by Mike Ratliff
18 You have ascended on high, You have led captive Your captives;
You have received gifts among men,
Even among the rebellious also, that the Lord God may dwell there. Psalms 68:18 (NASB)
8 Therefore it says,
“When He ascended on high,
He led captive a host of captives,
And He gave gifts to men.” Ephesians 4:8 (NASB)
8 διὸ λέγει·
ἀναβὰς εἰς ὕψος ᾐχμαλώτευσεν αἰχμαλωσίαν,
ἔδωκεν δόματα τοῖς ἀνθρώποις. Ephesians 4:8 (NA28)
8 Wherefore it says,
“Having ascended to the height He led captive captivity;
He gave gifts to men. Ephesians 4:8 (translated from the NA28 Greek text)
I confess that Ephesians 4:8 has always puzzled me. It became even stranger when I began to read it in Greek. As you can see, Ephesians 4:8 is a actually a “semi-quotation” of Psalm 68:18, which was a victory hymn celebrating God’s conquest of the Jebusites and His ascent (represented by the Ark of the Covenant) up Mount Zion (2 Samuel 6-7, 1 Chronicles 13). Soldiers captured by the enemy became “re-captured captives” and the spoils of war became the property of the conqueror to give as he wished. However, is that the context Paul has in mind in Ephesians 4:8?
I am sure many of you have read or heard teachings on this passage that say that it is referring to Old Testament saints who, though saved, were held in some sort of captivity. Supposedly, then Jesus went into hades (hell), retrieved them from their captivity, and took them to heaven. Where did this teaching come from? It is actually rooted in Roman Catholic tradition, not Scripture, and does not even come close to the imagery of the phrase.
The Greek ᾐχμαλώτευσεν αἰχμαλωσίαν more literally says, “He led captive captivity.” The word ᾐχμαλώτευσεν (ēchmalōteusen) is the aorist indicative active of αἰχμαλωτεύω (aichmalōteuō), “to capture,” and αἰχμαλωσία (aichmalōsia), “captivity, sate of captivity…”, and αἰχμάλωτος (aichmalōtos), “a captive.” What does this tell us? The picture is rooted in the public triumph of conquerors, especially as celebrated by the Romans. The language clearly describes the conqueror who took captives, led them away in chains, and then made them part of his triumphal procession.
We find this in the Old Testament as well. In Judges 5:12, Deborah praises the Lord for giving victory over Canaan: “Awake, awake, Deborah: awake, awake, utter a son: arise, Barak, and lead thy captivity captive.” the idea is clear. You will now lead captive him who held you captive. Also, in Amos 1:3-6, God pronounces judgment on the nations around Israel because they had “carried away captive the whole captivity, to deliver them up to Edom,” that is, the Philistines had handed over a large number of Israelites to the cruel Edomites.
So, again, what is Paul saying in Ephesians 4:8? It is a picture of the Lord Jesus Christ leading in His triumphal train the devil and hell and sin and death–the great enemies that were against man and which had held mankind in captivity for so long a time. The princes which had controlled that captivity are now being led captive themselves.
I don’t know about you, but I want to see that very much. What a picture! Our Lord is, indeed, the Conqueror of conquerors, the King of kings, the Lord of lords. Those who once held us in bondage are now captives of the Great Conqueror and march in chains before Him. As if that were not enough, Paul goes on to say that Christ gave spiritual gifts to the believers who remain on earth.
Soli Deo Gloria!