“A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out…”
(Isaiah 42:3; Matthew 12:20, N.I.V.)
The words of our text are first found in the Old Testament book of Isaiah and then later referenced in the New Testament book of Matthew. In each instance, the “he” being spoken of is Jesus. The Isaiah verse is part of a passage that describes the Messiah who was to come to Israel. The Matthew verse is part of one that evidences that Jesus was that Messiah.
The stalk of a reed is basically just a hollow shaft. If that shaft is damaged, the reed cannot stand strong and erect. Therefore, the picture of a “bruised reed” is one in which damage has caused the shaft to become bent or bowed to some degree.
Imagine a patch of reeds growing undisturbed by a river bank. The reeds are healthy, vibrant, and standing tall. Now imagine a fisherman wearing heavy boots who invades the scene and tromps through the reeds to make his way to the water. A path of trampled stalks is left to show his swath of destruction.
Are those trampled stalks totally annihilated? No. But they are now damaged. Those reeds didn’t do anything to deserve that damage, either. They were just standing there by the water’s edge, doing what they were designed to do, when trouble found them.
In terms of people, a bruised reed depicts an individual who has been damaged through no fault of his own. Outside influences (either unfortunate events or things done by other individuals) have tromped into the person’s life and inflicted considerable injury. This injury can be emotional, psychological, mental, spiritual, physical, or some combination of any of these. In all cases, though, the result is that the person is now lowly, somewhat pitiable, and hindered from operating at a high level.
According to our text, Jesus handles such people with delicate care. Instead of breaking off the bruised stalk and thereby finalizing the damage, Jesus works to repair and restore the stalk to help it stand tall again. This shows His tender compassion toward those who have been wronged, treated unjustly, or have simply gotten caught up in a bad turn of events they didn’t cause.
As for the illustration of the smoldering wick, in Bible times people commonly doused a piece of cloth in olive oil or animal fat in order to use it as a lamp’s wick. That wick would keep the lamp lit as long as the oil or fat remained, but when the fuel source ran out the wick would begin to smolder and smoke rather than produce a true flame. Like the illustration of the bruised reed, the illustration of the smoldering wick is one of an object that is in a weakened state and isn’t functioning properly.
So, what type of person does the smoldering wick represent? It represents one whose energy and resources have become depleted through the performance of his duty. Such a person is spent, exhausted, and incapable of self-replenishment. He has given his all in doing what he was supposed to do, so much so that he can no longer do it effectively. Where there was once a flame there is now only smoke. The situation is akin to the modern term “burned out.”
Does Jesus throw such a person away and find somebody new to do the work? Definitely not. Instead of snuffing out what is left of the person’s flame, Jesus provides him with a fresh supply of fuel and gets that flame burning brightly again. This shows Christ’s tender compassion toward those who have run themselves into the ground trying to do good and consequently have nothing left to give. Jesus appreciates such peoples’ effort and won’t leave them in their exhausted, drained condition.
I don’t know where these two graphic illustrations from Jesus find you right now, but my guess is that somebody out there is currently feeling like a bruised reed, a smoldering wick, or both. If that’s you then you should take encouragement from the fact that Jesus has no desire to finish you off completely. To the contrary, He wants to strengthen you, shore you up, revitalize you, and refuel you.
No matter what the circumstances were that brought you to your present condition, the main thing now is your future. Today can be the first day of that future if you will allow Jesus to begin the process of restoring you back to a healthy state. My advice to you is to spend time with Him in prayer, telling Him all about your current situation and how you got there. Then let Him begin His marvelous work of restoring you and reviving you. He really does want you standing straight and burning with a bright flame, and He can get you there if you will give Him your damaged or depleted self completely.