by Al Maxey

Issue #657 ------- May 1, 2015
He rang'd his tropes, and preach'd up patience;
Back'd his opinion with quotations.

Matthew Prior (1664-1721)

Paul and the 68th Psalm
Did Paul Misquote OT Scripture?

George Noel Gordon (1788-1824), perhaps better known to us as Lord Byron (an English baron, poet, and by far one of the most eccentric, flamboyant and notorious characters of the Romantic movement), censured certain critics for having, in his estimation, "just enough of learning to misquote" [English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, 1809]. There is nothing unusual about people quoting other people. We all do it, although our motives for doing so may vary (ranging from noble to nefarious). Louise Imogen Guiney (1861-1920) observed, "Quotations (such as have point and lack triteness) from the great old authors are an act of filial reverence on the part of the quoter, and a blessing to a public grown superficial and external" [Scribner's Magazine, 1911]. Quoting the thoughts and insights of others with precision and honest intent can be quite effective, but misquoting others, whether that be intentional or not, can quickly become problematic for all concerned. This is not uncommon, unfortunately, for, as Simeon Strunsky (1879-1948) observed, "Famous remarks are very seldom quoted correctly" [No Mean City, 1944]. Such confusion is compounded, as one might well imagine, when such imprecise and incorrect quoting is perceived to have occurred between inspired biblical writers!

One of the most notable examples of this is the apostle Paul's quote of a verse in one of David's psalms. The psalm is Psalm 68, which most regard as a triumphal hymn of praise whose "unifying theme is centered around Yahweh the Divine Warrior, who comes to deliver His people" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 5, p. 443]. This is an extremely difficult psalm, however, and it "has occasioned extensive discussion on its structure, unity, and purpose" [ibid]. "Of all the Psalter, Psalm 68 is the one psalm most corrupt and confused so far as the Hebrew text is concerned, the most enigmatic as to context and meaning. It abounds in words which do not occur elsewhere in the Old Testament, in spellings which are either incorrect or unique, in sequences of consonants which seem to be in disarray, and in sudden and abrupt shifts in thought, style, and expression. Scholars have lavished attention upon it and have produced a wide range of interpretations of its meaning" [The Broadman Bible Commentary, vol. 4, p. 305]. "The sequence of verses following vs. 11 is particularly difficult, and seems to have suffered considerable damage. No more than a guess at the order and meaning of these verses is possible." ... Therefore, "it must be noted that the relative obscurity of much of the psalm makes any kind of dogmatism extremely questionable" [ibid]. It is such a challenging psalm that most scholars tend to echo the sentiment of Ferdinand Hitzig (1807-1875), a German Protestant theologian, who opined, "It is in reality no easy task to become master of this Titan" [Drs. Keil & Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 5, pt. 2, p. 243]. It is with all this background information in mind (and much more could be provided, but I will refrain from doing so here) that we find Paul quoting verse 18 of this Davidic psalm (although some doubt David penned it) in his Epistle to the Ephesians (Eph. 4:8; he also, in the view of many scholars, alludes to Ps. 68:18, but does not quote it, in Col. 2:15). Notice the following comparison (both readings are from the New American Standard Bible):

Psalm 68:18
Thou hast ascended on high, Thou hast led
captive Thy captives; Thou hast received gifts
among men, even among the rebellious also,
that the Lord God may dwell there.

Ephesians 4:8
Therefore it says, "When He ascended on
high, He led captive a host of captives,
and He gave gifts to men."

Even the casual observer will easily note that the apostle Paul takes some liberties with the text of this psalm. One may well argue whether or not such liberties are justified, and scholars have done so for centuries, but the indisputable fact is: Paul altered the text. "There are difficulties in the rendering which Paul uses and in the application he makes of it" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 3, p. 323]. In his epistle to the Ephesian brethren "the quotation diverges widely, both from the original Hebrew and from the Septuagint" [ibid, p. 324]. "The OT passage is materially changed" [ibid]. "The quotation itself, though indubitably biblical, is not without its difficulties, since Paul does not cite either MT or LXX" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 11, p. 57]. MT stands for the Masoretic Text, which is the Hebrew text of the Tanakh approved for general use in Judaism; what many regard as the "official" (most widely approved and used) version of the Old Testament writings in Hebrew. LXX stands for the Septuagint, which is the OT writings in Greek (and which was often quoted by NT writers). Paul does not take his quote of Psalm 68:18 from either of these, although in form it is closer to the LXX than the MT. More about this, and his possible source, later.

