Samuel M. Frost, Th.M.
“Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men” (Ephesians 4.8). This verse in Paul’s letter to the assemblies in Ephesus has gendered a few interpretations as to what he meant. As a scholar, I have paid my dues in reading material on the Bible for the last thirty years, so I am not going to quote a bunch of commentaries and academicians. I do not at all want to give the impression that I no longer consult them. I do on a daily basis. It’s just that in my fifties I am able to read, with some proficiency, the Greek text and first do my own work. Needless to say I am aware of the two main interpretations of this verse that have held sway up to our own time. So, not that it’s worth anything, here’s my useless two cents.
First, I want to note what Paul is quoting. “Therefore it says” means a quotation from another source. We find that Paul is quoting a psalm (68.18). That psalm says, “You ascended on high, leading a host of captives in your train and receiving gifts among men, even among the rebellious, that the LORD God may dwell there.” Not quite the same. The basic text is from the Septuagint (the Greek Hebrew Bible known to Paul). However, there are some changes. Most are not really that important. The one change that has been focused on is that Paul’s quotation differs from the Hebrew and the Septuagint texts in that “taken” is replaced with “given”. We have no variations that offer us another text. This is on Paul. Why would he do this? Does it matter? Is he quoting from memory, or does he have a Septuagint of the Psalms among his scrolls? Secondly, does it alter, deeply, the meaning?
Briefly, I do not think it alters the meaning of the psalm. I do not think this is an example that can be used against “inspiration” of the letters of Paul. I do not think it is a “mistake”, either, if the alteration is simply an alteration that does not affect his point. “I have taken the high road”. “The high road was given to me.” My point is that I am on the high road. If we had the opportunity to discuss with Paul why he used “given” instead of “taken”, I am sure he would give us an answer that set well within our confines of the use of quotations. Perhaps, though, the context may bear out his point, and thus bear out the reason why the alteration was made.
In the psalm itself, the LORD is exalted and praised. It is a lengthy “psalm of praise” to the absolute greatness of the LORD. If you have not read it, I suggest at this point you do. For space, I will not quote all 36 verses here. Needless to say, the “ascent” of the LORD is his ascent to his “mountain”. He has conquered his enemies, and none can stand before him. It is a psalm of deliverance of the the hand of the LORD for his people.
Paul, on the other hand, is writing about something no one in their right mind would “get” from this psalm. “But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” 9 ( In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”
For Paul, Christ, not the LORD, is in view. Heaven, and not earthly Mount Zion (Jerusalem) is in view. Now, I do not mean to dispense with the absolute profundity of Paul’s mind on this, but if he saw Christ, the son of man, as also of the same substance of God (which he did), then we have no issues here since the LORD and Christ are, in fact, “one in substance.” So the Creeds of Christendom have stated, whether Greek, Catholic, or Protestant. We can quickly excuse this point, then.
Second, Paul took the ascension of Jesus, the son of man, as the meaning of “ascension” in the psalm. The LORD “descends” often enough in the Hebrew Scriptures, and he “ascends” as well. The “descent” of Jesus, the Logos of God, the Son of God, of the same Essence, descended in the form of a man. Again, much, much ink can be spilled here, but I will spare the reader. Paul’s point is a logical one. If he “ascended” then that must infer that he “descended.” So, where did he “descend” to? “The lower parts of the land (earth).” It is precisely here that things get a little dicey. To some this means “hell” – a netherworld of the spirits of the dead, both righteous and wicked (although they are separated by righteousness and wickedness). A great deal of Hellenistic (Greek) Judaism adopted from Greek lore and legend concerning this notion. Whether Paul did is another matter. To others this simply means that the Logos, the Second Person of the Godhead (Trinity), became a man – he descended to the lower parts of the earth itself (taking the genitive phrase here as appositive). Huge difference.
In favor of the latter view, is that the psalm itself gives no indication whatsoever of the LORD “descended” to a netherworld region. Second, his ascent is “far above all the heavens” which would then give us the picture of his descent “below” the heavens, in the lower parts, the earth (which is below the heavens).
There is one other place often not mentioned by commentators and that is found in Romans 10.6,7: “But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?'”(that is, to bring Christ down) 7 or “‘Who will descend into the abyss?'”(that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).” What is fascinating here is that the word, “abyss” is not found in the verse Paul quotes from (Deuteronomy 30.13). Rather, in both the Septuagint and the Hebrew, the word is “sea”. “Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Where in the world does Paul get the idea that the “abyss” is “the sea”? If “up from the dead” simply means his resurrection from the grave and his subsequent ascent to heaven, is “abyss” equal to “the lower parts of earth itself”?
