Bruised Reeds and Smoldering Wicks
A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.Isaiah 42:3a
Some people believe that the Bible divides into two parts. The Old Testament is all about law and a people unable to keep that law. The New Testament is all about the gospel and God's love. So, they say, we should focus on the New Testament and the good news found there. This is a wrong way of looking at the Bible.
In the Heidelberg Catechism we confess that God first revealed the holy gospel in Paradise. Indeed, God first revealed the good news in Genesis 3:15, the so-called mother promise. The Catechism goes on to say that God had this same gospel proclaimed by the patriarchs and the prophets. To be sure, the Old Testament does tell us about the law of God. But so does the New Testament. And the New Testament does tell us about the gospel. But so does the Old Testament. Indeed, we find the good news of Christ proclaimed throughout the pages before Matthew.
One of those places is Isaiah 42:3. Isaiah is well-known for his prophecies about Christ. Think of what he says in Isaiah 7 about Immanuel, "God with us." Think of Isaiah 9 and him who will be called "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." Or Isaiah 53 and the one who would bear the sins of many and make intercession for the transgressors.
Then think of Isaiah 42. God is speaking about his servant, his chosen one. This is the one on whom he will put his Holy Spirit, and who will judge the nations with justice. His kingdom will not be about pomp and the external trappings of majesty. Instead, this servant will appear in an unexpected way, with humility and meekness: "He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets" (v 2). Then we find these words about the servant:
"A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out." In these words too, we find the gospel proclaimed by one of God's prophets.
During the days of Isaiah, God's people were sent to exile in Babylon. They were laid low by God and chastised because of their sins. God is speaking to these people in the first place and he says that his servant will not break a bruised reed. A reed that is bruised and battered would be easily broken. The picture is of something fragile and weak. That's how God's people were in the days of Isaiah: at the breaking point.
God also compares them to the smoldering wick of a candle or a lamp. The wick was made out of flax, which is why older translations said, "Smoking flax he will not quench." If this wick was smoking, it was near the end of its useful life. The smoldering wick was ready to be put out and replaced with a new one. Again, this was a picture of the church of Isaiah's day: apparently past the best-before date.
The gospel promise is that the servant of God will not break the bruised reed. He will not snuff out the smoldering wick. He doesn't break those who are at the breaking point. He doesn't throw out those who are past the best-before date. In saying that, God is not saying that his servant is inactive. Rather, he will do the opposite of breaking and snuffing out. In his mercy, he will bind up that which is broken. In his mercy, he will restore those who are just about done for. He will deal gently and kindly with those who come to him in humility.
From Matthew 12, we know these words were fulfilled by our Saviour. Jesus is the servant who will not break the bruised reed or snuff out the smoldering wick. Our Lord Jesus came to be bruised and broken for us. At Golgotha, the wick of his life was snuffed out in our place. He came to heal the broken-hearted, to bind up that which is at the breaking point. He has come with his Spirit to blow on our wicks, to give new vigour to the flame of our life.
We recognize ourselves as broken people. Our lives are messy. Our hearts are fickle. Our eyes are easily distracted. Our faith is weak. But here we find the promise of the gospel that gives comfort and encouragement. We have a Saviour who is mindful of our weakness and infirmity, a God who knows we are only dust. We have the promise that he will not turn us away or crush us. We need only turn to him in faith and believe his sure promises. We only have to acknowledge our need and throw ourselves at his mercy through Jesus Christ.