There is much speculation as to what historical event David (if you allow that he was indeed the author) had in mind when he wrote this psalm. The most accepted theory is that he was celebrating the bringing of the Ark of the Covenant from Kiriath-Jearim to Jerusalem, an event recorded in 2 Samuel 6 (which you will find fascinating reading for a number of reasons). Paul was certainly aware of the historical background of Psalm 68, being well-educated in the history, theology and traditions of Judaism, yet he "passes by the actual historical intention of the words and puts on them a quite different sense" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 3, p. 325]. Paul, who most would agree was inspired by the Spirit in his NT writings, realized that this psalm had Messianic implications, even though that may not have been the primary purpose or intent of the psalmist. Clearly, many OT passages, whether historic, poetic or prophetic, had a view to the coming Messiah and His work, while at the same time having a different meaning and application for the people to whom these writings were originally given. It is not uncommon, therefore, to find OT passages quoted in the NT to validate New Covenant truths and themes. "OT quotations introduced in the NT are given without much regard to the literal faithfulness with which quotations are expected to be made in modern times; and in other passages made use of by Paul (e.g., Romans 10:6-10) we discover a remarkable liberty both in reproduction and in application" [ibid].

Paul took the idea of the Ark of the Covenant, which signified God dwelling among the people of Israel, and its ascension to Jerusalem, and paralleled it with the reality of the ascension of Jesus (who was God among the people in human form). In both cases there is great celebration due to a triumphal ascension, and with that triumph the idea of blessings both received and bestowed. Such interpretive liberty with a text is known as "the principle of accommodation." Such accommodation allows for some degree of freedom in quotation. Since Psalm 68, "in its deepest sense is Messianic, celebrating the victory of Christ," Paul is justified in emphasizing "the substance rather than the words of the passage" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 20, p. 148]. The NT Greek scholar Dr. Marvin R. Vincent concurs, saying, "The Psalm is Messianic, a hymn of victory in which God is praised for victory and deliverance. It is freely adapted by Paul, who regards its substance rather than its letter, and uses it as an expression of the divine triumph as fulfilled in Christ's victory over sin and death" [Vincent's Word Studies, e-Sword]. Therefore, "St. Paul accordingly uses it with a bold variation suiting his context" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 8, p. 38]. Although this may upset modern day sensibilities with respect to the use of quotations, it is most certainly not a biblically unknown practice, nor was it perceived as in any way dishonest. It was simply accommodation of an ancient text to a spiritually enlightened and enhanced meaning and application. Such does not discount its original intent for its original hearers/readers, but simply suggests that some texts, prophecies, psalms, events, etc. may well have deeper significance when viewed in light of God's later interaction with His creation. Paul merely suggests such deeper spiritual significance for those under the New Covenant.

As we compare and contrast Paul's use of Psalm 68:18 in Ephesians 4:8, the most obvious deviation from the text of both the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint is his phrase, "He gave gifts to men." In the psalm the reading is: "Thou hast received gifts among men." There is a huge difference between the Lord receiving gifts and giving gifts! This is a substantial alteration, and "attempts have been made to account for the apparent discrepancy by the conjecture that Paul was quoting from memory and that his recollection was imperfect, or that he arbitrarily doctored the text to suit his line of argument. With more plausibility some have claimed that, under the inspiration of the Spirit, Paul felt free to amplify the meaning of the Psalm, since the 'giving' is implicit in the 'receiving for'" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 11, p. 57]. That last point is an important one, for the word employed in the psalm which is translated "receive" often is used in the OT "in the sense of fetching or taking in order to give" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 3, p. 325]. Drs. Jamieson, Fausset and Brown agree: "In the Psalm, 'received gifts for men,' or the Hebrew 'among men,' i.e., 'Thou hast received gifts' to distribute among men" [Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 1289]. This is entirely consistent with the message of Paul to the Ephesians, and this is especially emphasized in Acts 2:32-33 in Peter's sermon on the day of Pentecost: "God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, He has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear." Jesus made it clear that His ascension was necessary if His disciples were to be benefited: "It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you" (John 16:7). This is the very point Paul makes to the Ephesian brethren, although he lists additional gifts the risen and ascended Lord bestows upon His people (Eph. 4:7, 11).

