The whole of the book “The Bruised Reed” is an exposition of Isaiah 42:1-3, applied to Christ as in Matthew 12:18-20:
“Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
my beloved with whom I my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
And he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles
He will not quarrel or cry aloud,
Nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;
A bruised reed he will not break,
And a smouldering wick he will not quench,
Until he brings justice to victory;
And in his name the Gentiles will hope.” (Matt 12:18-20)
In this first chapter, Sibbes introduces us to the Servant, the Reeds, the Bruising, and a little on why the bruising takes place.
The servant, as the context in Matthew makes obvious, is Christ. Sibbes points out that this is God’s own beloved, and that, since it is the principle theme of the whole of the Bible, “[the Father] counts the work of our salvation by Christ his greatest service”. Sibbes demonstrates that, since the Father sent the Son and anointed him with his Spirit, “our redemption is founded upon the joint agreement of all three persons of the Trinity”.
Sibbes points out that as the passage says “behold” to attract our attention to the servant, so then we should focus upon Christ, in whom the Gentiles will hope, and upon the fact that Jesus came to save us by the commission of the Father. He shows that “in temptations it is safest to behold nothing but Christ the true brazen serpent”. He says this is particularly helpful if we see in Christ “the Father’s love and authority in him”. I found this a helpful reminder that in temptation we shouldn’t run away from God but to him, and to remember the very great love that all three persons of the Trinity have for us. He helpfully counteracts the notion (so irritatingly persistent in my heart) that in some way the Son is nice and the Father angry and unloving. It helped me to see more clearly that the Father really is Fatherly.
Sibbes also reminds us that our union with Christ means that the Father treasures us even as he treasures Christ. “For his love rests in a whole Christ, in Christ mystical, as well as Christ natural, because he loves him and us with one love. Let us, therefore, embrace Christ, and in him God’s love, and build our faith safely on such a Saviour that is furnished with so high a commission”.
Sibbes then goes on to talk a little about how the servant follows upon his calling. This passage highlights in particular the humility and gentleness of Christ towards the bruised reeds. It comes after Christ tells his followers not to tell who he was. This is pretty much universally agreed to be because people just didn’t understand who the Messiah was and what he was there to do. They looked for a military and political leader who, with pomp and circumstance, would kick out the Romans and go on to defeat all of Israel’s enemies. Jesus was quite different, and went about the work as Messiah humbly, as Sibbes says: it was done “modestly, without making a noise, or raising dust by any pompous coming, as princes are accustomed to do”
The passage says that the servant’s voice isn’t heard, of course, not literally meaning that he is mute, but, as Sibbes points out, that he calls the bruised reeds to himself gently, saying, as he did just a few verses before this passage, “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt 11:28-30). So in our passage it says “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not quench”.
The Reeds, and their Bruising
Sibbes describes the bruised reed as “the poor in spirit, who sees his wants, and also sees himself indebted to divine justice”. They are “in some misery… brought to see sin as the cause of it… sensible of sin and misery, even unto bruising, and, seeing no help in himself, is carried with restless desire to have supply from another, with some hope, which a little raises him out of himself to Christ, though he dare not claim any present interest of mercy” They are “not trees, but reeds; and not whole, but bruised reeds.” Sibbes says that “God’s children are bruised reeds before their conversion and oftentimes after.”
Why the Bruising?
The main reason given in this chapter is humility. Sibbes says that the bruising is needed before conversion “[to level] all proud, high thoughts… that we may understand ourselves to be what we are by nature”. “Usually [God] empties [people] of themselves, and makes them nothing, before he will use them in any great services”.
The bruising, then, gives humility by showing people how wretched and hopeless they are in and of themselves. This kind of humility makes Christ look as precious as he is, it reminds us how futile our efforts at morality are, and fills us with joy, wonder, and love for Christ who bore our sin and is our righteousness. As Sibbes puts it “this bruising makes us set a high price upon Christ. Then the Gospel becomes the gospel indeed; then the fig-leaves of morality will do us no good. And it makes us more thankful, and, from thankfulness, more fruitful in our lives.” As Newton puts it “’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved, how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed!” Sibbes says that the lack of a proper conviction of how deep our sin is is a cause of many people falling away.
This reminded me how important it is in evangelism to be sure people understand and are convicted of their sins. It’s so tempting to rush in with what an amazing satisfaction comes from knowing God, what joys await those who trust God that we leave sin on the backburner. That produces a cross-less Christianity, which is no Christianity at all. In the end, sparing people the pain of conviction isn’t a loving thing to do.
After conversion the bruising serves basically the same purpose, to humble Christians and remind them how precious Christ is, “so that reeds may know themselves to be reeds, and not oaks… and to let us see that we live by mercy”.
Because of these good effects, Sibbes warns us not to be too harsh to ourselves or others when they feel bruising for sin. There is to be no “man up and pull yourself together” attitude towards it. Of course, we should try to steer people towards true humility, which sees its wretchedness and joyfully trusts in Christ, rather than a false humility of legalistic despair, which sees its wretchedness and simply laments because it can’t save itself. But when someone is cut up over their sin, we should recognise that “God is doing a gracious, good work with them”. What strikes me is that God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. How gracious, then, that he should visit us with this bruising, in order to produce the very humility that pleases him, and most makes Christ a joy to us!