The letter to the Ephesians contains a paraphrase of Psalm 68:18 to affirm that when Jesus ascended to heaven, he bestowed gifts upon his followers: “Therefore, it [i.e., Ps 68:18] says, ‘When he ascended on high he led captive a host of captives, and gave gifts to humanity’” (Eph 4:8). Some interpret this verse to mean that Jesus liberated those who were held captive in Sheol (“Hades” in Greek)—the realm of the dead—and brought them with him up to heaven. Based on this act of liberation, the argument goes, while those prior to Yeshua went to Sheol after death, now believers ascend to heaven. Yet this interpretation misunderstands the psalmic context and misidentifies the “captives” who follow the ascended Messiah. The captives are not the righteous dead, but rather the rebellious enemies of God.
The original context of the quotation in Ephesians has the psalmist decrying the “mountain of Bashan” as the rival location of God’s Mount Sinai: “Mountain of the gods (אלהים; elohim), mountain of Bashan; mountain of peaks (הר גבננים; har gavnunim), mountain of Bashan. Why so envious, mountains of peaks, at the mount that God wanted as his dwelling place, yes, where the Lord will dwell forever? [....] You ascended the heights, taking captive a host of captives (שבית שבי; shavit shevi) in your train, receiving gifts of humans, even the rebels (sorerim; סוררים) against the dwelling of the Lord God” (Ps 68:15-16, 19-20). The psalm criticizes the lesser “gods” (אלהים) who dwell on Bashan rather than Sinai—the many “peaks” of Bashan likely alluding to the many demonic forces that populate the rival mountain. The next verses clarify that God will punish the captives from Bashan: “God will strike the heads of his enemies... [saying], “I will return them from Bashan... so that you may wade your feet in their blood; that the tongue of your dogs may have its portion of your enemies’” (Ps 68:22-24). According to Psalm 68, God’s “captives” are the envious gods of Bashan and the “rebels” who worship them.
Ephesians presents a reworked rendering of the psalm that refers to Jesus, saying, “When he ascended on high he led captive a host of captives, and he gave gifts to humanity” (Eph 4:8). Instead of God ascending the mountainous heights of Bashan, Ephesians cites the psalm with reference to Yeshua ascending “far above all the heavens” (Eph 4:10) and then giving the gifts of “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds, and teachers” (4:11). The text continues with a rhetorical question: “In saying, ‘he ascended’ what does [the psalm] mean but that [Jesus] had also descended to the lower regions of the earth?” (Eph 4:9). Some readers assume that the descent to “the lower regions of the earth” refers to Jesus entering Sheol after his death and liberating righteous “captives” from the realm of the dead. However, the rhetoric of Ephesians goes against this understanding. When Jesus ascends, he enters and exceeds “the heavens” or “skies” (4:10), so that the “lower regions” should be understood as the earth—an evocation of the two-tiered cosmos that God established at creation (Gen 1:1). Indeed, many English translations follow this logic of the “lower regions” referring not to the underworld, but to the earth that living beings inhabit (e.g., CEB; ESV; NIV). On this reading, Jesus descended to earth in his incarnation and then ascended to the skies at his ascension (cf. Acts 1:11), and he gave the “gifts” of earthly leaders after he left the earth.
Ephesians does not describe Yeshua descending to Hades and bringing the liberated dead with him to heaven. Instead, equipped with the context of the original psalm, Ephesians states that when Jesus ascended to heaven after his resurrection, he put the enemies of God to shame. The Messiah’s ascension was the decisive moment of victory over the gods that the psalmist locates on Bashan—demonic forces that Ephesians calls the “principalities and powers in the heavenly places” (Eph 3:10). This understanding of Eph 4:8 follows from the very first chapter of the letter, which declares that God “raised Messiah from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named” (Eph 1:20-21). The emptying of Sheol is not in view; instead, Jesus’ ascension included a train of defeated deities who had been unseated through the power of the cross.