It is also important to point out, as an additional insight as to the changed wording of Paul in his quotation of Psalm 68:18, that he may have been "drawing on an ancient oral tradition reflected in the Aramaic Targum on the Psalter and the Syriac Peshitta version, both of which read, 'Thou hast given gifts to men.' Early rabbinical comments applied the verse to Moses when he received the Law on Sinai so as to bring it to the people" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 11, p. 57]. It was not uncommon for victors to receive gifts or tribute from those they had conquered, which items were often subsequently given by these victorious leaders to their own people or warriors. This again would be a "receiving so as to give," which seems to be the sense of the above two versions. "It is possible, indeed, that the apostle adopted a traditional version or interpretation of the passage which was familiar, and of which some indication is found in the Peshitta Syriac and the Chaldee Paraphrase (both having a rendering = 'Thou didst give gifts to the children of men')" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 3, p. 325]. Dr. Charles Ellicott agrees: "It appears that the Chaldee Targum actually has here, as a gloss, 'Thou hast given gifts to the sons of men,' interpreting the words, curiously enough, of Moses as a mediator between God and man" [Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 8, p. 38].

Perhaps the best final statement to all of this is: "But after all such explanations the fact remains that both the terms and the idea are changed" in Paul's rendering of Psalm 68:18. "But in any case it is an application rather than an interpretation in the strict sense of the word that we have here. And the justification of such an application lies in the fact that the unknown event celebrated in the Psalm was a victory of the Theocratic King, and in that sense a part of that triumph of the Kingdom of God which was to be carried to its consummation by the Messiah" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 3, p. 325]. The apostle Paul tapped into a well-known (at least to the people of that day) historical event from the past to illustrate a spiritual reality accomplished by Christ Jesus, and he gave a "free quotation" from a well-known psalm (perhaps in a form taken from versions other than the standard Hebrew and Greek texts) to further lend force to his teaching. In a way, Paul was the embodiment of the principle of our Lord's Parable of the Householder: "Every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old" (Matt. 13:52). Yes, "He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant -- not of the letter but of the Spirit" (2 Cor. 3:6). Jesus rebuked those who placed their trust in the Scriptures themselves -- in the preciseness of the letter of the law -- instead of perceiving the One revealed in those writings (John 5:39-40). May we be more like Paul, who apparently was far more interested in faithfulness to the Living Word (Jesus and His message) than to a precise rendering of the written word.

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Readers' Reflections

From a Minister in Malaysia:

Dear Bro. Maxey, Please put me on your mailing list for your weekly Reflections. I really enjoy reading your thought-provoking articles, and have been reading your weekly precious nuggets on your web site for years. I also enjoy the comments of your readers on the previous week's articles. Well done! For the past several years I have printed all of your weekly articles and have had them professionally bound into annual hardcover volumes for my personal library and for future reference. I am from West Malaysia, and am a graduate of Abilene Christian University, and have been a preacher in the city of ------- for the past twenty years. Again, I really enjoy your thoughtful, scholastic articles weekly. God bless your wonderful and edifying writing ministry, and also your work as an elder/minister in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

From a Reader in Texas:

Great article again, Al ("The Involuntary Evangelist": Reflections #656). I am personally so thankful for you and for men and women like you the world over who faithfully attempt to live out (albeit imperfectly, which you/they freely admit) the calling placed upon you/them by our Almighty God. So many times your example has witnessed to me the importance of never giving up and of continuing to strive toward the goal. Though I've never met you, I consider you a dear brother in Christ, and I encourage you to keep up the good work! Your words, your scholarship, your diligence, and your example are helping this brother in his own walk toward an eternal kingdom! "Be strong in the Lord, and in His mighty power!"

