The 68th Psalm is a psalm of David that describes God using military language. David writes about God as a victorious military leader who takes his throne in Zion. The psalm can be broken down into seven sections, which reveals a chronological movement of God conquering his enemies and taking his rightful position as king in Zion.
God Arises, Enemies Scatter (68:1-3)
The first word of Psalm 68 is the Hebrew word elohim, God. Beginning a discussion about God with his name makes a dramatic impact (see Hebrews 1:1). “God arises. His enemies scatter, and those who hate Him flee from His presence” (68:1). The first three verses depict the movements as a powerful force driving away the enemies. The wicked are destroyed like smoke is blown away and like wax melts before the fire. As God marches into battle, all who stand in the way are brought to the dust. The imagery of destroying the enemies is particularly strong because this is the exact language used by the people of Israel when the ark of the covenant was lifted up as they traveled in the desert to Canaan. Numbers 10:35-36 records the cry of Israel: “Whenever the ark set out, Moses would say: Arise, Lord! Let Your enemies be scattered, and those who hate You flee from Your presence. When it came to rest, he would say: Return, Lord, to the countless thousands of Israel.” Therefore, as we read this psalm, we need to visualize in our minds what the ancient readers would have visualized, that is, the lifting up of the ark of the covenant as God moves forward to the promised land.
God’s Righteousness: A King of Goodness (68:4-6)
As Israel travels through the desert the people are singing praises to God. As the dust is kicked up from the people walking through the desert, the people proclaim: “Exalt Him who rides on the clouds” (68:4). Recall that the ark of the covenant was carried on the shoulders of the Levites from the sons of Kohath. Thus, as the people walked through the desert it would appear that God, symbolized by the ark of the covenant, was riding on top of the clouds. As the people march, they are also proclaiming the goodness and righteousness of God their king. Their king is a father to the fatherless, a champion and defender of widows, a provider of homes for the deserted, and a leader of prisoners to prosperity. The king of Israel is not a tyrannical despot, but is offering goodness to the peoples as he triumphs.
God, Giver of Blessings (68:7-10)
The imagery of God leading his people through the desert is explicitly pictured in verse 7. As Israel marched through the desert the earth trembled and the skies poured down (dropped; NASB) before God, the God of Sinai and the God of Israel. Notice that the word “rain” in verse 8 is not in the original text, but is supplied by the translators. I do not think it is a proper addition in light of the context of the earth trembling. I believe the picture is that all creation crumbles and bows before the presence of the moving God. The earth and heavens are in the subjection to God and God takes the subjected creation and blesses his people. Therefore, in verse 9 we see God showering abundant rain. The showering of abundant rain is not only a figure picturing God refreshing the people as they walk through the desert, but also is a figure of God abundantly showering blessings upon Israel. This very point is made in verse 10: “Your people settled in it; by Your goodness You provided for the poor, God.” The end of verse 9 and verse 10 shows the people making it through the desert and receiving their inheritance in the promised land of Canaan.
The Conquering God (68:11-14)
Verses 11-14 picture God having conquered the armies that were standing against Israel. A company of women comes to the people bringing the good news, “The kings of the armies flee—they flee!” The cry of victory is spreading throughout the camp of Israel as the enemies flee from the Almighty God, the Lord of Hosts. The second part of verse 12 along with verse 13 are recognized by scholars to be a very difficult text to translate and interpret. The NIV changes the subject from the women dividing the spoil to men dividing the spoil. This is an emendation without warrant. Also, the NIV’s translation of “campfires” is also without linguistic justification (see Expositor’s Bible Commentary notes). The New English Bible is perhaps the most helpful translation of this text: “O mighty host, will you linger among the sheepfolds while the women in your tents divide the spoil—an image of a dove, its wings sheathed in silver and its pinions in yellow gold?” However the text should be read, the interpretation from the context is the spoils of victory going to the people of God.
God in Zion (68:15-18)
The next picture presented to us in this psalm is God dwelling in Zion. But the picture is unique because it is from the vantage point of one of the great and lofty mountains in Palestine, Mount Bashan. Bashan is described as having envy because God chose Mount Zion. Zion is not much of a mountain, but Zion receives the glory because God has chosen her as his dwelling place. Verse 17 shows God moving in his mighty chariots (as a victorious military leader) from Mount Sinai to Mount Zion. The conquering God takes his place on high in Zion and establishes his throne there. In verse 18 we see the people coming to king with gifts, even the enemies who have been subjugated.
