"Therefore it says, "When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men". Ephesians 4:8 ESV [ Another question on this site focuses on "gifts"].

The NIV and KJB also put "captives".

[Rightly or wrongly] I associate the ESV "captives" with those with Christ when "you have been raised with Christ". i.e. They used to belong to the Devil but have been captured from him and raised with Christ. Colossians 3:1.

"Therefore he says: "When he ascended on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts to people". New Heart E.B.

Berean, Amplified B., Aramaic B.in P.E., ERV, LSV, and Young's L.T. all have "captivity".

I associate "captivity" with, "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free". Galatians 5:1. i.e. He set us free by taking captivity captive. That which ensnared us He has taken captive; captivity, a principle, has been taken captive.

One Greek word "aichmalosian" [noun, accusative, singular] has been translated two ways: captives[ESV-people] and captivity[New Heart E.B. a principle].

Paul is referencing Psalm 68:18 "You have led captivity captive". NKJV.

A. Is there a real difference between "captives" and "captivity"?

B. Has the New Testament put a New Testament twist on an Old Testament Scripture, to bring out a New Testament meaning?

C. What is Paul's understanding of Psalm 68?

  • Dr Michael Heiser has an angle on this passage which is well worth considering. Yes it is outside of the traditional view, but his (and others, e.g. Dr Doug Hamp) scholarly research is providing much food for thought.
    – Dave
    Commented Sep 19, 2021 at 19:56
  • Do you have a link to that article?
    – Sherrie
    Commented Sep 19, 2021 at 22:48

4 Answers 4


This is one of the most relevant passages to answer your question. (captives = αἰχμαλώτοις)

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. 17 And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

        18       “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, 
  because he has anointed me 
  to proclaim good news to the poor. 
              He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives 
  and recovering of sight to the blind, 
  to set at liberty those who are oppressed, 
        19       to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 

20 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16–21, ESV)

Jesus also said,

So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” 34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:31–36, ESV)

This passage shows that Paul was aware of what Jesus said even more than we have in the Gospels.

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Cor. 11:23–25, ESV)

Christ's death and resurrection set us free from sin's captivity.

See Jesus 'became' a life-giving spirit. 1 Cor 15:45


Studying these verses in connection with Psalm 68 was enlightening.

After looking at many possible interpretations of this verse There was one I found on the Internet I had never seen and seems to make sense in light of Psalm 68. I will post parts of it down below.

We know Ephesians Reveals the new secret about the Revelation of the mystery of Christ which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men. Eph 3:3-6. Specifically, it has to do with Gentiles being fellow heirs and fellow members of the body and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus.

I am copying some of it from here

Two Victories, Two Temples, One God
Ephesians 4:8 builds upon the imagery of Psalm 68:18. Both passages involve different victories of God, two temples and One God coming into both of them. The Old Covenant Temple on Mount Zion was God’s eternal abode (Psalm 68:16). The Old Testament Temple, and the covenant it represented, was infinitely inferior to the New Covenant and the New Covenant Temple, the Body of Christ. 2

1.4 Individuality. Even the most cursory look at all of creation shows that God loves individuality and variety among the greater unity. Likewise, God created the Body of Christ to perform many functions, with each member of the Body of Christ equipped to supply what the Body of Christ needs. Each gift produces special ministries and effects that nourish the Body of Christ, just as Jesus cherishes and loves the church. With many members working in harmony, the Body of Christ thrives as the living New Temple of the living God on earth today.

2.2 Two Victories. Paul contrasted the victory in Psalm 68 with the victory in Ephesians 4.

2.2.1 Victory in Psalm 68. In Psalm 68, God is a father to the fatherless and a judge for the widows; He makes a home for the lonely, and He leads out the prisoners into prosperity; 5 only the rebellious dwell in a parched land (Psalm 68:5-6). God went forth before His people and they occupied the promised land and built the temple in Jerusalem upon Mount Zion.

2.2.2 Victory in Ephesians 4. In Ephesians 4, Paul quoted Psalm 68 with victory and temple-building in mind. Christ Jesus accomplished the victory over sin and death at the cross, and freed prisoners held in slavery through the fear of death.

Captivity taken captive. I think that is all the powers that were disarmed, along with death that held captive, along with the law and the power that gave to sin. All that had been overcome by Christ and that's why he ascended on high and now was able to give gifts to men. This new body of Christ has new gifts to build up the body of Christ. Not like the Physical temple of old. This temple no one can see right now.

  • Thanks agarza for the edits!
    – Sherrie
    Commented Sep 19, 2021 at 22:46

"Captives" are those things Christ conquered, out of which which gifts are given to men. In the context, these gifts work to equip us for the ministry and "fill up what is lacking" in Christ's body.

Eph 4.7-12:

Now to each one of us was given this grace, according to the measure of Christ’s gift.

Therefore it says, “Ascending on high he led captivity captive; he gave gifts to men.”

