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In Psalms we have:

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. (Psalms 68:18, ESV)

In Ephesians we have:

Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (Ephesians 4:8, ESV)

It appears that Paul switched "receiving gifts" to "giving gifts" and then applies it to Messiah. How did he get this reading from the text?

I assume the original context is the ascension of King David as explained in this post.

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In Romans 3:4 Paul does the same kind of verb change. That is, he modifies the meaning of a verb from the Old Testament while quoting every other word verbatim from the Old Testament verses in question.

So to use the example of Romans 3:4 we see that Paul is quoting from Psalm 51:4 saying, "...and prevail when you are judged." But the same verse in the Hebrew Bible literally says, "...and prevail when you judge." Paul modifies the meaning of the verb from the Hebrew Bible to bring out more meaning.

That is, when God judges man, man (in turn) judges God. Yet Paul is not denying the primary Old Testament interpretation, and suggesting that God stops judging men, but that while God judges men, men at the same judge God, because their hearts are hardened. God will still prevail. That is the secondary interpretation as provided by Paul.

He does the same thing with Psalm 68:18 and Deut 30:12 in Romans 10:6-8. (All of these passages talk about descending and ascending.) That is, the Word of God descended from heaven and entered the underworld of Sheol (because he died on the cross). When he ascended on high, he plundered Sheol, which was the temporary abode of Old Testament saints. He was able to plunder the abode of the dead, because he had vanquished spiritual death. That is, when he disarmed the rulers and authorities of darkness (Col 2:15) he had actually taken away their spiritual power. He in turn has given that spiritual power to us in the New Testament era through "spiritual gifts" that we receive through the Holy Spirit. Thus we receive gifts.

So while the primary interpretation of Psalm 68:18 was the ascension of David to the throne in Zion, the secondary interpretation (as provided by Paul) was the ascension of the Son of David to the throne in the heavenly Jerusalem. In the primary interpretation, King David received earthly gifts from disobedient men. Paul does not deny the primary interpretation, because in the secondary interpretation, he says that the Son of David gives heavenly gifts to obedient men.

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+1 - This seems very close to the answer from Hodge I posted but I lean more to his view that the decision in this context is simply God's incarnation which parallels God coming down to Israel (although he did descend further for sure). Also that the plunder is the whole church and all the blessing he obtained for her. – Mike Dec 27 '12 at 2:46
Interestingly I looked up the Romans 3:4 case and although this may be a good example, as you argue, Paul happens to be using the switch that the LXX already did. νικήσῃς ἐν τῷ κρίνεσθαί σε - to conquer when you are judged. – Mike Dec 27 '12 at 5:23
Mike, for reference, the plunder is not "the whole church" but the spiritual power received through spiritual gifts, which are distributed freely. The context in Ephesians 4:11-13 is not the church, but spiritual gifts of the church. Satan was bound and tied, and he was plundered (ref. Luke 11:22). Our spiritual gifts are spiritual power, since they are from the Holy Spirit. – Joseph Dec 27 '12 at 20:17
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Charles Hodge, in his commentary on Ephesians gives a very good explanation of the difference in the quotation.

Hodge reasons that Paul applies the receiving of gifts in accord with the original idea of a King with plunder. A kind has plunder to give to his kingdom, so he switches the verb while retaining the same image and idea:

The divine writers of the New Testament, filled with the same Spirit, which moved the ancient prophets, are not tied to the mere form, but frequently give the general sense of the passages which they quote. A conqueror always distributes the spoils he takes. He receives to give. And, therefore, in depicting the Messiah as a conqueror, it is perfectly immaterial whether it is said, He received gifts, or, He gave gifts. The sense is the same. He is a conqueror laden with spoils, and able to enrich his followers. (Hodge, Ephesians, p217)

Hodge also gives a very good sense of how Paul applies this Psalm to Messiah:

The identity of the Logos or Son manifested in the flesh under the new dispensation with the manifested Jehovah of the old economy. Hence what is said of the one, is properly assumed to be said of the other. Therefore, as Moses says Jehovah led his people through the wilderness, Paul says Christ led them. 1 Cor. 10:4. As Isaiah saw the glory of Jehovah in the temple, John says he saw the glory of Christ. John 12:41. As it is written in the prophets, “As I live, saith Jehovah, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God,” Is. 45:23, Paul says, this proves that we must all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. Rom. 14:10, 11. What in Ps. 102:25, &c., is said of God as creator, and as eternal and immutable, is in Hebrews 1:10, applied to Christ. On the same principle what is said in Ps. 68:18, of Jehovah as ascending to heaven and leading captivity captive, is here said to refer to Christ.

Therefore Paul is saying as Jehovah came down to rescue Israel and ascended on his throne under King David, taking spoils of other nations and establishing his kingdom, so Messiah came down to earth, redeemed a people ascending into heaven and gave gifts to his church during pentecost.

Interestingly Alfred Edersheim, the Jewish historian, found a reference where this Psalm was in some aspects taken as Messianic:

Ps. 68:31 (32 in the Hebrew). On the words ‘Princes shall come out of Egypt,’ there is a very remarkable comment in the Talmud (Pes. 118 b) q and in Shemoth. R. on Ex. 26:15, &c. (ed. Warsh. p. 50 b), in which we are told that in the latter days all nations would bring gifts to the King Messiah, beginning with Egypt. ‘And lest it be thought that He (Messiah) would not accept it from them, the Holy One says to the Messiah: Accept from them hospitable entertainment,’ or it might be rendered, ‘Accept it from them; they have given hospitable entertainment to My son.’ (Alfred Edersheim Life and Times of Jesus, Appendix 9)

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