaven; the stars in their courses fought against Sisera. The river of Kishon swept them away, that ancient river, the river Kishon” Judg.5.20,21. Just as Pharaoh’s chariots became clogged before being overthrown in the Red Sea, Sisera’s chariots similarly became useless before being swept away. God does not need to repeat Himself, but for our sake He sometimes does. God does not need us to do His work, but for our encouragement He allows us to participate.
Irrespective of Israel’s murmuring, wanderings and failure on so many levels God intervened in judgment upon their enemies and rained bread from heaven upon His people. He confirms their inheritance especially when all other hope is gone: “when it was weary”. God is a God of renewal and revival in both the physical and the spiritual realms.
David then returns to the subject of God’s goodness to those in need: “Thy congregation hath dwelt therein: Thou, O God, hast prepared of Thy goodness for the poor” v.10. Within the circle of God’s protection, the poor are specially provided for. Our God bestows from His plenitude and, through the channels of His grace, needs are met.
This section is focussed on the conquest of Canaan. Although we have some textual difficulties to consider, the first phrase of v.11 is absolutely clear: “The Lord gave the word”. Here it is Adonai, a title used seven times in the Psalm. He speaks with the irresistible word of His power, giving direction to march upon the enemy. The Ark of the Covenant is guarantor of Jordan’s crossing and Jericho’s fall. All Israel moved past the Ark upheld by the priests standing “firm on dry ground” in the midst of Jordan, Josh.3.17. It was possibly the closest the whole congregation ever came to the Ark covered securely by the cloth of blue. All Israel saw that same Ark borne by priests circumnavigating Jericho, Josh.6.1-20. Whether the Jordan or Jericho, nothing could withstand His sovereign, decisive word which has inherently the shout of victory.
“Great was the company of those that published it” v.11. “Those that published it” is feminine plural, relating to Israel’s womenfolk who sang for joy when victory was secured. Whether it is Miriam, Ex.15.20; or Deborah, Judg.5.1; or the women in 1Sam.18.6,7, joy spreads from tent to tent and from home to home. The more we would grasp the power in the Word of God, the more our homes would resound with the songs of Zion and reduce any temptation to murmuring, grumbling and backbiting.
God’s power scattered all enemies: “Kings of armies did flee apace: and she that tarried at home divided the spoil” v.12. The woman who stayed at home shared in the song and also the spoils of victory. Christian women today, in their Scripturally-designated sphere of service, who support fathers, husbands, brothers, preachers, et al., engaged in public service, have a right and expectation of sharing in the rewards. Sisters in the Lord will likely secure a much greater share of recognition and reward at the Judgment Seat of Christ than they were ever given credit for in their lifetime. Testimony according to the pattern in the New Testament would be impossible to maintain without the prayerful, practical, supportive role of sisters. The Lord will guarantee that they will share in the song and in the honours.
“Though ye have lien among the pots” v.13, has caused difficulties of interpretation. “Pots” may be better translated ‘hurdles’ or ‘sheepfolds’: “Issachar is a strong ass couching down between two burdens [the ‘two folds’ or ‘stalls’]” Gen.49.14. We recall the reference to Reuben in Deborah’s song: “For the divisions of Reuben there were great thoughts of heart. Why abodest thou among the sheepfolds, to hear the bleatings of the flocks?” Judg.5.15,16. This phrase seems to refer to those with only a passing interest in the things of God. Whatever the state of self-satisfied indifference, of casual inactivity, there are better days ahead, even for these: “Yet shall ye be as the wings of a dove covered with silver, and her feathers with yellow gold” v.13. Israel was typified “as a dove out of the land of Assyria” Hos.11.11. Also, “O deliver not the soul of Thy turtledove unto the multitude of the wicked” Ps.74.19. See also the references to the dove in the Song of Songs. Throughout Scripture silver typifies redemption and gold Divine righteousness or glory. Israel redeemed in the future will find its homing instinct again and will not be satisfied with anything short of God’s glory.
