Why does Ephesians 4:8 miss-quote Psalm 68:18?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

Question: Ephesians 4:8 is a quote from Psalm 68:18, but it is miss-quoted. The verse in Ephesians says "gave gifts to men,” while Psalms says "received gifts from men". Please explain. Thank you.

Answer: Greetings friend. Thank you for touching down with us at Mainsail Ministries. You are correct to note that the words in Paul’s citation of Psalm 68:18 in Ephesians 4:8 do not match, as indicated in the verses below.

“This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.””
(Ephesians 4:8, NIV84, emphasis mine)

“When you ascended on high, you led captives in your train; you received gifts from men, even from the rebellious—that you, O Lord God, might dwell there.” (Psalm 68:18, NIV84, emphasis mine)

Not only does this citation not match exactly — but the verbs are reversed! In one God receives gifts and in the other God gives gifts — and doesn’t this flip the meaning 180°?... and doesn’t doing so constitute a slam-dunk biblical error? No. Take heart. We have what only seems to be a conflict. The overarching problem is that grammar does not always divide up thoughts in the same way in every language, so it is a relatively rare occurrence that it will translate from one language to another without a fight — this being, in my opinion, the continuing punishment of our sin at Babel (Genesis 11:9). It is a common problem for those of us who are not experts in ancient languages (and this includes me) to assume that all meaning, diction and cultural nuance will come over into the new language nearly perfectly. But (as this solution will show), translation work is not as cut and dried as we think.

The first thing I need you to notice is how many different ways translations have handled that portion of Psalm 68. I realize that this is very course reasoning academically, but if many accomplished translators have come up with many different renderings, we should give the apostle Paul a break—and not lock him down to the constraints of a single translation — especially when you read the last citation in the Aramaic Bible in Plain English.

New International Version: When you ascended on high, you took many captives; you received gifts from people, even from the rebellious-- that you, LORD God, might dwell there.

English Standard Version: 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.

King James Bible: Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast led captivity captive: thou hast received gifts for men; yea, for the rebellious also, that the LORD God might dwell among them.

International Standard Version: You ascended to the heights, you took captives. You received gifts among mankind, even the rebellious, so the LORD God may live there.

NET Bible: You ascend on high, you have taken many captives. You receive tribute from men, including even sinful rebels. Indeed the LORD God lives there!

Darby Bible Translation: Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast led captivity captive: thou hast received gifts in Man, and even for the rebellious, for the dwelling there of Jah Elohim.

Young's Literal Translation: Thou hast ascended on high, Thou hast taken captive captivity, Thou hast taken gifts for men, That even the refractory may rest, O Jah God.

Aramaic Bible in Plain English: You have ascended on high and you have captured captivity and you have given gifts to the children of men and rebels will not dwell before God.

I wish that the factors that account for this translation were easier to explain because they are woven in among different approaches to translation — some of which actually reverse the sense of our object phrase to better communicate the truth of its greater context. This sounds like hooey, I know. But I’ll have to trust some Jewish scholars who revere God and his word to translate and to commentate on Psalm 68. Now please note that such scholars would be no supporters of Jesus or Paul. This eliminates any possibility of Christian prejudice. After all, we can’t be too careful. But Paul chose to cite their translation rather than choosing to cite the Septuagint, the more common choice.

The Septuagint (often referred to as LXX) was the Greek translation of the Hebrew writings. New Testament authors usually cited the Greek writings at hand in the Septuagint rather than citing the Hebrew, which the population at large no longer understood. Since modern English translations skip over the Septuagint and go back into the original languages, we occasionally have a New Testament citation that does not match the Old Testament’s wording exactly — and this is no problem. New Testament authors went through an additional layer of translation as compared to our contemporary translators who work primarily in the original languages. (They also consult strong translations like the Latin Vulgate and the Septuagint, but they make the best word choices based on bringing the idiom of the original language into contemporary English.)

These small variations show that the translation process is alive (as is God’s word), but they do not constitute a scriptural accuracy problem. The problem with Ephesians 4:8 is that Paul did not go the usual route. He skipped back and chose another legitimate rendering — but there is no foul. That being said, how can seemingly opposite phrases come from the same phrase?

Closer analysis reveals that these phrases are not as opposite as you suppose. Look at the various translations that I have supplied above and compare them to the translation you chose, “received gifts from men.” Even those that are not directly opposite drift away from this sentence, choosing something like “receiving gifts among men.” (“Among” takes the edge off the picture of people handing gifts to God.) The King James’s, “thou hast received gifts for men” leads to Young’s Literal Translations, “Thou hast taken gifts for men,” both of which take us another step further away from that picture. So, even without us examining the eye-glazing particulars of the Hebrew (which we shall do), two things are apparent. First, this is not a passage that lends itself to crisp translation. Second, we do not have as big of a problem as originally supposed.

The Talmud is not the Bible, but it does give us insight into the ancient Jewish mind (the mind that Paul inherited, by the way). More importantly for our case, it gives us insight into the ancient Hebrew language. So, I need to paste some Talmud in below to show what happened in the language. Be warned: These commentator’s interpretations of what the Scripture means are wrong. This is for purposes of language only.

