A Bruised Reed

Anyone with a bit of biblical knowledge will know what I am referring to with my title. In Matthew 12:20 we read: “A bruised reed he will not break…” This is a quote from Isaiah which Matthew uses to describe the work of Jesus. It refers to the tender and gracious way Jesus dealt with the broken and the needy.

It is the longest sustained quote of the Old Testament found in Matthew’s gospel. The full text (Matt 12:15-21, about God’s chosen servant) is this:

Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. A large crowd followed him, and he healed all who were ill. He warned them not to tell others about him. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:
“Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
He will not quarrel or cry out;
no one will hear his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
In his name the nations will put their hope.”

And here is the full section as found in Isaiah 42:1-4 on the Servant of the Lord:

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“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”

Isaiah 42 is of course one of the four famous Servant Songs found in Isaiah (the other three are Is. 49:1-6; 50:4-9; and 52:13-53:12). This passage speaks about the gentle and kind way that the Servant (Jesus) deals with others, but it also speaks to his coming again to establish justice on the earth. Thus it speaks of Jesus as both the Lamb of God and the conquering Lion King.

Image of Bruised Reed

Of course one of the most famous and well-loved expositions of this portion of Matthew 12 and Isaiah 42 is that of the great English Puritan Richard Sibbes (1577–1635). In 1631 he penned his classic The Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax, a 70-page exposition of Isaiah 42:3.

If you have the 7-volume collected works of Richard Sibbes put out by Banner of Truth, you will find this amazing piece in volume 1 (on pages 33-101 to be exact). I first grabbed this volume nearly 30 years ago, and it always repays handsomely to pull it off the shelves, blow off the dust, and reread it.

It has been an inspiration to millions of believers over the centuries. Let me mention just one such appreciative soul. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was of course a major lover and promoter of Puritan thought and theology. And he especially loved Sibbes. As he relates in his 1972 volume, Preaching and Preachers, Sibbes has been a constant comfort and companion of his:

You will find, I think, in general, that the Puritans are almost invariably helpful. I must not go into this overmuch, but there are Puritans and Puritans! John Owen on the whole is difficult to read; he was a highly intellectual man. But there were Puritan writers who were warmer and more direct and more experimental. I shall never cease to be grateful to one of them called Richard Sibbes who was balm to my soul at a period in my life when I was overworked and badly overtired, and therefore subject in an unusual manner to the onslaughts of the devil. In that state and condition, to read theology does not help, indeed it may be well-nigh impossible; what you need is some gentle tender treatment of your soul. I found at that time that Richard Sibbes, who was known in London in the early seventeenth century as ‘the Heavenly Doctor Sibbes,’ was an unfailing remedy. His books The Bruised Reed and The Soul’s Conflict quieted, soothed, comforted, encouraged and healed me. I pity the preacher who does not know the appropriate remedy to apply to himself in these various phases through which his spiritual life must inevitably pass.

If you do not have this terrific work, you can read it online here: www.onthewing.org/user/Sibbes%20-%20Bruised%20Reed%20-%20Updated.pdf

I urge you all to do so. It is indeed precious soul food. To whet your appetite, I conclude with some quotable quotes (and there are plenty to be found in this great offering from Sibbes). As C. H. Spurgeon rightly said, “Sibbes never wastes the student’s time; he scatters pearls and diamonds with both hands.”

The quotes I offer here are from the updated language version as found in the link above (I offer the page numbers of this online version first, then the page numbers as they are found in the BoT volume):

This bruising is required before conversion so that the Spirit may make way for himself into the heart by leveling all proud, high thoughts, and so that we may understand ourselves to be what indeed we are by nature. We love to wander from ourselves and to be strangers at home, till God bruises us by one cross or other, and then we “begin to think”, and come home to ourselves with the prodigal son (Luke 15:17). It is a very hard thing to bring a dull and evasive heart to cry with feeling for mercy. Our hearts, like criminals, never cry for the mercy of the judge until they are beaten from all evasions. (p 7 = p 44)

Hence we learn that we must not pass too harsh judgment upon ourselves or others when God exercises us with bruising upon bruising. There must be a conformity to our head, Christ, who “was bruised for us” (Isa. 53:5) so that we may know how much we are bound to him. Ungodly spirits, ignorant of God’s ways in bringing his children to heaven, censure brokenhearted Christians as miserable persons, whereas God is in fact doing a gracious, good work with them. It is no easy matter to bring a man from nature to grace, and from grace to glory, our hearts being so unyielding and intractable. (p 8 = pp 44-45)

He is a physician who is good at healing all diseases, especially at binding up a broken heart. He died so that he might heal our souls with a plaster of his own blood, and save us by that death which we caused ourselves, by our own sins. And does he not have the same heart in heaven? “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” cried the Head in heaven, when the foot on earth was trodden on (Acts 9:4). His advancement has not made him forget his own flesh. Though it has freed him from passion, yet it has not freed him from compassion towards us. The lion of the tribe of Judah will only tear in pieces those who “will not have him rule over them” (Luke 19:14). He will not show his strength against those who prostrate themselves before him. (p 9 = p 45)

