The Gospel for Bruised Reeds
Among the early English Puritans, none has greater pastoral insight and enduring readability than Richard Sibbes. This blog hopes to honor his classic work, The Bruised Reed. First published in 1630, it opens with Matthew 12:18-21, which cites Isaiah 42.
Behold, my servant whom I have chosen... a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope.”
Reeds grew by the millions in marshes and river banks in Israel, so they had scant value. One could cut and shape a reed to serve as a measure, flute, or writing implement. But a bruised reed was worthless. If a perfect reed is fragile and a bruised one is useless, why will Jesus not break a bruised reed and why does it matter?
It matters because we are bruised reeds. Notice, Sibbes said, that Jesus compares us to a weak thing, as Scripture often does. Among the birds, we are doves; among the beasts, we are sheep.
In the eyes of Jesus, everyone – everyone – is a bruised reed. Some can go thirty years without a serious bruising. Some have a sunny disposition even when storms descend. Others thrive on crises. Still others grow up in Christian homes, with wise and loving parents, and then they married well. Nonetheless, all are bruised reeds.
Everyone is wounded. If we cannot see this, the Lord may intervene so that we do. We cannot rise to maturity unless we see our immaturity, cannot rest in his grace until we see our need for grace. Therefore the Lord may bruise us and humble us, so he can reestablish us on a better foundation. To be bruised is to see our sin and its consequences, to see our weakness. It is to see that we have weaknesses, quite apart from sin, areas of inability, even incompetence, so that we need others. The bruised reed is weak at best, and then it is wounded. A bruised reed cannot heal itself and the wise man despairs of healing himself. Yet the hope of healing remains, for the bruised reed looks beyond itself, to Christ.
There are two kinds of bruised reed: the rebel and the believer. The rebel, together with skeptics and spiritual sluggards, have no interest in spiritual things. God may use pain, a bruising, to pierce and waken a slumbering heart. That bruising may lead him to faith. The gospel may cease to be a rumor and become life-giving narrative of God's work. That bruising may enable him to treasure Christ. As Sibbes said, "Then the gospel becomes the gospel indeed." For another person, the bruising may instigate a quest. Jesus says, "Seek and you will find" (Matt 7:7). The Lord guides the quest of bruised reeds who sincerely seek healing.
The Lord also bruises believers. Believers must know that they are reeds too – often weak, tossed and beaten by storms. Peter realized that he was a reed when he denied Jesus three times. He wept bitterly, but he took his tears, his bruises, to Jesus. So too, our failures can show that we are bruised, especially if we fail in a public way.
David bruised himself when he committed adultery with Bathsheba. He was shattered until he repented and felt God healing his bones. When we fail morally, whether anyone ever knows or not, we should see that we are bruised reeds.
The king of Israel bruised Jeremiah when he sliced up and burned his prophecy. Jeremiah prophesied and wrote again, but the king proved Jeremiah's fragility. At work, we can labor for months and see it all come to naught with one sentence from a boss: "I don't think we'll go that way" or "You're not ready for that assignment." We are bruised reeds in our work.
The Lord bruised Paul with a thorn in his flesh. That pain taught Paul humility and dependence on God. The Lord humbles us when our bodies get sick or age and fail us. We are bruised reeds.
Our bruises grieve us. We wish we were stronger, but when we see the bruises on the great men and women of the faith, we take heart. Everyone suffers bruises that dissolve our overweening pride. God bruises the saints to teach us to lean on Christ alone. When we are bruised, we are in good company. Our bruising is God's good work, if we receive it.
The blows of life can drive out pride and self-sufficiency. They can lead us to true strength. Bruises can lead unbelievers to the Lord for the first time. They can lead believers back to the Lord, for even a mature Christian can forget the gospel and live by law or self-discipline and trust his imaged strength. When we trust our knowledge or skill, we can forget the Lord. Our bruises teach us to run, even to crawl, to Christ, to reset our coordinates so they lead us back to him.
Furthermore, God limits the impact of our bruises, even if the pain can be terrible. Psalm 129:1-3 has another graphic image of affliction: "The plowers plowed upon my back; they made long their furrows. The LORD is righteous; he has cut the cords of the wicked." The point is simple; We experience long and painful wounds at the hands of others, but the Lord limits the power of the wicked, so their afflictions, their violence, lies, and betrayals, do not destroy us.
Bruising can leave us dismayed or angry. It can make us doubt our faith, doubt the goodness of God. So we remember that God cuts the cords of the wicked.
We also remember that Jesus blesses the bruised, saying "Blessed are the poor in spirit" (Matt 5:3). He invites the bruised, the weary and the heavy laden, to come to him. He compares himself to a shepherd. He grieves and helps when he sees his people harassed and helpless (9:36). Above all, Jesus was bruised for us, that we might be healed. Isaiah says he was "stricken by God… He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed" (Isa 53:4-5).
Because Jesus bore that great bruising, the bruising of God's children may be chastisement and correction, but it is not punishment. The Lord bruises us for our good. He teaches us to return to him and find healing. So he is patient with bruised reeds "until he leads justice to victory" (Matt 12:20), when he fulfills his plans. So let us remember that we are bruised reeds and that Jesus is gentle with us.
Dan Doriani teaches Theology and Ethics at Covenant Seminary. He earned his M.Div. from Westminster and talked everyone into a joint Yale/Westminster Ph.D. He also pastored a very small church for five years and a very large one for eleven. He plays tennis, hikes mountains, wrangles grandchildren, speaks at conferences, and writes books, including The New Man.
 Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed (Banner of Truth Trust: Carlisle, PA, 1630, 1998), 3. This blog also adapts my commentary on bruised reeds in Matthew (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2008), 506-9.
 Sibbes, Bruised Reed, 3-6.