Paul quotes Psalm 68:18 in Ephesians 4:8 to help give weight to what he is trying to teach. Paul’s quote and following explanation is in a form common in his day known as pesher. It was a method to take something that would have been understood originally in one way and update it to today (for Paul the Psalm was 1000 years old). It is something that is still common in preaching and teaching. The trick to this is to understand what the original meant in order to apply it properly. We have the double duty to understand Psalm 68 as it was originally written, understand what Paul intended, and then make it meaningful for us today.
Psalm 68 is a song of victory, something that might have been sung as the king entered Jerusalem after winning a battle. As was common in those days, part of the parade would have been the display of spoils of war including captives as well as freed prisoners of war. It would have been a raucous and joyous time. It was a time that the king displayed all the gifts he got from defeating the enemy as well as a time that the king would have given to the people their share of the spoils.
Paul takes that song of victory and applies it to Jesus. Jesus, through his death on the cross, through his burial, through his resurrection and subsequent ascension into heaven, Jesus was victorious over death and hell. Jesus had a great victorious parade. The Father “exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:9 NIV). This then allows Jesus to give us the Holy Spirit. We are in a great victory parade. We have been set free by Christ, we are on display as some of the spoils of war, and we receive great gifts from Christ’s victory.
You, God, are awesome in your sanctuary;
the God of Israel gives power and strength to his people.
Praise be to God!‘ -Psalms 68:35 NIV
There is a question regarding why Paul seems to misquote Psalm 68:18 which says “…you received gifts from people” instead of Paul’s “…gave gifts to his people.” The key is to understand that Paul was a trained Pharisee, by Gamaliel no less, a greatly respected rabbi and teacher (see Acts 5:34, also praised by the first century Jewish historian Josephus). This training would have included a lot of memorization of the Bible but most of the time that memorization would have been in Aramaic which the people of Israel spoke at that time (see Acts 22:2). This translation is known as the Targumsl. Written Targums often have the Aramaic translation that Paul quotes in Ephesians. As such, Paul was using a translation that was most commonly known.