Now “he ascended,” what is it, except that he also descended to the lower regions of the earth? The one who descended himself is also the one who ascended above all the heavens, in order that he might fill all things. [LEB]

So what are the things that are gifts according to measures of grace. Well primarily they are what we consider in the flesh to be bad things (bad things require grace) but also the good things. It includes all things that work together to perfect us in the body. Now spiritual gifts are also given to us, but when we talk about Christ taking captitivity captive, that primarily refers to things that were previously viewed as being at war with God becoming the servants or tools of God.

In the specific context of captivity, it would be the principles and powers of the air that were taken captive by Christ and then became slaves of his purpose, to perfect the body.

Col 2.13-15:

And although you were dead in the trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, he made you alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having destroyed the certificate of indebtedness in ordinances against us, which was hostile to us, and removed it out of the way by nailing it to the cross. When he had disarmed the rulers and the authorities, he made a display of them in public, triumphing over them by it. [LEB]

In the past, it was viewed that these spiritual forces had rulership over various earthly domains and must be appeased as well as feared. To use a crass example, if your hunt failed, it would be because Diana was angry with you, or if you got a disease, some god was mad at you. Now in judaism we believe there is but one God, yet there is still a hierarchy of lesser spirits that are responsible for afflictions from large as creating wars between nations to something as small as demon-possession. Some of these spirits were opposed to God. So the point here is not only that God is stronger than these forces of evil, but that they are in fact His servants through the power of the cross, and moreover that of these servants he now gives as gifts to men.

So in the past, when what we think are evil things happened to us, we feared that they were punishment, but now when we see death, disease, failure, war, etc, we understand this as chastisement and a gift in order to perfect the body according to the grace given the saints. Of course what we perceive as good things -- success, victory, health and happiness, etc -- are also from God, but even the evil ones see these as gifts and blessings. However because Christ's victory was over all things, including those things we think of as evil, we know that all things have been taken captive and do God's bidding, sent to us as gifts from God, in order to fill up what is lacking in the church.

Col 1.24-26

Now I rejoice in my sufferings on behalf of you, and I fill up in my flesh what is lacking of the afflictions of Christ, on behalf of his body which is the church, of which I became a minister, according to God’s stewardship which was given to me for you, to complete the word of God, the mystery which has been hidden from the ages and from the generations, but has now been revealed to his saints [LEB]

  • @ Robert I have edited my question to emphasise that the same Greek word commonly has two translations in this verse. How do they differ? Do they differ?
    – C. Stroud
    Commented Sep 19, 2021 at 16:18
  • @C.Stroud I will update my answer, but as this is citing the OT, I'm not sure this distinction is too useful. A better distinction would be understanding Paul's hermeneutics of Ps 68
    – Robert
    Commented Sep 19, 2021 at 16:21
  • I have edited again due to your helpful comment. Is the question right now?
    – C. Stroud
    Commented Sep 19, 2021 at 16:27
  • Yes, I have to go now, but I will revisit my answer. I also want to include examples where the same idea is in the OT (e.g the four horsemen) and see if this can be understood as a ref to the psalms.
    – Robert
    Commented Sep 19, 2021 at 16:36

Eph 4:8 contains a quintessentially Hebraistic expression which reads literally (my translation):

Therefore it says: "having ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to people" (Quoting Ps 68:18)

That is, we have both a noun, "captivity" and the verb, "to take captive" - both singular! Thus, Paul is saying that not only did He pay the manumission price but also removed the source of slavery as well.

If one wanted to introduce the idea of "captives", then the noun could be translated according to BDAG, "captured military force", that is a group [singular] of prisoners of war.

The whole idea of being freed is central to the NT theology of general freedom - see appendix below:

APPENDIX - Freedom

The Bible discusses freedom in several broad, overlapping categories: Freedom of Choice (which see), freedom of the Christian life (from sin, see below), and Freedom of Religion. Indeed, the New Testament labours the idea of freedom at some length in the sense of freedom from the entanglements of sin that easily hinders us” (Heb 12:1), and a mind freed from the veil of Moses; these two ideas frequently overlap. This Christian freedom is granted by Christ and imparted by the Holy Spirit as set out below.

Freedom from Sin

The Bible uses the metaphor of slavery and freedom frequently. Here is a brief sample.

  • John 8:32, 34-36, “…the truth will set you free…whoever sins is a slave to sin…so if the Son sets you free you are free indeed.”
  • Gal 5:13, 14, “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use our freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
  • Gal 5:1, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”
  • Gal 3:22, “But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.”
  • Ps 118:5, “Out of my distress I called on the LORD; the LORD answered me and set me free.”
  • Ps 119:45, “I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts.”
  • Acts 13:38, 39, “Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses.”
  • Rom 6:14, 18, “Sin shall no longer be your master because you are no longer under law but under grace. … And, having been set free from sin, we have become slaves of righteousness.”
  • Rom 6:22, “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.”
  • 1 Peter 2:16, “Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves.”
  • 2 Peter 2:19, “promising them freedom while they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by what a man is overcome, by this he is enslaved.”
  • Rom 8:1-4, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
  • Rom 8:20, 21, “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”
  • Luke 4:18, 19, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” See also Isa 61:1ff.
  • 2 Tim 1:7, “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”
  • 2 Tim 2:26, “and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.”
  • James 1:25, “But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.”
  • Isa 58:6, 7, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”
  • Acts 8:23, “For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity.”

