The phrase “You have led captivity captive” is mentioned first in Psalm 68:18. The Psalmist writes, “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 portrays in obvious details Israel’s journey through the desert, the conquest of Canaan, the flight of enemy kings, and the final institution of Jerusalem as the religious hub for the nation. The psalmist employs the figure of a conquering king returning triumphantly, with a host of captives, to show the heavenly Monarch going to Jerusalem.
There may be here a particular reference to the bringing up of the ark. “So they brought the ark of the Lord, and set it in its place in the midst of the tabernacle that David had erected for it. Then David offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the Lord” (2 Samuel 6:17).
Psalm 68 celebrates the Lord’s victorious leadership of Israel from the time of the Exodus to the days of the psalmist. Portions of it were often sung by the Israelites in their festive Holydays and celebration. Today, W. F. Albright and T. H. Robinson think that the psalm is a collection of opening stanzas of numerous famous hymns. The phrase “You have led captivity captive” celebrates the triumph of Christ over sin.
“You have led captivity captive”
The phrase “You have led captivity captive” is a reference to the captive foes of Israel’s king. Also, it is a prophecy of the Messiah and a reference to those held captive by death and were raised with Christ at His resurrection.
Matthew writes, “Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (Matthew 27:51–53). How fitting that Christ should bring forth with Him some of the captives whom Satan had held in death. These martyrs came forth with Jesus and later ascended with Him to heaven. Thus, He had led captivity captive.
The Messianic tone of part of Psalms 68 is quoted by Paul’s writings. He wrote, “When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men” (Ephesians 4:8). Here, the apostle applies the words of the psalmist to the ascension of Jesus Christ. He points out that it is the ascension of Christ that is the guarantee of His ability to give the gifts of the Spirit to men.
“Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty…” (1 Corinthians 15:12–22).
The apostle applies the psalmist’s statement to the work of Christ in distributing spiritual gifts following His triumphal entry into heaven. “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” (Ephesians 4:11–12).
These gifts were given for the purpose of perfecting the believers and uniting them. For both the individual and the church, likeness to Christ is the goal to be reached (Romans 8:29). To that end, the church is to grow in both character and numbers until the second coming of Christ.
In His service,
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