“When the Almighty [Shaddai] scattered kings in it, it was white as snow in Salmon” v.14, most likely refers, in keeping with chronological order, to the conquests in the days of Joshua. Shaddai, the all bountiful God, dispersed all kings residing in the inheritance given in promise by God to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They were driven as snowflakes in Salmon, that dark and heavily wooded hill, which provided the fuel for the destruction of the tower of Shechem, Judg.9.46-49. The contrast is stark, the whiteness of snowflakes against a dark background. We are reminded of the words of Isaiah: “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” Isa.1.18.
We now come to Zion itself. Jerusalem was captured by David, and the citadel of Zion, held for centuries by the Jebusites, finally was taken, 2Sam.5.7; 1Chr.11.5.
In these two verses we consider God’s sovereign choice of this site for the establishment of Israel’s civil government. God choosing Zion was, perhaps, surprising. After all, it was not the highest summit in the land. “The hill of God is as the hill of Bashan; a high hill as the hill of Bashan” v.15. Mount Hermon at over nine thousand feet is the highest peak in the Bashan range, lofty and majestic when its peak is snow covered, but Bashan was not selected by God as the seat of Israel’s government.
God’s ways are not our ways. We remember that He withdrew Moses from the universities and military academies of Egypt to give him a forty-year education ending at the burning bush when “he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb” Ex.3.1. After the Exodus we read, “And Moses rose up, and his minister Joshua: and Moses went up into the mount of God” Ex.24.13. Much later we read of Elijah, “And he arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God” 1Kgs.19.8. In contrast to the mountain of God, Horeb/Sinai, we have here the “hill of God”. Sometimes we become over-occupied by size, reputation, history, etc., but that which is important or impressive in the eyes of man is of no account. The only matter of consequence is the presence of God.
The surprising choice of Zion is emphasised by the further poetical reference, “Why leap ye, ye high hills?” v.16. The imagery pictures the mountains of Bashan bobbing up and down trying to gain God’s attention to press their claims as a suitable site, while looking with envy at Zion. However, “this is the hill which God desireth to dwell in; yea, the LORD will dwell in it for ever” v.16. He is the covenant-keeping God, ever true to His word. Zion will be His resting place according to His choice. He will reside in an elevated situation; men will have to ascend going to Zion, but He will also be accessible to all who seek Him. He will never put impossible demands on His people; He has excluded the high peaks of Bashan. He invites approach.
Chariots were always a terror to the children of Israel. At the Red Sea, Pharaoh’s six hundred chosen chariots pursued, Ex.14.7. Sisera later could deploy nine hundred chariots of iron against them, Judg.4.3. But irrespective of the forces arrayed against them there was a greater force ever ready to come to their aid: “The chariots of God are twenty thousand, even thousands [‘thousands upon thousands’ R.V., J.N.D.] of angels” v.17. God’s resources though invisible are nevertheless real. Elisha prayed, and “the LORD opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha” 2Kgs.6.17. Daniel in a dream and visions also understood that “thousand thousands ministered unto Him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him” Dan.7.10. David and his army may have captured and secured Zion, but he recognises that Divine resources were the true source of his victory. And so for us: we must always draw upon spiritual power, which is vouchsafed to us, ever remembering, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” Rom.8.31. Too often we look for the tangible when in trouble, forgetting the spiritual and the Scriptural. God has also battalions of invisible, invincible forces: “Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?” Heb.1.14.
But greater than all the heavenly host is the fact that “the Lord is among them, as in Sinai, in the holy place” v.17. The Lord, Adonai, is among them and His presence and holiness impart power. All that He exhibited at Sinai is available for Zion. The Ark commenced its journey at Sinai and will conclude at Zion, which will become His holy habitation. God’s purpose centres on Christ coming to this very place to assert His sovereign rights. That which is foreshadowed in David’s day will be realised in the return of One Whom the world rejected at His first advent.
It is at this point that the ‘Messianic verse’ is introduced to the narrative: “Thou hast ascended on high, Thou hast led captivity captive: Thou hast received gifts for men; yea, for the rebellious also, that the LORD God might dwell among them” v.18.
