A Wineskin in the Smoke

Psalm 119: 81-88wineskin

Came across an interesting verse in my daily Scripture readings yesterday.  Psalm 119:83 – “Though I have become like a wineskin in the smoke,  I do not forget Your statutes.”  Not sure why I have never seen this verse before.  It is probably because it is buried among 176 similar sounding verses within the longest chapter in the Bible.

What did this expression mean and why did I feel like it describes me right now?  The surrounding context is a Psalmist that is facing hardship.  His soul is languishing for deliverance (v.81) and He asks God:  “When will you comfort me?” (v.82)  He then says he feels like a wineskin in the smoke.  Now in the culture of the day, wine was stored in animal skins.  These skins if stored indoors with a fire present would become dry, then blackened and eventually would crack and become useless.  Good word picture, huh?

In the midst of feeling as used up and worthless as a discarded beverage container, he adds:  “I do not forget Your statutes.”   God’s word alone is the balm he needs for his wounds.  He might feel forsaken by man, but the Word says God has not forsaken him… and he is banking his life on it.

Sometimes, a word of Scripture can help when nothing else will do.  N. T. Wright remarks:

“Some parts of the Bible are best drunk like a large glass of water on a hot day—in other words, large quantities at a time—while others, such as many parts of the letters, are best sipped and savored, drop by drop… (always remembering that, especially in a letter, every verse means what it means in relation to the whole thing, not on its own.  But the point is that reading the Bible is habit-forming:  not just in the sense that the more you do it the more likely to want to do it, but also in the sense that the more you do it the more it will form habits of mind and heart, of soul and body, which will slowly but surely form your character into the likeness of Jesus Christ.”  (After You Believe, p. 262.)

Barely holding it together?  Too weary, you think, to turn to the Bible?  His Word is a lamp (v.105) and it can provide you the light of hope you need… even in the midst of the smoke.

Clinging to God

small-hand-in-large-handPsalm 63: 6-11

“On my bed I remember you;  I think of you through the watches of the night.  Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings.  My soul clings to you;  your right hand upholds me.” (63: 6-8, emphasis mine)

Have you noticed how everything seems worse at night?  You might have bobbed above an ocean of despair all day long, only to drown in it when you head hits the pillow that night.  David had a lot to think about when he laid down to sleep.  Absalom… his own son… was also his enemy.  He was seeking to kill him.  That should be enough to keep anyone up all night.   But it doesn’t require physical threat to rob us of our ZZZ’s.   Our emotional pain and our other problems as well flare up at night like a spiking fever.

And yet, I have found comfort in David’s words here.  He concludes this Psalm with faithful trust in a loving God.  You see, David took advantage of these nighttime moments to focus on God.
“I meditate on Thee in the night watch.”  The term meditate here means to “muse or ponder.”   What do we usually meditate on in the night?  We usually wear out our minds chasing down the day’s injustices, like:   “How could they have said that about me?”  “How could life be so unfair?.” and  “How will my family survive my layoff?”  Fair questions… but the lack of attainable answers (you’re in bed remember?) will leave your mind racing all night.

For David, God was all he desired and all that would satisfy Him (v.5).  That is why He gave his all to God even in the night.  When God is all that you desire, you let Him sort things out. (vv. 9-11)

Remember these thoughts from saints of yesteryear:

“I cannot read; I cannot think; I cannot even pray; but I can trust.”  –  J. Hudson Taylor suffering mental and physical breakdown upon hearing that 58 of his missionaries and 21 children in China were massacred.  (Pray Magazine, Mar/Apr 2008, p. 22.)

When you can’t trace His hand you can trust His heart.  –   Charles Spurgeon  (Quoted by Robert J. Morgan in The Promise, p. 53.

I know it is hard.  I’ve had those nights… still having them.  But in the battle surrender to trust.  CLING TO GOD as though He were your only protection.  In the end… He is indeed all we need.

Desperate for God

desertPsalm 63:1

A psalm of David, When he was in the desert of Judah.

“You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water.”

It is 2 a.m. and you are awakened by your cellphone, dancing and playing its merry little tune on your nightstand.  Sleepy eyed you reach over.  It is not like you were sleeping well anyway.

Answering it you hear the frantic plea of a dear friend:  “Get up and get out immediately!  Your son is on the way and he’s bringing his gang banger friends with him.  He’s going to kill you!  That kid of yours has murder in his eyes!”

His words startle you awake.  You jump up and grab your car keys.  You tear out of your drive way in your Lexus with just the clothes on your back.  2 hours later you pull into a freeway rest stop… and attempt to collect yourself.  At a lonely picnic table, you ask yourself:  “How did it all come to this?”

You knew your son was capable… he had already murdered his half-brother.  He killed him to avenge the rape of his sister.  It was such a difficult and twisted time.  You haven’t spoken to that blood thirsty kid since.  But your silence has done nothing but fuel your son’s animosity.  Now he is after your head!

“How did things come to this?”  you utter again holding your head in your hands… and then… you remember… it was you.  It was you that started this whole drama in your family… when you had that affair 2 years ago.  You began a slide in morality that is now an avalanche of sorrow.  Where do you go from here?  Where can you turn for help and relief?

(this intro is based on an introduction from A. T. Stewart in his sermon, “Finding God in Your Devastation” on sermoncentral.com)

What I just shared with you is not an episode of “Without a Trace” or “Law and Order,”  but is a day in the life of King David which is the background of Psalm 63.   This Psalm has a title:  A Psalm of David when he was in the Desert of Judah.

The son in question is Absalom, who had killed his half-brother, and then wooed the hearts of the nation of Israel before taking David’s throne in a coup.  Now he was seeking David’s head on a platter.  This is why David in the wilderness.

It is from this desert setting that David cries out:

O God, you are my God,

earnestly I seek you;

my soul thirsts for you,

my body longs for you,

in a dry and weary land

where there is no water.

This reminds me of a hiking trip I took with the men of our church at Lake Sonoma.  It was the first overnight journey I had ever under taken and I wasn’t prepared for how hungry and thirsty I would be.  I was so thirsty.  I never had to rely so much on a water bottle before.  And I couldn’t even imagine hiking like that in the summer heat without streams to keep my bottle filled.  The amount of water you would have to carry for such a journey without the possibility of refilling would have been far too heavy a burden.

Well David didn’t get to choose his hike.  He was forced out into the wilderness.  A stream for him would have been a life saving find.

So he says:  In a dry and weary land where there is no water, I thirst for….  GOD(?)  One would think that David would say… well, water!  But during a time of trial, the thing we think we need the most… a healing, a check in the mail, a restored relationship… often takes a back seat… to a swelling need within our hearts… for God Himself.

David longs for God just as his flesh longs for water.

Often we wonder why we don’t find more satisfaction in our religious activities.  Howard Hendricks once wrote:  “Much of our religious activity today is nothing more than a cheap anesthetic to deaden the pain of an empty life!”

We aren’t satisfied because often we are terrified of the desert.  And the desert is where we feel our need for God the most.

When things come our way that we don’t understand we have more than a curiosity about God.  We have more than a desire to go to church to see our friends.  Bible reading becomes more than just a duty… it becomes a life line.

WE WANT GOD!   Nothing else will quench our thirst.

Hear the words of C. S. Lewis:   “God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.” (Mere Christianity)

Are you in the desert?  Through your own doing or the perhaps the sin of another?  Seek God as you would seek water!  He alone can sustain you there.

[more on Psalm 63 in blogs to follow]