"every one of the angels befriended Moses and each of them disclosed some mystery to him, as it is written [Psalms, lxviii. 19]: "Thou didst ascend on high, lead away captives, receive gifts among men," which means that because at first the angels called Moses one born of a woman (man), they at the close gave him gifts, and even the Angel of Death disclosed a mystery to him" (Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, 89a, Rodkinson's translation, 1903, emphasis added).

"each one was moved to love him [Moses] and transmitted something to him, for it is said, Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast taken spoils [the Torah]; Thou hast received gifts on account of man: 8 as a recompense for their calling thee man [adam] 9 thou didst receive gifts. The Angel of Death too confided his secret to him..." (Shabbat 89a, Socino translation, emphasis added).

Rodkinson and Socino differ on whether to translate "gave" or "receive" in the last emphasized word above. However, the Hebrew word used here is laqah, the same word that appears in Psalm 68:18. We can see from the overall context that the verse is being quoted to support the idea that God gave men something because prior to it being quoted, both authors agree it is discussing how angels gave something to Moses and then quotes Ps 68:18 as relevantly applying to that context. How does this help us? If the context of Psalm 68:18 (even when interpreted wrongly in the Talmud) is all about God giving—then it is no problem that Paul quoted it as such. Okay, it’s not a problem — but how was the language flipped around? Does the word laqah mean both to give and to receive? Not exactly. 

Rodkinson's translation as gave (above) was an attempt to render an interpretation of what the text was saying, rather than give a word-for-word literal translation. This shows us how different languages can handle concepts in different ways, using words that might match very strongly in the most literal basic sense in slightly different ways that don't exactly match in other senses. To understand this better, let's take a look at this explanation of the word laqah from the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament.

"In addition to the common meanings of laqah, there are a number of extended uses, some of which have theological significance. The "take" aspect of the word may extend, in some contexts, into the meaning "select" and/or "summon." According to Deut. 4:34, God "took" (selected) Israel from among the nations (cf. also 4:30; 1 Kgs 11:37; Josh 3:12; 4:2). In Job 41:4 [H 40:28] the leviathan is "taken" (selected) as God's permanent vassal who has a covenant with him. "Summon" would fit equally well in some of these contexts. BDB (pp 543, 546) finds "summon" for laqah in Num. 23:11, Jud 11:5, and 1 Sam 16:11...... Twice Jeremiah uses laqah for the "taking up" or "use" of words. In 23:31 he speaks against the false prophets who "use" (RSV, NASB) their tongues as if the Lord had inspired them. In 29:22 the exiles "use" a curse formula...." (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, page 1125, Vol I) 

In English, the words take or receive refers to a transfer of ownership of an object from one person to another. But when we say that someone is “taking up golf,” we do not mean that he now owns the sport of golf. Rather, we are extending the base meaning of the word to a slightly different context and conveying a picture of what someone is doing by drawing an analogy from something the listener already understands. For instance, to say a person is “taking on someone" means he is challenging that person, not that he is obtaining ownership of that person. So, when Psalm 68:18 says that God "took / received / selected / summoned gifts in / by / through / among / with men" What is it saying? That ownership of some gift was transferred from man to God? In English, one could understand the phrase that way. But does that make any sense? Can men really give God a gift that is worth mentioning?

We understand that laqah very commonly and very frequently means to take or receive, but it occasionally can be used to connote selecting or summoning, which is more the sense the word is used here. And if we misunderstand how laqah is being used in this sentence, then we cannot correctly understand how the preposition before "men" is being used and whether it should be translated as "in", "by", "through", "with" or "among" or "for", as the KJV puts it. But if we interpret this sentence as "selected gifts in men", the way the Talmud and Paul quote Psalm 68:18, then suddenly this makes sense to English ears — even though "took" or "receive" is the more common usage of this word. Furthermore, because "took" or "receive" fits the sentence so well grammatically, it is easy to understand why it might be translated this way from Hebrew to either English, Aramaic or Greek. 

The word laqah is translated as being either receive or give not because we cannot tell which it means. The problem is that in Hebrew, laqah has a base meaning of take/receive, but it sometimes connotes other meanings that are drawn from a mental image similar to the concept of take as previously described. In English, the word take also has a range of meanings similar to that of laqah, while the word receive has a much narrower meaning. Receive almost always refers to a transfer of ownership or possession, while take is a much broader word… one that can even mean receive! Because the Hebrew laqah is being used in a way that connotes the concept of some sort of separation (summon, call, select) rather than a transfer of ownership, translating this as take or receive might actually be misleading to English ears, even though that is the base meaning of this word.

Oddly enough, it is gave, the word normally associated with the opposite, that actually does a better job of rendering the same sense in English, Greek and Aramaic — and that is the rendering that Paul chose… even though the Septuagint, as well as many contemporary translations, chose another. Both choices are correct.

(I am indebted to Yoseph Viel and his work, Examining How Ephesians 4:8 quotes Psalm 68:18.)

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