The immediate context undoubtedly relates to David’s day, with the Ark being brought with joy to Zion. However, the apostle Paul by inspiration of the Holy Spirit uses the quotation, in Eph.4.8, to apply this paean in relation to the glorious resurrection victory of our Lord Jesus Christ and His triumphant ascension. Just as the Ark was carried up to Zion’s summit, so He Whom it typifies was conducted upwards through the atmospheric heavens and through the stellar heavens to the throne room of that heavenly habitation to receive the resounding words of welcome: “Sit Thou at My right hand, until I make Thine enemies Thy footstool” Ps.110.1, requoted six times in the New Testament. We do well to recall the words, “Wherefore God also hath highly exalted Him, and given Him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” Phil.2.9-11.
Humbled for a season to receive a name
From the lips of sinners unto whom He came;
Faithfully He bore it spotless to the last,
Brought it back victorious when from death He passed.
Bore it up triumphant with its human light,
Through all ranks of creatures to the central height;
To the throne of Godhead, to the Father’s breast,
Filled it with the glory of that perfect rest.
(Caroline M. Noel)
“Led captivity captive” v.18, may relate in its historical context to the triumph of Barak over Sisera as celebrated in Deborah’s song, Judges chapter 5. The Canaanites who oppressed Israel for twenty years themselves became the spoils of war and were led captive, and Israelites who had been held in Canaanite thraldom were now free. This victory in turn would recall an earlier triumph over Canaanite oppression, Num.21.1-3. However, these cannot compare with Christ’s victory at Calvary, defeating Satan and his hostile forces, laying a righteous basis compatible with God’s own character whereby God “might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” Rom.3.26. Through Calvary He liberates all who trust in Him. “Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, He also Himself likewise took part of the same; that through death He might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” Heb.2.14,15.
The thought in Eph.4.8, however, is of taking captivity captive, not the captors. It is not so much persons but a power and a principle of sin and death that are dealt a mortal blow. “And having spoiled principalities and powers, He made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it” Col.2.15. That said, Christ at Calvary not only broke those enslaving powers, but has secured for Himself a retinue of trophies of His amazing grace.
My chains are snapt, the bonds of sin are broken,
And I am free;
O! let the triumphs of His grace be spoken,
Who died for me.
(Margaret L. Carson)
“Thou hast received gifts for men” v.18, in this context in the Psalm, envisages the conqueror receiving gifts “among” men, R.V. The spoils of war enriched the treasury. We recall the words of Joshua at Jericho: “all the silver, and gold, and vessels of brass and iron, are consecrated unto the LORD: they shall come unto the treasury of the LORD” Josh.6.19. The spoils of war also enriched the nation corporately and the inhabitants individually. However, the use of this text in Eph.4.8 elevates the thought from the material to the spiritual; it is not “gifts for men” but “gifts unto men”, and then we discover that the gifts are men: “And He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ [that is, His Church]: till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” Eph.4.11-13. Christ in His victory did not enrich Himself, but His people, distributing those things necessary for their edification. While in Ephesians chapter 4 it is the men who are the gifts, and those gifts are given by Christ, we should note that spiritual endowments are also given by God and by the Holy Spirit, Rom.12.4-8; 1Cor.12.7-11.
The men of grace have found
Glory begun below;
Celestial fruits on earthly ground
From faith and hope may grow.
We note that “yea, for the rebellious also, that the LORD God might dwell among them” v.18, relates only to Israel, not the Church which is His body (so it is not quoted in Eph.4.8). However, grace is operating here as the rebellious, whether within Israel or from the surrounding Gentile nations, will be brought in to share the blessings of the king should they submit to his claims and authority and surrender their weapons of war. That was true in David’s day and will be true in the Millennial age to come.
Up until this point in the Psalm the progress has been from Sinai to Zion. The second half of the Psalm, vv.19-35, considers the far future in light of Israel’s past. Victory over the Jebusites prefigures the final victory over all enemies. The Ark’s arrival at Zion foreshadows the arrival of the Lord Himself to administer His Millennial reign of universal dominion.