It is often thought that “the abyss” is, again, this nether-region of spirits, demons and maleficent souls. However, upon investigation in the Hebrew Scriptures, this is not the case at all. This word is often translated as “the deep” of the earth. In creation the Spirit dwells over the “deep” (Genesis 1.2). In the flood of Noah, the deep of the seas bursted forth. That is, the deep sea, its floors (earth) cracked open. In Genesis 49.25 God will bless by the heavens above and the “deep” below. The Hebrew uses the word that is often translated by the Greek word, “abyss” (abussos). However, the Septuagint simply translates that God will bless “of earth.” The abyss, then, can be seen as the “lower part of the earth” – the deep, the below the heavens, the under, the seas themselves. Now, what is very interesting is that in Genesis 49.25, this announcement is to Joseph by Jacob, his father. It is repeated in Deuteronomy 33.13: “And of Joseph he said: — Blessed of Jehovah is his land, By precious things of the heavens, By dew, and by the deep crouching beneath.” However, here abussos is used in the Septuagint! “Hast thou entred into the bottomes of the sea? or hast thou walked to seeke out the abyss?” (Job 38.16) where “sea” is in parallelism with “abyss.” The word occurs over 90 times and the study of it is quite rewarding. Needless to say, for our point here, “the deep” is simply “the lower parts of earth” – the sea, the realm of the created earth (in it, on it, or it itself). [a sideline study here….if the war in heaven as seen in Revelation 12 of Michael against Satan, and Satan is hurled “into the earth” (12.9), or “Woe for the earth and for the sea: because the devil is gone down unto you” (12.12); “cast into the earth” (12.13); and “the sea” in many Hebrew texts is “abyss” – the region of earthly domain under the heavens – then perhaps this is what is meant by his being “cast into the abyss” in Revelation 20. He was cast into the earth and sea, the abyss, and instead of wreaking havoc from heaven, he wreaks havoc on earth. Just a thought].
We have seen, then, that for Paul, and indeed the Hebrew/Septaugint, that the lower parts of the earth need mean no more than simply the creation of God under the heavens – the deep. It need not mean some spooky, netherworld of goblins, ghosts and spooks. Therefore, we are entirely within rational exegesis that all that he meant in Ephesians 4.8 is Jesus descent to earth, and his ascent “above all the heavens.”
In the psalm, God “receives” gifts, whereas here Christ “gives” gifts. He has lead forth those captive under sin by “grace” and his triumph over principalities and powers, including Sin and Condemnation. As a result, he sets free those who place their faith in him, and he “receives” these captives as his own, giving them gifts. Paul’s change of the psalm from “receive” to “give” is not a memory lapse; rather it is assuming that he knew the Hebrew text as saying “receive”, but adds to the victory of the LORD in Christ Jesus that not only does he receive men, he gives back to them as well. He gives the captives he has received “gifts”. The blessings just keep on coming.
The reason he gives to those he has received is that he might “fill all things” (things below the heavens, things above the heavens). Hear this passage again: “But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” 9 ( In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” The very captives he has released, he now gives to them the means of grace so that his victory will extend over all the earth, below the heavens and above the heavens, filling all things with those that are His People. Pauls’ eschatology of a future new heavens and new earth are in view here in that Christ, as head of the Assembly, gifts certain ones to spread this message of His victory, and to equip those who are captive and those who have been released from their burdens in sin. These “offices” are held by fellow-used-to-be-captives who are now equipping other used-to-be-captives in the matters of their great victory of He Who Leads Forth the Captives. This is the function and role of the Assembly of the saints wherever they may be found; in basements, store fronts, homes, offices, elaborate church structures, shopping malls, the agora, wherever. The growth of the church, his people, is the means by which he is filling the world. For this, then, we can see Paul’s constant use of “one another” in this letter. Anyone who is too good, too sanctimonious, too right, too smug, too defeated, too bitter, too hurt, too judgmental, too loose, too sinful to “go to church” – to be with others (and, yes, that includes that hypocrite Sister Betty who gossiped about your gay son and Brother Bob who was caught cheating on his wife with a woman 20 years younger than he is), then, well, you need to be released from your captivity my friend.