From a Reader in Washington:

Thank you for sharing this study on "The Involuntary Evangelist." I really appreciated your comments about your own personal calling to ministry. It can't have been easy to deal with people being upset or angry with you and your writing/speaking, but it is easy to see that a fire burns within you that compels you to keep on keeping on. God knows how much we truly need your insight into the Scriptures, as well as your ability to speak Truth in love (truths which are sometimes hard to hear if/when we may happen not to agree with them). Most times I think you are "right on," though. May God continue to bless you with good health so He can use you in this mighty way for years to come. To Him be the glory!

From a Minister in India:

Your last Reflections had great words of encouragement for God's ministry, brother. We are all greatly blessed by your Christian fellowship, and we pray here always for your family and your ministry.

From a Reader in California:

Al, I absolutely loved this article about our dear brother Paul ("The Involuntary Evangelist"). If there was ever an example of divine discipleship, it was this man! He, more than anyone save Jesus, displayed the attitude of "God above all else." I would love to see more of these "profiles in godliness!" Thank you for your Reflections ministry!

From a Minister in New Zealand:

Three thoughts came to mind regarding your latest Reflections ("The Involuntary Evangelist"): 1) We have a stewardship entrusted to us. 2) We align ourselves with the prophets -- Matthew 5:12. 3) We preach the Word because it is the right thing to do, regardless of the results. "Those who preach must preach God's messages; those who serve must serve with the strength that God gives them, so that in all things praise may be given to God through Jesus Christ, to whom belong glory and power forever and ever. Amen" (1 Peter 4:11, TEV).

From a Well-Known Author/Leader:

Thank you, Al, for the great article on our brother Paul, and for the new insights relative to his reluctance. I too was reluctant to move from a profession to which I was committed, to the "call of the gospel" (2 Thess. 2:14) and to proclaiming it, by His grace, for 50 years. It is amazing what God can do with a "cheap clay pot" (2 Cor. 4:7). Along with Paul, I think God is still calling Moses, a reluctant servant, from the backside of the mountain. Oh, how we need the brigade of "reluctant servants" today!!

From a Reader in Nova Scotia, Canada:

I must ask: Is the Pope Catholic? The answer, of course, is Yes. Well, the same is true of the following: Is Al Maxey a preacher of the Gospel? The only answer is Yes. The gift God has given you could not be contained even if you tried! Your very countenance and presence would tell folk you serve a loving God. I know you have suffered at the hands of those who think their beliefs and traditions trump what God wanted us to know. BUT, you are blessed by those who love, appreciate and respect you for standing for Truth over tradition. God's Truth needs to be considered and weighed against what we have always been told it to be. I have found that the vast majority of folk within our movement (Churches of Christ) have failed to really study for themselves, but just absorb the traditions of the past without question. It is only when one has done what you have done, Al (i.e., truly examine the Word, rather than blindly accept tradition), that one will find a great release and an inner peace. Don't ever give up preaching or writing!! If you did, I would lose my best resource and the greatest reading material that I have. Love ya, brother!

From a Reader in Ottawa, Canada:

Just read "The Involuntary Evangelist." What a tremendous article! And you ended it perfectly with this quote from Paul: " thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus" (Philp. 3:12-14). May our God and Father bless and keep you in all you do for Him! Thank you so much!

From a Reader in Georgia:

Your quote of the passage in Scripture where God tells Paul to "get up" or "stand on your feet" caused me to appreciate more fully Paul's humanness. He was in the prime of his religious life, having trained extensively to become who he was becoming, and all of a sudden he was hearing from God and being corrected and blinded by the Almighty Himself. And he found himself on the ground. This caused me to consider that most of the time when God calls a person, or corrects a person, or causes a person to do something new or different, He usually has to knock them/us to the ground to get their/our attention! Or, perhaps, that's just my personal experience!! Blessings, brother.

From a Reader in Texas:

I know you are very busy, and that your time is at a premium, but I have a request for an item to be put in your que for a later Reflections. I would like for you to address the legality versus morality issue. It seems to me that there is developing a majority in this country who believe legality trumps morality. It seems that the words of Isaiah in 5:20 are never more true than today! I think this is very critical for the church and individual Christians to ensure that we keep our relationship with Him in focus. How we deal with many social issues must always be grounded in the Word. I continue to appreciate your continual efforts to challenge me and push me to a deeper understanding of Whose I am and who I must strive to be. Keep on keeping on!

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