Praise should ever be on the lips of God’s people, whether based upon the fact of the Ark finding its abode on Zion or, for us, the Lord’s Calvary victory, resurrection and ascension. May our default position ever be to say, “Blessed be the Lord” v.19, praising Him apart from the blessings we receive. We should on a daily basis meditate upon His Person and His official glories. Having done so, we shall be better able to trace His blessings and appreciate that He “daily loadeth us with benefits” v.19, or, as rendered by the Revised Version, “who daily beareth our burden”. He did this in the past: “and in the wilderness, where thou hast seen how that the LORD thy God bare thee, as a man doth bear his son, in all the way that ye went, until ye came into this place” Deut.1.31. He will do it in the future: “Hearken unto Me, O house of Jacob, and all the remnant of the house of Israel, which are borne by Me from the belly, which are carried from the womb: and even to your old age I am He; and even to hoar hairs will I carry you: I have made, and I will bear; even I will carry, and will deliver you” Isa.46.3,4. His blessings are never intermittent or inconsequential, but constant and abundant. But are we dependent, empty vessels with the capacity and preparedness to receive all that He is willing to bestow? Are we exercised to accept responsibilities which He is fully prepared to enable?
Who is it who thus provides? “Even the God of our salvation. Selah” v.19. This Mighty One in greatness and power is our Saviour God, One Who enables us to bear our burdens. We are not to rush over this, but take a ‘Selah pause’. Think upon it and offer thanksgivings and praise.
As a result of this foregoing meditation upon God, David proceeds to say, “He that is our God is the God of salvation [lit. ‘salvations’, plural]” v.20. This One in Whom our trust resides is infinitely great: “and unto God the Lord belong the issues from death” v.20. He can preserve life and deliver from death, but also, He is the One Who keeps secure the passages, the goings out from life and death. He will see us safely through, as per John Wesley’s final words, spoken twice, “The best of all is, God is with us.”4
There shall we see His face,
And never, never sin;
There from the rivers of His grace,
Drink endless pleasures in.
4. Rigg, James Harrison. “The Living Wesley” 1891.
Just as God can be relied upon to protect and provide for His own, He can be relied upon to deal with those who oppose: “But God shall wound the head of His enemies, and the hairy scalp of such an one as goeth on still in his trespasses” v.21. He will inflict upon His enemies a crushing defeat. Given that “head” is singular, a particular person is in view. It reminds us of that statement of the LORD God to the serpent, “and I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” Gen.3.15. It also reminds us of the judgment on each of the trinity of evil: the Beast, the False Prophet and the Devil, Rev.19.20; 20.10. The “hairy scalp” refers to the custom of ancient warriors to be unshorn, sometimes with braided dreadlocks, to amplify the terror of their appearance. Truly such were and are ‘hell’s angels’, given over to beastlike cruelty, knowingly persistent in trespasses and devoid of moral compass. Christian men should never seek to emulate their appearance: “Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?” 1Cor.11.14.
God restores: “The Lord said, ‘I will bring again from Bashan, I will bring My people again from the depths of the sea’” v.22. It was not the first time men of Israel were dispersed under persecution and had to be regathered, 1Sam.13.6,7; 14.21,22. In the latter times they will be regathered from all points of the compass, Jer.33.11; Ezek.34.16.
However, the fact that “My people” is in italics in the Authorised Version may also carry the thought that irrespective of where God’s enemies are hiding, He will search them out, Amos 9.2,3. This idea carries forward into the next verse: “that thy foot may be dipped in the blood of thine enemies, and the tongue of thy dogs in the same” v.23. This victory is complete, every unrepentant enemy is destroyed, and not only so, but must bear the indignity of being unburied and sharing the shameful fate of Jezebel, 1Kgs.21.23,24; 2Kgs.9.30-37. “The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance: he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked. So that a man shall say, ‘Verily there is a reward for the righteous: verily He is a God that judgeth in the earth’” Ps.58.10,11.
