Psalm 119:81-88, “My soul longs for your salvation; I hope in your word. My eyes long for your promise; I ask, “When will you comfort me?” For I have become like a wineskin in the smoke, yet I have not forgotten your statutes. How long must your servant endure? When will you judge those who persecute me? The insolent have dug pitfalls for me; they do not live according to your law. All your commandments are sure; they persecute me with falsehood; help me! They have almost made an end of me on earth, but I have not forsaken your precepts. In your steadfast love give me life, that I may keep the testimonies of your mouth.”
At heart, Psalm 119 is a penetrating exploration of the interplay between the law of the Lord, the promises of the Lord, and the reality of suffering. Accordingly, David begins the eleventh stanza of the Psalm with the words, “My soul longs for your salvation; I hope in your word” (119:81). Given the conventions of Hebrew poetry, David might as well have written, “My soul longs for your salvation by hoping in your word.”
We don’t know precisely what he was facing in his life, although it seems that his present trial came about in part because of his own sin but in much larger measure because of the unjust persecution of others. In fact, it’s likely that the persecution brought his sins and weaknesses to light, and that he thought it wise before the Lord and helpful for his cause to honestly and openly confess them. Whatever the details of his situation, David was truly suffering, and therefore he was profoundly longing for the Lord to see his predicament and deliver his life.
In the midst of this fierce storm, David sustained his soul and nurtured his hope by remembering the Word of God and disciplining himself to believe that the God of the Word is faithful and true. This is why he continues, “My eyes long for your promise; I ask, ‘When will you comfort me?’” (Psalm 119:82) David was desperately looking for the moment when the Lord would show himself faithful by saving him from his trial.
Surely, David had seen the Lord deliver him (and others) many times over the years, and surely he believed that the Lord could do it again. But with every new trial there are fresh revelations of remaining unbelief so that the question gripping David’s heart was, would the Lord do it again? Therefore, David cried out like a son to a Father and asked, “When will you comfort me?” That is, how long will this trial endure? How long must I persevere? Am I going to make it through? Will you spare my life?
With these hard questions and raw emotions on the table, David said, “For I have become like a wineskin in the smoke” (Psalm 119:83). In days of old, winemakers would place new wine into new wineskins, hang the wineskins on a rope, and then expose them to medium-hot smoke so that the wine would mature, purify, and become palatable to those who drank it. With this in mind, David was saying two things to the Lord.
First, he was saying that he felt enveloped in a hot and blinding fog that had rendered him blind and in fear of his life. He was disoriented and weary; he longed for a new day and fresh air and clear sight. However, in comparing himself to wine in the smoke, he was also saying that the Lord was the Winemaker who was exposing that which was precious to him to unusual and unsustainable conditions in order to mature, purify, and perfect it for use in his Kingdom. Indeed, the best wine must endure the longest trials in order to become the best.
So, while David felt like a wineskin in the smoke, he knew that the Lord was the Winemaker who was sovereign over the smoke and using it to advance his purposes for the glory of his name and the eventual joy of his chosen vessel.
Now, how did David have the wherewithal to see God’s hand in the midst of his disorienting circumstances? He writes, “yet I have not forgotten your statutes” (Psalm 119:83). By the Word of God, David saw the hand of God at work and found the strength of God to endure another moment, another day. By disciplining himself to remember, he put his soul in a position to believe and to endure and to stretch toward the joy that belongs to those who persevere by faith in the God who is faithful to his promises.
But still, the questions persisted. “How long must your servant endure? When will you judge those who persecute me?” (Psalm 119:84) In other words, when will you deliver me and when will stand against those who have hated me without cause and rejected you without wisdom? And let’s not fail to hear his words and understand the profound seriousness of his situation. “The insolent have dug pitfalls for me; they do not live according to your law. All your commandments are sure; they persecute me with falsehood; help me! They have almost made an end of me on earth, but I have not forsaken your precepts” (Psalm 119:85-87).
Friends, we face trials of all sorts, but few of us have had packs of powerful people out to kill us. David’s enemies were out to kill him, and they almost succeeded. He was afraid that they would yet succeed. Whatever the details, his situation was drastic, and he was in desperate need for the delivering power of the Lord to manifest in his life once again. So, while they failed to live according to God’s law, David assured his soul that God’s commandments were solid and unshakable and he pled his case before God, namely, that he had not forsaken the words and wisdom of God.
David was enveloped in a confusing and suffocating fog, but he knew that his hope was in the Word of God, for he knew that the God of the Word is faithful. Therefore, he concludes his eleventh stanza, “In your steadfast love give me life, that I may keep the testimonies of your mouth” The steadfast love of the Lord is the faithfulness of the Lord to his words. So, David is pleading that the Lord would show himself faithful—and soon—not simply so that he could be delivered but so that he would be free to delight in and live by the very words that nourished his soul and secured his hope.
Ultimately, David’s plea was not, “Get me out of this!” Rather, it was, “Set me free so that I can exalt your name.” In other words, his plea was centered on God and not himself.
Hope in the Midst of Smoke
Although we don’t know the details of how this particular trial ended, we do know that the Lord showed himself faithful to David all the days of his life and well beyond. In fact, the Lord is still showing himself faithful to David, for one greater than David, the Lord Jesus Christ, came from his line and fulfilled all of the promises God made to and through David. Indeed, the ultimate expression of the faithfulness of God is the life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and enthronement of Jesus Christ. “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Corinthians 1:20).
So, if you too feel like a wineskin in the smoke, discipline yourself to open up the Word of God and fix your eyes on Jesus, the author, and perfecter of your faith. For the joy set before him, Jesus endured trials we cannot imagine in order to fulfill promises we will never fully understand. He was faithful to his Father, and he will be faithful to all who call upon his name.
Finally, if you too feel like a wineskin in the smoke, remember that God is your Winemaker and that he’s in perfect control of the process and outcome of your present trial. In his time and way, he will use your sufferings and pleas to glorify his name and prepare for you a joy known only to those who persevere by faith in his name.
Charles Handren is pastor for Adult Ministries at Cross of Glory Baptist Church and an author residing with his wife Kimberly in Wayzata MN. His wife Kimberly (1991) is a Spanish and English as a Second Language teacher, and his daughter, Rachel (1994), owns and operates a dance studio in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Charles enjoys reading, cycling, hiking, and traveling. He holds degrees from California Baptist University (Riverside, California) and the American Baptist Seminary of the West (Berkeley, California), and is currently a Doctor of Ministry student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.