Freedom from the Ceremonial Law (“of Moses”)

  • 1 Cor 3:12-17 describes Christians “being bold” and non-Christians whose “minds were made dull” and “covered by a veil” and that “only in Christ is it taken away”. Paul concludes with, “where the Spirit of Lord is, there is freedom.”
  • 1 Cor 6:12, 13, “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but I will not be mastered by anything. You say, ‘Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.’ The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.”
  • Eph 3:12, “In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.”
  • Acts 13:38, 39, “Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses.”
  • Gal 2:4, “This matter arose because some false believers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves.” (see v3).
  • Rom 6:14, “Sin shall no longer be your master because you are no longer under law but under grace.”

It will be observed from the above that Christian freedom psychologically overlaps with “Freedom of Choice” (which see) but is logically and theologically distinct. Indeed, one must be free in order to freely choose.

Freedom of Choice

Freedom of choice is another of the implicit teachings of Scripture. However, a few passages come close to being explicit. Let us examine a sample of the Bible data.

  • Gen 2:16, 17 – the original choice given to Adam and Eve to choose service to God.
  • 1 Cor 10:13 – God is gracious enough to only allow temptations that we can bear. This reveals that God recognises the effect that sin has on our will; sin weakens our will but God helps by both strengthening our will and only allowing temptations that we can bear.
  • 2 Peter 3:9 – God is patient wanting all people to decide for Him.
  • Gal 5:13 – We are given freedom by God but the privilege should not be abused.
  • John 7:17 – People can choose to do the will of God and such a choice bring further enlightenment.
  • Josh 24:15 – The Israelites were encouraged to choose God.
  • Mark 8:34 – Choosing to serve God involves personal sacrifice which is why it is such a serious decision.
  • Rev 3:20 – God wants to be with us but we must choose to allow Him into our lives.
  • Gal 5:16, 17, John 8:34-36 – Sin enslaves but the Christian life by the Spirit gives freedom.
  • Isa 55:6, 7 – Isaiah encourages the people to choose service to God over all else.
  • Deut 30:19, 20 – Moses encourages the people to choose between life and death.
  • Exe 18 – an entire chapter about the consequences of choice which ends with the plea, “Repent and live!”

Thus, while Biblically implicit, the concept of the freedom to choose to serve God or otherwise is woven into the very fabric of scripture. See “Election” for a discussion about Calvinism and its attitude to Freedom.

In addition to the above, there is a more fundamental reason why freedom of choice is essential to the plan of salvation. Observe the following:

  • John 13:34, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
  • John 15:12, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.”
  • 1 John 4:7, 8, 11, 16, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love … Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another … No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us … And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them … We love because he first loved us.”

It is immediately apparent that love is the very essence of God and our relationship with Him and each other. Now, here is the point; love cannot be forced else it is not love. A programmed machine can recite loving sentiments but does not love. Thus, love can only be love when there is a free choice to love.

Therefore, for love to exist there must be freedom of choice. Stated another way, if God were to force us to love and obey Him, we would not love God at all and God would be saving machines.

Freedom of Religion

Freedom of religion gives all people the right to practise their beliefs without interference by others, especially the state. This idea, leads directly to the concept of the secular state where all people are granted religious freedom, protection under the law and access to the “public square”. The Bible provides a number of good examples of religious tolerance.

  • Mark 9:38-40, Luke 9:49, 50. Jesus tolerated other groups disconnected from His own.
  • Luke 9:52-56. Jesus refused to curse non-believers
  • John 4:7-27 (Samaritan woman at the well) is a remarkable example of tolerance where Jesus made no attempt to make the woman a Jew and call her “one of us” before she became a very effective missionary.
  • Rom 2:14-16 clearly says that some pagans will be saved. This should make Christians very tolerant of unbelievers.
  • Rom 14:1-23 provides an extended passage about being non-judgemental and tolerant about others’ beliefs and practices.
  • 1 Cor 10:31, 32 advises Christians to give no occasion for offence to Jews or gentiles.

In much of the western world, secular government has been implemented with the aid of the modern doctrine of the separation of church and state.

  • I am sorry if my question was not clear. I was trying to to compare two translations of one word, the accusative singular noun which ESV puts as "captives" but N.H. and KJB as "captivity" and then relate to Psalm 68. I have edited question.
    – C. Stroud
    Commented Sep 19, 2021 at 23:27

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