This final section of the Psalm reviews the joyful procession bringing the Ark to its resting place on Zion. Based on that event, it looks forward to the culmination of God’s earthly programme in relation to the Millennial Kingdom. But it commences with, “They have seen Thy goings, O God” v.24, which provides the perspective of the spectators of this current historical event. They have witnessed God’s goings, His procession, “even the goings of my God, my King, in the sanctuary” v.24. The movements of the Ark are seen as typifying the progressive, purposeful, programme of God Whose sovereign rights and rule are to be acknowledged. The bringing of the Ark to the tent David had erected for it, 2Sam.6.12-19, is explained in much the same order of procession as outlined in 1Chronicles chapter 15.
“The singers went before” as a processional choir and then “the players on instruments followed after” which included “damsels playing with timbrels” v.25. This recalls the joy at the deliverance at the Red Sea when “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances” Ex.15.20. With joy at the commencement and rejoicing again now, it is sad that it was not joy the whole way through! We are not in any position to criticise. We experienced joy when we were saved and we know there will be joy in heaven but, too often, our joy day by day ebbs and flows.
The substance of their song was “Bless ye God in the congregations, even the Lord, from the fountain of Israel” v.26. When God blesses, He enriches. We cannot enrich God! We can only give God our worship, gratitude and praise. Attitudes are infectious and here praise begets more praise. We have much to praise God for, and we should do so both in private and, as here, in public. By the same token murmuring, grumbling and backbiting are also infectious but the best antidote to this is to foster a spirit, and develop the practice, of daily praise.
The expression “from the fountain of Israel” v.26, has two possible interpretations. If the Authorised Version rendering is correct then it refers to Jacob as the progenitor of the nation, which finds a parallel in Isa.48.1. This view fits the context of the following verses. However, the expression could be taken with the preceding wording, indicating that it is the Lord Who is the fountain of Israel. This is consistent with other Scriptures, for example, “For with Thee is the fountain of life: in Thy light shall we see light” Ps.36.9; also, “… they have forsaken Me the fountain of living waters” and “… they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living waters” Jer.2.13; 17.13.
Tribal references are now made: “There is little Benjamin with their ruler, the princes of Judah and their council, the princes of Zebulun, and the princes of Naphtali” v.27. Faith looks beyond the disruption and division in the nation, which lay yet future when this Psalm was written, to days of reconciliation in the Millennial reign of Christ. We have Benjamin and Judah, the southern tribes, with Zebulun and Naphtali, representative of the northern tribes. Solomon’s Temple would later be erected on the border of the territory of Benjamin, Josh.18.16, with that of Judah, Josh.15.8.
“The princes of Judah and their council” v.27, emphasises the civil aspect associated with the royal tribe of David. This looks forward to the time when Another of that tribe will take the reins of universal government: “At that time they shall call Jerusalem the throne of the LORD; and all the nations shall be gathered unto it, to the name of the LORD, to Jerusalem” Jer.3.17.
Then we have reference to “the princes of Zebulun, and the princes of Naphtali” v.27. Again, we trace a link to the song of Deborah, which immortalises the heroic acts of these tribes: “Zebulun and Naphtali were a people that jeoparded their lives unto the death in the high places of the field” Judg.5.18. These were the most northerly tribes that were greatly blessed during the Lord’s first advent. Nazareth, “where He had been brought up” Lk.4.16, was in the territory of Zebulun, and Capernaum, “His own city” Matt.9.1, was in the territory of Naphtali. It is of these tribes that we read, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined” Isa.9.2; Matt.4.13-16. The blessings received at His first advent will be eclipsed by those of His second.
The focus is ever increasingly upon the future: “Thy God hath commanded thy strength: strengthen, O God, that which Thou hast wrought for us” v.28. The power God exerted on their behalf in the past is available still. This prayer will be fulfilled in the Millennium when God will bring to fulfilment that which He has already commenced. Divine power enabled them in past days when they were weak and vulnerable, whether at the Red Sea or in the days of the Judges. They must rely on that same power in the future during the Great Tribulation when assailed on every hand by ruthless enemies.
