Like a wineskin in smoke

Psalms 119:81-88
81 My soul faints for Your salvation,
But I hope in Your word.
82 My eyes fail from searching Your word,
Saying, “When will You comfort me?”
83 For I have become like a wineskin in smoke,
Yet I do not forget Your statutes.
84 How many are the days of Your servant?
When will You execute judgment on those who persecute me?
85 The proud have dug pits for me,
Which is not according to Your law.
86 All Your commandments are faithful;
They persecute me wrongfully; Help me!
87 They almost made an end of me on earth,
But I did not forsake Your precepts.
88 Revive me according to Your lovingkindness,
So that I may keep the testimony of Your mouth.

For some reason, right after I woke up this morning, I started thinking about a play I did in high school called “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller. On the surface that play is about a man falsely accused during the Salem witch trials. Written as it was in the 1950’s in the midst of the proceedings of the House Un-American Activities Committee, it is hard to miss the subtext of the play concerning those who are persecuted for political gain by those in power. John Proctor is the “everyman” for each free-thinking person brought before Senator McCarthy’s panel, and his story feels hauntingly familiar to anyone who knows anything about persecution and false justice.

One particular scene from that play came to mind today. In a climactic court scene, Proctor accuses the prosecutors and judges of maneuvering for political power, saying that, as far as justice in Salem is concerned, “God is dead.” Of course, Proctor did not mean that literally, but to a man facing certain death for a crime he did not commit, to a man who saw nothing but hypocrisy and immorality around him, it must certainly have seemed as if God was removed from that place. The sad part, of course, is that the courts of Salem in 1692-3 claimed they were upholding God’s laws. I do not doubt that they caught and rightly prosecuted several people dealing with Satan, but it is well-documented that many people were sentenced to death on little more that hearsay from their town rivals – which means many faithful Christians died at the hands of those claiming to do God’s will. Not only is that a miscarriage of human justice, but it is plainly blasphemy to invoke “God’s justice” in the petty squabbles of neighbors.

In Psalms 119:81-88, the psalmist says a prayer that sounds an awful lot like one that might have been said by John Proctor or anyone falsely accused in Salem or Washington, DC, or anywhere else. With his soul fainting from searching for hope, the psalmist clings to God’s Word as the one bright light in his life. These verses contain a sad litany expressing the psalmist’s failing strength:

• “My soul faints…”
• “My eyes fall…”
• “I have become like a wineskin in smoke…”
• “The proud have dug pits for me…”
• “They persecute me wrongfully…”
• “They almost made an end of me…”

Despite such persecution, the psalmist has not given up. A wineskin hanging from the rafters of a hut will dry and crack from the heat and smoke, and it will not hold wine or water anymore. But God can and will revive a faithful one who feels like he has lost his ability to hold onto his faith.

Matthew 9:16
16 “No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and the tear is made worse.
17 “Nor do they put new wine into old wineskins, or else the wineskins break, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But they put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”

Even a new wineskin will dry out and be useless if left empty. A new wineskin must be filled with wine, keeping the skin moist and taut, sealing the seams and thus preserving both the wine and the skin itself. God our Father can so renew us, making us suitable to contain His Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit comes to us, He preserves us even as we preserve Him in our lives.

Look at what the psalmist says about God’s Word:

• “I hope in Your word.”
• “I do not forget Your statutes.”
• “All Your commandments are faithful…”
• “I did not forsake Your precepts.”

Looking at this contrast between failing strength and persistent faith, we must see that this should be the model for our own faith. Despite all the plots of the wicked, despite unjust persecution, despite our own weakness, we must turn to God and His Word again and again. As Jeremiah wrote, “Great is Your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:23) The psalmist asks, “WHEN will You comfort me?” He knows that God WILL comfort him, knows that God WILL execute judgment on those who persecute him. The psalmist has faith enough to know that God has not and will not leave him nor forsake him. The psalmist is relying on God to come and revive him according to His own mercy and will.

We are fortunate that our lives are not all about persecution and injustice. Yes, there are still cases of unjust prosecution here in America, and faith in a just God is flagging throughout this land. To many it may seem as if “God is dead,” and we faithful few may feel like we have poured out the dregs of our lives and are now left drying and cracking in the rafters. But God is faithful even when we are not. He revives and renews, He rebuilds and reforms. Yes, like the psalmist, we may often wonder “How long, Lord? How long?”

2 Peter 3:8-9
8 But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.
9 The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.

Even as we suffer, so does the Lord our God bear with the sin and rebellion around us. Even while we faint and fall, God stands and watches as His sovereign will is performed. Even as we cling to the hope of eternal life in Christ Jesus, God the Father remembers that it was our sin that put His Son on the Cross, and yet He loves us anyway.

Brothers and sisters, it may seem sometimes like we have lost all strength to stand up against wickedness and injustice. It may even seem as if we have been poured out as an offering before the throne of God, that we ourselves have nothing left to give. At such times we have one thing left which no one can ever take: our faith. We have faith in our ever-faithful God. We have faith in the promise of new life through His Son. We have faith in the Holy Spirit that dwells within us. And we have faith in His holy Word, which brings us all the promises and hope of God. Let us turn to God today and seek His revival, so that we ourselves may keep the testimony of His Word.

Lord God our Father, great is Thy faithfulness! Great are Your Word and Your judgments. Great are Your law and Your statutes. Great is Your name, and greatly to be praised is Your beloved Son. Revive me, O Lord, and revive this great country, so that we not only will never again persecute the just, but also so that we may keep Your Word alive for all generations. Amen.

About Glenn Pettit

I am a deacon at The Well of Iowa, and a father and grandfather. Called to teach and to preach, I write fresh messages about the Bible every now and then.
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