It is better to go bruised to heaven than sound to hell. Therefore let us not release ourselves too soon, nor pull off the plaster before the cure is worked, but keep ourselves under this work till sin is the sourest, and Christ is the sweetest, of all things. And when God’s hand is upon us in any way, it is good to divert our sorrow for other things to the root of it all, which is sin. Let our grief run most in that channel, so that just as sin bred our grief, so grief may consume our sin. (p 11 = pp 47-48)

In the small seeds of plants lie hidden both bulk and branches, both bud and fruit. In a few, principles lie hidden, all comfortable conclusions of holy truth. All these glorious fireworks of zeal and holiness in the saints had their beginning from a few sparks. Let us not therefore be discouraged at the small beginnings of grace, but look at ourselves as elected to be “holy and without blame” (Eph. 1:4). Let us look at our imperfect beginning only to encourage further striving toward perfection, and to keep us in a low opinion of ourselves. Otherwise, in case of discouragement, we must consider ourselves as Christ does, who looks on us as those he intends to make fit for himself. Christ values us by what we shall be, and by what we are elected to. We call a little plant a tree, because it is growing up to be so. “Who has despised the day of small things?” (Zech. 4:10). Christ would not have us despise little things. (p 13 = p 49)

Mercy does not rob us of our right judgment, so as to mistake stinking fire brands for smoking flax. No one will seek mercy more from others than those who deserve due severity. This example does not countenance tolerance or indulgence toward those who need enlivening. Cold diseases must have hot remedies. The church at Ephesus received just commendation for not bearing with those who were evil (Rev. 2:2). (p 19 = p 55)

We must acknowledge that in the covenant of grace, God requires the truth of grace, but not in any particular measure; a spark of fire is as much fire as the flame. Therefore we must look to grace in the spark as well as in the flame. All do not have the same strength of grace, though they have the same precious faith (2 Pet. 1:1) by which they lay hold of, and put on, the perfect righteousness of Christ. A weak hand may receive a rich jewel. A few grapes will show that the plant is a vine, and not a thorn bush. It is one thing to be deficient in grace, and another thing to lack grace altogether. God knows we have nothing of ourselves; therefore in the covenant of grace, he requires no more than he gives, but gives what he requires, and accepts what he gives: “If she is not able to bring a lamb, then she shall bring two turtle doves” (Lev. 12:8). (p 23 = p 58)

In the godly, holy truths are conveyed because there is a taste for them; gracious men have a spiritual palate as well as a spiritual eye. Grace alters the spiritual taste. (p 24 = p 60)

Let us remember that grace is increased in its exercise, not by virtue of the exercise itself, but as Christ by his Spirit flows into the soul bringing us nearer to himself, to the fountain, instilling in us such comfort that the heart is further enlarged. The heart of a Christian is Christ’s garden, and his graces are like so many sweet spices and flowers which, when his Spirit blows on them, release a sweet aroma. Therefore keep the soul open to entertain the Holy Ghost, for he will bring in continually fresh forces to subdue corruption. (p 41 = p 75)

Just as the strongest faith may be shaken, so the weakest faith, where truth is found, is so far rooted that it will also prevail. Weakness with watchfulness will stand, when strength with too much confidence will fail. Weakness with acknowledgement of its weakness, is the fittest seat; and it is subject for God to perfect his strength in it; for being conscious of our infirmities drives us out of ourselves to the One in whom our strength lies. (p 53 = p 86)

This, then, we are always to expect: that wherever Christ comes, there will be opposition. When Christ was born, all Jerusalem was troubled; so when Christ is born in any man, the soul is in an uproar, and it is all because the heart is unwilling to yield itself to Christ to rule it. Wherever Christ comes he brings division, not only between man and himself, but between man and man, and between church and church; Christ is no more the cause of this disturbance than medicine is the cause of trouble in a diseased body. Harmful agents are the real cause, for the purpose of medicine is to bring health. But Christ thinks it fit to reveal the thoughts of men’s hearts, and he is prepared for the fall as well as the rising of many in Israel (Luke 2:34). (p 66 = p 97)

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.

Bill Muehlenberg
Bill Muehlenberg, who was born in America, lives in Melbourne, Australia. He runs a web-based ministry of pro-faith, pro-family activism called CultureWatch: http://www.billmuehlenberg.com. Bill is widely sought out by the media for comments on social issues, faith issues, and family issues, and has appeared on all the major television and radio news shows, current affairs shows, and debate programs. He is the author of In Defence of the Family; Strained Relations: The Challenge of Homosexuality, and several other books.

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