May 21st this year will be Ascension Day in the Christian calendar, when Christians throughout the world celebrate and remember the ascension of Christ and his promise to come again. One of the great Old Testament poems about ascension is Psalm 68. This Psalm as a whole celebrates the bringing of the ark to Jerusalem in the time of David and the eventual construction of Solomon's temple. In particular, it heralds the journey of the ark after its construction at Mt. Sinai though the wilderness sojourn (68:7-10). The psalm may well have been composed in honor of the procession of the Ark of the Covenant from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David (1 Chr. 13, 15 and 16). It opens with the echo of the desert shout when the ark led the way for Israel (Ps. 68:1; Nu. 10:35). It climaxes with the ascent of the mountain in Judah that God chose as his permanent resting place (Ps. 68:16). Thus, when God "ascended on high," that is, when his throne on the ark was taken to Jerusalem and established in honor, he led in his train the captives of his victory over the Canaanites, sharing the bounty of victory with the community of Israel (cf. 1 Sa. 30:16-31; 2 Sa. 6:17-19). The ark was a sort of movable Mt. Sinai, containing the 10 commandments which were given on Sinai, and in the trek from the wilderness to the land of Canaan and the eventual establishment of the sanctuary on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem, the ark finally was established in its proper resting place in Solomon's temple, which is why in 68:17 it says, "Sinai is now in the sanctuary." This procession of Yahweh enthroned upon the ark and now brought into the Most Holy Place of the temple is then described by the metaphor of an ancient "triumph," when a conquering king leads the victory procession through the capital. In his train are the captives of his enemies who have been subdued and now offer him gifts (68:18). These captive enemies include those rebels who have fought against him. Those who give gifts to the conquering king include not only those nearby kings who were his allies, but also the rebels who fought against him. The final line in 68:18, "...Yahweh God there to dwell," simply affirms that in his victory, God has established his dwelling place in the Holiest of Holies in Solomon's temple on Mt. Zion, which later is accentuated by 68:24. The idea of outsiders showering gifts upon the conquering king is again reiterated in 68:29 and 68:31.
In the New Testament, St. Paul sees something in this passage beyond the ancient entry of the ark into Solomon's temple and views it as anticipating the victory of Christ (Eph. 4), where he shares the gifts he receives from his tributaries with the church. For Paul, this event in the history of Israel was typological of a far greater ascension, the ascension of the resurrected Son of God into the heavens, in which he destroyed the spiritual enemies of his people (cf. Ep. 1:19b-21). Paul consistently saw events within the history of Israel as earthly fore-shadowings or analogies of spiritual realities in the church (cf. Ro. 4:3, 22-25; 9:24-29; 1 Co. 10:1-11; 2 Co. 3:7-18; Ga. 4:21-31). His treatment of Psalm 68 is typical of such exegesis. Paul shows that in Christ's resurrection and ascension, he not only was victorious over the opposing spiritual entities in the heavenlies (cf. 1:20-21; 3:10; 6:12), but he also shared the bounty of his victory with the members of his church. This bounty consisted of his grace-gifts to the church. Hence, the fuller meaning of the "ascension" in Psalm 68:18 refers, not merely to the bringing of the ark to Jerusalem, but to the enthronement of the risen Christ in the heavenlies (4:9a).