The scripture readings assigned to the Sunday after Theophany in the Orthodoxy Church, Ephesians 4:7-13 and Matthew 4:12-17 are bound together thematically by Psalm 68 (67 in the Greek numbering). This Psalm is quoted, and slightly adapted, by St. Paul who gives to the Psalm the interpretation which would later enshrine it in Paschal liturgics. It also, however, connects to the geographical themes set out by St. Matthew as Christ’s public ministry begins following his baptism by St. John the Forerunner. Understanding the way in which Ss. Matthew and Paul use this Psalm to characterize the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ is important to understanding the very meaning of the term ‘gospel’ as it is applied to our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Greek word translated in English as ‘gospel’, ‘evangelion’, is often etymologized as meaning ‘good news’. This is both vague, in that any positive report in any area of life can be categorized as ‘good news’, but also generally a bad procedure in terms of determining the meaning of any word. One can imagine the meaning which someone might arrive at for ‘butterfly’ by dividing it into its component words and seeking their individual meaning. Words derive their meaning at any given point in time not from their component parts or their original origins, but through their contemporary usage. Outside of the New Testament and early Christian literature, the term is almost always found in the plural in contemporary Greek literature, ‘evangelia’. This term was used for a very particular kind of ‘good report’. Before the arrival of Caesar or a high ranking Roman official or general in a city, a herald would be sent to publicly proclaim the ‘evangelia’ of that person of rank. This would be a listing of that persons titles, honors, and a recounting of their various military victories. This announcement was made to allow the city to prepare to receive the person appropriately. In the same way, the apostolic proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ described his title and honors do as Lord, Savior, and Christ and then recounted the great victory which he had won through his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension to be enthroned at the right hand of God the Father, and finally his glorious appearing. It was in particular this final element of the apostolic proclamation, Christ’s return to judge the living and the dead, which gives it the character of a ‘gospel’ (Rom 2:16), it is a message preparatory to Christ’s return. It is this element in particular which created the typical response to the gospel proclamation in Acts, “What must I do to be saved?”
Yahweh, the God of Israel, is frequently depicted in the Hebrew Scriptures as victorious in war and so this depiction of Christ should not be unexpected. Psalm 68 is one such depiction of Yahweh Sabaoth, often translated ‘Lord of Hosts’, with the ‘Hosts’ referring to an angelic army. The battle depicted in Psalm 68 is one between Yahweh, the God of Israel, and the spiritual forces of evil, personified at that time in Baal. In a previous post, the parallels between the Baal epic and the fall of the Devil were discussed.
Baal is addressed in the Psalm in two ways. First, through a geographic metaphor. The Psalm speaks of the ‘many-peaked mountain of Bashan’ (v. 15). This mountain looks with an evil eye toward Yahweh’s mountain, conceived in the Psalm as both Sinai (v. 17) and Zion (v. 16, 29). Bashan was the place of rule of the giant king Og, the last of the Rephaim, and a symbol throughout the Hebrew Bible of the demonic forces aimed at the destruction of God’s people. It is also the place, in ‘the North’, where Baal dwelt. Baal as a sky god, was worshipped at ‘high places’ atop hills and mountains, accounting for the ‘many peaks’. This northern region was also the location of Mt. Hermon, the name for which derives from the Hebrew word ‘cherem’ meaning ‘ban’ or ‘curse’, the same root as the Arabic ‘haraam’. This mountain is the site in 1 Enoch where the rebellious angels take council to plan their rebellion. There is a cave in this region which was widely seen in Canaanite and later Greco-Roman belief to be a gateway to Hades. The whole region was a center of ancient pagan practice and was seen as tainted and cursed by demonic powers in a way similar to the Valley of Hinnom, or Gehenna.
The other way in which Baal is addressed in the Psalm is through the use of language which had been traditionally used in the worship of Baal and subverting it through applying it to Yahweh, the God of Israel instead. Yahweh is depicted as riding on the clouds and bringing rains to desert lands (v. 4-8). In the myth of the Baal cycle, it is Baal who defeats the god of death, Mot. In Psalm 68:20 it is Yahweh who delivers from death, ‘mot’ in the Hebrew. It is not Baal who defeats the sea god, ‘Yam’, but Yahweh delivers his people from the ‘depths of the sea’ (v. 22). Yahweh rides the clouds in the heavens (v. 33). His power is in the skies (v. 34).