God of Salvation and Death (68:19-23)
The tone changes momentarily in verse 19 as God is praised for bearing the burdens of the people and offering salvation to them. But verse 20 goes back to the military power of God when the psalmist declares that only God offers escape from death. The enemies are crushed and the wicked are destroyed. The victory is pictured graphically in verse 23 as the victorious king wades through the blood of his enemies. While verse 23 seems needlessly graphic to our 21st century senses, this was common language used among the nations to describe the utter defeat of one’s enemies. “The similar image of wading through the blood of one’s enemies is also found in the Ugaritic epic of Baal and Anath. There the goddess gleefully slaughtered whole armies and ‘waded knee-deep in the warriors’ blood'” (The IVP Bible Background Commentary OT, pg. 538). Thus, God is depicted as being completely victorious over his enemies.
Processional of Praise (68:24-35)
The final verses of Psalm 68 describe the processional of praise as the king reigns from the throne in Zion. Praise from all the peoples is given to God, including the musicians and singers. Everyone from every tribe in the assembly praising God. In verses 28-31 we read of the rulers of the nations also coming to the temple and bringing their tribute, a symbol of subjection to the king. The kingdom of God has been established and all the nations are subjected and all of Israel is assembled before the throne of God. In verses 32-35 the final call is given to all the people of the earth to sing their praises to God. God is great in power and majesty and gives power and strength to his people.
The Jewish people always read the scriptures in a moving context. That is, if a psalm were speaking about the victory of a king, they would apply it to themselves. Further, they would apply the text to the coming Messiah and the Messianic Age. This method of interpretation can be seen as the New Testament writers interpreted the Old Testament texts in reference to their own day and to the Messiah. For example, Jesus said in Mark 7:6, “Isaiah prophesied correctly about you hypocrites, as it is written: These people honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me.” Isaiah, of course, was not prophesying about the people in 30 A.D. but of his own people in 740 B.C. But the psalms and the prophets were understood in a moving context and Jesus simply applies the passage to those in his day, a common practice for the Jewish people.
A portion of Psalm 68 is quoted by Paul in Ephesians 4:7-8, “Now grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of the Messiah’s gift. For it says: When He ascended on high, He took prisoners into captivity; He gave gifts to people.” Now we cannot go back through Psalm 68 and say that the whole psalm is Messianic and David was not speaking about his day and time. Interpreting the psalm in the manner leaves much to be desired and causes many problems. We need to interpret Psalm 68 as we just did, but now we need to realize that this psalm also was understood to speak of the victory the Messiah would have over the world. Now we are better able to comprehend the Jewish expectation of the Messiah coming and overthrowing the nations of the world, most notably the Roman Empire.
By quoting this psalm, Paul is stating that Jesus is the king who now sits on the throne, ruling over the nations. But Paul amplified this psalm in a number of ways. First, the psalm spoke about the ascension of a king to the throne over the enemies’ armies. Paul applies this meaning to Jesus, but expands the meaning to include Jesus descending to the earth, his body being laid in a tomb, then resurrecting and ascending back to the Father in heaven (Ephesians 4:9-10). Second, the psalm speaks about the people, even the rebellious, bringing gifts to the king. Paul applies this psalm to Christ, but rather than us giving gifts to him, Christ is giving gifts to us. This is a natural interpretation of Psalm 68 because God has been pictured as being victorious over the nations and acquiring the spoils of victory. Paul is not denying this fact, but is amplifying this truth. Christ is victorious over the nations and has acquired the spoils of victory. However, as king, Christ has distributed these spoils (or gifts) to the people, as stated in Ephesians 4:7, “Now grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of the Messiah’s gift.” Ephesians 4:11 names these gifts to include the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers.
The final important implication, though unstated, is that in Psalm 68 we see God establishing his kingdom in Zion. Since Jesus is the Messiah, he is the fulfillment of this psalm. Jesus established the kingdom of God in Zion. When did the establishment of the kingdom take place? Again, we read Paul’s words: “the One who descended is the same as the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things” (Ephesians 4:10). How appropriate the ending of Psalm 68 is with this powerful teaching of Paul: “God, You are awe-inspiring in Your sanctuaries. The God of Israel gives power and strength to His people. May God be praised” (68:35).