Victory is assured and days of glory are promised: “Because of Thy temple at Jerusalem shall kings bring presents unto Thee” v.29. This Millennial Temple will be “a house of prayer for all people” to which Gentile nations will bring their tribute and render homage: “they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the LORD” Isa.56.7; 60.6. David never saw a temple erected in his lifetime: “And David said, ‘Solomon my son is young and tender, and the house that is to be builded for the LORD must be exceeding magnifical, of fame and of glory throughout all countries: I will therefore now make preparation for it.’ So David prepared abundantly before his death” 1Chr.22.5. Yet in this Psalm by Divine revelation David is able to look forward at least three millennia, knowing that what he commenced will have its ultimate fulfilment.
We then have another of those verses in Psalm 68 that provide difficulty of interpretation: “Rebuke the company of spearmen, the multitude of the bulls, with the calves of the people, till every one submit himself with pieces of silver: scatter Thou the people that delight in war” v.30. The first phrase in this verse is variously rendered: “Rebuke the wild beast of the reeds” R.V.; J.N.D. and Newberry margin are similar. Egypt, Israel’s ancient enemy, is described as “the great dragon [with scales, as v.4 shows] that lieth in the midst of his rivers” Ezek.29.3,4. If the “wild beast of the reeds” refers to Egypt, the “bulls” may refer to another of Israel’s ancient foes, Babylon; see Jer.50.11.
In light of the adjacent verses, which have a Millennial focus, the reference to these nations may be in the context of rendering homage and tribute to the Lord. The phraseology here may imply that these words are addressed to those who are reluctant to render homage, those who are not saved in the Millennium and, while not openly rebellious, are inwardly resentful. The temporal penalty for such is spelled out in Zech.14.17-19, although we know that many will not show their true colours until the final rebellion against Christ and will be destroyed. But here there is an appeal and a warning.
There shall, however, be great movements toward Zion as the focal point of worship and rule. “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God” v.31. Ambassadors from nations once hostile to Israel will present their credentials at the seat of universal rule. Tribute will be paid, homage given, allegiance owned, supplication made, and benefits received. The foreshadowing of this was given by the coming of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon, 1Kgs.10.1-13; 2Chr.9.1-12.
Again, we have encouragement to lift our voices in praise. It is going to be joyful in that Kingdom age: “Sing unto God, ye kingdoms of the earth; O sing praises unto the Lord; Selah” v.32. Interestingly there is no mention of instrumental accompaniment here. Praise in Revelation chapter 19 is similarly unaccompanied: “And a voice came out of the throne, saying, ‘Praise our God, all ye His servants, and ye that fear Him, both small and great.’ And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, ‘Alleluia: for the LORD God omnipotent, reigneth’” Rev.19.5,6. Earth and heaven will be joined in singing that requires no accompaniment: the greatest company, the greatest volume and the greatest theme! Shame on us if our singing now is half-hearted or barely audible!
Let those refuse to sing
Who never knew our God;
But children of the heav’nly King,
Should spread His praise abroad.
Praise centres upon Him: “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” v.33. In addition to the display of His power, He is the God of government and revelation. He is the One Who is supreme, transcendent and all powerful. Said Moses, “There is none like unto the God of Jeshurun, who rideth upon the heaven in thy help, and in His excellency on the sky. The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms … Happy art thou, O Israel: who is like unto thee, O people saved by the LORD” Deut.33.26-29.
All of this is to be acknowledged: “Ascribe ye strength unto God: His excellency is over Israel, and His strength is in the clouds” v.34. In that coming day Israel, resplendent, redeemed and restored, will be the lead nation, and He Who is omnipotent and majestic will be recognised as He should be.
The final verse of this Psalm gives a summary of Ezekiel chapters 40-48. “O God, Thou art terrible out of Thy holy places: the God of Israel is He that giveth strength and power unto His people” v.35. He is awesome in His holiness, yet condescends to give strength and His power to His people, Israel.
The Ark has reached Zion. It rests in the tent prepared for it. It has travelled far and His people have travelled with it. Its journey has here ended in royal David’s city.
The hill of Zion yields
A thousand sacred sweets,
Before we reach the heav’nly fields,
Or walk the golden streets.
Then let our songs abound,
And ev’ry tear be dry;
We’re marching through Immanuel’s ground,
To fairer worlds on high.
What is there to say when language fails and words prove inadequate? Only this, in the final words of Psalm 68, “Blessed be God”.