While the Psalm lays out the opposing forces, including the overwhelming size of the army of Yahweh (v. 17) and describes in detail the God of Israel’s victory procession (v. 24-27), no battle is actually depicted. Unlike the tales of Baal’s conquests over the other gods who opposed him, Yahweh does not have to struggle against Baal or any of the other gods of the nations. Rather, he tramples them underfoot and soaks the ground in their blood (v. 22-23). Yahweh defeats these foes to liberate his people, with this victory being compared to his defeat of the gods of Egypt in the Exodus (v. 7-10). This deliverance is future for the Psalmist. Just as Yahweh had once liberated his people from oppression in Egypt, he would soon act to free them from their spiritual oppressors, and through that liberation, ultimately free them from the tyranny of death (v. 20). This includes not only his faithful people in the south, in the kingdom of Judah, the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, but also those tribes living in the farthest north, the region dominated by these dark powers, Zebulun and Naphtali (v. 27).
St. Paul sees the new Passover freeing from the bondage to death and the spiritual powers of evil prophesied by this Psalm as having been fulfilled in the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ to triumphantly enter into the heavenly sanctuary (v. 24, 34-35). To this end, he cites the Psalm in Ephesians 4:8. It was certainly not lost on St. Paul that Psalm 68 presents one result of this victory of Yahweh as being the coming of the nations to worship the God of Israel (v. 31). In his citation in Ephesians, St. Paul combines to elements of the Psalm. The first is that the victorious Lord receives plunder from his victory (v. 12-14, 18, 29). The second is that he provides for his people (v. 5-6, 9-10, 14, 19). To bring these together, he slightly modifies his quotation of Psalm 68:18 to describe Christ as dividing the spoils with his people and therefore giving gifts to humanity. This identification of the prophesied new Passover (Gr. Pascha) with Christ’s death and resurrection is a central aspect of the apostolic proclamation of the Gospel, found throughout the New Testament. It is reflected liturgically in the Orthodox Church in the use of Psalm 68:1-3 as the Paschal verses, which are interspersed with hymns celebrating the new and holy Pascha.
St. Matthew invokes similar imagery in his Gospel (4:12-17). After his baptism and the arrest of St. John the Forerunner, Christ begins his ministry. He begins it not in Judea where the tribes of Judah and Benjamin had resettled, but in the north, in the realm of darkness and the shadow of death, where Zebulon and Naphtali had dwelt before they were dispersed among the Gentiles (Ps 68:27; Matt 4:13). Christ goes to war in the stronghold of his enemy. St. Matthew cites Isaiah’s oracle regarding the Messiah in Isaiah 9:1-7. Isaiah presents a Messianic Son who is also God himself (v. 6) who comes as Yahweh Sabaoth to defeat the enemies who oppress his people and establish his kingdom for eternity (v. 4-5, 7). Importantly, Isaiah presents this battle as beginning in the north, in the land previously hated by God, but which will in the last days be made glorious when the light of God shines forth from it (v. 1-2). Here also, the victorious Christ divides the spoils with his people (v. 3).
It has become a commonplace in discussing the ministry of Jesus as the Messiah to see his rejection by the people of Judea as the product of a certain disjunction. The people of Judea were expecting a Messiah who would be a military leader to deliver them from their enemies. It is then posited that Jesus was not such a Messiah and that the Judeans had gotten it wrong. The testimony of the New Testament, however, and the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, however, suggest that he was precisely such a Messiah, and that his ministry was in fact a military campaign. Those who rejected Jesus as the Christ did so because they were lovers of this world and the things therein. Because of this, they saw their human ‘enemies’ in this world, those whom they perceived to stand in the way of their happiness and fulfillment in the present age, as their true foes. Those who loved the true God of Israel, however, knew that their true enemies were his enemies, not flesh and blood, but powers and principalities in the heavenly places. They knew that what stood in the way of their life, participation in the life of God, was not the Romans or any other human, but their enslavement to the powers of sin and death. These understood who Jesus Christ is, the victory which he has won, and live rejoicing in that victory.