A Christological Reading of Psalm 68

Awhile back I was praying the Evening Office from the Book of Common Prayer and the evening psalm was Psalm 68. The entry for the psalm in the lectionary looked like this:
Now if you don't know anything about the BCP lectionary those parentheses are alerting you about something. It's basically saying you should most definitely read verses 1-20 and 24-36 but that you might want to skip verses 21-23. Those verses are optional.


Generally, when you see those parentheses in the lectionary you're being warned that you are about to encounter one of those dark and difficult texts in the bible and that you might, depending upon the situation (kids, you know, might be listening in), want to read around those passages.

Psalm 68, apparently, had some difficult moments in it. And it did when I read the psalm that night. But in the midst of that darkness I also found some light and a way to read even this difficult psalm Christologically (i.e., through Jesus).

Psalm 68 is one of those songs where the writer is praising God for a victory over enemies. The first three verses:
May God arise, may his enemies be scattered;
may his foes flee before him.

May you blow them away like smoke—
as wax melts before the fire,
may the wicked perish before God.

But may the righteous be glad
and rejoice before God;
may they be happy and joyful.
This stuff isn't too bad, but things get very dark in verses 21-23, the part in parentheses in the lectionary:
Surely God will crush the heads of his enemies,
the hairy crowns of those who go on in their sins.

The Lord says, “I will bring them from Bashan;
I will bring them from the depths of the sea,

that your feet may wade in the blood of your foes,
while the tongues of your dogs have their share.”
Okay, those are some of the darkest lines in the bible. Above is the NIV, here's the rendering in the NLT:
But God will smash the heads of his enemies,
crushing the skulls of those who love their guilty ways.

The Lord says, “I will bring my enemies down from Bashan;
I will bring them up from the depths of the sea.

You, my people, will wash your feet in their blood,
and even your dogs will get their share!”
So we have here God smashing skulls and putting the defeated enemies before us so that we might wash our feet in their blood and have our dogs--so they get their share!--lick up the blood as well.

I have some issues with Psalm 68.

But here's the other thing I noticed about this psalm. Specifically, Psalm 68 is quoted in the New Testament in the book of Ephesians:
Ephesians 4.1-13
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says:

“When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.”

(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
That phrase--“When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.”--is from Psalm 68, from the verses right before the infamous lines in verses 21-23:
Psalm 68.17-20
The chariots of God are tens of thousands
and thousands of thousands;
the Lord has come from Sinai into his sanctuary.

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.

Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior,
who daily bears our burdens.
 Our God is a God who saves;
from the Sovereign Lord comes escape from death.
In short, the writer of Ephesians is reading Psalm 68 Christologically. The victory over enemies in Psalm 68 is the victory won by Jesus in his death, burial and resurrection. When Jesus "ascended on high" he took with him "many captives."

Who are these captives? For the writer of Ephesians the quotation of Psalms 68.18 prompts a bit of commentary:
What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.
For some reason the writer of Ephesians takes a moment to point out that if Jesus "ascended" then he would have had to have previously "descended" to the "lower, earthy regions." Is this a reference to the Incarnation? Or to Jesus's decent into hell after this death?

Many in the early church took this passage in Ephesians to be a reference to the latter, about the harrowing of hell where Jesus breaks open the gates of hell and releases a captive humanity.

Regardless, the victory described in Psalm 68 is being read Christologically, as a reference to the defeat of Christ's enemies--death, sin and the Devil. This sort of violent, martial imagery in reference to the cross is used in other places in the NT. For example:
Colossians 2.15
And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. 
The phrase "public spectacle" refers to the victory parade of a conquering Caesar or King returning to the capital city displaying the spoils and captives of war before a cheering and adoring citizenry. On the cross Jesus is leading just such a victory parade, displaying his captives, the disarmed "powers and authorities." The imagery of Psalm 68, even verses 21-13, fits this picture.

But what is startling about this imagery is how Jesus wins his victory over his enemies non-violently. On the cross Jesus is disarming and defeating his enemies--sin, death and the Devil--and taking them as captives in war.

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5 thoughts on “A Christological Reading of Psalm 68”

  1. First, this is great. Second, it would really be worth checking out Augustine's christological reading of this Psalm in the *Enarrationes*. Here's a rough-and-ready translation (though it's newly translated in the New City Press version): http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1801068.htm. It seems like Augustine interprets the line about blood as the Psalmist ("Prophet") speaking back to God, and believers being God's "foot" waded in "blood," which he accordingly takes to figure the martyrs. Again, that's a cursory look—but whenever you want to interpret the Psalms christologically and with the rule that it be in accord with Christ's teachings (i.e., not condone hatred/violence toward the enemy, since Christ taught love of the enemy), Augustine is the one to look to!

  2. The opening lines, "Let God arise! And let his enemies be scattered!" are an integral part of the Easter liturgy in the Orthodox Church, which reads EVERYTHING Christologically.

  3. So. I read with interest your understanding and Christological hermeneutic of Psalm 68. Admittedly, my interpretation and understanding of Scripture is wildly different in this case, coming from a very Reformed background, but I'd ask how you view Psalm 69:22 to 28 or Psalm 139:19 to 22?

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