In speaking of God’s victory over His enemies, Psalm 68:18 says, in part, “You ascended on high, leading a host of captives in your train and receiving gifts among men” (ESV).
In ancient warfare, captives were part of the spoils of war. The conquering general would take many captives, soldiers as well as civilians, who could then be sold or held as slaves or perhaps held for ransom in case some of the surviving relatives would be willing to pay to get them back. “Captives in your train” refers to a long line of captives included in the procession/parade of the conquering general, his army, and all of the spoils of war. In 1 Kings 10:2, the Queen of Sheba comes to Jerusalem with “a very great train,” which refers to her large retinue or entourage. Train is simply a word for “procession” or “parade.” (The word train was chosen to denote the modern method of rail transportation because it is a long line—like a parade of cars hauling people and things.) Most modern versions avoid using the word train. The NIV translates the clause as “you took many captives,” and the CEV renders it as “you took prisoners with you.”
So that explains what captives in your train means, but what does the verse mean?
Psalm 68 speaks of YHWH being victorious over all His enemies. Psalm 68:18 speaks of YHWH in terms of a conquering general or king who has taken many captives and has received gifts from those He conquered. Ephesians 4:8 paraphrases or perhaps summarizes the concepts found in Psalm 68, changing the wording to speak of Christ taking many captives and giving gifts, not receiving them. This paraphrasing has caused many to question just how Paul is using Psalm 68:18, because, on the surface, receiving gifts would appear to be exactly the opposite of giving them. Many complex solutions have been offered, but perhaps the best explanation is to remember that a conquering general or king would receive gifts from his enemies and then would often distribute them to his own people, friends, or supporters. The main point Paul makes is that Christ is a conquering king in a position to distribute many gifts to His people. Paul does not press the specific details of the verse in Psalms.
In 2 Corinthians 2:14 Paul speaks of a similar situation. In that passage, Christians are the “captives” of Christ and are now included in His triumphal train or procession. Christians are the “spoils of war,” in that they were taken from the enemy and are now slaves of Christ, which is ultimately the best thing that could have happened to them.
The gifts that Christ gives to the church in Ephesians 4 are the people who will help the church grow and mature. “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4:11–12).
In the final analysis, the picture of Christ having captives in His train communicates that He is the conquering king, leading a train (procession, parade) of captives who are the spoils of war. These captives were once slaves of sin, but are now slaves of Christ. Christ distributes some of His slaves as leaders for the good of the church, which is made up of all the people He has captured. These church leaders do not own the church, but simply serve under the authority of Christ. (See 1 Peter 5:1–4).